Does the richest couple in the world need superpowers? Asked which superpower they’d choose by some high school students in Kentucky, they gave almost hilariously mundane answers. Bill wants "more energy," and Melinda, "more time"— perhaps reflecting the exhaustion of being a responsible adult. Even very rich adults get tired.
In their annual letter for their foundation this year, the Gates’s expand on these two wishes in a playful note addressed to high school students. They take their wishes for "more energy" and "more time" and apply them to the lives of the world’s impoverished.
"Sure, everyone wants more time and energy. But they mean one thing in rich countries and something else entirely when looked at through the eyes of the world’s poorest families," they write.
Melinda Gates uses her half of her letter to highlight that women, globally, spend twice as much time on "unpaid" work—cleaning, cooking, and caregiving—as men. Though this is true in every country, the burden is heaviest on the world’s poorest women. Technologies that reduce overall labor, social changes that redistribute unpaid labor more evenly across genders, and economic changes that assign value to unpaid labor would give women more time to pursue their education, interests, and economic opportunities, she says—and the world would be better off for it.
In his note, Bill Gates imagines how the world would be different we could bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people around the world—18% of the world population—who don't have it. Health care, education, human rights, and economic development would all improve faster if energy were accessible and affordable, he says: "If I could have just one wish to help the poorest, it would be to find a cheap, clean source of energy to power the world."
The bigger question is what fuels would deliver that energy. Cheap and clean are the operable words here. Controversially, Gates has argued in the past that giving the world's poorest people access to the cheapest energy—even if the cheapest is from fossil fuels—should take priority.
In the letter, he doesn’t directly weigh these tradeoffs against each other. Instead, he repeats his long-held belief that better technologies will be what allow renewable energy to eventually replace fossil fuels. Gates calls for new inventions to make more energy affordable to everyone at zero carbon emissions, giving just a few examples such as batteries the size of swimming pools and liquid fuels that can be produced from solar energy. "We need more powerful, more economical solutions. In short, we need an energy miracle," he says.
In this, we need more time, too. Gates notes it took four decades for oil to go from 5% of the world’s energy supply to 25%. If solar and wind, which today account for less than 5% of world energy, follow the same trajectory—that would be much too slow. Gates calls for more government funding for research and more private individuals to invest. In November, Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a funding commitment from 25 billionaires to help the most "transformative ideas" make it out of research labs.
Critics of Gates’s ideas about energy say his focus on the need for advanced technology, beyond today’s capabilities, ignores the subsidies directed to fossil fuels today and downplays the last few years of rapidly dropping renewable costs. Obviously, though, no one says an energy breakthrough would hurt. Gates writes that he expects the world will discover one that "will save our planet and power our world" within the next 15 years.
Still, is waiting for a breakthrough simply wasting time the world doesn’t have?
Cover Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images