Before you think this is just another opinion piece on Jeff Bezos—it’s not. Because while talking about what Jeff Bezos does with his money is great (and apparently very interesting for some people), it’s not just about Bezos. It’s a crucial opportunity for us to start talking about the ethics of Amazon, being a billionaire, and, most importantly: what you can do about this all. Juicy, right? Let’s get cracking.
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Today, I’m thrilled to announce I am launching the Bezos Earth Fund. Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share. This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world. We can save Earth. It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals. I’m committing $10 billion to start and will begin issuing grants this summer. Earth is the one thing we all have in common — let’s protect it, together. – Jeff
You’ve likely seen this 127-word announcement already. But before we jump into the reactions, we need to set the record straight. What exactly does this announcement mean? According to Axios, the $10bn is coming from Bezos’ “personal money”, and “none of the funds will be used in for-profit enterprises, investing in private companies or startups”. And as per Bezos’ post, this $10bn will effectively be “grants”, going to “scientists, activists, NGOs”. That’s about as much official information as we’ve got. Until summer, at least.
Now, this $10 billion is a lot of money. By some estimates, this could “virtually double the amount spent on climate change by American philanthropists today”. But dumping such an unimaginable amount of money into saving Earth can go many different ways, depending on: who it goes to, how it’s split up, how long it’s spread over, and who controls it. This, of course, is a non-exhaustive list of factors. Many people, including myself, have many questions. One of those questions, however, stands out as a particularly important one: Will any of this $10 billion be eligible for policy advocacy or political campaigns?
HOW SHOULD JEFF BEZOS SPEND HIS MONEY?
Now, many people are saying that the best use of this $10 billion is politics. But before we get into that, let’s look briefly at the other contenders.
For one, he could fund technology. MIT Technology Review recommends “funding early-stage academic or national lab research and development in areas where we still haven’t developed affordable and scalable ways of eliminating or cancelling out the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.” Innovation enthusiasts, as one would imagine, are behind this. “Many emerging technologies, like carbon capture and storage, need a financial shot in the arm to get them scaled up fast,” said Professor Dave Reay, executive director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, to The Guardian.
But let’s not let our techno-optimism (fancy word that means exactly what you think it means) get the better of us. Bob Ward from the Grantham Institute, suggests Bezos use the fund to overcome societal obstacles. “Some of this money should be targeted at the United States, Canada and Australia too, for instance, support local media to report and counter misinformation about the local impacts of climate change and to build support for climate action among centre-right politicians and their supporters. The money should also be targeted at exploring options for managing a just transition among workers and communities around the world that are currently dependent on high-carbon industries.”
There’s also, of course, lest we forget, natural solutions. If you’re thinking trees, then you’re on the right track. But more accurately, as The Guardian reports, studies have shown that one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce carbon dioxide is to protect forests and support indigenous and traditional community land rights. Marcelo Salazar of Brazil’s biggest environment NGO, Instituto Socioambiental, said that the “Amazon for the Amazon” funding could be used to shift the rainforest towards a new model of business and governance that relied less on destructive practices like deforestation and mining, and more on the renewable use of biodiverse fruits, nuts and natural oils that would allow indigenous people and other forest guardians to thrive.
IT COMES DOWN TO POLITICS
It’s important to remember that this isn’t a zero-sum game. But also, many have concluded that politics would be an effective way to spend the money. According to The Guardian, the top five petrochemical companies spend about $200m a year on advertising, briefing and campaign donations aimed at blocking carbon taxes, extolling the benefits of their industry and misleading the public about the risks. That’s why Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, thinks that “confronting the fossil fuel industry head-on – and the financial industry that supports it – is what is required”. In other words, Bezos could support a “political fighting fund to counter the influence of lobbyists in the oil and gas industry”.
He could also, politically speaking, support groups lobbying for climate-friendly policies, as alluded to earlier. Or he could directly back the politicians pushing for them. Pushing them into office could then snowball into greater, more significant political action.
And there’s an important reason why Bezos should spend on politics. “Because he pledged the $10 billion as a personal commitment, and not as an outlay from a preexisting foundation, Bezos is legally allowed to give it to political causes, as well as to candidates, parties, and super PACs. Wealthy foundations with dead benefactors cannot participate in the political system to the same degree.”
This is good and: Any super-wealthy person who says they want to make a meaningful impact on an issue should also be directing money & attention to electoral efforts — otherwise, they’re not serious about actually making a difference. https://t.co/RhqmThsuAA
— Amanda Litman (@amandalitman) February 17, 2020
LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT REALLY MATTERS
Yes, talking about what Bezos should do with his money is great. We need to pressure him to spend his money in the right places. But who knows if he’ll listen? And what do we do in the meantime? Well, we talk about (and act on) what really matters.
THE ETHICS OF AMAZON, PART ONE
Leonie Joubert tweeted: “if the ‘polluter pays’ principle in env law were applied, #Bezos & #Amazon would have to pay a shit load more to cover cost of mop up of all the carbon pollution they have already dumped into the atmospheric landfill. This #BezosEarthFund is just reputation management.”
Joubert isn’t alone—these types of reactions are flooding Twitter as we speak. But such scepticism around Bezos’ latest announcement isn’t unwarranted. Think about the introduction of Amazon Prime back in 2014. The fact that many of us can’t even remember a world without Amazon Prime is testament to how deeply embedded such convenience has become into our system. That convenience comes, of course, with a hefty environmental price. Unsurprisingly, rushed packages and packages from a distance are often transported on planes. The transport emissions, coupled together with lenient return policies and wasteful, unrecycled packaging, add up.
Don’t even get us started on energy, because if you didn’t know, Amazon’s also a vast data management and processing business. Its Amazon Web Services uses a lot of energy. In a 2019 report, Greenpeace USA found that electricity demand from data centres in Virginia are growing “at a dramatic rate”. And guess what? “Amazon Web Services, which has built the core of its global infrastructure in Virginia, is by far the biggest driver of this growth. […] Tech giants like Amazon have made promises to power their data [centres] with renewable energy, but a closer look into the heart of the internet reveals their rapid growth is driving more investment in fossil fuels.” Which means that even though Amazon has made commitments to move to renewables, it’s growing way too fast for it to do so. And what’s plugging the gap?
(Still) dirty energy.
THE ETHICS OF AMAZON, PART TWO
And when we talk about ethics, it’s not just about the environmental impacts. To say that Amazon has changed the way we shop would be an understatement. It’s fuelled a culture of mass consumerism: instant gratification, wasteful and mindless consumption, etc. You get the point. And all of this is off of the backs of oppression. How do you think next-day delivery holds up every single day, through the holidays, peak shopping periods, and the like?
Billionaires throwing us their scraps instead of paying their taxes and offering decent working conditions for their employees is a cruel joke. #Bezos , we are not falling for that! The #BezosEarthFund doesn't change the fact that Amazon is a climate fiend. #ClimateCrisis https://t.co/2neNF1q8b8
— Young Fórsa Cork (@YoungForsa) February 18, 2020
That’s right, shitty working conditions. (By shitty, I mean: dangerous, horrific, and fatal.) Just this month, there have been two reports from The Guardian alone about the safety concerns and gruelling conditions at Amazon warehouses. A quick Google search “Amazon working conditions”, I guarantee, will turn up so many results that you’ll struggle to read through all of them. And every year, without fail, the holiday season always prompts more of these reports. That’s why on Amazon Prime Day, some workers (and consumers) go on strike against Amazon. And while there’s hope, Amazon is still trying to fight back against workers’ efforts to unionise.
THE ETHICS OF BEING A BILLIONAIRE
Shitty working conditions is how Jeff Bezos became a billionaire. As US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says plainly, “no one ever makes a million dollars. You take a billion dollars.”
And yes, we are definitely having this conversation. Why? When this announcement broke, activists were quick to point out how much damage Amazon has done to the planet. While some were just critical of him, others wanted to take the opportunity to have a nuanced discussion about what more Amazon and Bezos can do. But that couldn’t happen because an alarming number of people out there started defending Bezos. Now, I’m all for having that nuanced discussion (more on that later), but we need to talk about the ethics of being a billionaire and why you probably don’t have many reasons to defend Bezos. Here’s a Tweet that presents one reason:
idk who needs to hear this but you are significantly closer to being homeless than you will ever be to being a billionaire, have some class solidarity and stop glorifying your oppressors
— Alexis Isabel (@lexi4prez) January 16, 2020
And for a more sophisticated argument, read Arwa Mahdawi, for The Guardian: “The fact that we are even having this debate is a depressing indication of the extent to which extreme inequality has been normalised. Of course, billionaires shouldn’t exist. This shouldn’t be a remotely controversial thing to say; it shouldn’t even be considered a leftwing thing to say. If you believe in capitalism and democracy, as opposed to oligarchy, you shouldn’t believe in billionaires. After all, those billions don’t just buy you superyachts; they buy you politicians and policies.
I don’t have anything against rich people or even super-rich people. I don’t think we should ban the very wealthy from existing. But it is wrong to think that billionaires are just super-rich people. […] They are “impossible to get your head around how rich that is” people. They are “something is fundamentally wrong with the system” rich people. Three billionaires – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett – collectively have more wealth than 160 million Americans. The world’s 26 wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 50%. These kinds of statistics should have us all protesting in the streets. Instead, we are debating whether we should all be nicer to billionaires.”
WE LIVE IN A BROKEN SYSTEM
What all this really alludes to is the fact that the current capitalistic system we’re living in is a broken one. This is what we need to talk about. Whether or not Jeff Bezos, the world’s lone hectobillionaire, existing is good or not isn’t the (only) conversation we need to be having. Jeff Bezos’s fortune is a policy failure. The way he can amass such wealth (we didn’t even talk about the fact that he evades taxes!), the unethical treatment of his workers, the devastating environmental impacts of his empire are all examples of a system in crisis. But they are also causes of a system in crisis. And so Jeff Bezos (and his $10bn) needs to be part of the solution.
PSA that it's okay to be simultaneously uplifted by the announcement of the #BezosEarthFund AND furious at the lack of progress in improving worker conditions/ blatant tax avoidance at Amazon. One does not override the other.
— Amy Card (@amy_card89) February 18, 2020
As Summer Dean, climate activist argued in an Instagram story: “we’re currently operating on borrowed time when it comes to becoming carbon neutral and getting there as fast as possible is going to take a lot of money and resources, especially from the 1%. Isn’t this what we’ve been asking for? It’s possible to fight for justice and realise that the 1% has mostly caused climate change while also recognising that we need their money to draw down carbon now if we want even a shot at a healthy planet in 50 years. In a perfect world, nobody would have that much money, and power would be balanced equally across society. That vision of justice for all is what we need to work and strive for every day.”
We need to start having nuanced, honest discussions about these issues. That means confronting Jeff Bezos’ insane level of wealth, his unethical Amazon empire, and everything in between. But that also means embracing the “polluter pays” principle in its entirety, and accepting that we need Bezos in this fight. In other words, I think, it is okay to celebrate this announcement and—at the same time—ask for more changes to this system. (Whether or not that’s asking for another system altogether is another story. Which I won’t get into this time.)
SO WHAT NOW?
Going at each other’s throats, as established, isn’t particularly productive. Raising awareness about the unethical nature of Amazon is a good start. The hope is that doing so will pressure Amazon (and Bezos) to do better. But the likelihood of that happening is low, given how embedded Amazon is in our lives. (You can thank capitalism for that.) That’s also why a buy-cott (boycotting Amazon products) isn’t going to work either, although there is a great list of Amazon alternatives in the meantime.
So we’re left with, really, two real actionables. The first: the Amazon Prime Threshold campaign. I’m surprised not many people are talking about this, but here’s what it is: “This is not a boycott. In a boycott, you’re asked to stop patroni[s]ing a company now, and you don’t have any idea whether doing so will change anything. In a Threshold campaign, you can just say “yeah, I’d do it if there were enough people to have an impact; let me know when we reach the goal, and I’ll act with everyone else.” Essentially, they’re trying to get as many people as possible to commit to cancelling Prime and/or quitting Whole Foods and Amazon at once, but only when there are 1 million pledgers. The hope is that if this happens at the same time, Amazon will be pressured into doing something. Read about the full campaign and commit here.
The second: good ol’ political action. Join a local activist group (or start one of your own). Raise awareness about this issue within your local, regional, and even national community. While it may sound like a call to action that will take forever to work, battling a system and imagining better futures can only be done together. The truth is, I wish I could say that buy-cotting alone is going to work. It would make our lives so much easier. (Activism too.) But against a company like Amazon, a billionaire like Jeff Bezos, a system like capitalism? Collective action is so much more important. And with the climate crisis at our doorstep (in fact, already unfolding) and massive inequalities? Now, more than ever, do we need each other.
So basically: stop fighting and do something about it already.
Note: a condensed version of this article is available in the form of an Instagram post, here:
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Can we please stop fighting over whether or not we think Jeff is good and start telling it like it is?! Billionaires ?? are ?? a ?? policy ?? failure ?? and ?? his ?? wealth ?? was ?? built ?? off ?? of ?? oppression. Some y’all about to come at me but come anyway. Let’s have an honest and nuanced discussion about this, please. Article for @greenisthenewblackcom w/ all the links + additional explanation is linked in my bio. + swipe to the end to find out what YOU can do #eattherich
Image credits: Seattle City Council from Flickr
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