Thursday, April 11, 2019

Global Environmental Outlook 6: a critique of its opening sentence

The 6th Global Environmental Outlook has been released. This is the most important written product of the United Nations Environment Programme, appearing approximately at 5 year intervals.

The opening sentence of the executive summary of the first chapter reads:

"Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2050, without 
further compromising the ecological limits of our planet and its benefitsis one of the most serious challenges and responsibilities humanity has ever faced.” 

The part I have highlighted in pink is powerful.

However, the part in red is at best confusing and at worst logically false, and either way it conveys (no doubt unintentionally) complacency.

What do the authors mean by "compromising"?  One definition I found was "expediently accepting standards that are lower than is desirable"; e.g. we were not prepared to compromise on safety."

A possible alternative to "compromising" (in this sentence) is "approaching", or "transgressing". But the idea that human activities will not further (or additionally) approach - or come closer to - the ecological limits is sadly misconceived. Ongoing damage to natural capital is inevitable, given that population is rising and the poor have a lot of catching up to do in terms of per capita resource consumption. Even if we do not collectively breach limits, we will certainly come closer to them.

Alternatively, but more far-fetched, is the idea that the authors intend to convey that humans might alter the limits. Technically, if humans had far greater knowledge and technological capacity, they might be able to do this, such as changing the planetary boundaries - but most people rightly would think that is hubris, especially by 2050.

After working on this blog (for well over an hour!) I think the authors probably intended "compromising" to mean "approaching" or "transgressing". 

Another weakness of this opening sentence is that it does not mention the word "social". There are also social limits, such as were reached, only yesterday, when  the Sudanese President was overthrown, in part because of increasing civil unrest due to reduced prosperity in part due to falling oil revenues - even though, officially, per person income in Sudan is suppose to be increasing.

So, the sentence would be clearer if written as:  "Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2100, without pushing demands on ecological and social capacity beyond irreversible thresholds, thus triggering immense harm to human health and well-being on a planetary scale, is an immensely difficult challenge.” (Key changes italicised).

Note that I changed 2050 to 2100. It will be difficult to avoid these thresholds, on a global scale, by 2050, but perhaps not "immensely" so. It is possible that the buffers that separate us from those limits are wider than we currently appreciate, even though an increasing number of cases of "regional overload" are occurring, such as those described in the Global Report on Food Crises 2019. By 2050 we will definitely come closer to these limits, but we may nor critically exceed them - if we are lucky and work hard. But the challenge to avoid such limits by 2100, even if we greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will be much harder, as climate change is but one aspect of the many challenges that civilization faces.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

My encounters with philanthrocapitalism


My first paper on philanthrocapitalism and planetary health has recently been published (abstract below), and I am now  working on an offshoot, mainly about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and its approach to malaria, polio and Ebola, aiming for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. This evolving paper will also discuss complexity theory and how the focus of the Gates Foundation on "vertical" health programmes may be necessary but is far from sufficient. This paper will be adapted from a section of about 1,500 words, cut from the original paper, which is pretty long, even without it.

Most of the section below (A-E) was also cut from the published paper, mainly because one of the journal's anonymous reviewers took offense to it (and much else!) It has today been modified with two endnotes.

My own encounters with philanthrocapitalism

I have had several encounters (or near-encounters) with philanthrocapitalism, especially the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, its richest and most powerful variant. 

A. In 2015 I attended the World Congress of Public Health, held in India, a “developing” country. The keynote speaker in the opening session was an economist, employed by the BMGF national office. I remember being frustrated by the speaker’s conventional, non-ecological approach; a feeling that set the tone for a disappointing meeting. I recall reflecting that the speaker’s prominence was unsurprising, given the extent to which the BMGF had underwritten the meeting. But I did not then know that, in 2005, Bill Gates had been a keynote speaker at the 58th World Health Assembly, the annual showcase of the World Health Organization (WHO). Gates’ invitation, an unprecedented honor for a non-head of state, had, soon after, prompted the Peoples’ Health Movement to call for the Microsoft Corporation be declared an honorary ‘member country’ of WHO. See endnotes (1) and (2).

B. Someone I know was contracted by the BMGF to work in China. A condition of their employment was a clause preventing publication of any data conflicting with that officially approved by the Chinese government. 

C. A malariologist I know recently wrote to me to the effect that much of what he (and I) were taught by professors of malariology is now disregarded, though not due to improved evidence. 

D. Earlier, I collaborated on a paper indirectly critical of the BMGF’s claim to be able to eradicate malaria. The paper was eventually withdrawn, in order to not place at risk the funding of an institution which one of my co-authors was then directing.

E. The BMGF also funds thinktanks, including the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). In 2005 I was an invited speaker to an IFPRI meeting. My subsequent paper was rejected, without external review. I thought then that the probable reason, though unstated, was that my paper was too critical of neoliberalism (market preferring solutions).


My paper is also critical of the Wellcome Trust, mainly for its investment in tax havens and for its view that it is acceptable to invest in fossil fuels (see for example, which states in part: 

"In 2015 more than 1000 doctors and other health professionals signed a letter calling on the Wellcome Trust to stop investing in shares in coal, oil, and gas, but it refused. The charity has a massive investment portfolio which was then worth £18bn. The letter argued that not divesting legitimised an industry that had made no pledges to act on climate change.

A Wellcome spokesperson said, “The range of individuals and organisations working to improve human health is wide, and it would be surprising if this community did not contain a diversity of opinion about how best to reduce carbon emissions. The Wellcome Trust believes that engagement with the small number of energy companies in which we invest gives us the best opportunity to contribute to change, but we understand and respect the views of those who disagree.” 

Points F and G were not in the original draft:

F. I have been involved in two Wellcome Trust grant applications, one of which I led, and one job application. My personal experience with the Wellcome Trust has always been positive. Apart from its investment policy I still have great admiration for their achievements, and unlike the BMGF they have at least partly awoken to the risk to global health from failing "planetary health." 

G. I have never applied to the Gates Foundation for funds, but will send them my paper, and an exploratory letter, on behalf of Health-Earth


Focusing on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) as a case study, this paper explores the relationship between philanthrocapitalism, economic history, and global and planetary health. The Wellcome Trust is also briefly discussed, chiefly in the context of planetary health. The paper argues that in the last 45 years there has been an increased preference for market-based approaches, often called neoliberalism, particularly in the U.S. and its allies. This has generated greater inequality in many high-income settings and weakened the norm of taxation. This has provided a setting in which philanthrocapitalism has flourished, including the BMGF. The latter has in turn become an important actor for global health, partially balancing the adverse consequences of neoliberalism. Planetary health is here defined as the interaction between global health and global environmental change, including to the climate and other elements of the Earth System. Although the Wellcome Trust has recently made funds available for ecological health research, it continues to invest in fossil fuels. The Gates Foundation provide no or minimal grants for ecological or planetary health but appear to have recently substantially divested from fossil fuels, for unclear reasons. The paper concludes that these large philanthrocapitalist organizations partly compensate for the decline in attention to global health driven by market-preferring solutions, but remain insufficiently proactive in the face of the great dangers associated with declining planetary health. 

1. The original link to this ( is currently invalid, but it is cited in Gavin Mooney's book "The Health of Nations: Towards a New Political Economy" (Zed Books, 2012).

2. A press statement by the Peoples' Health Movement in 2014 complained not only that Bill Gates had been invited to address WHO in 2005, but that this high honour was extended to he or his wife twice more. It reads, in part, "It is unacceptable that the WHO, supposedly governed by sovereign nation states, should countenance that at its annual global conference, the keynote address would be delivered thrice in ten years by individuals from the same private organization, and from the same family.

The BMGF is the second largest funder of the WHO. It has come to occupy this place over the past two decades, because of the freeze on assessed contributions by member states. Currently, 80% of WHO’s finances come from voluntary contributions (including from countries and from private sources) and BMGF’s funding is ‘tied’ to projects that the foundation has an interest in funding.

BMGF’s munificence towards the WHO as well as towards many other global health causes is well known. Less well known is the Foundation’s investment policies that are clearly in conflict with global health."