How can the problem with unequal distribution of wealth be solved without developing countries destroying their natural resource basis? Are there technologies that are truly environmental friendly and could be usefully employed in the war on poverty? Bill Gates is implementing his vision for combating poverty using some of the money we have invested in the continuous upgrades of Windows.
Did anyone see the technologist Bill Gates appearing briefly at the Live 8 love-in concert in support of “War against poverty” in London’s Hyde Park organised by Sir Bob Geldolf, Bono of U2 and some of their assorted friends?
For some, the chairman of Microsoft seemed distinctly out of place and out of his depth. Most people with preconceived ideas about nerds would be more comfortable with Mr Gates restricting himself to talking about the latest technology fix to Windows.
Bill Gates, true to his technocentric views, is putting his money, made from people rushing to buy Microsoft’s technology solutions, into the next breakthrough in life: science that promises to provide cheaper and more efficient vaccines against malaria and other diseases and boosting the nutritional levels of the worlds staple crop plants such as banana, sorghum, cassava and rice.
Away from the glare of the spot lights of the stage in London, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been distributing US$8.8 billion since its foundation in 1999 to charitable causes. Importantly it has pledged more than half of that total, or US$5.1 billion, to improving health in the developing world. The foundation's influence now rivals that of the World Health Organization and UNICEF and the money donated equals the foreign aid budgets of developed countries such as Australia.
Money from the Gates foundation has been received by Queensland University of Technology researchers to lead the work, together with scientists in East Africa, in developing a “golden” banana which is intended to provide the same health benefits - in combating blindness and promoting a strong immune system - that pro-vitamin enhanced “golden” rice will offer people living in poverty in South East Asia very soon.
On the other side of the debate on technology fixes we have got global environmentalists, including Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography and of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA, the author of Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, who claims that technology applied to solving problems on any scale will only create more problems. Professor Diamond is a master in presenting his arguments in a way that both entertains and keeps the audience focused on his take-home message - over reliance on technology is a form of escapism.
One such pithy message was delivered to an audience in Sydney recently.
Professor Diamond posed the rhetorical question: what did the Easter Islander say to his wood felling tribesman when they cut down the last tree thus condemning their civilisation to ecological collapse?
One suggested answer, proffered by Professor Diamond, was, “Don’t worry technology will create a viable alternative to wood”.
Interestingly, Jared Diamond put his message about the dangers of technology-escapism forward to Bill Gates, after the world’s richest man had provided a favourable review of one of Professor Diamond’s books.
Gates reportedly replied, “I have the feeling that technology will solve our environmental problems, but what really concerns me is biological terrorism and global poverty”. Mr Gates, backed by his personal resources, has acted on his beliefs. He has let scientists loose to get on with developing solutions to the 14 “Grand Challenges to Global health” as identified by a panel of world leading public health policy makers and scientists including an illustrious Australian, Sir Gustaf Nossal.
Professor Diamond is correct in saying we should learn from history and avoid, if possible, repeating the same mistakes over again. However to put self-imposed restrictions on human ingenuity and innovation - which is the logical extension of the technology-as-escapism dogma - is to a degree like repeating the mistakes made by the Eastern Islanders. By all accounts the islanders allowed dogmatic thinking and the cults of their ancestors to be the one and only outlet for their innate ingenuity, sanctioned by their society, still on display in the remaining monuments.
To fence in and harness science and technology in the good fight against the intertwined evils of poverty and environmental collapse is fraught with its own dangers.
I for one think Bill Gates is right in that rather than tapping in on technologies that might go some way to address the desperate plight of the poor rather we need to unleash a torrent of technological fixes. If previous experiences with letting loose technologists on large scale problems is a guide to what might happen, the unintended benefits alone that will go some way to solve the problem.
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