Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has become the latest billionaire to pledge a headline-grabbing but relatively modest portion of his vast wealth to help ‘protect the environment’. The story almost writes itself: man becomes wealthiest person in the world off the back of his multinational conglomerate; man has more money than he knows what to do with so sends himself into space; man returns from space with a nauseatingly predictable newfound reverence for the natural world; man pledges some money to protect the biodiversity of our fragile planet. We get it, Jeff: viewing the Earth from space causes a deep cognitive shift and profoundly changes how you see life itself. We’ve heard it all before.
The details of Bezos’ pledge include offering $1 billion to conservation projects aiming to ‘expand, manage and monitor protected areas while also putting indigenous and local communities at the heart of efforts to protect biodiversity’. This comes as part of a wider $10 billion Earth Fund distributing cash to environmental groups. To put this figures in context, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves recently pledged roughly $300 billion (£224 billion) of green investment over the next eight years. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal promised $16.3 trillion in public investment.
The billionaire class which profits exorbitantly from the exploitation of workers and the plunder of nature have really taken to throwing breadcrumbs at the environmental movement – no surprise, given how consistently lauded they are for it by the mainstream press. Among the earliest examples of billionaire eco-philanthropy was Richard Branson. In 2007, his Virgin Earth Challenge pledged a $25 million prize for anybody who could demonstrate commercially viable design to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This was part of a broader $3 billion pledge over a decade to help develop low-carbon fuel.
This all took place while profiting from his long-haul aviation business, Virgin Atlantic. As Naomi Klein reports in her book, This Changes Everything, Branson didn’t even deliver on his promise. Less than $300 million was spent overall, and the prize was withdrawn entirely in 2019 after finalists were left on hold for eight years.
More recently, Bill Gates has invested in long-term projects to help achieve net-zero through his Breakthrough Energy initiative (backed by others including Mike Bloomberg, George Soros, and Mark Zuckerberg). At the same time he’s written a heavily publicised book on climate change calling for modest investment and regulation while devoting many words to defending his penchant for private jets. Prince William has joined up with Bloomberg to launch his Earthshot Prize: five prizes of $1.3 million for the next ten years. Elon Musk, Bezos’ rivals in the tussle to be named wealthiest man on Earth, also launched a $100 million prize for anyone who can find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for 100 years. This has happened in parallel to proclamations that ‘we will coup whoever we want’ in the pursuit of mineral resources like lithium.
What ties these billionaire philanthropic initiatives together? As mentioned, they are all modest sums of money relative both to that which nation states are able to mobilise and to the billionaires’ own wealth. Additionally, they are usually constructed as a prize. Presumably these billionaires justify their own exorbitant wealth with the argument that they have won it fairly and squarely in the open competition of the free market. Why not pit the world’s scientists and inventors against each other in a similar dynamic of competition to generate the best returns?
The focus also tends to be on sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than developing technologies that would allow us to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Finally, these prizes are heavily PR-driven. As the beneficiaries of global inequality and ecological collapse, it’s not surprising that billionaires may be conscious of their public reputation. What better way to rehabilitate their brand than by whipping up fawning media attention over your efforts to save the world?
Business as Usual
For all the self-aggrandising bluster, these billionaire philanthropists stand no chance of making a meaningful contribution to the climate and environmental crises we face. It is the system of capitalism (of which they are chief defenders) at the root cause of climate breakdown and its injustices. The imperative of capital accumulation drives greater exploitation of workers at the same time as the greater plunder of nature. As long as private profit dominates our economy, the crisis will continue to worsen.
Billionaire philanthropists make no effort to transform this system. It is hardly in their interests to reorganise ownership of the economy or transfer power away from themselves and back to workers. Instead, they throw money at the status quo.
Bezos’ latest funding commitment will invest in ‘biodiversity hotspots’ including the Congo Basin and tropical Andes. In these contexts, however, the biggest challenge for promoting biodiversity is not a lack of resources. It is imperialism and a lack of self-determination. The same capitalists now throwing their money around have worked through Western states to impose capitalist markets and extract natural wealth and resource transferring wealth out of the Global South and into the pockets of the rich. As Max Ajl argues in his book A People’s Green New Deal, there’s little point in channelling financial reparations to the likes of Palestine, West Papua, or Venezuela if they lack the self-determination to use them.
Communities in the best position to steward biodiversity do not need billionaires to redirect small sums of cash back on the terms of those who stole the wealth in the first place. Far more useful would be efforts to transform international systems of governance, finance, and diplomacy to re-empower peoples and nations disempowered through colonialism; ending the parasitism of imperialist capitalism where poorer nations are forced to be dependent on capitalist nations and institutions; and liberating occupied peoples and nations. These are the structures which undermine the ability to sustainably manage natures and plan economies which serve the majority.
But the likes of Bezos and Musk want to have their cake and eat it. They want the reputational benefits of waxing lyrical about biodiversity while maintaining systems to control reserves of scarce rare earth minerals.
Obvious as it may be, it is important to challenge the trend of billionaire philanthropy as fundamentally anti-democratic. This is an elitist model where those individuals (and their allies in corporate NGOs) who have accumulated vast sums of wealth through exploitation and plunder believe they know best. They feel they can best distribute resources to fight an environmental crisis they themselves have caused. Of course, it is their responsibility for environmental injustices which means they are worst placed to play this role.
Jeff Bezos needed to go to space to understand the fragility of nature. But billions of working-class and poor people in every corner of the world already have a deep, intergenerational knowledge of the Earth: they understand the effects of environmental breakdown because they experience them first and worst. They understand how best to manage natures given their history of living most intimately with their environments. We don’t need Jeff Bezos’ charity. We need him to give up his wealth and get out of the way.
We need to reject self-interested billionaire philanthropy and instead fight for political and economic democracy so that workers, communities, and the majority of people can determine and plan the transformations we need to tackle climate and environmental crises. The climate transition will simply not succeed if affected workers and communities do not take a lead.
We cannot simply rely on an idealised energy democracy from below. We have to be serious about capturing state power, as a class, in order to stand up to our enemies: the billionaire class. We must be prepared to take control of capital and mobilise it for our own purposes. We cannot sustainably co-exist with the billionaires: their philanthropy has no role to play in the fight for climate justice.