January 14, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Though I do not excel at problem solving, I always like to know that someone has a plan. I like the security of emergency plans in hotels, for example. In the outdoors, I have first-aid supplies for all sorts of possibilities. And I never leave home without water and gear to change a tire. So while recently reading Bill Gates’s book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and The Breakthroughs We Need, I was pleased to see a comprehensive plan to address climate change. I think this book offers some real resources and positive ideas, however, it also has some flaws, which are the subject of today’s book review.
First of all, I am hugely impressed with the scope of the book. Gates explains extremely complicated issues in very manageable layman’s terms. Moreover, Gates provides graphics and charts to demonstrate many of the issues that humans face today. Experience with successful charitable organizations and business ventures informs his beliefs. He researches carefully and exhaustively. He provides real-world ideas in the face of serious issues. Each step of his comprehensive plan is accessible to the average citizen. He tasks governments and large corporations with the goals of aggressive laws and investments in clean energy. He finds need for new materials and creative funding opportunities. He demands ingenuity and creative thinking. I applaud all of these ideas, and I am grateful that Gates has put a plan on the table. I hate to argue with it because it delays pressing concerns regarding our environment.
However, I take issue with the book’s premise. Gates founds the book on the belief that energy use (and therefore consumption of resources) can and should grow. 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 that energy provides. There is nothing wrong with using more energy as long as it’s carbon-free. The key to addressing climate change is to make clean energy just as cheap and reliable as what we get from fossil fuels” (15). He continues, “As people rise up the income ladder, they do more things that cause emissions. This is why we need innovations – the poor can improve their lives without making climate change even worse” (163). At face value this sounds good. Gates travels often and lives well. For reasons explained in the book, a higher standard of living often accompanies higher emissions, but also better health and happiness. He wants lower income groups and third-world countries to raise their standard of living, while those with an already high standard of living should maintain or increase theirs. This sounds nice, but includes an inherent bias toward his standard of living. I am not advocating for poverty, of course, but it is important to identify his bias toward his own standard of living when in truth there is no one-size-fits-all approach toward healthy lifestyles.
Furthermore, he advocates for growth as the single most important factor in health. Gates indicates that growth in every sector is the sign of a robust society. This is a question at the heart of the climate change debate: is all growth positive growth? Is innovation synonymous with growth? Do societies always need growth in order to thrive? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I know that Gates’s book avoids them for the simple fact that he assumes growth as necessary. I understand where this belief originates. I, too, have heard the old saying that all living things must grow, that stillness is a form of death. However, I also don’t believe that constant growth is healthy growth. In fact, this sounds to me more like an economic model than a model of environmental health.
Finally, I know that Gates has done far more research than I have, yet still, I hesitate to endorse only the entities that he finds worthy of funding. If his premise is built upon a business model of growth, then the resultant profits will also be moved to the entities that he wants to fund and I find this highly problematic. Now, I do not believe that his book is driven with profit entirely in mind. Gates clearly believes that we can (and must) make changes in order to sustain our standards of living and to promote a healthy earth. Founding all of the plan’s principles on a business model leaves a lot to be desired, though.
Despite these potential flaws, however, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster is worth reading, and more importantly, worth discussing. In my experience, the best ideas come about when all models are on the table and healthy discussion ensues.
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