Op/Ed Fridays: Challenges in helping the planet even if you’re the world’s richest person

November 15, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

Wired Magazine recently published a piece by Bill Gates called “Here’s My Plan to Improve Our World — And How You Can Help.”

He wrote

40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia. Another example: Polio cases are down more than 99 percent in the past 25 years, not because the disease is going away on its own but because Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk invented polio vaccines and the world rolled out a massive effort to deliver them.

Thanks to inventions like these, life has steadily gotten better.

More people living doesn’t necessarily mean people living better lives. In a finite world with limits to growth, relaxing one bottleneck only leads to the next bottleneck.

I use the term limits to growth in reference to the book Limits To Growth, which strongly informs my perspective and I recommend to others as particularly relevant here. It offers a systems perspective necessary to create effective strategies to help everyone in the context of a finite planet.

I have to distinguish between improving the lives of people while they’re living and enabling more people to live by, say, creating more food. Reducing suffering caused by disease undoubtedly improves people’s lives, but increasing the population without the ability to provide everyone resources doesn’t. We know that simply having enough resources for everyone doesn’t mean everyone will get enough resources. In the latter case, how we distribute resources matters and that’s a social issue, not technical. Trying to solve social issues with technology doesn’t work that well.

Changing social patterns is harder. Capitalism is great at increasing the pie, but poor at distributing it to those without capital. Famines often come in times of adequate, even increased food production. Famines often happen with large food stockpiles rotting near people starving. We haven’t learned how to feed everyone without depriving people who own the means of production of their rights, among other challenges.

Increasing food production alone has the effect of growing the population and the non-effect of not changing the distribution of food. While I applaud his optimism and support for reducing suffering from disease and supporting education, his example of synthetic ammonia and similar efforts describe helping create a world with similar fraction of people suffering versus happy, just more of them. And accelerating toward limits to growth, some of which we can’t overcome with technology. We risk shortages of clean fresh water, polluted air, poison and pollution throughout our environment, loss of biodiversity, shortages of fish, rising sea levels, runaway global warming, and so on.

I have a friend who values expansion. He says more people is simply better. To me, a greater happiness to suffering ratio matters more.

You could suggest that enabling more people to live through technological changes to food production plus improving lives by reducing disease improves the world, but you don’t need the increased food supply for the benefit of reduced diseases. Figuring out how to distribute food without waste might decrease the fraction of suffering in the world, but markets don’t achieve that goal and many argue diverging from market-based systems deprives people of rights of ownership and profit motive to create.

Bill Gates, in particular, made his fortune charging for software that had zero marginal cost to distribute — that is, the same system that made him rich deprived many people of the ability to use what his company created. More to the point, he and his company lobbied to increase their ability to protect their ownership, exacerbating the effect. No matter how many free or cheaper copies they distributed, they changed the system that leads to deprivation accompanying surplus. Arguing his company needed that protection to create the products it did implies food producers need similar protections if they expect to use technology. They use the laws Gates helped create. Incidentally, I don’t accept that argument — I use almost exclusively software created without such protections — which undermines such claims.

If you challenge the belief that the planet has limits to growth or even that we’re near any, I recommend the excellent blog Do the Math, which looks at physical consequences to growth by a Caltech-trained physicist. I also recommend it if you like reading thoughtful, intelligent blogs by knowledgeable people who do the math behind what they talk about.

Do I offer alternatives?

What would I do if I had his resources?

I don’t pretend to answer authoritatively. I’m writing more to generate thought and discussion than to imply any final word.

I have no criticism of efforts to decrease suffering of living people, as in fighting suffering from diseases, though I don’t expect we can ever stop all diseases, nor get around the inevitability of death.

I don’t see value in getting around bottlenecks to population growth like food production since I don’t see how it increases the ratio of happiness to suffering and misery.

I see value in efforts to increase the ratio of happiness to suffering and misery. For the biggest, most long-term challenges that only people with the most resources can help, that governments can’t help with, besides fighting suffering from diseases, I see the most value in efforts that limit the motivation to increase the population. These efforts are still modest, but politically challenging, like education, especially for women, access to birth control, research into economics that doesn’t require population growth, and teaching people skills beyond what they can use to sell their labor but to create their own happiness and emotional reward.

I would argue to reverse the trend Bill Gates helps lead to increase patent and copyright protection. Many point out it increases production and lowers costs, which I agree. It not only doesn’t improve distribution. Yes, many people today live materially like kings from past generations, but people still starve in the street in the shadows of luxury high-rises. That’s distribution, which production doesn’t resolve.

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