By Silia Tsigka, GLOBUS Correspondent
In February 2020 Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos announced the commencement of the “Earth Fund”, to which he intended to donate an initial amount of 10 billion dollars, dedicated to causes relevant to combating climate change. In mid-November 2020, he announced the first beneficiaries of this fund, which include scientists, activists, and other institutions and organisations, making Bezos the biggest contributor to climate change mitigation activities. Although this might initially seem like the world’s richest man is making room for philanthropy, the very nature of his fund, as well as its recipients, are highly questionable.
A matter of wealth
Before we delve into the nature of the Earth Fund, let us briefly assess how wealthy Jeff Bezos really is. According to 2020 statistics, Amazon net sales increased from 30 billion dollars, in 2018, to 55 billion, in 2020, only in the US. More specifically, by the end of September this year, Amazon’s net revenue increased by 39.3%, given the conditions created by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, making it the biggest online retail platform of the year. According to the official Amazon site, the workers’ pay rate was also increased to a minimum of 15 dollars per hour in November 2018, however, after extensive efforts and demands. Even though, surprisingly left-wing American political figures, like Bernie Sanders, commended Bezos on this reform, which was not “only enormously important for Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of employees” but it could also be “a shot heard around the world”, Bezos’ total compensation is still almost 46 times greater than the median, full-time American worker’s compensation. To put this in perspective, in 2017, before the increase in the average pay rate, while a warehouse worker would earn around 28 thousand dollars per year, Bezos would earn 1.7 million dollars. However, there is so much more to Bezos’ wealth than Amazon, like “The Washington Post” and the aerospace company “Blue Origin” and, with a simple Google Search, one can find that Bezos’ current net worth is around 180 billion dollars. Even if he spent 1 million dollars a day, it would still take him around 400 years to spend it all. Although this is not directly accessible, liquid wealth, but rather wealth tied up to Amazon stocks, which can be acquired if these stocks are sold, it is still an immense amount of money. This is a clear indication of extensive capital accumulation for profit generation, through the exploitation of workers, whereby the latter are even expected to be thankful for a meagre pay rise. Therefore, this raises the question of whether Bezos’ 10-billion-dollar fund is actually significant.
Who is the Earth Fund actually helping?
Among the recipients of the initial 10-billion-dollar amount, the biggest ones include the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Resources Institute, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildfire Fund, and many other smaller ones. However, many of those organizations have been accused multiple times of “greenwashing” practices, whereby more resources are spent on presenting themselves as environmentally friendly, than actually mitigating climate change. More specifically, such organizations condone nature-based policies, through financial tools like green bonds and carbon offsets, which are short-term solutions to climate change and prioritize profit generation through the financialization of nature. Although the financialization of nature and climate change mitigation become more relevant every year, it is highly questionable whether they can actually curb the effects of climate change or whether they merely serve the interests of shareholders and investors. But let us explain what each of these tools stands for.
Firstly, green bonds operate like regular bonds, that are used to finance green projects. Green bonds are sponsored by investors, who get to benefit from the revenue of the given project that those bonds finance. Therefore, if a project is not likely to pay back much money, it will not be financially supported. Secondly, carbon offsets or carbon emissions reduction permits are permits that can be sold to firms or countries that want to offset their carbon emissions, in order to also finance environmental projects in other areas, particularly developing countries (Paterson, 2012). However, there is empirical evidence that such mechanisms have led to uneven development, inequality, and actually greater exacerbation of environmental damage. Carbon offsets, green bonds, and other forms of marketised conservation put value on land and resources that harm local populations and communities. For example, projects of the World Type Prototype Carbon Fund, in certain areas, led to water depletion and conflicts over access to land between local communities and officials (Bachram, 2004). Even though this fund was not a beneficiary of the Earth Fund, it is representative of some of the organisations and institutions that were.
The impact of the practices of such organizations on local communities and minorities that are more likely to be affected by climate change also shows the hypocrisy of the Earth Fund, if we consider that one of its smaller beneficiaries was the NDN Collective in Rapid City, South Dakota. The NDN Collective fights for racial equality and climate justice, focusing specifically on Native Americans, Black people and other indigenous groups. Although donating money to the NDN was viewed as significant to helping fight racism and endorsing inclusivity, while also combatting climate change, it seemed more like a marketing stunt and a short-term solution, that does not address the structural inequalities of capitalism.
Sustainability or hypocrisy?
“We can all protect Earth’s future by taking bold action now” is what Bezos wrote in his Instagram post, announcing the fund’s first beneficiaries in mid-November. However, many scholars have accused Bezos’ fund of being a medium of distraction from Amazon’s exploitative labour policies and emissions. Particularly, there was a 15% increase in Amazon’s carbon emissions between 2018 and 2019, which seemed to be neglected by a big part of the public when the Earth Fund was announced.
Furthermore, 1 billion dollars from the fund were meant to be allocated to electric cars and carbon-capture technologies. However, the latter technologies have not yet been fully developed and require more modern approaches, which is contradictory to the nature of the organisations that Bezos chose to fund. Particularly, the fund’s biggest beneficiaries, that were to receive 100 million dollars each, are relatively old and have outdated, more corporate-friendly approaches to climate change.
Lastly, even though these organisations brand themselves as nonprofit environmental ones, they already collectively own assets worth 1.2 billion dollars. So, was the process of choosing the beneficiaries, based on actual criteria of accountability and sustainable performance or the desire to help the fellow rich become richer?
Although the criticisms towards the Earth Fund are well deserved, it would be pretentious of me to attempt to suggest alternatives to it. As long as we are operating within a capitalist mode of production, we cannot expect firms, governments, or relevant funds for that matter, to prioritize the environment to profit-maximization. The most attainable goal in the current socio-economic context is to minimise this drive for profit and the first step would be to give the governments responsibility for climate protection rather than billionaires.
Paterson, M. (2012). Who and what are carbon markets for? Politics and the development of climate policy. Climate Policy, 12(1), pp. 82-97. DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2011.579259
Bachram, H. (2004). Climate fraud and carbon colonialism: the new trade in greenhouse gases. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 15(4), pp. 5-20. DOI: 10.1080/1045575042000287299
Header Image by Daniel Eledut at Unsplash
Really well thought out article. You might be interested in articles like this on the growing trend for and lionising of billionaires and philanthropy.
This is a goood insider view as well from a guy not normally associated with a leftist critique of philanthropy:
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas