Why Bill Gates and I disagree about climate solutions
Degrowth: “Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. … Material possessions will no longer hold a prime position in the population’s cultural imagery. … Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems.” (Research & Degrowth, 2014)
As I write this blog post, the sea levels are rising and small islands populations are being submerged. The earth’s biodiversity is diminishing and species are being lost. The oceans are acidifying and the grasslands are turning into deserts. As I sip my tea and calculate my Ecological Footprint, deforestation rages on and millions of climate refugees are living in forced exile. It’s hard for me not to feel guilty, but it is is even harder to know what I should do about it.
Bill Gates argues in his 2010 TED talk that we need to “innovate to zero” (Gates, 2010). To reduce global carbon emissions enough to avoid planetary catastrophe, Gates says, we need technological solutions to meet our energy needs. These solutions must be safe, cheaper than the current, dirty alternatives, and be able to support the energy requirements of the growing global population. He presents his support for ‘safe’, ‘cheap’, ‘clean’ energy solutions as if all of the possibilities have been considered, this is the best that we’ve got, and it can work, dagnammit. He doesn’t really deny that the world could be “f**ked” (in the words of Naomi Klein) (Klein, 2013), but he definitely doesn’t use that language. He seems very optimistic about humans’ scientific capabilities, an appealing message to those who may feel the situation is beyond our control as individuals. According to Bill, we CAN solve problems using the same thinking (aka free market economy) we used when we created them. Einstein just rolled over in his grave.
The discussion that followed in the group with whom I sat watching this video, was telling. We were a group of peers; all graduate students in a faculty of health sciences in a ‘reputable’ Canadian university. Our diametric reactions to Gates’ proposition surprised me somewhat. There was outrage from one corner over the fact that we gave 20 minutes of our undivided attention to a billionaire who was basically arguing for “business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth [that is] destabilizing life on earth” (Klein, 2010). From another corner, I interpreted a feeling of relief and promise: Wouldn’t it be nice if we (humans) didn’t need to change our lifestyles and consumption patterns in order to save the planet? Isn’t that what we all really want? From within our small cohort, our worldviews have led us to similar perspectives of climate change risk (Kahan et al, 2012)- we are all proponents -but quite different perspectives on what should be done about it.
Kahan et al (2012, p. 734) present evidence that “simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views”. I agree with the importance of this line of inquiry and the authors’ call for strategies that “create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values” (Kahan et al, 2012, p. 734). I am, however, more concerned about how to “promote constructive and informed public deliberations” (Kahan et al, 2012, p. 734) among climate change proponents on how to get us out of this mess. If the first step is to agree that climate change is happening, it is (largely) manmade, and the consequences are disastrous, the next is to join forces to actually do something about it. Convincing people that climate change is real may be possible without threatening any group’s values, but unlike the Bill Gates camp, I think in order to change its course, altering dominant cultural values is an urgent necessity. My classroom observations provide evidence that step two may indeed be the more difficult battle.
As I put the finishing touches on this blog post, I am eavesdropping on a group of self-proclaimed activists who are fundraising for environmental justice. As I post my reflection, the word revolution is being tossed around and interrupting my thoughts. As difficult as it sounds, I think I have my answer.
Gates, B. 2010. Innovating to zero. TED2010 Conference. Video. URL: http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates
Kahan et al. 2012. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change. Epub, Vol 2, October 2012.
Klein, N. 2013. How Science is Telling us all to Revolt. New Statesman. Oct 29, 2013. URL: http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt
Research & Degrowth. 2014. Definition of Degrowth. Research and Degrowth. URL: http://www.degrowth.org/definition-2