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Bill Gates is pretty much right

For my valedictory post, it’s tempting to engage in a little big-picture think. I’m also still mulling the general reaction to Bill Gates’ TED talk, which seemed to me both entirely too hostile and also reflective of some of the lingering pathologies in the environmental movement. So, yeah, this is going to be a bit of a ramble.

Let’s start by putting forth two propositions:

1. In the future we will be richer (and that’s a good thing)
2. Technology will save us from climate change (if anything does)

Both of these statements are very probably true, but they tend to raise hackles among greens unless they’re wrapped in thick layers of caveats. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a nice caveat – I use them all the time myself – but, as the some of the nitpicking reactions to Gates’ talk reveal, it’s possible to cling to them too tightly.

First, wealth. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, caused a stir in 2006 with the release of a report claiming that, if left unchecked, climate change could knock a full 20% off global GDP over the next two centuries. The Stern Review was both more detailed and more dire than previous attempts to quantify the economic impact of climate change. Although the report immediately set off a huge methodological squabble, the effect was nonetheless electrifying: a respected economist, working under the auspices of the British government, had declared that the costs of inaction on climate change massively outweigh the costs of action.

The little-noted kicker is that even in the terrible 20% scenario, the world will still be far richer than it is today. Not nearly as rich as it could or should be, but better off than we are now.

It’s fair to point out that the impacts of climate change will be unevenly distributed, and that measures of GDP fail to capture these effects. But it’s also important to note that, even as the developed world suffers through a calamitous financial crisis, these are the best of the times for the world’s poor, and the situation is likely to keep getting better (emphasis added):

> World poverty is falling. Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters…Although world population has increased by about 80% over this time (World Bank 2009), the number of people below the $1 a day poverty line has shrunk by nearly 64%, from 967 million in 1970 to 350 million in 2006. **In the past 36 years, there has never been a moment with more than 1 billion people in poverty, and barring a catastrophe, there will never be such a moment in the future history of the world.**

Second, technology. Gates has gotten some (deserved) criticism for making disparaging remarks about energy efficiency, but his larger point is indisputable: we can’t conserve our way to zero emissions, so the long-term solution to climate change necessarily requires producing all of our energy from renewable resources. I might also add that the vast majority of emissions reductions from efficiency and conservation will also come from technological improvements.

In a response to Gates’ speech (“Why Bill Gates is wrong”), David Roberts complains that the focus on technology distracts from innovation in other areas, such as policy, systems integration, infrastructure development, finance, and even social norms. But, look: almost all “distraction” arguments are really just quibbling, and this one is no different. Although whizzy gadgets might first come to mind when we think about innovation, in truth society is quite good at recognizing and rewarding innovation that has very little to do with technological breakthroughs. In fact, it’s fair to say that greater rewards accrue to the people who disseminate and apply new technology to age-old problems than to those who invent it. Neither Amazon nor eBay invented the internet. They just used it to make a better way to shop. Likewise, the Passive House standard is just the systematized application of well-understood design principles and low-tech efficiency improvements. But it still represents technological innovation.

Part of the reason that greens push back on these truisms about wealth and technology is that many anti-environmentalists use glib versions of these arguments to argue for complacency or, worse, to push a noxious policy agenda. Such efforts deserve vocal opposition. But Bill Gates doesn’t. His speech included a call for carbon pricing, an endorsement of Al Gore’s most recent book, a nod to the problems of deforestation and cement production, and a strong plug for regulatory reform, energy efficiency, solar and wind energy. For a short speech focused mostly on a single energy start-up, it did a remarkably good job of covering its environmental bases.

So why the piling on? In part, Gates raised ire because he didn’t spend a lot of time on the usual pieties. Absent from his talk was any moralism about western lifestyles. His call for “energy miracles” was uncomfortably close to a call for silver bullets (something all good greens know to boo). He spoke like an engineer trying to solve a really big engineering challenge. And in so doing, he triggered some of the cultural grievances that often underlie discussions of energy consumption. I wrote recently that the environmental issue I care most deeply about is “finding a way to sustain nine billion wealthy and fulfilled human beings on a planet that hasn’t been completely despoiled.” This seems like an uncontroversial stance – which part would you argue with? – but it nevertheless prompted glib and entirely predictable comments about McMansions.

My guess is that Bill Gates’ formulation of the problem sounds really good to people who are worried about climate change but aren’t necessarily committed environmentalists. And frankly, that’s more important than being right on every single technical point, or achieving the officially sanctioned balance of tone and emphasis. If we want the issue of climate change to escape the green ghetto, we would do well to set cultural grievances aside. Partly this is just smart politics. People really don’t want to be lectured about their sins. But more importantly, such grievances lead us down the wrong path. Asking for a worldwide movement of people voluntarily and significantly downgrading their lifestyle to spare the earth is to pray for an energy miracle far beyond anything Bill Gates can conceive.

There is good news here. With the right policies in place, and the right research and development, and with swift innovation on many different fronts, future citizens will be transformed into eco-warriors by default. My grandmother refuses to touch a computer, but one-year-old babies can use an iPhone. Likewise, tomorrow’s kids are going to be energy geniuses and environmental savants, not because they’re any smarter or more enlightened than we are, but because the structure of their society and their technology and their markets will make it so.

At least, that’s my hope. We need to push forward in a variety of ways to bring such a vision to pass. And we need to shed some of the grim moralism to build a stronger environmental movement. Even if I’m pretty sure tomorrow is going to be better than today, I don’t think we can take anything for granted.

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