I finished How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates a couple weeks ago but had to let it sit for awhile so I could write about it without losing my shit. Gates tries to pull off a folksy, easy to read, golly we can do this tone that made me bristle every time I picked up the book. To his credit, Gates never once claims to be just like the average person, in fact, he acknowledges many times that he is a very wealthy man with influence. But being a very wealthy white man with influence, his folksy rah-rah tone comes across as condescending. Also, his oh shucks jokes about losing millions of dollars on investments trying to push forward the green tech agenda fall flat since he has lost more money than thousands of us combined will ever earn in our lifetimes and remains a very wealthy man. And we are supposed to think well of him for it because, gosh, he is trying to save the planet!


Gates says straight out at the beginning of the book that he is a techno-optimist and that he owns several big houses, flies in a private plane, even flew in a private plane to the Paris Climate Conference, that he, in short, has an enormous carbon footprint. But it’s ok because he is investing in biofuels, because he buys carbon offsets, because, while he is pumping more carbon into the air in one year than I probably do in ten, that it’s fine because he is helping save us by investing in carbon capture technology. I would laugh at the absurdity of his argument if I weren’t crying, especially when he writes,

Here’s the key point: Although heavy emitters like me should use less energy, the world overall should be using more of the goods and services energy provides. There is nothing wrong with using more energy as long as it’s carbon-free.

Page 15


As Jennifer Price writes in a chapter titled “Are you really trying to save energy by using more energy more efficiently?” in her book, Stop Saving the Planet,

It assumes, conveniently, that we can use runaway consumerism to clean up the messes runaway consumerism creates. 

Stop Saving the Planet, page 43

And that is the root of the problem to everything Gates proposes in his book. When you have a hammer, everything is nail. When you are a techno-optimist, everything is an engineering problem that can be solved with new technology. To Gates, global warming is only about greenhouse gas emissions and so all of his investments and techno-solutions are about solving the emissions problem. Not once does he stop to question whether there are too many people on the planet—actually he thinks there should me more! He also thinks there should be more corporate farms, more cars—all electric of course—more batteries, more computers, more everything. Because to him, global warming has nothing to do with too many humans using too many resources; it’s all about emissions and emissions are all about energy.

Instead of questioning why poor farmers in Africa are trying to grow corn, a commodity crop that requires a lot of water, he suggests developing GMO drought-tolerant corn is the solution. Instead of saying people in developed countries, especially Americans, should eat a mostly plant-based diet, he says that we need to breed cattle that fart less, particularly in Africa, so they can have more cows without making climate change worse. Instead of saying we should stop cutting down forests and planting palm oil plantations for the ingredients in a lot of the processed crap—food, makeup, and body care products—used in wealthy countries, we shouldn’t really worry about it because forests and planting more trees don’t sequester enough carbon to make a difference.

But you know what does sequester carbon? Plastic! Plastic doesn’t decompose so it keeps its carbon forever. That’s why he’s investing in figuring out how to pull carbon from the air and turn it into plastic. Never mind about the micro-plastics swimming around in our bloodstream and polluting all of our waterways and killing sea life, Gates if probably also investing in big pharma that will sell us medical treatments for all the health problems the plastic contributes to.


Besides GMOs, carbon capture, batteries, biofuels, and plastic, Gates is also an investor in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. While he doesn’t think people should have to eat less meat, he is well aware that more and more people are eating less meat and he wants to make money off it. Now, I’ve had Impossible Burgers, a local plant-based restaurant serves them on their “Dirty Little Secret,” a vegan version of McDonald’s Big Mac. And yeah, they are pretty good. But they are also junk food, no better for you than a meat-based burger. They are highly processed, extremely high in sodium, and have an ingredient—soy legemoglobin—made from GMO soy protein and GMO yeast that is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but has some concern about potential health effects Until I looked it up for this post, I didn’t know about the GMOs, and now that I do, I will never have another one.

Gates also owns a company called TerraPower that is researching and creating “next gen” nuclear power. Gates thinks that nuclear power is a must and is designing small plants that are supposed to be more efficient. None of them have been built yet though because of pesky government regulations. He believes in nuclear fusion too, and while no one has been able to figure out how to scale up nuclear fusion from anything bigger than a brief laboratory experiment, he is certain we will eventually. Fusion is great because it makes less radioactive waste, and the waste it does make is only dangerous for hundreds of years instead of thousands of years like current nuclear fission waste. Plus, it’s carbon free! 

I dunno about you, but I’m opposed to a source of energy that creates radioactive waste that lasts five years, let alone hundreds or thousands. It’s not ok that we “store” this waste on stolen indigenous lands and in poor countries. Would you want it stored near your town? I don’t think so. 

To sum up: we don’t need to use less energy, buy fewer things, live within the limits of the planet’s resources, we don’t need to change anything at all expect how we generate energy. And we don’t even have to stop burning fossil fuels completely because we can just suck that carbon right out of the air. Climate change is only a matter of greenhouse gas emissions that can be solved with technology. 

The only thing Gates and I agree on is that women around the world need to be granted the rights of full human beings (down with the patriarchy! though that is not what Gates advocates), more access to resources, and education and healthcare. We also agree that individuals alone cannot solve the climate crisis, that we should all be showing up to city meetings, contacting our elected officials, voting, and even running for office. Though we differ on what we should be telling our elected officials they should do. While I think there should be more regulations on many of the things he is pushing for, Gates has a moment of whine about the “bureaucratic gauntlet”

You buy one of a limited number of federal leases, then go through a multi-year process to generate an environmental impact statement, then get additional state and local permits. And at each step of the way, you may be opposed (rightly or not)  by beachfront property owners, the tourism industry, fishermen, and environmental groups.

page 90

Rest assured, Mr. Gates will never have to worry about living down the street from a gigantic wind turbine, solar farm, nuclear plant, or other industrial facility, but darn those pesky people who protest such things!

Now you don’t have to read Bill Gates’s book. But here are a few links to issues that Gates talks about or elides to help create a more rounded picture of what is at stake:

  • Great Transition Initiative Forum: Technology and the Future. Essays from a variety of experts on various technologies like GMOS, AI, bioengineering, as well as essays exploring the interplay between technology and society.
  • An article from PLOS One, Complete Genes May Pass from Food to Human Blood. The complete genes they are talking about are altered genes from GMO foods. The article is from 2013. We have known for close to ten years that GMO genes can circulate in our blood. I don’t know if anyone is studying the health ramifications of this, but to me, it’s one more reason to avoid GMO food.
  • From Yes! Magazine, The Disaster of Philanthropy and Capitalism. “Philanthrocapitalism enables the destruction of nature and the erosion of democracy.” And yes, they mention Bill Gates.
  • From YaleEnvironment360, and article by Carl Safina, Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’: Hard Truths on the State of the Planet . This talks about all the problems that Gates doesn’t, showing that it isn’t just greenhouse gas emissions we need to be concerned about. Safina also briefly mentions how technology is what has caused many of the current problems and is not the answer to solving them.
  • Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson (audiobook). Yay, we finally got to what TR is planning on doing with all the sulfur. Still waiting for the bad sex scene. It’s got to happen soon because Saskia is about to return to the Netherlands.
  • Between the Covers podcast: Crafting with Ursula: Becky Chambers on Creating Aliens & Alien Cultures. This is a new once a month series within the podcast interviewing authors on how they have been influenced by Ursula Le Guin. Becky Chambers is one of my favorite authors and one of the things she talks about is how, as a queer kid, The Left Hand of Darkness helped save her life. 
  • Green Dreamer podcast: Scott Timcke: Algorithmic Capitalism and Digital Dehumanization. Timcke talks about how algorithms and digitization are increasingly making decisions for us and allowing us less input in how we live our lives. 

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16 thoughts on “How NOT to Avoid a Climate Disaster

  1. Oh, thank you for performing this public service, Stefanie! I agree, it’s important to know what Gates is arguing, but I much prefer reading your summary than having to slog through the whole thing. I find this kind of techno-utopian argument incredibly dangerous—saying we can continue to have more and consume more of everything, as long as it’s done with renewable energy. Where will the resources come from for this limitless consumption? Even renewable energy needs resources to be constructed and operated. The Serbian people just had a huge fight with their own government and the Rio Tinto mining company to try to stop them from taking away people’s ancestral land and destroying huge areas to mine for lithium. African countries are being carved apart for their minerals…

    Wow, I’m hyperventilating and I haven’t even read it!


    Anyway, as I was reading your post, I was thinking Gates sounds a lot like that smug, insane billionaire who gets the planet destroyed in the movie Don’t Look Up, which I just watched and enjoyed (thanks for the recommendation!). He’s diverting us away from the simple solutions you talked about (use less energy, buy fewer things, live within the limits of the planet’s resources) and towards a much more complicated and risky route that just happens to involve people like him getting even richer. I still don’t feel as if I understand him—he has, after all, given so much of his wealth away, so he must have some good intentions and not be completely motivated by money, right? Why can’t he accept the simple, use-less-stuff idea? I guess it comes down to what you said about the hammer and the nail.

    1. Glad to save you the trouble o slogging through this one Andrew! Where Gates and people like him think we will get all the resources to bring their perpetual growth visions into reality without turning the planet into a lifeless husk. He doesn’t say it, but I suspect he thinks we can mine asteroids or the moon–more tech solutions! Did the Serbian people win the fight over Rio Tinto? I hope so! And yes, Africa and a few south American countries are being carved apart for precious metal mining.

      Heh, I am glad you enjoyed Don’t Look Up! There’s a reason the film had a billionaire tech guy in it, we have so many–Gates, Musk, Bezos. I think on some level Gates has good intentions. But I think it comes from a sense of noblesse oblige and a big dose of white colonialism rather than true and humble compassion. I could be wrong, but that’s the sense I get it, especially since, as you mention, a good many of his solutions will make him more money.

  2. Thanks for slogging through this one, I’ll avoid it. One thing that drives me nuts is the constant harping on about ‘growth’ from politicians, when what we should be doing is making life more equal and fair for all, in other words, tax the rich – a lot.

    1. I’m with Katrina on the growth mantra. Growth is not the answer to climate change. And we definitely need to tax the rich a lot and make life more equal and fair for everyone. Sadly, the politicians are not up to the task it seems.

  3. I think it’s important to read these books, both to challenge our own ideas and thinking and so that there is potential for conversation with readers who do find something meaningful or interesting in the book (that doesn’t work for you). We see a lot of Gates’ ideas similarly though. The new David Naimon series is amazing! And I’m looking forward to that Rita Dove collection too!

  4. Thanks for summarizing the Gates book so we don’t have to read it.
    I think I read the Earthsea books during a formative period for my brain; the ideas seem almost like my own now. Certainly the dangers of necromancy are nowhere–in fiction–more clear.

    1. I am looking forward to the Earthsea books Jeanne. I only read the first three about 20 years ago. so it will be nice to revisit them and also read the series to the end 🙂

  5. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about privilege for my interpreting class, and while sitting down to write all the ways I have privilege (from being married to having had braces) was an extremely helpful activity, some people — and in this case I mean Bill Gates — appear performative about announcing their privilege. And, they tend to give the most obvious (straight, white, male, cis, able-bodied) without acknowledging alllll the other ways they have a better life through they did not earn. So, it seems that Gates has dodged the claim, “He’s privileged!” by adding his two cents without actually getting into the spirit of the situation.

    For a time when we first met, my husband was totally a “let’s invent something!” person whenever a problem arose that could be fixed by NOT doing something.

    1. Oh GTL, you are right about Gates and his privilege being performative and that he does not acknowledge all the ways he is privileged. In fact, he pretty much says, yeah, I’m privileged but I’m going to use my privilege to fix the climate by making myself even more privileged in the process. He is not the world’s savior, that’s for sure! Heh, your husband. There’s a book on my TBR called Subtract that is about our tendency to fix problems by addition rather than subtraction, or like your husband, wanting to invent something rather than solving a problem more simply and easily by not doing something instead.

  6. When I got to the part about plastic I said out loud, “OH MY GOD, you’ve got to be kidding me!” I don’t think I could read this – kudos to you! What a tool. With his billions of dollars, think about what he could do for conservation of land and tree-planting efforts, if nothing else. I am so tired of these billionaire a-holes!

    1. Heh Laila, now imagine me sitting on my couch with your exact same reaction to the plastic happening pretty much every 5 pages or so 😀 It’s not even that he could do good with all his money, it’s that he has all that money to begin with, money he made on other people’s poorly paid labor and the destruction of other people’s environment and lives from mining and manufacturing.

  7. I admire you perseverance in completing the Gates debacle. I imagine it gave you new anger management skills…

    Also I am glad you are now wallowing in Ursula. There is no better antidote. I’ve never picked up a book with her name on the cover that wasn’t refreshing and enlightening (without being pollyanna-ish or privileged).

    I wrapped up the Stephenson book… there will be a not-review on Thursday. But in the meantime: who allowed this book to be published! I mean, he manages to trip over every single don’t-go-there-man in contemporary fiction. I’m trying to forgive things like sexism and racism and heinous colonial consumerism by telling myself that he engineered this absurd plot to show just how ludicrous geoengineering is… given hundreds of pages of mind-numbing tech details, it’s not working.

    1. Heh, I had to know what he said since he has so much influence. I made lots of faces and growling noises while reading and my husband kept telling me to breathe.

      Ursula is an antidote for everything I think! And Stephenson, I look forward to your review. Got to the bad sex scene. I’ve not read any interviews with him so I’m not sure if he is serious about the geoengineering or not. I sure hope not.

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