What do Gates, Zuckerberg and company have in common? An obsession with “breakthroughs”
Bill Gates started one. Melinda French Gates is funding one. Mark Zuckerberg co-founded one. Russian tech investor Yuri Milner has thrown a whole bunch. Eco-modernists launched one early on, attracting big donors. The not-to-be-missed major climate philanthropy came together recently to create their own.
What the hell am I talking about? Breakthroughs. Or to be more exact, organizations seeking breakthroughs — and named accordingly. It seems you can’t turn around in philanthropy without stumbling across another group whose name promises just that.
They cover many categories. Melinda French Gates supports the IT diversity group Break Through Tech. Milner founded a series of such initiatives, from Breakthrough Listen, which searches for signs of life on other planets, to Breakthrough Prizes, which flood millions of leading scientists. The Facebook CEO co-founded the latter, alongside Google’s Sergey Brin and Alibaba’s Jack Ma.
The concept sounds particularly appealing to donors who have made their fortunes in tech, and it’s no surprise that the groundbreaking nomenclature has been popular in the expanding world of climate philanthropy.
One of the oldest of the group is the Breakthrough Institute, founded in 2007 by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, which favors new technologies over political reform, with a particular fondness for nuclear energy. In 2015, Gates established the climate technology investment and philanthropy firm Breakthrough Energy, an extension of his personal crusade to convince the world that innovation is the most important ingredient to solving the climate crisis. More recently, some of the largest institutional climate funders on the planet have launched the Climate Breakthrough Project, which awards large sums to “extraordinary strategists”.
Names aside, there are many other climate and non-climate programs looking to fund their own breakthroughs, or perhaps bold solutions, or the ever-popular big bets. The most recent example: Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr’s $1.1 billion gift to Stanford University.
Amid so many seemingly intractable problems, the idea seems to have become irresistible to a certain class of donors. Not mere progress or even a substantial push in the right direction, but a breakthrough. A sudden and spectacular leap forward that will change everything, and perhaps even solve a problem that we thought was insurmountable.
I can understand the call. We are running out of names for hurricanes. We are running in the wrong direction for oil, gas, coal, etc. We lack food. We are run out of time. Science tells us that disasters and chaos multiply if we exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. The chances of avoiding this seem slim.
It makes you want to break something. Or pray for a breakthrough. And if you’re a billionaire, these invocations can come with a nice drop in the collection basket: a few million dollars, even a billion or more. Call it selfless investment or guilty atonement.
So why draw attention to this trend? Yes, as a journalist, a tiny part of me wishes to see a Creative breakthrough — in the naming of new organizations. Sometimes it takes a moment to distinguish the last “revolutionary” group from the last. But such concerns are the least of my worries. No, I am troubled by what he says about where the philanthropic dollars of some of the richest people in the world are going to address this emergency.
To be fair, we desperately need breakthroughs. The best science says that a livable future absolutely requires carbon removal, and existing methods are still not viable at the scale needed. We need carbon-free ways to create the basic ingredients of modern society, like concrete and steel. The way we currently breed and grow what’s on our plates – and how it does it – is killing the planet.
But this repetition in naming is indicative of a still narrow conception of the task at hand among many private jet-setters. As a word, “breakthrough” is relatively neutral. It could happen in the laboratory or in the popular consciousness. But most of these organizations and their funders seem to focus on scientific and technological innovations. This is especially the case with the Gates outfit, which is becoming a goliath in the field of philanthropy and impact investing, and has attracted several other tech billionaires to come on board, including Jeff Bezos.
The Climate Breakthrough Project is a welcome exception, in that it focuses on individual leaders proposing innovative strategies for social, behavioral, economic and political change. At least it’s not pouring millions into the hunt for the next perpetual motion machine, and funding a diversity of strategies is a worthy pursuit for philanthropy.
But too many others are heavily invested in research Something new and magnificent to do what we have not been able to do – to solve this crisis in which we find ourselves. We have many ready-to-use solutions. And as many others before me have said, this attitude ignores an inescapable reality of the climate crisis that is not new at all: the deep opposition of vested interests.
The latest report from the UN-run Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows this very clearly. “The IPCC tells us that we have the knowledge and the technology to achieve this through a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables and alternative fuels,” said Inger Andersen, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. , during a press conference. Yet the report makes clear that the entrenched power of big oil companies and other fossil fuel producers is blocking this transition, including pushing back on its mention of the report’s executive summary.
Some funded the necessary pushback. The Climate Breakthrough Project has backed leaders fighting fossil fuel producers, such as Kathrin Gutmann, who helped shut down or secure the planned retirement of 166 coal-fired power stations across Europe. But such support is the exception, and mega-donors loving the power of markets and growth rarely support efforts to block any kind of economic activity, no matter how harmful. But all the innovative ideas in the world won’t help us as long as powerful interests fight to extract and burn more fossil fuels.
We need to break the stranglehold of these fossil fuel producers on politics. We need to break the myth that life will get worse as we transition to a green economy. We must break the addiction to bigger and bigger automobiles, wider roads and unsustainable levels of meat consumption, sold to us by fictitious corporations.
In my view, true “breakthrough” funding would not only look to the future in search of new ideas, but also look inward at what our societies and economies have valued and devalued, examine the powers and structures that got us into this situation, and charting a new course that ensures new innovations can actually take hold and make a difference.
Philanthropy, of course, is not the only way to pursue such goals. Politics might just be better. Yet this club of billionaires generally shows little public inclination in this direction. Gates, for example, put “breakthroughs” in the subtitle of his climate book, but barely touched on political considerations, including the grip of the fossil fuel industry, Republican intransigence on the climate or the global threat of authoritarianism that respects fossil fuels.
But if they wanted to, there’s no reason why these billionaires couldn’t do all of the above. Most are worth several times more than what the entire estate receives annually from philanthropy. And they are spoiled for choice among the people, organizations and movements that, despite extremely limited resources, are responsible for significant progress. Look at the critical role of indigenous peoples in conservation, or the many victories of small organizations against new oil and gas pipelines, or the shift in public debate brought about by a dedicated group of activists supporting the Green New Deal.
It is perhaps futile to expect that those who have benefited the most over the past 30 years – a period in which humanity has emitted more CO2 than during all the rest of history human combination – fund challenges to some of the assumptions that made this desecration possible. Billionaires tend to look to markets, not people. Winners tend to believe the rules are fair.
None of this is really about the names of these outfits, which are nothing more than branding. It’s about knowing where the money is going. And right now, the dollars from these mega-donors are overwhelmingly heading towards one type of progress. Necessary, but insufficient in itself.
We can only hope for a breakthrough.