I found an interesting article on Wired.com today. It was a letter by Bill Gates to the world about his beliefs regarding solving the world’s problems. One reason I decided to click on the article is because my generation grew up with this man, and he has had a significant influence on the technology, media, and now philanthropy in my life time.
I am also interested in learning about his thinking because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investing billions of dollars on agricultural initiatives and projects around the world (where his decisions directly cross paths with my interest in making the world a better place.)
So, I thought it might be important to read what he has to say about the problems facing all of humanity.
I read the article… I’m glad I did… Here are five points of clarification I’d like to note:
1) Gates begins with a fascinating admission… That he is obsessed with fertilizer. He actually begins by writing about the very reason I decided to read the article… Global agriculture, and its success and failures are an important part of what motivates his philanthropy.
Why is this important? Because from the beginning of the article the foundation of his thinking is significantly flawed… He states, “[fertilizer] helped fuel the Green Revolution, an explosion of agricultural productivity that lifted hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty.”… He goes onto say, “A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia.”… and then, “Thanks to inventions like these, life has steadily gotten better. It can be easy to conclude otherwise—as I write this essay… big problems like climate change are bearing down on us with no simple solution in sight.”
“No simple solution [to climate change] in sight”? I wonder if Bill has actually spent time with Vandana Shiva. Someone on the ground who has actually lived through the green revolution in India. From her perspective, the green revolution was a short term benefit with long term climate, and cultural chaos:
I would suggest Bill Gates talk with her, and the farmers she works with before deciding to write about the historical benefits of agriculture, or do anything agricultural related in the future. With this one error in his thinking, it is possible, that his belief that Western innovation is key to a bright future, might not be as cut and dry as he makes it out to be.
2) Bill states bluntly, “I am a devout fan of capitalism. It is the best system ever devised for making self-interest serve the wider interest.” He goes onto admit, “But capitalism alone can’t address the needs of the very poor…” I find it fascinating when a man of Gate’s influence admits how great Capitalism has been for humanity. His life’s fortune and his philanthropy is built on the extreme, monopolistic success of Microsoft. Arguably one of the most capitalist institutions in modern history! Of course he is a fan of capitalism, look how well it’s benefited him.
I’m afraid he stepped into another catastrophic misunderstanding of history here. He is assuming that there has always been a “poor” that capitalism is addressing. Who defines poor anyway? I’m sure many people around the world consider themselves “poor”, most likely in relation to capitalism. But there are plenty of people throughout history, and in the modern age, who work day to day, or live in subsistence, and are very happy, and don’t measure themselves by the West’s poor vs. rich dichotomy.
That reality aside, most likely Bill Gates is talking about the “very poor” created by global capitalism. Yes, I am going out on a limb here, capitalism invented the “very poor” to begin with. In fact, the “very poor” are a result of hundreds of years of colonialism, and empire building, leading us to todays hyper capitalism and extreme poverty. All a result of the greed and self-interest Bill Gates says is good for us.
There are many resources to prove my point in this regard, for now here is Bill Moyers and Chris Hedges on the effects of extreme Capitalism right under our noses:
3) Bill Gates’ hubris and lack of humility boggles my mind… We’re talking about someone with great global influence, “The goal in much of what we do [Bill's philanthropy] is to provide seed funding for various ideas. Some will fail. We fill a function that government cannot—making a lot of risky bets with the expectation that at least a few of them will succeed.” A very interesting admission. How big are these failures, who is ultimately effected by them? Someone from the top making decisions and spending great wealth on these ideas is not directly effected, but what about the folks on the ground… What about the failure that is bound to occur with the “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” that Bill so proudly funds?
Civil society in Africa is already resisting the fallacy Bill Gates propels. Add another failure to your hoity toity philanthropic cloud cuckoo land: Countering Africa’s Green Revolution
4) Just to add to the ridiculous view Bill has about the world… He admits that one of the greatest benefits to the original Green Revolution is, “… today all the people who have escaped poverty represent a huge market opportunity—and now companies are flocking to serve them.”
So in other words, encourage farmers to become dependent on poisons like fertilizer and pesticides, borrow from banks to pay for it, go into debt, all so you can live a little longer, maybe, to be able to buy the latest planned obsolete widget from Microsoft and their corporate brethren… Interesting logic indeed…
5) Finally, a statement written that may very well be the real reason for the article. Bill says, ”I’ve heard some people describe the economy of the future as “post-corporatist and post-capitalist”—one in which large corporations crumble and all innovation happens from the bottom up.” I sense a little fear in his writing. By including this in the article, he is admitting to voices that are growing throughout the world, and even the great Bill Gates isn’t shielded from these voices. There is a strong likelihood the road ahead is in that direction, whether he is willing to listen or not.
The Earth’s limited resources can only go so far to fuel Mr. Gate’s innovation world view. And currently the raping of those resources has a direct impact on the people, animals and plants that live over and amongst them.
As he admits earlier in the article, there are many problems that need to be addressed, “poverty, disease, hunger, war, poor education, bad governance, political instability, or mistreatment of women”.
Ultimately democratic decisions by the people most effected will solve these problems.
Ivory tower hand-me-downs, while having some positive effect for certain people, for short periods is good. The long term effect is just more of the same- disempowerment, more poverty, and accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few. If Mr. Gates wants to spend his money wisely, I suggest investing in socially creative, democratically innovative, local, non-State governments around the world. This is where the power to improve everyday life for billions of people really happens.