4 march 2021

[4C Note: We post this fine critique of Gates and the technocratic approach to the climmate crisis, with permission of the author and the publisher of LRB With special thanks to G.M. for mediation.]

On Bill Gates

Thomas Jones in London Review of Books, Vol. 43 No. 5 · 4 March 2021

On​ 17 February, Bloomberg reported that perhaps as many as fifteen million people in Texas had lost electricity, in ‘undoubtedly the largest forced blackout in US history’. There had been 21 confirmed deaths – some from carbon monoxide poisoning, as families tried to use their cars to warm their houses – and the final toll is likely to be higher. ‘I don’t even have words to describe how awful things are,’ tweeted Bedour Alagraa, an assistant professor of Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. ‘People are freezing to death in their homes and cars. No clean water or food anywhere. Govt refusing to even acknowledge what’s happening.’ Senator Ted Cruz was nowhere to be seen, except possibly in Cancún.

The immediate cause was an ‘unprecedented cold blast’ across most of the United States: temperatures in Texas reached -18°C, and three-quarters of the US was under snow. A likely reason for that is global heating: in early January, ‘air in the stratosphere above the Arctic warmed suddenly’ – Bloomberg again – and ‘set up a slow-moving atmospheric chain reaction that weakened the polar vortex, the girdle of winds that keeps frigid air corralled at the North Pole’. And the cause of that, in turn, is the vast quantity of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that human activity continues to eructate into the atmosphere, despite our knowing, for decades, about the malign consequences. Big. Fucking. Surprise.

But why should the sudden extreme cold have caused the electricity grid to fail? The (Republican) governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, told Fox News that the problem was frozen wind turbines. This was a lie. He told local TV that the problem was frozen gas generators and pipelines, and placed the blame on a ‘total failure’ by Ercot, the ironically named Electric Reliability Council of Texas. This was only a partial truth. ‘Today seems to be a good day to remind everyone,’ tweeted Dominique Jackson, a (Democratic) Colorado state representative, ‘that the electrical grid in Texas was deregulated, privatised, and then removed from interconnected networks to avoid federal regulation or renewable energy options and to increase profits to a small number of wealthy individuals.’

Bill Gates’s new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Allen Lane, £20), was published on 16 February. Residents of Texas won’t be the only ones wondering if it isn’t too late for that. The climate disaster has already begun, as surely as the Covid-19 pandemic was well underway this time a year ago. But there’s always something that can be done to slow if not reverse it; and Gates plots out, in patient, simple prose, a pathway that would allow us to reduce carbon emissions from the current 51 billion tonnes a year to zero by 2050.

Books on climate change can’t help being out of date one way or another as soon as they’re published: ‘In the United States,’ Gates writes, ‘power outages are so rare that people remember that one time a decade ago when the lights went out and they got stuck in an elevator.’ But being slightly out of date doesn’t really matter, because the solutions that Gates sketches out haven’t fundamentally changed in a decade or more, though they are getting cheaper and more efficient, and inching closer.

Gates isn’t embarrassed about being late to the party. It was only in 2006, he writes, that he was first convinced climate change was caused by our greenhouse gas emissions. It wasn’t until 2015 that he ‘decided ... to do more and speak out more’. He didn’t divest from fossil fuels until 2019. Better late than never, I suppose, but it was well known in the 1980s and at times Gates can sound a bit like your most boring uncle telling you, clearly and slowly, and at great length, that he’s recently got into some really great music by this guy named Prince. Thanks, Bill. WE KNOW. And what use is that?

Because, whatever Gates says, the biggest problems aren’t technological. The people working on technological solutions already know what to do: stop burning fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources; stop cutting down forests; stop intensive livestock farming; develop more energy-efficient buildings and forms of transport; and prevent whatever greenhouse gases we continue to emit from being released into the atmosphere. And they are getting better at coming up with ways to do it. The biggest problems are political. And Gates, who admits that he thinks ‘more like an engineer than a political scientist’, doesn’t have much to say about politics.

He contrasts the energy industry with the business in which he made his fortune: ‘Coal plants are not like computer chips.’ Moore’s law – the observation that processing power doubles every couple of years – doesn’t apply outside computing. A modern computer chip is a million times more powerful than a chip made in 1970, but solar cells have increased their efficiency by only around 60 per cent in the same time, and cars are barely three times as fuel efficient as they were a hundred years ago. Gates describes the effects of Moore’s law as a ‘positive feedback loop’: ‘As processors got more powerful, we could write better software, which drove up demand for computers, which gave hardware companies the incentive to keep improving their machines.’ You can see why this would make Gates happy: it’s netted him a personal fortune of around $130 billion (trivial by some measures – it’s less than a third of the amount that governments spend annually on subsidising fossil fuels – but still a lot for one person). For anyone, however, for whom it means endlessly updating overpriced and underwhelming software until there’s no space left on your computer or phone, it may look less like a positive feedback loop and more like a vicious circle.

Another thing about software is that ‘there’s no regulatory agency,’ and an ‘imperfect’ product will get ‘feedback’ from ‘enthusiastic’ customers (that’s one way of putting it) to help you improve it. Finally, ‘virtually all your costs are up front. After you’ve developed a product, the marginal cost of making more of it is close to zero.’ No such joy – such clear, pure profit – for the poor saps toiling away in the fossil fuel game.

But there are similarities, too: environmentally and socially destructive resource extraction, from the coltan mines of Colombia or Congo to the oilfields of Nigeria or the coal mines of Inner Mongolia; exploitative supply chains, from smartphone assembly plants in Shenzhen to oil tanker crews trapped on ships for years; captive markets of millions of customers who would be lost without their computers or electricity; all underwritten by massive state subsidies, while providing unimaginable riches for a lucky few, from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to William Henry Gates III.

Writing about Gates in the LRB in 1999, John Lanchester described him as ‘the apotheosis of the nerd type’. No one, least of all Gates himself, has ever maintained the delusion that his nerdiness somehow makes him cool. (Fifteen or more years ago, I was walking home from the shops near Caledonian Road one evening when a teenager shouted at me: ‘Bill Gates! We know where you live!’ He didn’t mean it as a compliment.) That self-awareness is one of the reasons Gates is a marginally more attractive human being than Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. It’s undeniably a fact that the work done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in child health and education has saved countless lives, not least by its contribution to the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, which has prevented 13 million deaths since 2000. But that work – and the work of solving the climate crisis – shouldn’t rely on the vicissitudes of philanthropy. For one man to spend decades accumulating vast riches, and then dish out a small fraction, isn’t the most efficient form of redistribution (dishing out all of it to everyone wouldn’t help either: we’d each get about $16). Or, to put it another way, the system that allowed Gates to amass his immense wealth is also the system that has led to, and has so far proved incapable of meeting, the challenges presented by the climate crisis. And perhaps that isn’t a coincidence.

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