For wealthy people, living in wealthy countries, privilege manifests itself in obvious ways. But it also exists in more subtle ways, that even the most conscientious people may not realize. We could all benefit from more time and energy but even our interpretation of those words is influenced by our socio-economic status.
That’s the premise of Bill and Melinda Gates’ latest annual letter. They were inspired by a question from high school students: “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Like many parents with high-profile jobs, the first answer to come to mind was, “more time, more energy.”
They decided to flesh out that answer in a letter addressed specifically to 15-year-olds, like those that asked the question initially.
“We are dedicating this year’s letter to talking about the opportunities we see to overcome these often overlooked challenges,” write the Gates. “We’re writing to high school students because you’re the ones who will ultimately be solving these problems.”
Bill decided to focus specifically on energy on a global scale. The lack of access to this crucial resource, he says, prevents impoverished communities from realizing their potential.
“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.’ And the reason is energy,” he writes.
As he notes, 1.2 billion people (18 percent of the world’s population) don’t have access to electricity, which limits their progress. Those people tend to be rural farmers — a cohort most affected by and least responsible for climate change. Bill stresses the need to find creative, even crazy, solutions to reduce carbon emissions to zero. Cheap clean energy, he says, is one of the most impactful solutions to global poverty we can find. In November, Gates co-founded the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest in clean energy technologies.
In Melinda’s passage, she discusses time, breaking down the unequal demands societies make of women and men. She illustrates the fact that women spend more time on unpaid work than men in every part of the world.
“Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work,” she writes. “Men spend less than half that much time. But the fact is that the burden of unpaid work falls heaviest on women in poor countries, where the hours are longer and the gap between women and men is wider.”
Melinda recounts an experience staying with a family in Tanzania, where women work 12-hour, unpaid days to provide for their families.
Time and energy poverty, the Gates argue, place extreme limitations on developing communities. In this year’s annual letter they implore young people to get educated, get involved, and become superheroes of their own, to address the issues impacting global poverty.
“We’re not saying that everyone needs to dedicate their lives to the poor,” they write. “Your lives are busy enough doing homework, playing sports, making friends, pursuing your dreams. But we do think that you can live a more powerful life when you dedicate some of your time and energy to something much larger than yourself.”
Author and YouTube star John Green will host a Q&A with Bill and Melinda Gates, to discuss their annual letter, Tuesday at 10 a.m. Tune into the livestream here.