How To Be Good
Three models of global social impact
In his memoir, Surrender, Bono recalls a fraught conversation in 2002 with Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush. The next day, the president was due to launch the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a $5 billion aid programme for poor countries with democratic governments. Bono had agreed to stand by his side as he did so. Now he was having second thoughts.
Bono’s charity, DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), had been lobbying the Bush administration to do something much more ambitious: to commit to funding universal access to AIDS drugs for Africans. AIDS patients in rich countries had access to these life-saving drugs, and in the West, AIDS was on its way to becoming a minor public health problem. No such drugs were available to Africans, and an epidemic was devastating the continent. In Botswana, 38% of adults were HIV positive. In Malawi, Bono had been shown around a hospital in which each bed was shared by three or four patients. Most of them were going to die. In South Africa, Prudence Mabele, one of the first women in the country to make her HIV status public, explained to Bono that in order to meet him she was missing the funeral of a family member who had died of AIDS. “I hope you are not wasting our time, Mr Bono,” she said. “Because some of us don’t have any to waste.”
Bono and his team went to the Bush White House with a plan and some trepidation. He was used to high-level meetings - this one came a few years after he lobbied G7 leaders to Drop the Debt - but the Clinton administration was a more natural partner than the current one. First, Bono managed to get Bush’s Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill onside, despite O’Neill’s deep scepticism about all aid programs. He then persuaded Jesse Helms, a powerful senator, to support the initiative, despite the fact that Helm had called AIDS a plague from God (he repented). Over a series of meetings with Condoleezza Rice, Bono convinced her not only that America had to act, but that his program represented an effective use of funds.
The president had still not made a public commitment, however, even after meeting Bono in the Oval Office. Now, Bono worried that if he showed up at the MCA launch he would be lending his celebrity aura to Bush for nothing in return. AIDS activists and others had already accused him of giving a warmongering Republican president cover for inaction. He risked looking like a puppet of the powerful.
When Bono told Rice about his fears, she made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that if he didn’t turn up the next day, that was the end of his access to the White House. You’ll just have to trust us on AIDS, she told him. Bono swallowed his doubts, took a risk, and turned up at the press conference. The activists shook their heads. Even George Soros told him, “You have sold out for a plate of lentils”. Bono thought they might be right, but he kept going. While he waited on the White House, he toured the American Midwest with U2, building support for AIDS relief in Republican heartlands. He went on Oprah to talk about it.
Digression: to be reminded of what a talented communicator Bono is, watch his Oprah interview. It’s a masterclass. He has an amazing ability to deliver his messages in crystalline phrases which go arrowing to his audience’s heart. When Oprah asks him why he cares about Africa, he makes the question personal by talking about Ireland’s historic experience of famine. Aware that his audience includes millions of churchgoers, he recalls witnessing poverty in Ethiopia and realising that although he could give money, something bigger was required: “God is not looking for alms, he’s looking for action.” He also uses a more businesslike register, of priorities and practicality: “You can’t fix every problem, but the ones that we can, we’ve got to.” He frames the core question as a simple choice: millions of people in Africa are going to die of AIDS, we have the drugs to prevent that - so why wouldn’t we?
In Surrender, Bono recounts advice from Warren Buffett: “Don’t appeal to the conscience of America. Appeal to its greatness. That’s how to get the job done.” The Oprah appearance took place a year after 9/11. Bono talks about much he loves America and how shocking it was for Americans to learn that others hate it. If American drugs save African lives, he says, it will be harder for extremists to turn Africans against us. His best answer comes when Oprah asks the hardest question: there are millions of women watching, worrying about what to put on the table for dinner this evening - what does all this have to do with them? Bono smiles and says, “You don’t have to explain to a mother that the life of a child in Africa has the same value as her child. You might have to explain that to men, but not to women.” The audience erupts with delight (including the men).
Bono was working the problem from both ends, seducing the masses and the elites at the same time, in TV studios, on arena stages, in the Oval Office and in back-offices. His entanglement with elites represented a significant risk to his reputation. He was constantly in danger of making himself very unpopular with fellow activists and with some of the public, not to mention his own bandmates.
This risk paid off. Early in 2003, President Bush made an announcement: $15 billion for AIDS relief. Until Covid-19, it was the largest ever public health intervention against a single disease, and it went overseas. Prudence Mabele’s time had not been wasted.
Bono’s style of activism is very unfashionable. Today’s generation of activists believe that brokering deals between elites is irrelevant and corrupting, a diversion from the work of “systemic change”. It is better to make a lot of noise in the media, raising the collective consciousness, inciting enough anger that politicians have no choice but to give in and do something. Do what, though? The answer is often left vague.
A recent article by Greta Thunberg is exemplary. The world is on a precipice and nothing is being done to save it, she says, because “the world is run by politicians, corporations and financial interests - mainly represented by white, privileged, middle-aged, straight cis men”. They pretend to be taking action, but “in fact the exact opposite is happening.” There is “no end to [their] cynical games”. I kept waiting for her to say just a little about what these necessary changes are, but the article includes not a single policy goal.
She is very clear that only extreme measures can save us: “To have even a small chance of avoiding setting off irreversible chain reactions far beyond human control, we need drastic, immediate, far-reaching emission cuts at the source.” Politicians can make these changes, but they “choose not to”. Worse, they are purveyors of “dangerous lies”, since the solutions they do propose, like offsetting and afforestation, are not remotely adequate.
That all sounds pretty bad. But how true is it?
Governments and businesses have made huge strides on climate change in recent years. Just a few months ago, the Biden administration committed to the largest investment in fighting climate change in history (with barely a whimper from Republicans). California (which, if it were a country, would be the world’s fifth largest economy), has committed to sweeping restrictions on fossil fuels and $54 billion in climate spending. As well as top-down measures, bottom-up forces of innovation and markets are changing the game. Over the past decade, the cost of solar energy has declined by about 90% to become the cheapest electricity in history, the price of onshore wind has declined by about 70%. The speed of Britain’s ongoing transition to low-carbon energy, at least since 2007, has been extraordinary.
The science writer David Wallace-Wells wrote a bestselling book called The Uninhabitable Earth. He is nobody’s idea of a Panglossian optimist. Yet this is what he recently wrote in the New York Times:
Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years…worst-case temperature scenarios that recently seemed plausible now look much less so, which is inarguably good news and, in a time of climate panic and despair, a truly under-appreciated sign of genuine and world-shaping progress.
Wallace-Walls is very clear that climate change is going to cause disruption over the next hundred years. He’s also clear that if we’d moved earlier we’d be on a much better track than the one we are on. The problem is not so much that world leaders are not doing anything now; the problem is that they didn’t do anything forty or thirty years ago and we’re all playing catch-up, too slowly. As has become unavoidably obvious this year, we are still dependent on fossil fuels. There’s a long way to go until we are ready to, as Bill McKibben puts it, stop burning things.
Activists and voters will and should keep the pressure up. But it is flatly, grossly untrue to claim that the climate crisis is not being tackled. It’s untrue that politicians in rich nations have not taken significant action; they have. It’s untrue that ‘the system’ isn’t adapting; it is, in some ways at speed. It’s untrue that climate change is virtually certain to spin out of control without “drastic, immediate” emissions cuts. Greta accuses politicians of “dangerous lies” but the accusation might just as well be turned around.
Young people are already sceptical about democracy; Greta Thunberg is implying they are right to be. I believe in her good intentions, but I think her rhetoric is dangerous, for the same reason I think all populist rhetoric is dangerous: it relies on exaggeration, misinformation, and condemnation. Whatever happens in the world, threats must always be heightened, anger always stoked. This takes us to dark places. If all politicians are useless, cynical do-nothings deliberately averting their gaze from an incoming asteroid, what’s the point in voting, or arguing, or even talking? The only remedy is to disrupt traffic, deface paintings, and probably, before long, commit acts of violence.
In a speech to promote her new book, Greta called for a “system-wide transformation”. We live in a world order “defined by colonialism, imperialism, oppression and genocide by the so-called global North to accumulate wealth”. She does not specify which kind of system she prefers, or even what she means by the system (I’ll note that whatever it is, it has made world’s poorest people richer, both absolutely and relatively, over the last thirty years, so let’s just be sure the new system will be better, huh?). If she did so, she would have to engage in real argument and debate. Greta Thunberg is personally brave. But there is something risk-averse about her style of activism.
Herewith are two alternative models of global social impact. For Bono, the task involves constant communication with three constituencies: the people he wants to help, the public at home, and the rich and powerful. All of them have to be listened to, taken seriously, and engaged. For Greta, politicians and corporations are barriers to be smashed with a battering ram formed from the will of the people.
“Effective altruists” take a third approach. Like Greta, they are cynical about politicians or governments, and have little faith in democracy’s ability to solve our most urgent problems. They do, however, believe in themselves. Their model of change relies on a few exceptionally brilliant, exceptionally good, exceptionally rich people having an outsized impact. There’s no need to persuade voters to get behind their causes. Of course, they’d be delighted if everyone thought like them, but their heart is not really in persuasion, which takes up too much time.
Without institutional regulation, diligence, and scrutiny, the EA model leaves itself open to abuse by bad actors - or rather, good ones. When Sequoia Capital met with Sam Bankman-Fried, he may have hooked them with FTX, but what really turned them on was when he declared his majestic raison d’etre, his green light: a moral mission to improve the world. On hearing that, the bankers swooned, and handed over $500 million to FTX without so much as a glimpse at its balance sheet. Bankman-Fried has now revealed that his manifesto was little more than a marketing hack. It worked beautifully. I’m reminded of Steve Coogan’s character Paul Calf, who said “I’m a radical feminist. You have to be if you want any chance of getting yer end away these days". These days, you have to be an effective altruist if you want to be a successful psychopath.
The fall of Bankman-Fried need not discredit the EA movement, which is mainly composed of good people trying to do good things. But it should raise a question over its model. Unlike Greta-style activists, the EAs are very good at defining specific problems and proposing concrete solutions. They are less good at the messy, unquantifiable stuff of listening to those they seek to help, or of bringing the public onside (it might not be coincidence that many of them are introverts who are uncomfortable with social interactions outside their peer group, hence the appeal of a shared house in the Bahamas for an HQ/nest for the polycule). Scrutiny, dialogue and persuasion can be frustrating, and they certainly slow everything down. But they can produce solutions which are more scalable, workable and enduring.
The “leave it to the smart people” model is also dangerously under-diversified, like the old monarchical model of government. Get yourself a wise and good king and the country can be run capably, perhaps more so than by a parliament. But what if the next king turns out to be an idiot - or a liar?
President Bush renewed the PEPFAR program in 2007, and President Obama continued it. In all, US taxpayers have committed over a hundred billion dollars to fighting AIDS in Africa, saving over a million lives in the process - the program has been incredibly effective.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bono was asked whether he is aware of how much his kind of campaigning is scorned by younger activists calling for “systemic change”. He replied, “I get one eyebrow up when people want systemic change but don’t want to turn up to the town hall meeting.” It’s true: Bono is very unpopular with social justice activists (the tweeter above says he is ‘hated’). He can certainly be infuriating - pompous, pious, moralistic, hypocritical. He is criticised, with some justification, for his tax arrangements, and for being too friendly with billionaires. But how many activists have achieved anything like the impact he has?
He is flawed but at least his flaws are in plain sight. Bono is an enthusiastic businessman as well as a campaigner. In his philanthropy, as in business, he takes risks and accepts that failure is a necessary by-product of success. Unlike Sam Bankman-Fried, however, he doesn’t try to dodge the infrastructure of government and democracy, but to mobilise it. He is a kind of moral entrepreneur, staking his reputational capital on tangible plans, accepting the possibility of falling flat on his face. As Dorian Lynskey put it in a review of Surrender, Bono’s failures are more interesting than most people’s successes.
There is, obviously, no single model of global social impact everyone ought to follow, and, while I like him, a world full of Bonos is a terrifying prospect. I just find it odd that his activism inspires so little admiration among those wish to improve the world. Greta Thunberg is only nineteen, she is still in the process of building her moral capital, and may take more risks with it when she is older. But right now, she is typical of a breed of activist who prefer the safety of radical rhetoric to the slow, unpredictable, and often unglamorous work of designing workable policies, persuading voters to support them, and politicians to implement them. The town hall meeting can be uncomfortable and boring, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time.
Below the fold: more examples of moral entrepreneurs, plus an absolute feast: my thoughts on Twitter, Brewdog, Sam Bankman-Fried, and some brilliant links you will not want to miss, on exactly why sex is binary, how Goop got its name, how Jeffrey Epstein made his money, and a little bit of Beatle magic. Honestly there’s so much to enjoy down there - if you don’t have a paid sub, sign up. It’s great value, and let’s face it, your fee will soon be inflated away to nothing.