I had just finished reading Bill McKibben’s new novel, Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, when I stumbled upon Bill Gates’ blog, www.gatesnotes.com, which I had not looked at for quite a while. I have to admit, I had been rather miffed at the overconfident elitist strategy Gates pursued at the Paris Climate Change Conference at the end of 2015. He began to organize all his “billionaire buddies,” as I prefer to call them, to achieve a “new energy breakthrough” to meet the world’s (presumptively ever-growing) clean energy needs with one great sweep of technological prowess. At the time, he focused mostly on a new generation of smaller nuclear power plants. More of the same techno-industrial growth culture applied to the problems caused by the techno-industrial growth culture.
Any “new energy breakthrough” as a response to the need to reduce carbon emissions drastically, has several problems. Perhaps most importantly, it relies on the assumption that at the center of what we need lies New Technology. Well, that should not be
surprising, coming from Bill Gates, whose meteoric rise to become one of the world’s richest men rested squarely in his talent for monetizing new technology. He is attempting the same thing with renewable energy, having convinced twenty-three nations, the “Mission Innovation” coalition, to accelerate research and development of new energy-production technologies for investment by his “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” composed of 23 of the wealthiest individual investors in the world and seventeen giant corporations.
Not All Innovation Is the Same
My first ‘personal computer’ was an NEC 8000, purchased around 1980, just before the iconic IBM personal computer had its debut. It had everything the IBM PC would have, but in a less convenient profile. The NEC PC ran on the operating system that would soon become “MS-DOS.” Once acquire, Microsoft licensed it to IBM for its new PC. I had worked with ‘mainframe’ computing, mainly for statistics and electronic mail applications on campus. The NEC PC was a game-changer for me; it was quite powerful for its time, including remarkably robust spreadsheet, word processing, and database applications.
As I later discovered, the operating system included virtually all the features for which MS-DOS and Microsoft later got credit. Gates made a shrewd business decision in acquiring the rights to that OS. MS-DOS was not a technological “breakthrough.” It was existing technology repackaged and marketed as the industry standard operating system for personal computers, because it was the default OS for the IBM PC. Microsoft never did succeed much at innovation; it dominated the software market by sheer force of position, buying out many small companies that did innovate then marketing their innovations as Microsoft products. Neither Bill Gates nor his employees invented MS-DOS, they acquired it and adapted it to the new IBM PC, which rapidly became the industry standard for personal computers.
So, what’s my point? Well, Bill Gates has not changed. His philanthropic model is distinctly entrepreneurial, and I dare say, self-serving. He seeks to control new technology by financing some of it and making business arrangements with other corporations and governments to fund R&D, then investing profitably in its deployment worldwide. It is “Microsoft-Big” all over again. Lots of extractive/industrial capital needed for such an approach, just what Gates has waiting to invest.
Community Creativity or Global Industry
Bill Gates strategy is exactly the opposite of what we need to downsize the industrial monolith that is destroying Earth’s living systems. In numerous venues, Gates argues that “We need an energy miracle” to prevent catastrophic climate change. Well, what we really need is a societal miracle to transform our economies into low-energy-use ecological communities, and even achieve negative carbon emissions wherever possible and restore collapsing ecosystems. Only then will be able to minimize the most catastrophic consequences of climate chaos toward which we are currently plummeting.
But why would Bill McKibben, who may be the nation’s most identifiable climate activist, write a novel? Bill, of course, is a long-term ‘Vermonter,’ as well as a co-founder of 350.org. The Vermont attitude may be what it’s all about. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is its political face. In Bill’s novel, subtitled, “A Fable of Resistance,” a rag-tag assortment of independent Vermonters decide that the only way to “keep it small,” is to secede from the United States of America. McKibben explicitly disavows that approach, merely using it as a story line to illustrate the issues from an ‘on-the-ground-in-the-real-world’ perspective. Radio Free Vermont does not provide answers, but it does point in the right direction.
I probably expected too much in the way of climate action in the story. But I guess Bill’s point is that we all live in our ordinary worlds, yet we have to take extreme steps to come to grips with the growing confluence of catastrophic crises in the larger world. The difference between our lives and the requirements for making the radical turn away from depending on big energy-intensive industrialized institutions and infrastructure is immense. And the road toward creating small ecologically grounded communities is extremely complex.
I have recently traveled North America from Canada to Mexico. Looking at people and their everyday actions, I see little movement away from fossil-fueled complex technologies, including my own. It is not easy to envision how, especially in the dominant urban contexts, so unlike village Vermont with its town-meetings based community democracy, such a radical turn as is necessary can actually happen.
The necessary seems at first glance impossible, as we enter the New Great Transformation of humanity as well as planet Earth, searching for ways to control runaway change for our survival. Our path is uncertain and fraught with danger. I discuss what I term this “The Radical Turn,” in another post, written just the other day after I finished reading Radio Free Vermont.
When the necessary at first seems inconceivable, that is when we must get very creative, as Bill McKibben has in this radical turn in his writing. It will all turn on how much creativity we can muster, organize, and implement where we live, not in some giant high-tech lab drawing many amps from a fossil-fueled power plant in the next state over, and huge amounts of cash drained form the economy by the financial elite.