Gates and Buffett spent their fortunes tackling world problems. But there was one that even men of their brains and wealth couldn’t overcome.
I am 42 this year. When I was a kid, I looked at the world’s problems and decided that only a huge amount of wealth and influence could solve them.
Growing up further I begun to feel that global issues like climate change and poverty could only be eradicated by big business, since the motives were much more straightforward than politics and politicians. Give a businessman enough profit, and he will act on solving the problem.
I never got there to do all that. But Bill Gates did. And he proceeded to try and change the world with his massive wealth, spending some 5 billion a year on various philanthropic efforts through his foundation.
However, watching a recent Netflix documentary on Bill Gates, I begun to wonder if I was wrong all these years.
200 million down the toilet
“When Bill Gates stepped down from Microsoft in 2008, he was worth more than 58 billion dollars”
Shortly after his retirement, Gates’ wife Melinda read an article about how children in the developing world were dying at the rate of three million a year from diarrhea. She had a young daughter and sympathized with the mothers who lost their children to a condition that was considered so trivial in the developed world.
They proceeded to spend 200 million over the next seven years to overcome the problem of providing self-sustaining, cost-efficient sanitation systems and modern toilets for half the world’s population that still lacked proper toilets. This was the root cause of poor sanitation and hence, diarrhea.
In the end, Gates overcame this problem. Today, one-third of Dakar uses the Omni-processor he created to treat fecal sludge. This compact, self-sustaining mini-sewage plant requires no external power or water source, turning quite literally, the stuff that goes into the toilet into electricity, ash and drinkable water. Self-powered, high tech toilets from Caltech that require no sewerage systems are dotted all over South Africa.
But massive failures were about to follow, due to factors even the mighty Gates could not overcome.
Crippled by rebels
Gates is a prodigy who is able to process and synthesize information at genius level, by the accounts of all those who know him intimately. By the time he was a middle-schooler, he was hired by local companies and other school districts to resolve their problems using computer programming.
His best friend Kent was ahead of him at that point, leading in both grades and maturity of thinking. It was Kent who inspired him to become a corporate titan later on in life. But Kent died when he was still in high school in a mountain climbing accident.
Gates decided to accomplish what they had talked about… alone. And so he did.
Fate had favored Gates to become a business legend, but politics did not when he moved on to philanthropy.
Gates not only used his own immense wealth for good; he also had friends like Warren Buffett who were willing to give him their money — in Buffett’s case, 31 billion.
Gates decided to spend some of that money towards eradicating polio in the world. 400 million was spent and years in diplomacy. Cutting edge analytics were used. Many brave volunteers were killed by violence and terrorists within the countries they operated in.
He came close to eradication in 2010. But money and influence could not beat 200 Nigerian rebels who were prepared to turn their own country upside down. Vaccination efforts in remote areas were disrupted. The same sort of civil terrorism also disrupted efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the end the Gates Foundation could not eradicate polio. Six more billion and six years later, he is still trying.
Trumped by politics
Gates went big, really big, on the issue of climate change. He saw that multiple innovations across many different sources of CO2 emission would not save our planet fast enough. He didn’t believe in moving to Mars like Elon Musk.
So he set out to change the biggest emitter of all — power plants and electricity generation.
He decided to be a contrarian. He wanted to innovate on nuclear energy, “something wildly unpopular” and supremely costly.
He admitted in the documentary that he wouldn’t have tried if he had seen another way to resolve climate change.
First Chernobyl, then Fukushima. The disastrous failures of nuclear power plants caused implosions that decimated entire regions and public confidence in the technology.
But Gates decided to try. He gathered the best scientists in the world. They soon realized the problem wasn’t with nuclear energy itself, but the fact that most nuclear power plants operating today were using archaic technology from the 40’s to 60’s.
Five years and multi-millions later, he succeeded in proving that a much more advance design would eliminate not only the fallout risks of nuclear plants, but also amazingly reuse, as primary fuel, all the dangerous uranium waste (700,000 metric tons) that had been accumulating over the past decades from old plants.
But he had another big problem. Nuclear energy needs to be done at scale, huge scale. He decided China was the most viable country to do a pilot and prove to the world both the technology and economics of his solution.
After nine years of political diplomacy and endless visits to China, the Chinese government finally inked a deal with Gates in 2017. The cost of building the first plant was to be a billion dollars.
But before the building could begin, Trump declared the trade war. The contract was cancelled by China at the end of 2018.
Technophile vs human nature
Gates admitted to being a technophile in the documentary.
“Any problem… I will look at how technical innovation can help solve that problem. It’s the one thing I know and the one thing I’m good at.”
Perhaps Trump was wiser. That’s why he switched from corporate titan to politician. They had more sway. Or perhaps behind the policies were the fossil fuel corporate titans who funded his campaign.
Who knows for sure.
The only logical conclusion I could draw from the three episodes of this documentary was, technology and money cannot resolve the problems that the darker side of human hearts and minds create.