How Bill Gates and the 1% can help the environment

May 10, 2020 by Joshua
in Leadership, Nature, psychologytoday

I posted the following to my Psychology Today blog:

Image courtesy

An article today, Bill Gates Thinks That The 1% Should Foot The Bill To Combat Climate Change, said, “Bill Gates believes that private investors should foot the bill for increased spending on technologies to fight global climate change. He has pledged to commit $2 billion himself.”

Does something strike you as disingenuous? Don’t Gates’s yachts, jets, and mansions burn through fossil fuels more than nearly anyone in history?

When one person’s actions matter

Before you say, “he’s only one person. He could only infect a few people, what’s that out of 7.7 billion?”, imagine him donating to fight covid-19 while meeting large groups of people without a face mask, coughing a lot without covering. Nobody would say, “he’s only one person. He could only infect a few people.”

We’d say he should practice what he preaches and set an example. No one would confuse the global insignificance of his personal effect with his ability to influence global behavior, particularly of other influential people. We’d question his credibility, telling others to act how he doesn’t.

Do well by doing good?

Anand Giridharadas crystallized the pattern in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World: people enrich themselves by contributing to a system causing a problem, then, when rich, give money to help people the problem hurt. Overall, beyond not stopping the problem, they exacerbate it while making themselves look good, at least to people who don’t see the pattern. They often label themselves with “doing well by doing good”, “double/triple/etc bottom line”, or “win-win”.

From a leadership perspective, Bill Gates sets a tone of profligate waste with his jets and mansions, promoting beliefs of growth and externalizing costs that create the behaviors causing our environmental problems.

His personal behavior influences the system and the behavior of the most influential people. Forget about his personal footprint. His status means that his behavior can change systemic beliefs. Few people can influence as much.

Seeing Gates distancing himself and wearing a mask, no matter how small his personal effect, would show his commitment and enable everyone up to his status to follow. This effect could create a greater effect than giving money. If he focused on how factory farming and encroaching on wildlife spaces caused viruses and germs to grow, mutate, and spread to humans, and then pledged to avoid factory-farmed meat, projects that encroached on wildlife territory, or initiatives that promoted population growth, his leadership could result in mainstream change in beliefs in behavior—that is, systemic change.

As it stands, his TEDx talk didn’t address preventing pandemics. Bailing out water from a boat with a leak helps, but you have to fix the leak. Our leak is that we’re breeding pathogens. Our runs on food included people buying tons of factory-farmed meat, accelerating the system that caused covid-19.

We are still producing new viruses and potential pandemics, for example:

How long before another pandemic-causing pathogen jumps to humans? We’re doing the same on climate and every other environmental problem, in particular, would-be leaders accelerating the system with their behavior while giving back a pittance of what they profited from driving the system.

What the 1% can do

Having reduced my environmental footprint by about 90%, finding it improved my life, I would guess Gates could reduce his by 99% before making difficult choices, likely improving his life, increasing his influence to reduce environmental problems. I talk about this pattern in my TEDx talk, People don’t want to do small things. They want to do meaningful things.

Can you imagine a world where the richest people polluted the least, not just gave money to change others in ways they don’t change themselves. Again, it’s tempting to say because he’s one person, his footprint is small. From a leadership perspective, he can influence the most influential people and potentially change systemic goals.

If he doesn’t reduce his waste, his supporting the beliefs driving the system will veto other efforts — that is, people who follow him will see jets and mansions as success. They’ll feel, “sure, I’ll skip straws and drive an electric car if you want me to, but really I want a jet and a huge mansion.” His current behavior promotes the Winners Take All pattern, which ultimately accelerates environmental problems.

No sacrifice required

The unexpected outcome no leader talks about is that living sustainably by values of stewardship, responsibility, and enjoying what you have is joyful, creates community, and creates connection, probably because no leader has tried to live sustainably. They haven’t tried so they haven’t experienced that joy, community, and connection, so they can’t speak about it. They can at least try.

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