As we celebrate the passing of another year with the rituals of our religions, our families and our cultures, spare a thought for a poor benighted billionaires who are trying and failing miserably to address climate change. They have a place to stand, a lever long enough, yet cannot move the world. Everyone around them keeps telling them that they are right, yet nothing that they do succeeds.
Imagine, if you will, being Bill Gates, spending another Christmas in his echoing 100,000 square foot mansion in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. No, this isn’t another story about his home automation system blue screening and leaving him shivering in the dark waiting for tech support because it runs on Windows, although that is a reason to pity him as well.
For two decades, Gates has been funding directly and indirectly through Breakthrough Energy Ventures innumerable startups in the climate space. Yet none are disrupting the world. None are actually breaking through and solving climate change. Not that Gates is aware of it, but an outsized number of them simply invite ridicule. Everyone he talks with agrees nuclear and lots of it is absolutely required to address climate change. His many billionaire buddies who co-founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures with him in 2014 agreed that renewables clearly weren’t fit for purpose.
His nuclear energy firm TerraPower hasn’t built and sold a single reactor after 18 years of existence, despite grants worth up to US$4 billion. He went begging to Congress for billions in subsidies for nuclear and didn’t get it. The Breakthrough funded Heliogen puts a meter-wide disc of light in a completely nonsensical place a hundred meters in the sky, only provides heat a few hours around noon and requires square kilometers of free and flat land, and as a result no industrial customers are remotely interested in the non-solution.
More recently, Breakthrough funded HeirLoom, a hipster Rube Goldberg device that captures homeopathic amounts of CO2 from the air with technology that could have been built a hundred years ago. This is on form for Gates as he also backed Carbon Engineering, a direct air capture nonsense burger whose only natural market was enhanced oil recovery, which only ever started one project which was for enhanced oil recovery, and then was bought outright by the oil major doing the enhanced oil recovery. Breakthrough also funded AirLoom, a nonsensical wind generation device which actually adds failure conditions to vertical axis wind turbines and is a conceptual design that has failed multiple times in the past as well.
At COP28, only 22 countries signed up to triple nuclear 30 years from now, while 120 countries signed up to triple renewables by 2030. And the countries that signed up for the nuclear pledge included Ghana and Moldova, hardly power houses of technical and economic might.
Of course, Breakthrough loves itself some green hydrogen for energy and synthetic fuels made from green hydrogen, as if thermodynamic and economic nonsense was manna from heaven. They want to use it for industrial heat. They want to use it as a fuel for jets. They want to blend it with CO2 captured from the air to make trucking fuels.
So many people agree with him, after all, that he knows he must be right. Vaclav Smil agrees with him, after all, and he loves Smil’s books, all 46 or so of them now. Pity that Smil was too far from energy and so made three fundamental errors that render his conclusions virtually worthless, the most glaring of which is assuming that the roughly 20 billion tons worth of energy in fossil fuels consumed annually had to be replaced, instead of just the third that isn’t lost as waste heat.
Gates turned Microsoft into a global juggernaut through shrewd business dealing, some technical insights and good luck. He is courted at Davos. Heads of state ask his opinion. Epstein included him in the small group of people privileged to fly on his private jet to his private island (oops). He’s not just some crank sitting in the woods in Washington state.
I could go on (and on and on) about Gates’ failures to align with empirical reality since the 2000s. But I won’t. I am strongly of the opinion that the success of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation related to communicable diseases had a lot more to do with Melissa than Bill based on the evidence of the past 20 years, but that’s an assumption on my part.
How has he been so consistently wrong in such flagrant ways for so long without being corrected?
If he were alone, this wouldn’t be worth writing about. He’d just be Howard Hughes in his long fingernails and Spruce Goose phase. But Gates isn’t alone.
Let’s talk about Elon Musk. The guy is clearly brilliant (and driven and very lucky). He was deeply integral to figuring out an alternative payment system with PayPal, well into the engineering, fiscal and regulatory weeds in the late 1990s and first couple of years of the 2000s. He rebuilt his brain as a rocket scientist in the 2000s, working with not only fundamental texts but actual rocket engineers, and created SpaceX, a firm which has reinvented and disrupted throwing mass into orbit. He took over Tesla in the mid-2000s, seeing clearly that battery electric vehicles were the future and working with hardcore battery and automotive engineers and some of the best thinkers in the industry to create a business model, technology stack and distribution system with roughly 15 different fundamental innovations. The modularized, highly automated and replicable Gigafactory and eliminating dealerships alone are worth books by themselves.
But since then? SpaceX and Tesla continue, thankfully, despite Musk. The Boring Company was a company created because Musk didn’t like the traffic jam at the entrance to the California Tesla HQ, and he didn’t bother to learn anything about tunneling or traffic, instead spinning up a deeply over valued firm that’s managed to dig 2.4 miles of tunnels that don’t add any value except as novelties in seven years, roughly a mile every three years instead of the mile per week Musk was touting. He’s on record as saying he doesn’t believe induced traffic demand actually exists despite a century of empirical evidence from everywhere in the world that it is a very real thing. The firm has 200 employees wasting their lives on this nonsense.
His Hyperloop concept was equally brain dead. More tunnels, but these ones with partial vacuum in them, mostly above ground, with maglev passenger bullets supposedly traveling at 1,000 kilometers per hour. This design ignores the lessons learned from mass transit and rail systems globally and if built would have led to every passenger projectile vomiting on every trip. Claims that the entire exercise was intended to disrupt California’s high speed rail plans don’t stand up to scrutiny, as if he’d actually spent any time looking at that boondoggle he’d have realized it was dead without his assistance. Others formed a Hyperloop company, spent scads of money and wasted lots of engineers’ time before it inevitably failed in the past couple of weeks.
He bought Twitter and managed to turn one of the most successful social media platforms in the world into a smoking dumpster fire in a cesspool, alienating every user and advertiser except the furthest right conspiracy theorists and the con artists who prey upon them.
He’s been the richest man in the world multiple times! He married Grimes! Twice! Or was that the other one? Every engineer with an idea in the world wants to pitch it to him! His tweets were able to sell 10,000 weed burners with The Boring Company logo on them! He’s a genius! Everyone he works with tells him so. Other billionaires love him. Now Republicans love him too!
How has he been so consistently wrong in such flagrant ways for so long without being corrected?
The list goes on. Richard Branson is part of the group that founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and owned a big chunk of Hyperloop before they realized that putting humans in the thing was the worst idea since putting hydrogen in cars. Despite being climate change aware, he bought a space tourism firm which gave decamillionaires a few minutes of free fall above the 100 km notional line delimiting our atmosphere from space, a pure vanity waste of time and money that predictably went bankrupt, costing him $1.5 billion.
Vinod Khosla was part of the Breakthrough Energy Ventures founding crew as well, is on record as blaming environmentalists for nuclear energy’s failure to deliver on time and on schedule, and is investing in other direct air capture nonsense technologies. In energy his fund is into the fusion of solar energy, perovskites, despite decades of failures and no actual requirement for the cheapest and simplest form of electrical generation we’ve ever invented to get a slight bit more efficient. The fund is also into actual fusion, throwing good money after decades of bad. It’s invested in thermal energy storage technology whose first use case is returning electricity, ignoring fundamentals of thermodynamics and energy markets. Khosla — with Gates again! — invested in LightSail, the Thiel acolyte compressed air storage in expensive carbon fibre tanks nonsense that inevitably collapsed.
Jeff Bezos founded the Bezos Earth Fund, so is definitely climate aware. Yet he also created a different space tourism rocket concern, one which in his mind is somehow competitive with SpaceX, although it’s best known for making rockets that look like phalluses and not delivering on any of its commitments to customers. He’s also invested in fusion. There’s good stuff in there, as there is with Khosla’s fund, but there are many purely inane choices that defy rational thought.
Larry Page and Sergei Brin founded Google, building the world’s monopoly search engine and advertising platform. No flies on them. Yet on climate they wasted tens of millions on Makani, the airborne wind energy gizmo that was clearly a failure before it ever took off, and yes, wasting good engineers’ time and energy in the process. Then Page funded Kitty Hawk, yet another electric vertical take off and landing failure, something that was clear before the first stylus hit the first drafting tablet. Yet more talented engineers’ time and energy wasted.
Why do these talented, intelligent, successful billionaires all turn into funders of snake oil, boondoggles and vanity projects, despite their hearts being in the right places, at least according to their PR teams?
And here’s where we get to pity them. An inevitable feature of life for these billionaires is staff. Those staff know that their entire wealthy livelihood exists at the whim of a single person who has an inflated ego due to their massive early success, regardless of how much luck played a part in it. That means that they inevitably end up telling that person what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.
And some of the staff are solely there as filters. Their entire purpose is to cull the massive stream of information and requests and media that might be of interest down to what is actually of interest to that single person they serve. And those people fear the person at the center of the system not liking something that they send onward because it contradicts their biases or highlights their failures.
Without massive, ongoing willpower to counter this by the person whose every whim is catered to, billionaires inevitably end up in bubbles of disinformation that confirms their biases and doesn’t conflict with their biases. Their inevitable failures are explained to them as not being failures, or just being bad luck. Their absurd whims for tunnels for their cars under traffic jams turn into reality because no one will look at them, get their attention and tell them that they are being idiots and to drop the idea.
It’s not like clearly explained assessments of why the technologies listed above are dead ends aren’t published fairly constantly by experts and independent analysts. The links in the article are mine and go back a decade, but I’m one of a myriad of bright, technically oriented analysts who can do math and assess business models. I can’t tell you the number of times people have tried to get Breakthrough Ventures or Bill Gates to read my material and take my advice, but his filters mean that I’m treated as a virus he must be protected from, not a cure for the intellectual pathology he has devolved into.
A Khosla fund junior staffer recently reached out to see if I’d be interested in doing a direct air capture technology survey to see which ones would be suitable for investments. I told them that I was pretty sure that they were uninterested in giving me lots of money to tell them no multiple times in different ways and sent them a copy of my Carbon Engineering case study from 2019, gratis. I offered to assist if there were a chance to get the fund to stop investing in the space, and of course haven’t heard back. The odds that even if the new member of the staff floated the idea, they’d be quickly put in their place. After all, Khosla thinks direct air capture with mechanical devices is something useful, and he can’t be challenged in his biases.
The billionaire oligarchs, no matter how good their intentions, drift into being equally coddled and mocked shadows of their best, younger selves. Where once they were deeply attached to reality, positioned with the right skills and resources at the right places to change the world, now they have all the time and money in the world and no idea how to use it. The odds of them being right in anything that they do at this stage of their devolution approaches zero, and the people around them are terrified of telling them that.
Kings used to have court jesters. The jesters weren’t just entertainers for the king, his court and his guests. They had the license to say anything and to mock anything. They were often the sole source of truth and reality in courts that had matured into degeneration, providing a useful service to keep the absurdities of courtiers and sycophants from becoming policy.
Billionaires no longer have court jesters. Those of us who analyze failures like airborne wind energy, direct air capture, Smil’s energy writings and more publish with the vain hope that something will get through the filters, but nothing ever will. The hangers on surrounding the billionaires will protect their privileges at all costs, just as the courtiers of old would do anything, no matter how petty and vile, to preserve their place in court.
Do you think I’m wrong? Remember Davos in 2019, when headlines around the world announced that a historian and author had shocked everybody by telling the assembled billionaires the truth? Those headlines weren’t about the material, just the person having the temerity to tell billionaires something that they didn’t want to hear to their faces. It was a man bites dog headline.
And so, let’s feel some pity for these poor benighted oligarchs. All the power, influence, money and connections it is possible to have, and little remaining connection to empirical reality to allow them to direct those nigh infinite resources. They’ll reach the end of their days and wonder why they accomplished so little for the last decades of their life, despite everyone assuring them at every step of the way that they were doing so much.
Nah, screw that. Screw the billionaires too. It’s not like this is a problem that hasn’t been understood and documented for thousands of years. It’s not like the tale of King Canute isn’t a frequently told allegory about ensuring that you know when to remind your courtiers to stop blowing smoke. And screw the filterers and handlers of the billionaires as well. Their cowardice and venality isn’t worth respecting.
These billionaires claim to be using their vast power, wealth and influence to address climate change, but they fail the first test of good strategies, which is to get reality right. That’s on them. It’s not like reality isn’t readily available and they can’t pay for good advice. It’s not like their many bad investments couldn’t have been avoided simply by seeking out actual expertise, ensuring it’s independent with very simple tactics and keeping a strong leash on their arrogance. The climate is arguably worse because of these guys, although Musk gets a bit of a pass simply because he got Tesla off the ground before ascending into the La La Land of Billionaires.
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