Bill Gates has a new book about climate change.
Now, I care deeply about climate change. So here’s a question: What does Gates, whose 66,000 square foot mansion features a 60-foot swimming pool, six kitchens, and a dining hall large enough for 200 people, have to offer about solving climate change if he doesn’t start with scaling down his own lifestyle?
Gates owns multiple large properties — including mansions, horse farms, and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland — and the harm they pose to the climate is made worse by the greenhouse gases emitted when he flies between each of them on his private jet.
Gates offers a number of technical solutions to carbon emissions. But many are far behind what the modern environmental movement is demanding — and some involve pushing the government to support not-so-green enterprises, like nuclear power, that he’s personally invested in. (He adds that he’ll look for more “sustainable jet fuel.”)
Yet Gates is only one of many ultra-wealthy figures who envision themselves as environmental leaders and social reformers despite being leading sources of pollution and other social problems themselves.
In his book Billionaire Wilderness, Yale sociologist Justin Farrell attributes billionaires’ charitable impulses to “the anxiety induced by being the source and symbol of deep inequality in the community — and in the nation as a whole.”
These billionaires, Farrell explains, often use philanthropy to increase their own wealth while providing only marginal benefits to society, often increasing inequality around them — all while patting themselves on the back.
Before Gates there was the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded causes like global health and agriculture beginning in the early 20th century. As Bruce H. Jennings points out, the Rockefeller Foundation only funded projects consistent with the type of unfettered capitalism that allowed John D. Rockefeller to make outsized profits while others starved in the first place.
Those who take such an approach often frame their work as apolitical and scientific, but it often benefits a certain privileged slice of the spectrum. The Rockefeller-funded Green Revolution, for example, produced seeds that were designed to provide high yields — but only when coupled with costly, purchased inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. Wealthier farmers could take advantage of them in ways the poor could not.
Even when they mean well, philanthropists can be remarkably insulated and short-sighted. When I visited Kenya to learn more about the Gates Foundation’s work there, what was stunning was the mismatch between the types of solutions the Gates Foundation was offering and the actual needs of the people I met.
Critics of billionaire philanthropy offer a simpler solution to environmental and social problems: democracy.
Instead of funding only the projects that a single billionaire esteems worthy, democracy gives us publicly funded scientific institutions, designed to empower a multiplicity of voices instead of just one. It allows the entire population to set our collective priorities together and then act on them.
Democracy recognizes that solutions for all of us need input from all of us. No matter how well-intentioned billionaire philanthropy may be — and as long as the billionaires at the helm only craft solutions that protect their own lifestyles and profits, that part is doubtful — the results of their philanthropy will always be limited.
*Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.