Bill Gates or Bill McKibben: You Do the Math

I had just finished reading Bill McKibben’s new novel, Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, when I stumbled upon Bill Gates’ blog,, 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

gates-billionaire bucks


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.


Resist, Replace, Restore.  Photo Credit: Greenability Magazine

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 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.

The Radical Turn

On the Necessity of the Inconceivable to Engage the New Great Transformation

Most of us who have lived through the decades since World War II understand the advancements of the industrial age to be the essence of human progress. First, we lived in an energy-driven mechanical world involving a series of innovations and new “labor-saving” processes and products. We experienced all sorts of new jobs and professions as the industrial project continued. It called for new forms of work needed to produce new kinds of goods and services. Progress seemed the inevitable product of scientific discovery, technical innovation, invention, and production.

Progress and Conflict

At the same time, we felt an evolving series of threats, from the broadly defined “Cold War,” first expressed in the very hot war in Korea – referred to at the time as a United Nations sanctioned “police action” because war was never officially declared. Then there the war in Vietnam, also never quite declared but an all-consuming national crisis of purpose and conscience. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came a brief euphoria associated with the belief that with just one “superpower” – a benevolent United States of America – would come peace. That turned out to be an illusion, based on the assumption that with the U.S. policing a world devoid of any other super power, a “peace dividend” would allow a shift to domestic priorities such as full employment, general economic growth, and pursuing the “good life.”

Well, that didn’t quite work out as imagined. Military spending continued to grow as concerns about managing “limited conflicts” and retaining global military dominance persisted. A variety of apparent “one-off” incursions, invasions, and interventions, in various parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, kept the U.S. military quite busy. So called “defense spending” did not slacken. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, we had over seven hundred fifty known bases in other nations, according to Chalmers Johnson, a renowned historian and former U.S. intelligence consultant. Johnson raised his concerns about the over-extension in his book, Blow Back.

The growing U.S. global interventionism certainly had its blow back in terms of rising resentments over both military and corporate incursions into many nations, focused mainly on gaining control over the resources needed to continue the economic growth that was the keystone in the U.S. economy. Particularly resented were the U.S. efforts to dominate and control the flow of oil in the world economy, and the continued propping up of kleptocratic regimes. The U.S., as the leading economic actor, required ever-growing quantities of oil. The vast oil fields in the U.S. had begun to decline and talk of “peak oil” grew.

Industrial Capital Transformed the World

There is, of course, much more to the story. That has to do with the continuing cultural illusions of global authority sustained by military-industrial elites, which resulted in both clandestine and overt efforts to control other nations. “Manifest Destiny” lived on by other names, even as the U.S. suffered the attacks of 9-11 and expanded its response to a global “war on terror,” with no boundaries and little success. Yet, one force drove the global struggles for power, the necessity for economic growth to perpetuate the accumulation of wealth.

Underlying it all, a great contradiction and looming crisis developed, at first hardly noticed, then widely denied, and continually misunderstood as the endless-growth economy and wars of choice persisted in the face of growing evidence of their absurdities and failure.

Polanyis Great Transformation_chart

Image credit: SlideShare

In 1944, Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation. The book received little notice despite its profound implications for the trajectory of the industrial era. Polanyi’s deep research on the industrial revolution and its aftermath led him to conclude that a fundamental unresolved conflict had resulted from the requirements of industrial capital as it overpowered all other elements of society. He noted that various political administrations attempted to protect society from the damaging transformation of human life caused by the expansions of industrial capital. Such efforts included the English “poor laws,” and later the New Deal that responded to the crash and Great Depression of the 1930s in the U.S.

Polanyi did not find an ultimate solution to the “creative destruction” of industrial capital. Neither did the economists and politicians who ignored his warnings. Instead, the consequences have gradually emerged as the global crises of economics, ecology, and climate we all must now face.

The New Great Transformation

The clash between the now global system of economic growth and the damage it does to populations around the world as it enriches the few, is coming to a head. But the damage now reaches far beyond the direct suffering of excluded humans. Both the endless extractive plunder of the resources and living Earth systems we call ecologies, and the ever-growing systems of manufacture, transportation, consumption, and waste, have seriously destabilized ecological systems and climate systems around the world.

Neither the ecosystems upon which humans depend, nor the climate that allows global food production, can retain stability under the assault of the global industrial system. We have already reached an extreme turning point. Humanity and the living Earth systems upon which we depended for so long, have entered a New Great Transformation. We caused it and we have done little to control it. But we must.

The Radical Turn

Only by taking a Radical Turn in the ways humans live on the planet can we begin to control the extreme threats to our very existence we have caused. Yet we continue to see things like resource depletion and climate disruption within the framework of the failing utopian dreams of endless progress through technological innovation and economic growth. Instead, we need to apply what we know from the best science with the necessity of transforming human economies into ecological communities. That means massive reductions in energy consumption and waste.

We must both stop the earth plunder and achieve negative carbon emissions rapidly and restore the many ecological systems that we have damaged so severely. Those systems continue collapsing as nations debate who should take how much responsibility for achieving inadequate global warming targets. Yet, public discussions almost never involve how nations and communities can achieve the necessary radical reductions in ecological and climate destruction. Hardly ever are methods of ecosystem restoration discussed. The denial of the necessity of a Radical Turn in the organization of humanity on Earth continues.

The Manchurian President and His Great Wall

Remember the old movie, The Manchurian Candidate? The 1962 political thriller depicted a veteran of the Korean War, who had been brainwashed while a prisoner of war, to assassinate the leading presidential candidate so that the vice-presidential candidate could win the presidency. A secret “palace coup d’état” would then impose a draconian suspension of democracy in service to the KGB.

A 2004 remake starred Denzel Washington playing the other veteran who knows something is wrong. The remake updated the conflict to the Persian Gulf War and the perpetrator to a U.S. corporation, “Manchurian Global.” A slick candidate for the U.S. presidency has been “brainwashed” to do the bidding for a foreign power – a corporation foreign to American democracy, that is. The inevitable struggle between good and evil ensues.

The Manchurian Candidate Wins

I think we have an apt metaphor here for the rise of Trumpery, the results of which we all now experience. However, these days the president may or may not be helping the Russians. But they appear to have helped him jam the culture of core American values and national security in service to the Billionaire Class and especially his own (secret) global financial interests. The whole thing, morally as well as socially and economically, is far, far away from serving ordinary Americans. It is, in a word, foreign; the new normal of political corruption has infected many Americans through the demagoguery of the Manchurian President. He had come out from behind the wall of privileged wealth to claim common cause with the people. Total betrayal.

The financial and corporate elites in whose interest Trump promulgates endless executive orders are foreign in every way but their rhetoric. They care no less for the public interest than does the Manchurian President. The Vicar of Venality encourages the congress of Republican corporatists to trash the modest Affordable Care Act in favor of massive tax cuts for the super-rich, disease and death for the “losers” — us. He stifles as many federal agencies that work to protect the public interest from plunder capital as he can. He viciously assaults public discourse via hateful twitter tropes.

Atomic TrumpThe “Reality TV” show that now guides the nation entails the Branding of the President as the only real “winner” among the rest of us “losers.” The amoral Trump Brand touts greed and meanness as its central principle for gaining the power that allows him to take what he wants, whenever he wants, from whomever he wants — from contractors or employees who he refused to pay to pretty women he feels entitled to grope at will. We must realize that he projects this evil vindictive brand across the world in our name. Our nation’s security suffers for it.

More Shocks to Come

These are dangerous times and we all need whatever bits of useful advice we can garner to counter the Manchurian President. That is why I recommend you read Naomi Klein’s latest book, which gives valuable insight into both Trumpery and its application of the neoliberal economic (and political) “shock doctrine” to our own nation.

The first few chapters of her new book, No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, integrate Klein’s insights from previous books on branding, disaster capitalism, and the climate crisis, to offer what may be the most intelligible answer to the question, “What is Trumpery?” Her new video, “How to resist Trump’s shock doctrine,” outlines some key actions the rest of us should take. Check it out. Let me know what you think.

The history of the American political economy exposes a very long and persistent attempt by privileged elites to destroy the democracy that would interfere with the completion of their hegemony. Nancy Mclean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, makes one thing very clear. Much of what passes as ordinary “conservative” politics is part of a larger plan to destroy democracy in America.

The Great Wall of Trump’s racist misogynist rhetoric symbolizes something far more sinister than a physical deterrent to illegal immigration, instilling fear of the infiltration of terrorists, or Trump’s juvenile denigration of women and anyone not a U.S.-born white male. Of course, it elevates a certain xenophobic fear of the other in an uncertain world, adding to the angst that breeds the extreme nationalism and racist scapegoating that demagoguery has always encouraged and exploited.

Naomi Klein emphasizes in No Is Not Enough, that as aberrant as he is personally, Donald Trump is in a much deeper sense the logical result of the campaign to destroy democracy in the name of a libertarian future for the super-rich. His actions are a perfect fit for the neo-liberal agenda of the billionaire plutocrats who would rather not have to deal with a democracy in their quest for total power.

Transcending Trumpery

Trumpery is not so much about building a physical wall on our southern border as it is about reinforcing and extending the Great Wall of Disparity dividing us all off from those 600 Super-rich who make up the 1% of the 1% of wealthy Americans who gain from his policies. The tweets are his personal form of the much broader distractions the corporate mass media propagate daily to redirect public attention from the plunder of the our commonwealth.

As Robert Schenkkan’s brilliant new play, “Building the Wall” demonstrates, the achievement of a fascist state will come through the creeping engagement of ordinary ‘functionaries’ (people) in the machinations of oppression. The ultimate result – genocidal practices that remain at the core of the cultural heritage of the corporate state – further delay the unfinished American Revolution. It was integral to Canada’s colonization of indigenous peoples as well. Given the national political situation, resistance must continue. But the remaining viable path to survival of humanity in spite of the plutocrats is to transform local communities to harmonize with their ecosystems and each other to thereby replace the plutocracy with direct local democracy. Only such a transformation can at last complete the American Revolution.

Dangerous Transitions in the New Great Transformation

Humanity is entering a New Great Transformation like no other. This transformation is not the first, but it may be the last. That will depend on human action and whether we act quickly, both globally and locally.

Perhaps the first great transformation was the discovery and control of fire, according to renowned biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham (2009). Controlling fire allowed the habilines (Homo Habilis) to evolve into the small jawed, small toothed Homo Erectus, because eating cooked food released far more energy with much less work than hunting, gathering, and eating raw foods. Cooking provided the extra low-cost energy the brain needed to grow and produce Homo sapiens – us. Then, of course, the agricultural revolution was a transformation that produced surplus food, allowing the specialization of skills. That resulted in complex forms of social organization, such as kingdoms and empires.

The New Great Transformation

The industrial revolution was described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation (1944), largely because it turned society on its head as a result of the new economic organization industrial capital forced upon it. In pre-industrial societies, culture had always embedded economic activity within societal norms and values. Now, society became an appendage and subservient to the new economic order. We are now at the end of the industrial era, entering a planetary New Great Transformation, caused by the global excesses of extractive capital and the “technosphere” it has created.


Five Mass Extinctions. Credit: Annenberg Learning

Unbridled economic growth and profligate waste have destabilized the climate and most of the Earth’s ecosystems, precipitating The New Great Transformation. The vast disturbances of ecosystems around the world due to global industrialization has triggered the sixth great extinction of species around the world. The converging global crises of humanity now force us to choose between rapid ecological harmonization and restoration or societal collapse, and possibly our own extinction.

We must now seek a just transition from the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate to survive the New Great Transformation. We must transform the global political economy of industrial-consumerism and its vast injustices into located ecological communities. We must restore living Earth systems if we are to survive as a species.  The most difficult obstacle to a just ecological society may be in our own minds. We must overcome the many vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain, especially in our everyday thinking.

We need to shape new visions about issues like adaptation versus mitigation of global warming. Only by transforming society itself can we create sufficient food security, green jobs, clean technology, and low-carbon transportation. At the same time, we must resist the Trumpist resistance to societal and ecological transformation. To achieve a viable just transition requires us to transform in unprecedented ways how we live in our environments and relate to each other.

Dangerous Transitions: Creativity or Collapse

To avoid the greatest dangers of the New Great Transformation of Earth’s ecosystems and climate (their collapse), we must transform our economy and society to achieve ecological communities where we live. Only a rapid massive societal transformation will avoid societal collapse. Our transformation must reach much deeper than simply transitioning to lower-carbon consumerism within the existing global political economy. Waiting for the next election cycle is entirely inadequate.

While resisting the political resistance to energy and ecological transition, we must transform our own residential enclaves, including “sacrifice zones,” into self-sustaining ecological communities. They still depend heavily on the fossil-fueled corporate state, but must become autonomous yet interdependent ecological communities, in part by replacing fossil fuel and radically reducing energy consumption and waste. Two key factors are involved.

First, we must get over our illusions of techno-industrial invincibility. Documented cases of societal collapse due to disrupting the ecosystems upon which they depended, consistently resulted from societal failure to respond to the destabilized ecosystems those societies caused. (See, for example, Jared Diamond, Collapse (2005), and Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).) We are not immune, but this time the danger we face is global and local.

Second, diverse sources of evidence of an emerging New Great Transformation, even more profound than the industrial revolution and its aftermath, reflect great danger yet offer great hope. The hope resides in new forms of community action such as those reported in Sarah van Gelden, The Revolution Where You Live (2017) and the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. Movements for economic justice described by Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? (2013) and the mutual-interest grounded left-right coalitions Ralph Nader describes and advocates in Unstoppable (2014) also give hope for change. We must act in our common interests by transforming the way we live, where we live.

Assertions of community and municipal sovereignty such as those described by Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell in We the People (2016), provide a viable model for action. These local movements involve some form of what John Brown Childs calls Transcommunality (2003). Such working together in respectful yet autonomous interdependence embodies the principles of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) Longhouse, the L.A. gang-peace movement, and other indigenous examples of cooperation in diversity such as the gathering of Earth protectors at Standing Rock. Mutual aid in establishing ecological communities must replace dominance by the technosphere (Orlov, 2017), thereby increasing human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and freedom from societal and ecological chaos.

As we face the power of growing Trumpist political resistance to climate and justice action, we must find ways to make the urgently needed human ecological realignments now. We must transform society where we live to avoid societal collapse. The creation of ecological communities where we live has become the most viable form of resistance to the dark money and the out-of-control plutocracy if feeds. It is the most difficult for state violence to control. Resist tyranny by replacing the corporate state with ecological communities that restore living Earth systems and humanity itself.


Alperovitz, Gar. 2013. What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Childs, John Brown. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. 2003. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gelden, Sarah van. 2017. The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linzey, Thomas, and Anneke Campbell. 2016. We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States. 2016. Oakland, PM Press

Nader, Ralph. 2014. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books.

Orlov, Dmitry. 2017. Shrinking the Technophere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archeology). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard. (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.