As we learned in our interview with him on Monday, Bill Gates sees things in broad sweeps, like how clean energy and global poverty are intimately linked.
In his 2016 Annual Letter — addressed to high-school students — he touches on how the story of development is really the story of harnessing energy.
“If I had to sum up history in one sentence it would be: ‘Life gets better — not for everyone all the time, but for most people most of the time,'” he writes (emphasis added). “And the reason is energy.”
For thousands of years, people burned wood for fuel. Their lives were, by and large, short and hard. But when we started using coal in the 1800s, life started getting better a lot faster. Pretty soon we had lights, refrigerators, skyscrapers, elevators, air conditioning, cars, planes, and all the other things that make up modern life, from lifesaving medicines and moon landings to fertilizer and Matt Damon movies.
As Gates told Tech Insider, understanding the role of energy unlocks the mystery of how our lives get better.
When I was trying to figure out why lives have improved so much in the last 300 years, where we’ve gone from a third of kids dying before 5 to — by 1990 it was down to 10% — now it’s down to 5%. And saying why, over all history, there were smart people, but that number didn’t change. Average life span didn’t change. What’s magical about what’s been deemed the Industrial Revolution? It’s really energy intensity.
Gates credits analyst Vaclav Smil, author of “Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization,” and historian David Christian, who’s pioneered the study of “Big History,” with giving him a sense of the power of energy.
“We essentially have, through our light bulbs and cars, the manpower of [hundreds of] people working on our behalf, helping our food being created, helping our materials like steel and plastic and wood and paper be created,” he said. “Our lifestyles are incredibly energy intense.”
Which is why, Gates says, if we want to bring more people out of poverty, it will require energy — clean energy.