I didn't hear about this until after the fact. Indeed quite after the fact. I was reading tweets about how Gates was blowing people's minds at cocktail parties leading up to his big speech about climate change at TED this year. But then I forgot about them until reading these two articles from Worldchanging.
Gates spoke about his commitment to using his massive philanthropic resources
(the Gates Foundation is the world's largest) to make life better for people
through public health and poverty alleviation (“vaccines and seeds” as he put
it). Then he said something he's never said before: that is it because
he's committed to improving life for the world's vulnerable people that he now
believes that climate change is the most important challenge on the planet.
Even more importantly, he acknowledged the only sensible goal, when it comes
to climate emissions, is to eliminate them: we should be aiming for a
civilization that produces no net emissions, and we should be aiming to live in
that civilization here in the developed world by 2050. . .
To do that, we need an “energy miracle.” We need energy solutions that don't
yet exist, released through a global push for clean energy innovation. That, in
turn, demands that a generation of entrepreneurs push forward new ideas for
renewable energy, unleashing “1,000 promising ideas.” He described one of his
own investments, but went on to note that we need hundreds of other ambitious
companies as well, and he plans to put his own efforts into this arena.
Why is this important? The news stories focused largely on the clean energy
aspect of the speech, and certainly the world's most successful businessman
announcing that clean energy is the next frontier is a big headline. However, I
think though that the real breakthrough was not Gates’ answer to the problem,
but his definition of success: zero.
Bright green advocates understand that we need prosperity without
planetary impact. In many of the circles I run in, this is an
uncontroversial idea, and, indeed, the conversation has moved on, to discussing
how we decouple better lives from ecological
footprints (or even go beyond, and build a society that restores the ecosystems
on which it depends).
To say, however, that the standard of zero impact is not widely understood
and endorsed would be a whopping understatement. Most people rarely see the
things they do, buy and use as directly part of the living systems of the
planet. Few people who do think of their connection to nature have ever
conceived their lives designed to have no impact at all. For most people, a ten
percent or twenty percent improvement sounds like a big deal — in large part
because the improvements they're most familiar with involve giving things up.
When they do encounter it, the idea of “zero” looms like a giant wall of
deprivation in front of them. The idea that zero might not be the end of the
good life, but in fact the beginning of a much better way of life, is simply
inconceivable to the vast, vast majority of them. When we talk zero, we sound
But when Bill Gates talks zero, he sounds visionary. Gates, whatever else he
did Friday, just made the most important idea on the planet mainstream credible.
That's a big, big deal.
This was all well and good and at this point in the article I was thinking, yeah, so what. None of this is new and we have litigated it and people with my belief system about the world seem to be largely losing at every corner (e.g., see Obama @ Copenhagen). At the end of the article Steffen wrote something that truly resonated with me and largely fits squarely within my own unique world-view.
The energy intensity of any given form of prosperity can, I believe, be improved
quite a bit; but the idea that E can be dramatically improved without improving
the kind of prosperity we're attempting to provide is the very definition of
what I call The
Swap. The Swap doesn't work.
And we don't need it to. The idea that contemporary suburban American
lifestyles (the kind of prosperity most people around the world aspire to,
thanks to Hollywood and advertising), the idea that McMansions, SUVs and fast
food chicken wraps somehow represent the best form of prosperity we could
possibly invent is, of course, obviously ludicrous.
We can reinvent what prosperity means and how it works, and, in the process
both reduce the ecological demands of that prosperity and improve the quality of
our lives. In most cases, this is a smarter approach than simply improving
The answer to the problem of cars and automotive emissions, for instance, isn't designing a
better car, it's designing a better city. The answer to the problem of
overconsumption isn't recycling cans or green shopping, it's changing our
relationship to stuff, so that everything we use and live with is designed for
zero waste, and
either meant to last (“heirloom design” and “durability”) or to be shared
(“product service systems”) or both. The best living we've ever had is waiting
beyond zero. What looks like a wall to many people from this side of zero, looks
to like a trellis from the other side, a foundation on which new thinking can
Cities are the tools we need for reinventing prosperity. We can build
zero-impact cities, and we need to. Any answer to the problem of climate
change needs to be as focused on reinventing the future as powering it.
This, I must say, is one of the biggest things I've learned while living in Africa. Here I understand *exactly *where my water comes from. I've gone to see the system of wells and the water pipes which run them the 30 km or so here to H'town. I've seen the power generation plants for the city and talked with their engineers. I know exactly where my food and the things I see in the market come from (all I had to do was walk around lower Dubai for 20 minutes). I know exactly where my trash ends up (burned or lying outside my gate in a pile.
Africa has taught me in a way that being Green in America never could, that all the crap that is around. That crap comes from somewhere and it goes somewhere. Sure, I've seen huge dumps in America as I've driven around. But those don't have anywhere near the impact on my personal consumption as does seeing a burnt can of probably beans that I ate twelve months ago sitting in a pile outside my compound which I have to drive past every day. That did, in fact, make a huge impact on my personal consumption. Not necessarily driving me to deprivation, but driving me to seek more authenticity in my actions – grow your own vegetables, build things for yourself.
I see the value in the flaws of the things around me which I've built and despite their flaws (or maybe because of them) I value these things more. Sure, maybe my tomatoes are small, but I grew them in a way that not only helped out the longevity of the soil they were grown in but also in a way which positively affected those within my community. For every one tomato I eat, my staff eat ten or twenty. Instead of buying so much meat and rice they have all expanded their diets due to the ease and proximity of our garden.
Another massive thing which Africa has taught me is that really to change behavior you have to change the incentive structure. And this is where I think Steffen gets it correct. Because for whatever reason of utility America and by extension the world value suburbia, McMansions and whatever else he said. When I was small I remember those being my metrics for success. When I was in college I remember telling people that those were the types of things that I wanted.
Yet, I have realized that now I don't necessarily want those things. What I do want is authenticity and to be in harmony with the community and ecosystem around me. The one thing I will say, and the biggest problem I have with suburbia is this notion of authenticity. It just predominately lacks soul, and a bit of stank.
As I've realized how I changed my own behavior I have tried my best to extend that into my day job by always trying to change the behavior patterns of politicians by helping them to realign their own incentive structures. More on that for another day. Suffice it to say for now, but I am not shy about stating that fact. At its core governance work in the developing world boils down to an intellectual conflict between the way the developed world thinks about its citizens and how the developing world thinks about its citizens. I'm speaking broadly here and of course there are contrarian anecdotes, but in any event that is how I see things.
The second article was more mainstream green thinking. I didn't see to much in it that resonated with me personally.
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de7bce6 @ 2020-05-13