Bill Gates Is Saving the World, One Toilet at a Time

Bill Gates Is Saving the World, One Toilet at a Time
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Bill Gates in 1985.
Bill Gates in 1985. By Deborah Feingold/Getty Images.

I never thought I’d be discussing poop with Bill Gates. And yet here I was, listening to one of the world’s great tech minds expound on “the chemistry of human feces.”

Finding innovative solutions to grave global dilemmas is one of Gates’s major obsessions, and few things are more problematic in the sprawling megacities of the developing world than sanitation. While most of the über-rich busy themselves buying art, property, and elections, “Bill chooses to spend a lot of his time thinking about shit,” filmmaker Davis Guggenheim said with a chuckle. The director of critically lauded documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud, Guggenheim met Gates while shooting the education doc Waiting for “Superman” and decided that the Microsoft entrepreneur and billionaire philanthropist would make an ideal subject. Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, the resulting three-part documentary series, drops on Netflix September 20.

Guggenheim might well have called it An Inconvenient Poop. Like his Oscar-winning 2006 documentary about Al Gore’s crusade against global warming, the new series sets out to educate its audience through the portrait of one man with a larger-than-life mission. “When I pitched it to Netflix, I told that executive: I’m going to do the best episode you’ve ever seen about toilets,” Guggenheim recalled. That made them laugh—but the director was deadly serious about getting viewers as absorbed by the challenge of solving some of the world’s most intractable problems as Gates is.

The series delves into three of the huge issues that Gates and his wife, Melinda Gates, are trying to solve with their foundation: polio eradication, climate change, and improving sanitation to prevent needless child deaths. Gates sounded slightly puzzled as he pointed out that Guggenheim chose “not to focus on the things where we have success, like cutting the childhood death rate from 12 million a year under the age of five dying in 1990 to 5 million a year now.” Instead, the director delved into areas where his foundation faced setbacks and struggles. Both the resurgence of polio and the challenge of creating affordable, self-maintaining sanitation technology proved not to have easy fixes: “We’re not in nirvana yet,” Gates quipped, “but we feel like we’re getting pretty close. I still think we’re going to succeed on all three [projects].”

Searching for clues to what makes Gates tick, the doc toggles between his storybook upper-middle-class childhood, the world-changing creation of Microsoft, and his current status as the world’s second-richest man. When Guggenheim tells Melinda he wants to explore her husband’s brain, she explodes with laughter on-camera. “It’s CHAOS!” she squeals. “He thrives on complexity…he can pull ideas together that other people can’t see.”

A voracious reader, Gates prefers solid-form tomes to digital readers. Accordingly, he carries an enormous canvas book bag everywhere he goes, crammed to the brim with literature on his scientific and environmental concerns of the moment. For years, Gates has kept a book blog; sometimes, literary figures like David Foster Wallace pop up on it. His approach to the late do-ragged author’s work offers a clue to Gates’s obsessive personality. He told me he’s been working his way through Wallace’s oeuvre since he saw the movie The End of the Tour and realized it was a gap in his education. He started with String Theory, Wallace’s book about tennis. “Then I started reading all of them,” he said. “I read Hideous Men recently. I’m carrying around the one about the lobster [Consider the Lobster]. So I’m going to read every word he wrote and then get to the piece de resistance.”

He meant Infinite Jest, of course. Gates has carried that gigantic novel “around the world more than three times without reading a single word.” This inability to conquer Wallace’s magnum opus might be the most relatable thing about Gates. “My passion for not letting myself stop once I start a book means that starting a 1,600-page book is a very serious decision,” he explained. “Even in the next year, with all the things going on, I don’t know that I’ll get to it. That book really could be the most well-traveled book ever in the world before it gets read!”

Inside Bill’s Brain suggests a man scheduled down to the millisecond. Does he ever lose hours aimlessly surfing social media, or bingeing on Friends? “Melinda and I watch a lot of videos,” Gates admitted, and began reeling off titles. “Broadchurch, A Million Little Things…. We’re waiting for the next season of This Is Us, Sex Education.” He stopped himself and refocused. “Yeah, we goof off! We used to go see tons of things in the theater. We still do that, but I have to say, the series on TV have gotten so good that it’s cut into our theater-going quite a bit.”

In each episode of Gates’s own TV series, Guggenheim introduces a handful of people with whom Gates forged intense partnerships, including his wife, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett. Guggenheim portrays the Gates-Buffet friendship as a full-on bromance; he includes videos shot over the years when Gates has visited Buffett in Omaha for the Berkshire shareholders meeting. It’s like an ’80s teen movie montage, with the two billionaire buddies goofing their way through Dairy Queen, a candy store, and Furniture Mart. “My relationship with Warren,” Gates said, “is this magical, incredible thing.”

He was not as thrilled about how the series emphasized the friction at the end of his long friendship with Allen, who died last year. “My relationship with Paul was mostly that we goofed off and had fun,” Gates said. “And it emphasizes this one period at the end of his life where he’s mad at me, and we’re not actually talking for a little while. So, did that get such an emphasis that it paints an inaccurate picture of my overall friendship with Paul?”

A scene from Inside Bill's Brain.

Gates sighed, and then suggested another thing that clearly irked him: “Did he have to put in the thing where the pie gets smashed in my face, and I get knocked down?” It’s an unhappy memory from 1998, used in the film to suggest that Gates is not universally admired. “Well, hey: Davis has editorial control, but that was kind of a nasty little thing that...I’m not sure what it represents. But yes, I think overall, it’s an accurate picture.”

Gates also bristled at the series giving a great deal of credit to his mother, who forced him to participate in an array of sports rather than allowing him to withdraw into his room. According to his sisters, their mother—a dynamic and socially conscious woman—is the one who instilled into young Bill a sense of community and moral responsibility.

“I said to my sister, ‘God, remember when she was debugging my code and telling me that I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the math?’” Gates recalled sarcastically, then admitted that he possibly has “a psychological reaction” to the idea that his mom was the great formative influence on his character and career. He did concede that “my mom was very keen in terms of getting me out in the world, or fostering my ambition. Her natural social capabilities—at least a little bit, maybe 20% of that I got…. But that was a tiny bit uncomfortable for me.”

Gates comes off in Inside Bill’s Brain as a fundamentally optimistic—maybe even quixotic—figure determined to solve the world’s biggest and most urgent problems through methodical yet outside-the-box thinking. When asked if he thinks he has enough years left to make a dent in the planet’s problems, the 63-year-old Gates replied very earnestly. “I still think I have enough time to get rid of most of the infectious diseases,” he said. “Then, of course, you have things like climate change. There’s a need to help people adapt in poor countries where they’re going to bear the brunt of this…. There’s a lot to do. So I see a busy 20 to 30 years to try and achieve all of this stuff.”

But his tone darkened when he began to talk about an ambitious target: getting a number of countries down to zero emissions by 2050. “There is no plan that in any way comes near to achieving that goal,” Gates admitted. “[By] 2050 is barely achievable, even assuming a lot of cooperation, a lot of prioritization in terms of regulation, R&D money, and global countries working together. So it’s pretty daunting. There‘s days where the U.S., or various other countries pulling away, or the lack of increase in the speed of innovation, makes you say, Hey, how much are we going to miss it by? We might miss it by a lot.”

We really need a world government to enforce a transition to zero-emissions operations and repairing our damaged biosphere. Otherwise, the implications for humanity—rising sea levels, decimated food supply, refugee crises—are dire. Yet these days, it feels like our chances of forestalling ecological catastrophe are increasingly dependent on the kindness of billionaires. We’re waiting for leadership, for common purpose, for a true sense of emergency. That’s why Gates agreed to do this doc, as a contribution to changing public opinion. The drive to deal with all the daunting problems that humanity and this planet face “will only succeed if we get broad sets of people seeing them as a moral imperative,” Gates said gravely.

The task at hand is perfect for a brain like Bill’s. Guggenheim believes that “in this really chaotic, dark time where there’s so much uncertainty, there’s so few people who sort of give me clarity. It’s very comforting that there’s a guy like Bill out there. I don’t know if he’s gonna succeed, but the fact that he’s putting so much intelligence and money and influence on some of these really tough issues makes me feel better. It makes me feel more optimistic about the world.”

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