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“A Brief History of Inequality” by Thomas Piketty

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Rodin's Burghers of Calais
Burghers of Calais, Rodin

In A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty reviews the distribution of wealth over the last few centuries and draws practical lessons that we can use to shape an agenda for moving toward a more just and equitable world. 

Piketty called his Capital in the Twenty-First Century “as much a work of history as of economics,” and this shorter volume is also deeply informed by historical research. This focus helps explain the author’s surprising popularity – unlike many economists who trade in esoteric equations, he keeps both feet firmly on the ground. 

One danger of ignoring history, he argues, lies in taking our particular forms of economic and political life as timeless and unchangeable. This can lead to the feeling that we’re trapped in a situation of spiraling inequality from which there is no escape. But in his survey of the last few centuries, he shows just how much progress has already been made. 

This is not to deny there is more work to do – far from it. As shown in his Capital, current levels of wealth and income inequality are bad and are getting worse, largely because the historical returns from investment always outpace the growth of an economy. This sets up a feedback loop where the people who have money to invest earn more money more quickly than those who don’t. In the absence of counter-balancing forces like effective progressive taxation and inheritance taxes, wealth tends to accumulate into larger and larger fortunes. 

This may be a natural tendency of growth, but we have more options for dealing with problems like this than we may think, and this is where Piketty kicks into high gear.

The nature of property ownership is not delivered from on high as a kind of natural law, even if that’s how it’s sometimes characterized in legal codes. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is the basis for the French legal understanding of property, states: 

The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.

The French definition naturalizes its conception of property, declaring ownership to be a universal right that is beyond the reach of political deliberation. Following this definition, French legislatures and courts have tended to favor a strong, expansive reading of property rights, which has limited the reach of redistributive policies.

But not all societies see it this way. For example, Article 14 of the German constitution declares: 

Property and the right of inheritance shall be guaranteed. Their content and limits shall be defined by the laws. Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good.

This formulation explicitly sets a context and limits for property ownership – it is not an intrinsic, inalienable right, but is legitimate only insofar as it serves the public good. This has shaped the German conception of ownership, sometimes in profound ways. For example, it forms the constitutional basis for laws requiring medium- and large-sized companies to set up a Betriebsrat, or worker’s council, which shares governance rights with shareholders. Imagine how Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would have been dealt with in a world where that company had such a council that looked after the interest of the company and the workers, and not just the shareholders.

As a matter of history, it is plainly true that “property” is not absolute. Ideas of ownership do not exist in the abstract, but consist in the historically-determined and changing frameworks of laws, norms, and power relationships without which the term has no meaning. How could we otherwise account for the fact that soon after the the Declaration was written and then for many decades, women did not have the right to inheritance or to open a bank account in France?

He doesn’t use the term, but I believe his thinking here is informed by the Marxist critical concept of reification, which refers to the distortions that occur when we view social relations or manufactured objects as though they have no history. It generally serves the interest of the status quo to naturalize certain fundamental conceptions – that is, to treat them as timeless truths, like the law of gravity. That is, of course, why people whose interests are served by the status quo tend to describe property rights as sacrosanct. But a study of history opens up a range of actual possibilities for reshaping these principles when it’s in the greatest common good to do so.

When Piketty looks at the last few centuries of inequality, a lot of the news he finds is good. This is why he called this book a history of “equality.” As he said in a recent New York Times interview, “I’ve always viewed my work and conclusion as relatively optimistic. And I was a bit sad to see that some people had a different reading.” 

I think relatively optimistic is a good way to put it – you could perhaps say, based on his findings, that the global story of equality has gone from “terrible” to “pretty bad.” If we go back to the period beginning with the earliest useful financial records that we have, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we find that the vast majority of people all over the world owned almost nothing. In Europe during this time, for example, the majority of the population did nearly all of the productive work, had no real political power, and paid most of the taxes. 

But progress has been made. Today, a far greater share of the world’s wealth is owned by a middle class, though the bottom half of the world’s property owners still collectively own virtually nothing, and wealth is still largely owned based on gender and national origin. But the key lesson of the past is that real change is possible. Sometimes even policies that were considered impossible for a long time can be achieved, like the progressive federal income tax in the United States.

A useful illustration that Piketty examines is Sweden, which showed extremely high political and economic inequality for all of the nineteenth century. But in the early twentieth century, the situation reversed, and Sweden built a successful welfare state. It in fact became one of the most egalitarian countries in Europe for the next century, and a number of related positive outcomes followed. If you had lived in Europe in 1900, you might well have believed that inequality in Sweden was simply a historical fact that would probably never change. But things did change, and they can change now. 

Piketty is under no illusions that a policy will save us. The major changes that have brought real progress have rarely come about by the smooth operation of the system. Progress is largely associated with the major shocks that create windows of opportunity. Some of the key shocks in our recent past have included the Great Depression and the World Wars. Ultimately, the role of the kind of policies he proposes is to inform public debate and to help shape the strategy of political actors. This is the focus of the second half of his book. 

The two primary problems he wants us to take on are economic inequality and sustainable development, both products of our newly-global economy. Under the current regime, both problems are extremely difficult to get a handle on, because our economic tools are not set up to address them.

With respect to inequality, the chief culprit Piketty focus on in this book is the lack of monitoring and controls on money moving across borders, which has dramatically increased since the triumph of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 90s. Similarly, our ability to handle climate change effectively is limited by the fact that our economic systems are not set up to capture or reflect the social and economic costs of climate damage in any meaningful way. For example, climate-polluting industries like steel and cement manufacturing, which create more greenhouse gases per year than any other sector, themselves pay no direct costs for any adaptation or mitigation efforts that societies make.

Dealing with these issues will take novel solutions which may very well require that we fundamentally rethink our current economic framework, but we have good reason to do so. Unlocking our borders to capital flight has led to a situation in which many developed countries are wealthy but their governments are poor. Many of the largest fortunes evade representative taxation by shady dodges such as incorporating offshore. Companies like Apple or Facebook are able to benefit profoundly from the technical and human infrastructure of the United States, such as its major investments in education, while giving little or nothing back by way of taxes, preferring the favorable tax rates of havens like Ireland.

At the same time, individual fortunes are amassed and cached overseas in offshore accounts, allowing the wealthiest individuals and families to put enormous fortunes beyond the reach of taxation. As he discussed in his Capital, the economist Gabriel Zucman conservatively estimated that 10% of the global GDP is currently stashed away in such havens – this amount is greater than the total official foreign debt of all wealthy countries. 

In order to address such abuses, countries must be able to to effectively monitor and control money flowing out of its borders. This would allow for measures like the exit tax recently proposed by Bernie Sanders, which would assess a tax on assets moved out of the country.

In Capital, Piketty suggested creating an international framework for implementing a nominal global tax on wealth, which would require that we set up a standardized international accounting scheme to monitor such flows. A step like this would go a long way toward cutting down on flagrant abuse.

In this book, he develops a similar idea, but from a national, rather than an international, perspective. He recommends that each country insist on its sovereign rights to manage money as it comes and goes, and to create their own systems for dealing with the problem.  

PIketty suggests a number of additional strategies for dealing with these issues, but his goal is not to provide a manifesto, but to consider a variety of options and to offer them up to feed the conversation. It is ultimately a matter for for democratic deliberation to determine which options to try. He broadly characterizes his framework as democratic socialism, with a strong redistributive welfare system, but without the state ownership and controls found in communist countries, which led directly to terrible authoritarian abuses. 

There is a lot more in this book than I can meaningfully cover in a short review, but this at least suggests some of the major arguments. I found it extremely useful and persuasive, and, like his other works, very well written.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Piketty but were daunted by the subject matter or length of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this might be a better way to check out his thinking. It is written with the layperson in mind in articulate, accessible prose. And if you’re daunted by the scope of challenges facing the world, it is refreshing to get a sense of how far we’ve already come, and to take stock of what we’ve already managed to do. 

As a final personal note, I’ll say that the challenges posed by inequality and sustainability are severe, but they’re the right problems for our historical moment, because ultimately they are problems about how we exist together, for the first time, as a global community. In a very real way, these problems amount to how we are going to treat each other and the world we live in. There is an opportunity here for us to collectively create an unprecedented framework for co-existence with an emphasis on fairness and stewardship. And if that sounds impossible, well, the progressive income tax was once thought impossible, too. 


Written by Mesocosm

July 13, 2022 at 5:44 am

Posted in History, Politics

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Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”

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Before I begin on Hegel, I want to note that Terry Pinkard’s recent translation of this work is a vast improvement over the previous standard translation by A. V. Miller. It is better, more readable, closer to the original, and more consistent, and should be heavily preferred. I do not agree with every choice Pinkard makes – for example, rendering “die Sache selbst” as “the crux of the matter,” his dubious rendering of “Bildung” as “cultural formation,” or his somewhat distracting rendering of “überhaupt” as “full stop” – but when his translation makes a contestable choice, he nearly always calls it out in footnotes, and includes a valuable translation glossary.

Photo of Hegel's grave, Berlin
Hegel’s grave in Berlin, a two-minute walk from my first office in the city

Now on to Hegel.

I have tried to read this book many times before, and have always been blocked by Hegel’s prose, which is atrocious, at times because of the nature of the subject matter, but most often because of his penchant for impenetrable jargon, and most especially, because he very rarely tells you what he’s doing, or what he’s even talking about. For example, when he tells you that the spirit has projected itself back into indeterminacy driven by its newly-adopted ironic stance, it is left entirely to you to figure out that he’s talking about the society of manners that prevailed at the Valois court of France, and never once uses the words “Valois” or “France.” And that is how the book is written.

It is wearisome, and it is my belief that this book is literally incomprehensible without the assistance of commentary – either that, or spend 10 years on it. I myself relied heavily on four commentaries, by Terry Pinkard, J. M. Bernstein, Walter Kaufmann, and Charles Taylor, and availed myself of many additional articles, essays, and references, and I believe that is about what is minimally necessary to have a sense of it. I would warn against using a single commentary, because the more sources you use, the more you understand the various ways that Hegel has been understood, and especially the degree to which every key term and idea in this book has been contested.

I would add that before beginning I had read Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant’s three Critiques, Goethe and Schiller, Fichte and Schelling, Heidegger and Derrida. If, armed with that background, I was incapable of understanding Hegel without considerable assistance, it raises real questions about who exactly he thought he was writing for.

The narrator of Proust’s Remembrance observed that people tend to think that geniuses are like everybody else, only with some additional power or faculty grafted on to their otherwise-normal person, sort of like they have a third arm or eye. In fact, he reflects, people are generally misshapen or even deranged by genius in ways that make them intolerable to other people. I thought of this several times reading Hegel, wondering if it is possible he could have found a better language for his ideas, while remaining who he was.

I dwell on this aspect of the book for two reasons. First, it is a fact of the book that will continually confront any reader who dares to attempt to plumb its depths, and they must be prepared. Second, it is unfortunately part of the book’s negative legacy. Hegel helped inaugurate certain obscure tendencies of style in Germany and France that have haunted philosophy to this day.

So why read it at all, then? For myself, the answer is, I found after long years of trying to avoid it that Hegel remains at the center of many corners of the Great Conversation that I want to be in on, and it increasingly occurred to me as a great hole in my education. And I was not wrong – now that I have read it, I have recognized just how colossal his influence is, and it has turned up in places where I didn’t expect to find it. For example, it seems to me that Nietzsche owes a great debt to Hegel in his historical treatment of philosophy, and readers of Nietzsche may be surprised to find the phrase “God is dead” in the Phenomenology. And Jürgen Habermas, whom I have long thought of as largely a Kantian-type cosmopolitan, I now see as equally influenced by Hegel’s work in his theory of communicative action.

And so I set out to cross the sunless sea of this book, armed with commentaries, about which a word is essential.

As far as I can make out, Hegel interpretation in the last 40 years in the English-speaking world has been primarily divided into two camps, based largely, I would argue, on how they understand the idea of “spirit.” The older camp is dominated by Charles Taylor, and its primary commitment is the belief that the spirit is something “real”, a kind of self-positing collective consciousness that knows itself by virtue of individuals, who are its instruments or means of knowing. Essentially, spirit is a kind of semi-secularized stand-in for deity in a neo-pantheistic or neo-romantic interpretation of culture and the world.

The second camp is often referred to as Neo-Kantian in the literature, though I’m not sure which figures would actually claim that term. It seems to include Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, Paul Redding, and J. M. Bernstein, the latter of whom has referred to his own reading of Hegel as “deflationary.” This approach regards spirit not as a kind of super-being, but more like the totality of what human beings do with respect to the intersubjective character of their lives and experience, and particularly how they collectively deliberate about the basis of their own consciousness, intersubjectivity, and sense of meaning through art, philosophy, and religion.

I was surprised to come down rather strongly on the Neo-Kantian side of this issue, although I was initially skeptical. Certainly one advantage that the Neo-Kantians have is that their commentary is much clearer and more useful than that of the Taylor camp. I found Taylor’s classic study of Hegel, for example, to not be very useful or well-written, though one thing I did really admire was Taylor’s insistence on the importance of Herder for situating Hegel’s thought. I think this is quite correct, and that a serious reappraisal of Herder’s value and influence is past-due.

Detail from "Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers" by Johan Christian Dahl
Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers (detail), Johan Christian Dahl

Based on my own careful reading of Phenomenology, I believe spirit is in fact something like a faculty – specifically, the faculty that enables and requires human cognition to function intersubjectively. As to the question of its ontological status, in my view, spirit is analogous to a language, which, on one level, it is nothing more than the sum total of practices and capabilities of its actual speakers, but we nonetheless have a strong concept of language as if it had its own autonomous being. It would be hard to conceive of language without that conceit – we want to say, for example, that German verb tenses are easier to learn than English verb tenses, as if German is a “thing,” even if we don’t believe that German is somehow floating around “out there”.

Indeed, as J. M. Bernstein correctly insists, one of the whole points of Hegel’s thought is that we have to jettison any concept of the transcendent, which Hegel continually refers to as a contentless “other-worldly beyond,” and identifies as one of the most destructive bad ideas that has haunted the history of philosophy. Hegel wants to drive us out of the cloud-cuckoo land of the thing-in-itself and back into historical actuality, because the very idea of the transcendent keeps us locked in what he calls the “inverted world,” in which we insanely insist that what is least real is in fact what is most real, and vice versa.

What does this mean? A key example may be found in Kant, who argues that the unknowable thing-in-itself ultimately serves as the basis for all experience. He thereby keeps us forever locked out of any satisfying possibility of getting at the truth, or of knowing the world as it is, because the thing-in-itself is forever unavailable. That is to say, what is most real, or the concrete actuality of our lived experience, is for Kant what is least real, and the most contentless of all possible concepts, the thing-in-itself, is what is actual.

This is the general structure that inevitably falls out of subject-object dualism, and the first half of Hegel’s book is largely focused on criticizing the structure of that dualism, which casts us back again and again into the inverted world and keeps us locked out of the possibility of truth. Hegel defines this problem as the situation of modern philosophy, ever since Descartes argued that epistemology is first philosophy, and that the foundation of philosophy is to understand how we reconstruct a mental image of the world and determine if those reconstructions are correct.

Hegel has two ways of dealing with this problem, and his solution constitutes one of his main contributions to philosophy. The first is to jettison the idea of the self as fundamentally a knower of objects out there in the world, and to replace it with an idea of human beings as actors, who live in a world that is given to them, and who know it not through consciousness of an external world, but through self-consciousness of their own lives. The second is to jettison the idea of subjective atomism and to argue – quite persuasively, I think – that human experience is fundamentally intersubjective; specifically, that all forms of experience are always already permeated by concepts, and that concepts are fundamentally intersubjective in their character.

In my reading, it is this intersubjective faculty that Hegel refers to as spirit, and this book, as we well know, is the phenomenology of spirit. Hegel uses the term “phenomenology” in a rather different way than later phenomenologists like Bergson and Husserl – he uses it to refer to the understanding of knowing as self-consciousness.

This conceptual analysis of self-consciousness is part of Hegel’s program for making philosophy “scientific,” by which he means that spirit will give a full account of itself to itself using concepts. It will turn out in his fascinating chapter on religion that Hegel believes spirit has always attempted to work out an understanding of itself through religion, using images and representations, and that this is in fact what religion is. Religion, however, cannot recognize that this is what it is actually doing. It serves the spirit as a procedure for collectively deliberating about itself – that is, on the very ways that we collectively define our own ultimate sources of authority and value and then take them as binding – but it thinks it is actually discovering a truly-existent transcendent basis for its value and existence, which it calls God or the gods, or what have you.

It is only by preserving the concept that spirit can reflect on the ways in which ultimate values are collectively posited without losing hold of what it is actually doing and becoming confused, and taking the representations for the thing itself, thereby getting lost in the inverted world. Hegel argues, and I agree, that this requires conceptual analysis, and that this very process itself has only recently become possible for human beings. Prior to, say, the 18th century, it was possible to deliberate in sophisticated ways on the nature of the ultimate, but it is only after the Enlightenment that we have been able to deliberate on these matters self-reflectively, instead of doing so from within the closed framework of a particular value system.

The two tasks of Hegel’s book, then, are to explicate the way that spirit comes to know itself, and to trace the evolution of its various historical forms or moments – to consider the various historically-bound shapes of spirit’s self-understanding – in order to see how it is that we have now arrived at the point where we are at last able to do this work self-reflectively for the first time, not only grasping the spirit, but grasping it through concepts, philosophically – or, in Hegel’s language, scientifically – so that the richness of its manifold content can be preserved and known, and not dissolved into some kind of generalalized fuzzy idea of an absolute that contains everything but explains nothing.

Viewed from one perspective, what Hegel is doing is philosophically anticipating what was about to happen in the nineteenth century, and providing an account of it in advance. I think even he would have been surprised by the degree to which the European tradition’s understanding of itself would, in the next 200 years, be taken over by psychology, anthropology, modern historiography, economics, sociology, and so forth – by all of the conceptual disciplines which have taken up the problems historically dealt with by narrative history and religion.

As to its uniqueness – if you believe, as I do, that Hegel is right in saying that Kant towers over Descartes, but nonetheless could be considered a kind of modification of Descartes, Hegel replaces the entire core structure of the problematic in a fundamental way, and in so doing gives us conceptual tools to bring to light various social, historical, and existential phenomena that would be extremely difficult to explicate using a prior framework. When Hegel begins his chapter on spirit half way through the book, we suddenly see the payoff – how easy it is for him to talk about phenomena like social movements, politics, world views, religion, and the history of ideas, which you could address from a strictly Kantian framework only with great difficulty. I think this can be seen by a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where he begins pushing in that direction, and you can feel the whole fabric of his approach straining with the difficulty of managing to provide an account for complex phenomena.

I have seen countless versions of what I would call a perennial philosophy, which says we’re all islands of structured consciousness on a sea of the inchoate absolute. Hegel decidedly does not provide yet another version of that account, because consciousness, for him, is intersubjective, and because the impossibility of fully grasping the ultimate is not because it is transcendent, but because it unfolds historically, over time, and it must be comprehended in its totality of forms, as the sum of its history. This argument is, to my knowledge, wholly new, and an astonishingly creative approach.

This is the shortest account I can give of what Hegel is up to in this book, and I think it suggests something of its novelty. It has been called a Bildungsroman of consciousness-as-such, and not without good reason – it does in fact comprise an attempt to retrace the evolution of consciousness from within, as it were, and to apply a consistent phenomenological frame for explicating its various moments in terms of the larger project.

As much as I loathe Hegel’s style, this is a towering work of creative and philosophical genius, and one of the very greatest works of philosophy I have ever seen. His project and execution are staggeringly original, and terrifically exciting, and he gives an account that is wholly new and extremely productive. It has already deeply shaped my thinking, and I expect it will be one of my primary intellectual reference points for the rest of my life.

Written by Mesocosm

July 10, 2022 at 4:19 am

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews

“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates

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Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates knows a lot about climate change. He ought to, after investing more than a billion dollars over the last twenty year to help us get to the zero-emissions goal he believes we must reach. During that time, he’s met with top researchers, scientists, and policy makers, and has focused his own intellectual resources on understanding the problem and analyzing possible solutions. I was excited to read this book to see what I could learn from someone who has been in this fight for such a long time, and what I came away with was both useful and problematic.

Rebrandt engraving: Three Trees.
Three Trees, Rembrandt

First and foremost, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a primer that gives us a helpful conceptual framework for thinking about climate change.

Here’s an example: 51 billion tons. That’s the amount of greenhouse gases we need to stop adding to the atmosphere each year in order to reach zero emissions. And this is a really useful number to know. Now when you read about a new carbon capture technology that can remove 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere a year, you’re in a position to answer the question “Is that a lot?” A thousand tons of anything is a lot, but compared to what we’re pumping into the atmosphere every year, it’s a tiny fraction. With our handy reference figure, we know that this new capture technology could be a useful, but it’s probably not a game changer.

Of course it’s not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we produce – that’s an estimate from recent years, I think. Gates doesn’t tell us where he got this number, just that it’s based on the “latest available data.” (Our emissions go up almost every year, with 2021 being the largest emissions year in history.) I’d kind of like to know, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a pretty good number.

It’s also not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we’re producing – it’s carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). That’s a way of lumping together greenhouse gases of different strengths so they can be expressed as a single value. Take methane – it’s about 120 times more effective at capturing heat than carbon dioxide, so one ton of it is 120 tons of CO2e.

In short, the 51 billion tons figure is a useful approximation that masks the underlying variability and complexity. It is one of many such reference values we’re given to better understand the climate change conversation. This is something the book does really, really well. Some of the credit for this probably goes to Gates’s writing partner Josh Daniel (uncredited on the cover but given a shout-out in the acknowledgements). This is a very well-crafted book.

What else do we come away with? Well, the book breaks down what creates greenhouse gases:

  • Electricity (27%)
  • Manufacturing and construction (31%)
  • Agriculture and land use (19%)
  • Transportation (16%)
  • Cooling and heating (7%)

You may be surprised to learn that more greenhouse gases are produced by manufacturing than by electricity production or transport – producing steel and concrete are the main culprits here. Making one ton of steel means creating about two tons of CO2, and we produce a lot of steel – in the US, tons of it per person, every year.

Each sector gets its own chapter, in which Gates walks us through the landscape, looking at where the greenhouse gases come from and what, if anything, can be done about it.

So what’s his plan? In short, his answer is to innovate, invest, and develop on a huge scale. What we need is new technologies that can not only meet our existing needs, but address the markets for energy, manufacturing, and the rest that are projected to keep growing for the next several decades. Gates argues we have to meet those needs even as we move toward our goal of zero emissions.

One thing I liked about this book is that he gives a good sense of just how complicated any solution will have to be, at least in terms of the technology. For example, I was convinced by his argument that no single solution can provide enough renewable energy to meet our power needs. Instead of focusing on a silver bullet, we need to look for comprehensive sets of solutions, including intermediate solutions to meet our needs as we go.

The book provides a useful survey of the state of the technology in all of the major sectors he has identified, along with an assessment of the likely prospects and the gambles that could pay off but will probably come to nothing. His main point is we need to be investing in all of it, a lot more than we do now, and he has a lot of opinions on which options we should be pursuing, and why.

Now, this is a good place to segue into my criticisms of the book.

In focusing overwhelmingly on technology and investment, Gates has a lot of faith in market-based solutions to the climate crisis. In effect, he argues that we don’t have to fundamentally change the industrial, economic, or political conditions of the world – we just need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in high-tech ventures over many years to solve these problems. And not only do we not need to change our current habits, he argues, but it would be unethical to address climate change by radically rethinking our current model of growth and consumption. Everyone in the world should have the same basic rights to the kinds of security and comfort such development allows.

For example, in his chapter on electricity, we read:

[E]ven more people should be getting and using electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the population has reliable power at home. And if you don’t have access to any electricity at all, even a simple task like recharging your mobile phone is difficult and expensive. You have to walk to a store and pay 25 cents or more to plug your phone into an outlet, hundreds of times more than people pay in developed countries.

Now, wait just a minute. Of course we don’t want to lock the poorest people in the world into material deprivation. But some quick internet research tells me that in 2010, residents of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) used an average of 514 kilowatt-hours of energy per year, compared to 6,264 kilowatt-hours in the EU, and 13,395 in the US. You could quadruple energy consumption in the poorest parts of Africa and still use a fraction of what is being used in the United States today, per capita.

And this is an important point – agreeing that the developing world should have greater access to electricity and resources is not the same as agreeing that consumption patterns in the developed world do not need to change. But every time the question of reducing consumption comes up, Gates argues that it wouldn’t be right to do so because it would be unfair to the developing world. He treats those two claims as equivalent throughout the book, and this is a serious problem – at best, it’s deeply misleading.

Glossing over this distinction particularly raises questions when the author has personally invested a fortune in these speculative technologies. Rather than adjusting use patterns that have led us to a global crisis, he consistently favors investment in the precisely the kind of enterprise that equipped him with one of the world’s largest fortunes. The words “reduce” or “recycle” scarcely appear in this book, except in a passing comment in which Gates notes that he used to think trying to reduce consumption at all was pointless, but now has come to think there may be some benefit to it.

For what it’s worth, the IPCC, the gold-standard body for climate research, stated in their most recent Synthesis Report (AR5):

Efficiency enhancements and behavioural changes, in order to reduce energy demand compared to baseline scenarios without compromising development, are a key mitigation strategy in scenarios reaching atmospheric CO2-eq concentrations of about 450 to about 500 ppm by 2100 (robust evidence, high agreement). … Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns (e.g., mobility demand and mode, energy use in households, choice of longer-lasting products) and dietary change and reduction in food wastes.

One could argue that this criticism is unfair, since Gates has personally invested so much time, energy, and money in addressing global poverty. But it is precisely because of his public role as a philanthropist that some of these dissonances resonate in such a sour key.

Given that he is clearly genuinely concerned with global poverty, for example, why does he never meaningfully address the question of who should pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars of investments he ask for? The plan sounds plainly regressive to me, to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds to back public-private partnerships and R&D, a lot of which will go on to enrich private companies. It could easily lead to a situation in which some of the companies that have profited the most from carbon emissions in the first place would shoulder a relatively small burden in paying for the solution, which would be distributed across tax payers.

Gates mostly prefers to set aside questions of politics, policy, and financing, to focus on technical solutions. I can certainly understand why. Why shouldn’t he, when the status quo has served him so well? It’s also an ugly, complex topic, and he presumably doesn’t want to add fuel to the partisan fire, or to alienate the same future administrations he’ll be asking for money to do this work in years ahead.

But it’s not obvious to me that a serious stakeholder in the climate debate has the right to opt out of the relevant economic and political questions, not least because they have immediate, concrete relevance. During an administration that bans discussion of climate change, most of his proposals would be non-starters.

Gates is concerned about climate change, but I’m not convinced that he’s concerned enough. The IPCC Synthesis Report also states:

Stabilizing temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels will require an urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual [emphasis added]. Moreover, the longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost and the greater the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges we will face.

This is consistent with the tone I see among scientists and journalists who specialize in the problem – major changes are needed now, including rethinking the way we think about consumption and growth.

So it concerns me to see Gates write things like this:

Science tells us that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, rich countries should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. You’ve probably heard people say we should decarbonize deeply even sooner – by 2030.

Unfortunately, for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this book, 2030 is not realistic. Considering how fundamental fossil fuels are in our lives, there’s simply no way we’ll stop using them widely within a decade.

It’s true, I have heard people say we should decarbonize deeply by 2030 – namely, the IPCC scientists who warned that if we want to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C , our emissions will have to peak before 2025, and to be reduced by 43% by 2030.

Do we care about keeping the increase under 1.5°C? How much worse would it be to get to 2°C? Well, according to Scientific American, 2.0°C instead of 1.5 “could spell the difference between the Arctic being ice-free once a decade and once a century; between coral reefs being almost entirely wiped out and up to 30 percent hanging on; and between a third of the world’s population being exposed to extreme heat waves and a tenth.”

Whether or not our reduction targets are achievable is a fair question, but I think Gates is soft-selling the urgency of the problem. I don’t believe he mentions plants or animals in this book at all, except in the context of farming, but coral reefs are home to 25% of ocean wildlife species. There are urgent questions about our moral responsibility to life on this planet, as well as practical questions about the viability of human civilization as we know it if the major ecosystems around us collapse.

How much are we willing to change in order to avoid these kinds of outcomes? So far, looking at what goes on the in world, the collective answer appears to be “not very much.” As David Wallace-Wells noted, in 2020 there was not a single country that was on track to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. In the last two weeks, Germany blocked EU plans to eliminate internal-combustion car engines in the Union by 2035, the EU moved to classify nuclear power and natural gas as a “green,” and the US Supreme Court ruled on West Virginia et al. vs. the EPA.

At the end of the day, Bill Gates is who he is – he’s a philanthropic tech billionaire who has done a lot of good, and in my opinion that includes writing this book. I believe there are real problems with it, but they are mostly sins of omission, and if we need a range of technological solutions to help us fight climate change, surely we also need a diversity of opinions and emphases in the coalition of those who take the fight seriously. We have to critically engage with ourselves and with one another, but at the end of the day, Gates is on the side of taking climate change seriously and taking it on, and he puts his money where his mouth is. This is a useful book, and it could change some minds in the right way.

Written by Mesocosm

July 8, 2022 at 6:19 am

Posted in Climate, Reviews