New Philanthropy

Posted: July 14, 2008 in Debate, Economics, Environment, Science

The article at this link presents a point of view explaining why we don’t need to worry about global warming right away. If I understand the premise correctly, the author believes that the direction trends are leading are no cause for alarm because, even if the worst case scenario is granted, we (or more accurately, our children and grandchildren) will be better equipped then to respond because of two factors: they’ll be so much better off economically than we are now and they’ll have at their disposal technological developments of which we can’t even dream. So adapting to any scenario will be far cheaper and effective for them then than for us to act now to forestall negative outcomes. which will afflict them far worse than us. I didn’t read far into the comments, but they appear to be divided. Number 6 makes sense to me; in fact, it resonates with truth, unlike the article, which is fatuous and self-serving. If the article presents a hopeful counter-balance to the relentless doomer view, my sense that we’re in deep doo-doo has not been allayed.

I’ve learned in the past couple years, for instance, that the marine ecosystem is being systematically destroyed. First, there’s all that floating plastic. Second, there’s the fishing industry that, among other things, has developed its practices to the point that it now vacuums the ocean floor and drags nets up to a mile long, discarding overcatch (other marine life killed in the process — collateral damage if you wish) in both processes like it’s slag from some strip mining process rather than being composed of living organisms. Third, the phytoplankton population is collapsing, which because it’s at the bottom of the food chain spells the demise of most of the rest of marine life higher up the food chain. By midcentury in some estimates, there will be no such thing as wild fish in the oceans. Those fish that survive will be corralled within marine farms and fed by corporations that later harvest them to sell as food. The oceans will be dead; we’re murdering them.

Considering that our planet is 2/3 water, removing, harvesting, or destroying life from a functioning ecosystem is not something to which we’re likely to be able to adapt by, for instance, forgoing tuna. Material processes trump any abstract human institution, namely, economics. When it’s gone, it will be gone permanently. The fantasy (see comment 6) of endless economic growth that will make problems far simpler to solve in the future is nice in the abstract, but it doesn’t square with reality.

The bizarre idea that we could simply wait to address problems could be extrapolated ad adsurdium to mean that we never have to act to fix anything now because it will always be easier to do so in some conceivable future. How, then, to account for the fact that among the superrich, the idea of philanthropy has shifted from constructing self-exalting monuments and institutions (buildings, schools, etc., named after themselves) to fixing the the world’s problems? Donald Trump is certainly from the old self-aggrandizing school. The first philanthropist to move instead toward being a fixer was probably Ted Turner when he pledged $1 billion toward U.N. causes. Richard Branson later pledged $3 billion towards solving the problems of climate change. Warren Buffett decided a couple years ago to donate $37 billion worth of shares in his firm, Berkshire Hathaway, to five charitable foundations. And just this month, Bill Gates retired from Microsoft to work full-time for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which specializes in global health and education projects.

Maybe these guys are proof of the premise that it is possible to address our problems via support of the superrich rather than with public funds and that government can therefore bank on “free market” solutions to our ailments. If Ted or Richard or Warren or Bill & Melinda don’t find something pressing enough to be fixed, well then, maybe it isn’t all that pressing after all. And if the philanthropic emphasis has begun shifting from fine arts, universities, and affirmative action to general health and education and environmental concerns, will that mean that in the U.S., which steadfastly underfunds public institutions such as museums, libraries, Amtrak, NPR, etc., all of which accrue tremendous value to the public, public institutions will be starved out of existence?

Rather sooner than later, we’re going to face a wholesale reevaluation of what we want to keep and what we want to jettison from the so-called American way of life. I saw projections recently that gasoline will rise to $7 per gallon by 2010 (which is too far off — I predict it will happen sooner), which would cause the percentage of income paid by someone now earning $25k per year to increase from 7% to 20% to function within our current transportation model. Those projections assume, I think, that food, heating, cooling, manufacturing, and other costs married to the price of energy won’t similarly spike. The cost of the military would spike, too, considering that the U.S. military is responsible for half of fuel consumption in the U.S. Before it all unravels, I hope to have an ethical response worked out. In the meantime, I hope it’s enough to recognize and acknowledge ours problems and expose the insanity of arguments such as the one linked to above.

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