Ausgabe 30/2007

The Billionaire Samaritans Can Gates, Soros and Branson Create a Better World?

Saving the planet used to be a hobby practiced by treehuggers and other romantics. Now it has become the business of executives and billionaires. Pragmatists like Bill Gates, George Soros and Richard Branson are outdoing themselves in a bid to save the planet by applying a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit.

By and Ullrich Fichtner

Each day, the task at hand is to save the planet. And everybody’s on board, from Cape Horn to Hammerfest, Norway, from Siberia to Hawaii. The issues are the environment, hunger, AIDS. The issues are water, peace, trash. The issues are everything or nothing, the monumental and the insignificant. The race is on among all of those feeling the torment brought on by the fate of the world. Some take to the stage to give musical expression to their worries. Others toil away in isolation to crack the problems, big and small, that are besetting the planet.

Bill Clinton is sitting in a room on the 18th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue in New York. Outside, it’s raining. Inside, young assistants are buzzing around him, whispering and telephoning while they work. Clinton’s wearing a light-blue shirt, a dark-blue tie and a dark suit. He’s sitting there as if he were still the man occupying the desk in the Oval Office, though his face may be a bit rosier. But he’s not in the Oval Office any longer. He’s in the Waldorf, and he’s speaking: "Doing is better than talking.”

For 90 minutes now, the conference room next door has been packed with people. It is the Starlight Room of the Waldorf-Astoria, a room of pillars and heavy drapes. The carpet emits a golden glow. The room is a grand stage for a grand opera. And the title of this production hangs on the wall: "Clinton Climate Initiative.”

"I’m in the doing business now,” Clinton says shortly before he gets his cue. It’s a puzzling sentence coming from the mouth of a man who once was the most powerful leader in the world, a person who held the levers of power for eight years. Once upon a time, Clinton could trigger a war and snuff it out, as he chose. He could call up the world’s elite any time, day or night. He’s sat across the negotiating table from them all, the government representatives, the corporate bosses, the warlords and the Nobel Prize laureates. But not until now, right now, does he feel as though he has gotten into the doing business.

There are moments of rumination in his life now, times when he reflects on his White House years. In such moments, Clinton says that he and the powerful people of the world -- that is, Clinton and a band of six or seven other rulers -- weren’t able to create another, better, world. He says they "just sat around a table and argued about which word would be added to a document and which wouldn’t be.” They grappled over words. They weren’t in "the doing business.”

When he left the White House in 2001, he felt that he actually hadn’t fulfilled his real mission. The world was just as it was before he took office, not better than it was the start of his administration but worse. Bill Clinton, the retiree, the man of independent means, asked himself whether, in reality, he had failed to do his most important life’s work: to make a true contribution to save the world.

And, now, it’s show time for Clinton, the citizen of the world, and he heads over to the Starlight Room. Mayors from around the world have gathered there, the chairmen of the biggest banks. Corporate bosses are here as well, movers, shakers, string-pullers.

Clinton steps onto the podium and begins to talk about climate change. He calls it a global problem requiring local action. Clinton informs the mayors that cities, their cities, consume 75 percent of all energy and that they produce 75 percent of all greenhouse gases. He says he intends to change that. "That’s why I’m here.” And he adds: "We can change things. It’s not that hard.”

The New York conference is being held to save planet Earth -- not from the top down, but from the bottom up. The environmental glue holding the meeting together is the drive to insulate 950,000 houses in New York and, if possible, all buildings in all of the world’s major cities so well that "the walls and the windows don’t give off cool air in the summer and warm air in the winter,” Clinton says.

He’s appearing today not as a politician flush with the powers of the presidency. He’s appearing just as Bill Clinton, the common man, the representative of a foundation based in Harlem that’s just a hop, skip and jump from the Apollo Theater. The William J. Clinton Foundation delves into matters that it considers to be vital to the world. It’s prodded corporations to provide affordable medications to Africa, and now it intends to act as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed laying a carpet of green throughout the cities of the planet. The foundation gets its seed money from people like Bill Gates, and its boss is the middleman between the deep-pocketed friends of humanity and the planet-rescuing pragmatists. Indeed, Clinton is a man without power. But he remains a person with connections, ties that give him even more influence than some government leaders.

Take Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin who’s also sitting in the Waldorf-Astoria because he wants to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem. He receives a loud round of applause and a big hug from Clinton. He’s beaming, just like all of the others in the Starlight Room -- the people from Siemens who are lending Clinton their technology and know-how or the bosses from the five banks who, together, are chipping in $5 billion. And everybody seems to be floating on a cloud of morality, energy and charisma that few people can conjure up the way that Bill Clinton can.

Seen in the clear light of day, his project is an attempt to get at the world from the ground up, to link cities and towns, not countries, into a network and commit them to the right goals. It’s almost as though Clinton, the ex-president, has internalized the slogan of the very globalization critics who wished him such ill-will while being kept at more than arm’s length by barricades and legions of police officers at G-8 summits: "Think globally, act locally.”

Everybody’s on the same page now. Everybody knows the script. Nobody’s on the sidelines, not even those who have fueled the world’s problems in past decades. Oil giant Chevron is now taking out ads to explain what it can do for the future. BP and Total pay money to magazines so that they can advertise biofuels. In the French glossy Elle, Renault laces up its environmental combat boots, and the huge electronics company Canon appears as a recruit in UNICEF’s fight against hunger. Being a global lifeguard pays. It’s a job stamped with the good seal of righteousness, "environmentally correct.”


© DER SPIEGEL 30/2007
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