Loose affiliation of billionaires and moratorium babies
Bill and Melinda Gates are getting a lot of unwelcome attention. They are bearing the brunt of the Guardian’s otherwise well-meaning fossil-fuels divestment campaign.
To paint Bill and Melinda Gates the face of divestment reluctance is a bit rich. For starters, unlike the Guardian, Bill Gates gets energy. That is why Gates puts his money and his time where his mouth is, into energy innovation generally, and fourth-generation nuclear power in particular.
Gates became the United States’ richest man through his vision of putting a computer on every desk, back in the days when the few firms that had them needed a large room to house just one. So folk might have imagined that a Microsoft-style energy world would be of a power plant on every roof. So, either Gates has morphed into some delusional, Simpsons-esque tycoon, or he has a better grip on subject than that other Bill, Bill ‘do the math’ McKibben, who claims that nuclear power is too expensive. Tell that to China, which, fortunately for the realistic prospects of phasing out fossil fuel use, is currently operating 22 reactors, building 27, planning 60, and proposing a further 82. Arguably, the failure of the United States to emulate France and rapidly phase out fossil-fueled electricity generation decreased its manufacturing sector’s competitiveness, losing most of it to China, where coal could be burnt uninhibited by inconvenient government air quality legislation. But to acknowledge the need for nuclear power is to invoke the wrath of both the anti-nuclear and the pro-photovoltaic, and to question photovoltaic’s potential to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions is heresy.The divestment campaign that Bill McKibben champions is assuredly providing bad press for the fossil-fuel behemoths, but, unlike the apartheid divestment campaign that involved a boycott goods from South Africa, it doesn’t ask its adherents to stop using, or benefitting from, petroleum products, thus divestment doesn’t effect big oil’s profitability. An apartheid-style boycott, including of products made of, or with the assistance of, petroleum, would be impracticable, given that it would implicate pretty much everything done or used by the three quarters of the planet’s population who are other than the small-farm dwellers of developing countries—but even for all-too-many of those, a petrochemical-based jerrycan to carry water can be the difference between life and death.
Bill and Melinda Gates also receive virulent attacks claiming their charitable foundation is intent on depopulating Africa. Given that, at last count, less than 3.5% of their foundation’s grant money goes to family planning, whereas more than a quarter goes to global health, if depopulation is their plan, the Gates are sure going about it funny. At the same time, the foundation is crucified for not speaking out about the need for greater access to abortion services. Between them, and by a country mile, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren ‘the Wizard of Omaha’ Buffet are the most generous philanthropists in the world—83% of the latter’s fortune, and a like amount leveraged by it, has gone into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With a fraction of Bill Gate’s resolve, World powers could have long-since banished global poverty. The extraordinary danger now is that, with the developed World largely inured of scenes of famine on a grotesque scale, the increasingly global-warming-caused famines will largely be perceived as more of the same, and the fault, rather than the cause, of failed states.
The hysterical reaction to the Gates foundation’s modest funding of family planning globally—19 times more public spending goes on family planning within the United States—highlights the extreme sensitivity to any suggestion of human overpopulation. But not only is it self-evident that the carrying capacity of the planet is finite, and is already massively exceeded, it is now clear that a breeding moratorium is the only means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently quickly to avert a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale and suffering. While there is no precedent for a global breeding moratorium, there are numerous developments, many of them technology-driven, and not least of all the rise of celebrity culture, that suggest contemporary civilisation could transform, rather than collapse as did the 23 civilisations studied by Motesharreia et al. That is not to underestimate the difficulties in overcoming hard-wired, fundamental imperative to reproduce. But viewed objectively, it might be reasonable to imagine that, adequately framed as the one shot Homo sapiens sapiens has to dodge extinction due to runaway global warming, a social paradigm shift worthy of the term could well occur.
The reason the Gates foundation, and almost every other organisation involved in the field, refers to contraception as family planning suggests that rather than emphasise the missing babies, the emphasis must be on the planned babies, the moratorium babies. These babies would be the first to not know famine. The first to not know poverty. The first to not be brought up in households without electric lighting and clean water. Moratorium children would all have access to free education, and through to tertiary level—on the basis of capacity rather than the ability to pay. Moratorium children would grow up with the support of networks of family and friends and mentors. They would be wanted and valued like children of no previous generation, and would never experience the bleakness of those recent ones that neoliberalism has made to feel surplus to requirements, particularly in respect to employment—such as New Zealand’s shameful youth unemployment statistics, particularly for Māori and Pasifika.
It was always obvious that, sooner or later, the film world, even Hollywood, would get global warming. The only question was whether it would be in time to massively help turn the tide of public opinion in favour of meaningful climate action, or to merely cash in on the ensuing mayhem and misery. Signs are that the year has proved to be 2015, with Cannes concluding with a call-to-arms. The real danger now is that mainstream filmmakers will be no better informed than the mainstream media about the enormity of the task of abruptly weaning the World off fossil fuels. If all Hollywood was to achieve was to ossify public opinion on a pro-photovoltaic, anti-nuclear response, it would be preferable for the planet that the industry continued to sit the issue out. Instead, films could eloquently illustrate how green business-as-usual would see the well-off hunkered down in Tesla Powerpack-protected, gated communities, faring nicely while the masses, left on the outside, lost access to once-cheap grid power, and alternatively sweltered in heat waves and froze in blizzards caused by an increasingly erratic jet stream.
Films depicting societies where global warming greatly widens the already yawning, neoliberal-induced wealth gap, could be leavened by glimpses of a country that dared to challenge green dogma and built carbon-free, hydro- and nuclear-powered electrified infrastructure. Where every large town and city boasted municipal hot pools that would have been the envy of the Romans. Where people learned to find happiness within walking and cycling—or horse-riding—distance from their homes, without the need to first jet to warmer latitudes, at grotesque greenhouse-gas-emission cost. Spoiler alert: There is no prospect of technology, beyond the electrification of airports, that will allow for guilt-free air travel. As Professor David MacKay puts it in his indispensable Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air :
Planes unavoidably have to use energy for two reasons: they have to throw air down in order to stay up, and they need energy to overcome air resistance. No redesign of a plane is going to radically improve its efficiency. A 10% improvement? Yes, possible. A doubling of efficiency? I’d eat my complimentary socks.
For all the enthusiasm for technological change, for the next big thing, and for sci-fi generally, few films are impressive at visualising the near future. Many, and pretty much all sci-fi, films rely on technology that has yet to be developed, if it can be developed, rather than visualising the radically different world that could readily be built by implementing already proven technologies. A shimmering opportunity exists for Aotearoa both as the location for depictions of a post-fossil-fuels society, and to be that place. Unlike the overly politicised United States, which can be decidedly squeamish about some subjects, diminutive Aotearoa would be seen as non-threatening, and already has an enviable reputation as an exotic film location.
None of this can wait, of course, for those now in power, or otherwise likely to be so in the near term, given the current stranglehold of zombie politics:
Democracy can be rebuild, and from the ground up. Not only must it be, to be made fit-for-service to urgently undertake meaningful climate action, the escalating global climate emergency is providing the mandate and opportunity for a radical, truly participatory democracy to be built. The initial trump card is to demand concurrent elections—hard even for the hardest-nosed neoliberal to reject, given its potential to about halve the cost of elections. Ultimately though, the young hold all the cards, the minute they realise that by implementing a breeding moratorium, they will have the neoliberals on their knees, given how utterly dependent upon economic growth they are. The young can then ensure that the growth comes from radical climate action, and prey it is not too late to avert extreme global warming and extreme suffering.
Now add to that the universal appeal of tiny, and in number, moratorium babies.