Let’s get one thing out of the way. Everyone claims to want to help poor people, poor countries, the sick, children, old people, and other vulnerable populations. Everyone claims to want to help everyone live longer, healthier lives. Nobody claims to want to hurt the vulnerable. After you hear enough heavy polluters say it, you recognize it as empty rhetoric to make themselves feel better and disarm opponents. The question is their behavior and its effects, not their fantasies. People can say they want to help and believe in their hearts they are while wrecking the lives of people and their communities.
I believe Bill Gates believes he wants to help the poor when he says, “The cruel injustice is that even though the world’s poor are doing essentially nothing to cause climate change, they’re going to suffer the most from it” and “Eventually it sank in. The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases. Now the problem seemed even harder. It wasn’t enough to deliver cheap, reliable energy for the poor. It also had to be clean.” I believe Milton Friedman genuine believed his free market idealism would help the poor the most, that a rising tide would lift all boats, but they and their peers’ way of “helping” them is what they think will help them, not what will.
Bill Gates also says “I don’t think it’s realistic to say that people are utterly going to change their lifestyle because of concerns about climate.” When he does, he’s talking about himself. He doesn’t want to change.
When Gates and his peers talk about people living on under two dollars a day, they are talking about two groups of people, though they may not realize it.
One group is indigenous. I can’t speak for them, but I can convey what I’ve learned from them. I recently attended a workshop led by native Americans teaching about their traditional ways. They weren’t teaching for the fun of it. They wanted to pass on ways of living that steward the land. After centuries of colonial slaughter and destruction, they not only maintain their ways as best they can, they promote them. They live within the United States borders and see what it offers, but its disadvantages too. They aren’t stupid. They could change their lifestyles Bill Gates considers unrealistic for people to change from. They don’t. They prefer theirs, even after countless broken treaties, massacres, Trails of Tears, and boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”
All the guests on my podcast who lived among indigenous cultures describe them trying to hang on despite colonial destruction. Those guests have lived among the San in the Kalahari Desert, the Hadza in Tanzania, the Tsimane in Bolivia, the Kogi in Colombia, and more, sometimes for over a decade.
The people in those cultures aren’t stupid. They know what assimilation would bring them: our medicine, cars, and LEDs to read by at night. Some accept those things, but for centuries they have resisted. They aren’t ignorant either. They see the whole picture of our polluting culture. With our medicine and cars comes isolation from community, obesity, ignorance of nature, disconnection from land and nature, cultural monotony, and things that make life worth living.
Again, I can’t speak for anyone but me, but I think most impoverished cultures want their land back as much as anything, and not denuded and wrecked with waste from people like Gates, who builds and fuels his plane, yachts, and large houses with materials extracted from their land, not his, often by their children. Watch the documentaries about the Kogi by podcast guest Alan Ereira: they see what we’re doing and want to help save us and nature from ourselves. They’ve visited Google’s headquarters and shopped at our malls. If one of their culture or ours is ignorant and stupid for being unwilling to change, I suggest it isn’t the ones who have lived for up to hundreds of thousands of years.
To clarify, Gates wants them to change to be like him, but they don’t want to live like him. Who has more wealth?
If our polluting culture is so abundant, why do we take their land and minerals?
If our polluting culture is so desirable, why do we kill so many people and cultures? Why would they resist at all?
If our main cultural values date back a few centuries, to when profit and growth began to displace the Golden Rule, Stewardship, and Common Decency, and reasonable projections show ours risking collapse, who are we to try to teach them? What could we learn from them instead of imposing on them?
Generations ago, colonists took over indigenous cultures with guns and other violent, deadly means of wiping them out. Today, we wipe them out more effectively with addiction. We offer them what addicts us: cell phones, solar panels to power them, and doof.
We are addicted and imposing on them our addiction, taking their land in the process. Do we want to help them or open them to our markets to profit from them?
I learned of a program to bring the Hadza “food aid,” mainly refined flour and refined oil. One person who lived among them described the first obese Hadza he’d ever seen—in a culture that eats straight honey, just not provided in large sacks.
People long before me identified that addiction is slavery. Of the two groups making under two dollars a day, I propose another name for indigenous. As long as they remain unaddicted, they are not dependent on us. In other words, they are independent and free.
Why do we send people who have sustainably lived off the land for millennia doof? Because we have taken their land, leaving them less than the minimum they need to live on. Then they, like countless cultures before them, become dependent, lose their culture, and become assimilated into our polluting culture.
These assimilated people are the second group of people making under two dollars a day. We have made them dependent on a global polluting culture that depends on extracting resources from other dependent people. Bill Gates doesn’t drill for oil in his back yard. On the contrary, he buys other people’s land, speculating like a gambling addict with yet another scheme.
Since we made them dependent, I agree with Gates and peers that we have an obligation to help them. Since we took from them, I suggest instead of giving them what we addicts want them to have, that we give them what they want, in particular their land back, if they want it. I doubt they want nuclear reactors and desalination plants.
In the United States, we look at over 300 million of us and can’t imagine what we would do with ourselves. At the very least, we could begin by protecting and expanding lands of what independent, free cultures remain. We might also look at ourselves and our selfish refusal to change.
When we Americans, whose culture rests on having destroyed countless people and cultures, say, effectively, “What’s done is done. Sure, we want to help, but what can we do,” I can’t help but recall a scene in the Martin Scorcese movie Goodfellas. The characters are organized criminals. On a call to tell the character played by Robert De Niro they killed his friend, the mob bosses say, “We had a problem. We tried to do everything we could. You know what I mean. He’s gone, and we couldn’t do nothing about it.”
De Niro’s character knows they mean they killed his friend, but can’t believe it. He asks, “What do you mean?”
They say, “He’s gone. He’s gone. That’s it.”
In the voiceover, the main character summarizes what happened since the mob bosses held all the power: “There was nothing we could do about it. . . We had to sit still and take it. . . It was real greaseball shit.”
What is taking their land and freedom, poisoning the land, and offering them nuclear reactors and addiction in return if not real greaseball shit?
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees