Bill Gates told on himself recently — and by extension the rest of the billionaire philanthropist club — as he waxed polemic over what he sees as humankind’s inability to lower greenhouse gas emissions through reduced consumption, i.e. degrowth. “I don’t think it’s realistic to say that people are utterly going to change their lifestyle because of concerns about climate,” he recently said on Bloomberg’s “Zero” podcast — as if the issue were simply a matter of a few inconvenient weather patterns.
But replace climate with the viability of Planet Earth, and it becomes painfully evident that this callous disregard for our one and only home reflects not on what humanity is capable of, but rather the degree to which the billionaire class is threatened by the undeniable need for immediate degrowth in the Global North.
Conveniently omitting that much of the world’s population is too poor to subsist on meat-heavy diets or live in oversized suburban homes, Gates blamed human desires and not rampant consumerism fomented by profit-centered growth for what he sees as our inability to scale back. “Anyone who says that we will tell people to stop eating meat, or stop wanting to have a nice house, and we’ll just basically change human desires, I think that that’s too difficult,” he said.
Instead, the billionaire is banking on technological solutions that he admits aren't even being developed today: "We're not even trying to make breakthroughs, such as inventing an economic way of making aviation fuel, cement or steel.” And while the U.N. sounds the alarm that it is now or never — emissions must be drastically reduced across all sectors in order to stop planet-wide catastrophe — Gates’ allegiance to the profit margin is not swayed even by his own observation: "The existing tools only apply to areas like electricity generation and don't apply to most of the emissions."
The climate crisis is already expected to cause at least 250,000 excess annual deaths between 2030 and 2050 while large swaths of land, including entire countries, are in danger of being swallowed up by rising seas this century. Humanity does not have time to wait on future technology. The most devastating effects of the climate crisis are and will continue to be inflicted on the parts of the world that release the fewest emissions.
Yet while those in the Global South stand to suffer the bulk of the consequences for overconsumption in the Global North, Gates’ statements suggest that he is unbothered as long as technology keeps the current economic system working in his favor. As he made clear, “I’m looking at what the world has to do to get to zero, not using climate as a moral crusade.” By denying moral culpability, the Global North can of course shirk responsibility for the most immediate effects of climate change while betting the future of our planet on technology that may or may not be invented in time to save us from ourselves — never mind what becomes of the southern hemisphere in the process.
It’s not just that the billionaire appears to be dismissing degrowth while projecting his own business motives as human nature, but he also admitted to shelling out $9 million annually to cover his own footprint while complaining about that very thing: “Just having a few rich countries, a few rich companies and a few rich individuals buy their way out so they can say they’re not part of the problem, that has nothing to do with solving the problem.”
That Gates and his fellow billionaires will continue to promote and profit from unsustainable lifestyles regardless of the environmental consequences — and all the while blaming the masses for their manufactured desires — should come as no surprise.
Billionaires are well aware of the threat that degrowth poses to their financial empires. For all the money they throw at the problem, and all of the accolades bestowed on them in kind, their interests remain in conflict with the planet and the majority of its inhabitants. We cannot rely on them to lead us out of a crisis created by the system that built their fortunes. There is a better way, and it doesn’t involve watching the rest of the planet flood and burn while billionaires declare, “Let them eat meat.”
Image credit: Nick Karvounis via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.