This piece was first published in Spears magazine, March/April 2011; it was updated in November 2016.
In 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced that, together, they had persuaded 40 of America’s richest families to pledge the majority of their wealth to good causes. Across the social spectrum, Americans are already the most generous people on the planet when it comes to philanthropy, but the so-called Giving Pledge is at a whole new level. The campaign to persuade other wealthy individuals to follow suit continues — and not just in the US. Gates and Buffett took their appeal on the road to China, for example, where they met newly made Chinese billionaires. In comparison with the Americans, the rest of the world’s rich are, on the whole, pretty mean.
But how much of their and our giving is actually making a difference when it comes to tackling the real problems that confront us today? The problems that threaten our way of life, our health, happiness, prosperity, even our very existence as we know it? And how much is just rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic?
It is difficult to imagine a time in history when humanity has faced a greater set of challenges. According to the Global Footprint Network, 8 August 2016 marked an unfortunate milestone, the point at which we had exhausted our ecological budget for the year. After that day the 7.5 billion people on the planet had used up all the ecological services that nature is capable of providing in a year — from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food. From that point until the end of the year we had to meet our ecological demand by liquidating resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ is getting earlier each year.
Fish stocks on which a third of the world’s population depends are disappearing fast; the last remaining forests, the planet’s vital lungs, are being ravaged for their wood, cleared, burned, and turned into palm or soya monocultures or vast cattle pastures; a thousand times the number of species that would disappear under normal circumstances are going extinct every year; industrial agriculture is dramatically eroding the fertility of our best soils; our watersheds are increasingly polluted, the list goes on. We are on the brink of a systemic collapse of the biosphere — our only home. And this is without taking into account the potential for a climate meltdown.
In light of this crisis you would imagine philanthropy would change to combat it. Wrong. According to the Environmental Funders Network, environmental grants represent just 3 per cent of total giving by charitable trusts and foundations in the UK. By comparison, in 2015, education/training grants in the UK represented 8 times this amount, at 24 per cent of trust and foundation giving. Things are a bit better in the US where, on a per-capita basis, philanthropic giving to the environment is more than four times that of the UK, and where environmental grants are around 5 per cent of total philanthropic giving. But it is important to recognise that much of this money is directed towards practical conservation projects on the ground, or the purchasing of land, activity that, while useful, is unlikely to bring about the systemic changes needed to address the drivers of environmental decline.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that all roads really do lead to Rome: it is futile to try to tackle extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa without looking at the effect of climate change on rainfall, at preserving watersheds and soil fertility, at healthy forests and healthy fish stocks. The environment is not just one of a number of issues that need addressing — it is the issue that governs all others. The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way round.
On current demographic trends we are rushing towards a ‘full world’ of 9.5 billion people by 2050. We can either rise to the challenge of changing our behaviour and our societies or we can continue to adopt the ostrich position. Addressing these challenges does not mean adopting ‘hair shirt’ lifestyles or moving back to caves — examples of win-win solutions can be found everywhere. Greater efficiency in our use of energy, for instance, and in particular of fossil fuels, has benefits for security of supply, reducing trade deficits in the West, social inclusion (warmer homes for those on lower incomes), an array of new ‘green industry’ jobs and lower prices for all consumers. What we need to do is to overcome our tendency to resist change.
Unless we grapple with the big systemic environmental challenges then the implications for public health, peace and security, human rights, international development and the prospects of future generations are extremely grim. As the great environmentalist David Brower so succinctly put it: ‘There’s no business to be done on a dead planet.’ What point is served by current generations accumulating and hoarding wealth if in doing so we systematically destroy the fabric of the planet that our children and grand-children will inherit? We must redefine ourselves as custodians of the future, not pillagers of the present, and those of us who are fortunate enough to have resources must put them to work. The hour is late.
Ben Goldsmith is trustee of the JMG Foundation and founder and CEO of Menhaden Capital.