Book Review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

I was originally going to skip this book. I had seen some of the sponsored videos from a number of the eco lifestyles Youtubers (and Legal Eagle) and I wasn’t interested. I don’t really like Bill Gates. I appreciate that he does a fuck ton more philanthropy than any other Billionaire, but I don’t think that makes him a hero.

I ended up watching an unsponsored book review by Kristen Leo. I really enjoyed it, and I would recommend you watch it. She complained about how much he talked about concrete and fertilizer. Hi, my name is Zoe. My interests include knitting, crochet, concrete, and fertilizer. 

So I placed a hold on the book at the library, since I don’t think Bill needs my $. And here we are.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

Right off the bat, the introduction and a large majority of this book is pretty pretentious. Gates was talking about how, in 2015, people were asking him to disinvest in oil and he was like ‘nah’ until 2019. And we are supposed to be impressed that he did it? (Also, I don’t know when in 2019. It’s possible he saw Covid-19 spreading in China and dumped his oil stocks, anticipating a price crash due to possible shut downs. However, I have zero evidence to back that up.) Either way, although he does do a lot of charity and investments in riskier start ups, the dude is a product of ~Capitalism~.

So don’t get fooled by the fact that Billy Boy looks like your coworker who will try to dance in the lunchroom the latest Fortnight dance his grandkids taught him. He likely dumped his oil stocks because he suspected they would lose value, or because he was writing a book about the Climate and it would be bad public relations if he was still invested in oil at that point. I don’t know for sure, but I really wasn’t as impressed by this story of him not doing the bad thing as I think he was.

It was also weird how proud he sounded in the first few chapters about not being interested nor wanting to invest in green projects for a number of years, yet would attend meetings with experts. I just don’t understand the logic of why he would waste everyone’s time like that. Those experts and the likes could have used that time to further their work or have meetings with actual possible investors.

Anyways…

At one point later in the book, he calls out myths of people who don’t want to disinvest from oil… seems a bit close to home, Bill. It seems an awful lot like what he was doing less than two years ago.

Let’s move on beyond the introduction of the book. The tone of the writing is incredibly weird. Maybe this would be better as an audiobook. The writing is very informal, so it might sound less wrong in audio form. The book is written like a white mommy blogger turned New York Times bestseller’s debut self-help book. It gets a tad less painful as the book progresses and he focuses on the topic at hand, but his weird writing style will surprise you throughout. Example: when he talks about farts in the chapter about cows and factory farming. He mentions farts, and talks about enjoying saying the word fart far more often than needed.

The cows are judging you Bill… – Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gates was right in commenting that reducing vehicle and air travel will not be the things that will stop emissions and prevent the Climate Crisis. This was proven last year when the world was as close to stopped as it will probably ever get. In 2020, global emissions dropped 5% – from around 51 to 48 billion equivalent tonnes of CO2. 

The rest of the book goes into each of the largest polluting sectors and suggests some ideas or technological advances that may reduce emissions.

Given Gates’ background, it’s no surprise that the book is all about emerging tech that can hopefully solve all our problems. But maybe instead of improving our technology, we can also work on reducing our needs overall (when I say our, I mean developed countries that have benefited from all the activities that emit carbon).

Despite Kristin Leo mentioning that Gates talked about concrete for too long, I personally found the materials chapter (particularly concrete) too short and vague. He mentioned carbon capture a number of times throughout the book and never really explained what it is. He went into so much detail about nuclear fusion and fission (which was relevant for one chapter), but added no details about carbon capture, like what it is and how it could improve the energy and construction/concrete industries.

One of the things that horrified me the most in this book was the suggestion that if we are behind schedule on dropping emissions, the worst case scenario is that scientists can geo-engineer the clouds to artificially cool the earth, which could buy us a few extra years. He does then admit it’s a bad idea. IF IT’S A BAD IDEA, WHY IS IT IN YOUR BOOK?

This just reinforces my feeling about the book being detailed in areas that don’t matter and vague in areas that might.

My friend Lillian edited this post for me and pointed out that Gates probably added geo-engineering into the book to sound cool and he wants to reminds the reader that he’s smart and hip. I agree with her assessment.  

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

I really didn’t like the way they cited sources in this book, it’s not MLA or the style guides that have the numbers after the concept so you can easily find the source. The back of the book is just a list of the chapters and sources. Not very intuitive if you wanted to look into the things he discussed in more detail.

He rarely discussed lifestyle changes. This does make sense, since lifestyle change has the smallest of small impacts on emissions compared to industry. But even then, his lifestyle suggestions don’t even feel as strong as they should. I think the most he suggested was LED lights and reducing meat consumption. Also to lobby. In this section he mentioned that he used to underestimate the power of Lobbying and wished he did it sooner with Microsoft.

The government basically prevented him from creating a monopoly. He pretty much admitted in that chapter that he wished he used his money and resources at the time to prevent that from happening. Why am I supposed to take this author seriously?

To conclude. I would give this book like 1.5/5 stars. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read but I’ve read so many better books that touch on industry and the effects on the planet (The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter are both mostly about consumer goods but I really enjoyed them, there’s also my last book review of A Good War, specifically about Canada). Overall, I don’t believe that Bill Gates was the best person to deliver the message about emerging green tech, but maybe this book is a decent intro for tech bros to understand the Climate Crisis. Maybe there’s a small chance they will take some action.

Below are a bunch of things that I found more interesting than Bill Gates’ book. If you are going to waste time, I would strongly suggest any of these instead of giving more of your attention to a billionaire.

Article:

The Guardian – Bill Gates: ‘Carbon neutrality in a decade is a fairytale. Why peddle fantasies?’

Podcasts:

99Percent Invisible – Built on Sand

99Percent Invisible – The First Straw

Freakonomics – Two (Totally Opposite) Ways to Save the Planet

YouTube Videos

Kristen Leo – The AUDACITY of Bill Gates’s new book

My Green Closet – Which Ethical Brand has the Best Quality? 👕 Fabric, Fit, Price, Sustainability & Ethics of 5 Tees

Slidebean – Beyond Meat vs Impossible Foods: a fight to take away my steak

Sustainably Vegan – 100 ZERO WASTE SWAPS YOU HAVE TO TRY

The Story of Stuff Project – The Story of Stuff

NPR – Is Recycling Worth it Anymore? The Truth is Complicated

Although a bit on the intense side, particularly if you don’t like the sight of blood: Seaspiracy on Netflix

Book Review: A Good War by Seth Klein

Back in January 2021, I was walking down a sidewalk getting my lunch while I was on site for my job. I passed a cute book shop (Great Escape Bookstore check it out if you’re in Toronto), and they had a sign and A Good War on display. I saw the big ass windmill, Canada, climate and I was in. I immediately DM’ed the shop to buy a copy since they were closed due to Covid restrictions for Wave 2.

Going in, I was expecting the book to be all about green energy in Canada. I will tell you right now, it is not. I would have known if I read the back before buying the book. But let me tell ya, I was confused in the introduction when Klein was talking about the World Wars. Anyways…

The book’s main thesis is that we are in a Climate Emergency and as a nation we should be treating it as such and get our shit together similar to what they did in World War II.

Klein focuses on the different players, individual people, communities, corporations, and (for the largest part) the Government.

Photo by Lachlan Ross on Pexels.com

It took me forever to read this book. Since there’s a lot of information in it, I had to take a lot of breaks. Between reading this and seeing climate and Covid stuff on all my social media, I was just getting a tad overwhelmed and melancholic. Thus this review is being posted four months – and one pandemic wave – later.

In general, I enjoyed the book. Most of the books I’ve read on the climate are about the USA, so it was refreshing and more relevant to read about the place I live. Klein was also really conscious to include Indigenous voices and their Governance throughout. Again, this isn’t something you see if you aren’t reading a book about Canada. 

I have no interest in history, so pretty much all the information about World War II was new to me.

At a high level, I do agree that we are in an emergency/war against carbon emissions and we all should be acting as such. I don’t fully agree with the details of some of Klein’s methods, but I see how he got there.

One thing I wish was a bit more explicit in the conclusion was what the reader should be doing after reading this book. I finished it up and was like, now what? Now I have all this information and nothing to do with it. The clerk at the bookstore, who sold me my copy, told me about how much she enjoyed it and how she was sending letters to our MPs to convince them to take action. I guess this is the main thing we need to do. A lot of the big changes needed won’t be done unless forced to. Examples: purchasing electric vehicles, not fracking, reducing energy consumption in buildings.

I work in existing buildings, so I do want to talk to my boss and see what we can do to be pushing our clients towards more resilient, less oil/natural gas dependent equipment replacements. That might be a hard sell, since gas is currently cheaper than electricity (in Ontario, it is different in other provinces). I’ll update if there’s anything worth reporting on that front.

Photo by Lukas Rodriguez on Pexels.com

I would recommend this book. I found Klein’s suggestions and vision for a sustainable future way more realistic and rooted than Voluntary Simplicity (Link to review), which was basically living in a commune.

Below is a list of the ideas  that I found the most interesting, in case you aren’t going to read the book or want a little preview:

  • Use terms such as ’Climate Crisis’ or ’Climate Emergency’ instead of ‘climate change’ or ’global warming’ like The Guardian started to do in 2019. It puts into focus that this is a pressing issue that should be addressed instead of sounding like a passive item.
  • The government could make Green Bonds, similar to Victory Bonds, which would help raise capital for massive green infrastructure projects, but provide slow yet predictable yields for the investors.
  • The level of infrastructure change is going to be massive. Do you know how much of your day-to-day life relies on oil and natural gas? A metric fuck tonne: your car, your house/apartment, your take-out containers. This will be a complicated process that will require not only more (and new) jobs but lots of money. It will be worth spending because most people enjoy being alive. Also, not screwing over future generations would be cool.
  • Creating new Crown Corporations like they did in the war to keep companies competitive in tenders. (Ex. If there are 1-3 companies that can do a thing, they will bid high cause they know they can get away with it, since exclusivity. A crown corp would bid fair because why would the government want to screw the government, and keep other companies staying competitive). Or to do the stuff that was just too cost-prohibitive for other companies to take on. I really enjoyed this part of the book, maybe because the tendering process is part of my job, but also because I didn’t know that was something that was done during WWII. Again don’t know if I agree with the idea but still interested in the suggestion.
  • A Crown Corporation to buy the old GM plant in Oshawa, and turn it into a factory making electric Canada Post vehicles. See Green Jobs Oshawa for more information on the group working to lobby for that.
  • Oil companies = evil. That’s not how it was described in the book, but that’s the short and dirty version. Oil companies are destroying our environment and not paying enough taxes to do it. Klein suggested either upping their tax rate (similar to what other countries have done) or expropriating it and turning it into a Crown Corporation. I personally think taxing makes more sense, but that may cause the companies to bail on Alberta. Which means we (more like the government or something) should be working on transitioning those workers into a job that isn’t oil based.
  • AKA: the Green New Deal, like the resolution AOC proposed in the State but here and tailored to our landscape.
  • In order to prevent CO2 emissions rising to dangerous levels, everyone needs to be involved. Not as a suggestion, but as a requirement. Every Canadian did something to help in the war effort in WWII, either as direct support to the war efforts, or due to rationing, recycling, and general cutbacks to one’s lifestyles. That needs to happen, particularly to the 1%. We are the 1% of the world, so we should be doing more, but the 1% of our country should be doing the most, since we are in this mess because of ~Capitalism~.
  • The previous point – and most of the suggestions in the book – will require government (mostly Federal) intervention. I don’t love that this is what we need to rely on, because it would be nice to think that people/corporations can do the correct thing if simply asked to. But this past year (2020) has proven that you can’t expect anyone, even your government, to do anything.

We are totally fucked…

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I really admire Klein’s optimism throughout the book. It’s not in your face, but he does seem to believe the best in people. He believes the government, with enough public support, will do what is needed to prevent the climate, and life as we know it, from collapsing. The book did include an epilogue about the Government’s response to Covid-19, and you can tell it was written early in the pandemic. It mentioned strong mask compliance, CERB, and a glimmer of hope for a vaccine. I’m writing this in Wave Three, with both a vaccine shortage, a bunch of empty vaccine appointments for 70+, and no paid sick days. It feels like every level of Government has abandoned us.

Klein did mention in the book that he would keep an updated epilogue on his website. I looked for it but  couldn’t find it. I’m not sure if it was because of the website formatting on my tablet or not. But I would be interested in reading it.

As mentioned before, the main actionable item from the book is letting the Government know that reducing emissions and addressing the Climate Crisis should be a top priority item. Below I’ve put a letter you can send to your government representative to show we care. This letter was heavily adapted (ie mostly copied) from the one found here, on the David Suzuki Foundation page. I also liked this one from Greenpeace.

Dear [Prime Minister Trudeau, or your Member of Parliament],

As Parliament prepares for Budget 2021 and beyond, let’s ensure that the pandemic recovery is green and just, benefitting people and the planet. Every day when I see the news, I see either Covid-19, the climate crisis, or the housing crisis. This budget is the best opportunity to make the environment, sustainability, and resilience keys part of the Countries recovery plan.

I urge you to invest in measures that support communities and create jobs while setting Canada on track to: 

-Reduce carbon pollution to limit warming to 1.5 C and enable Canada to do its fair share to contribute to a livable climate. A few suggestions are:

  • increasing taxation on oil, fossil fuels and eventually slowing/stopping oil and natural gas production;
  • reducing subitizes for animal agriculture and reinvesting it in plant agriculture;
  • More grants/tax cuts for retrofitting homes and offices to assist in transition off oil/natural gas heating. Generally increasing the number of grants and/or tax rebates for energy, and water efficiencies retrofits. 

-Address the biodiversity crisis by protecting, restoring and investing in nature as the foundation of our health, economy and well-being, and reforming industries that interact with it. I’m not sure if this is within the scope of the Federal Government power, but a good start would be to prevent the Ontario Provincial Government from developing protected wetlands in Pickering.

-An end to the use of single-use plastics. Growth of a circular economy, and improve our domestic recycling programs. We reply too often on sending our ‘recycling’ to other countries, instead of dealing with our own messes. 

Budget 2021 must also invest in upgrading the core environmental functions of government necessary to support a green recovery, like chemicals management, pesticide regulation and environmental law enforcement.

Canada’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan must also uphold these principles for a just recovery: 

-Put people’s health and well-being first. No exceptions. 

-Strengthen the social safety net and provide relief directly to people. This past year has shown that providing directly to the people is much more effective than to companies.

-Build solidarity and equity across communities, generations and borders. 

-Uphold Indigenous rights and work in partnership with Indigenous Peoples. 

We don’t have to choose between managing the pandemic and creating a sustainable future. If we don’t get significantly more proactive about reducing Carbon emissions and reducing our collective environmental impact, viruses such as the one we just lived through may be the norm. Which you may not be alive to see happen but I will. So will the generation of kids who already don’t know what the bottom half of a stranger’s face looks like since they don’t have any memories from before this Pandemic.  

All this to say, that pandemic recovery, and Canada’s sustainable future are inseparable issues, and the upcoming budget is the time to take steps for both issues.

Will you commit to supporting budget measures that enable Canada to build a clean-energy economy swiftly and justly?

Sincerely,

[your name will go here]

[your email address will go here], [your location will go here]

That’s pretty much the post. A bit of a departure from what I was planning on reading and reviewing on this blog. But I found the topic really interesting. April is Earth Month so this, and the book I’m currently reading might create a Climate Crisis theme for the blog.

Did any of the ideas that Klein mentioned resonate with you? I would love to hear it in the comments below.