Earlier this year, the Associated Press revealed that the single largest charitable donation made in 2020 was from former Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos — a $10 billion gift in order to combat the impending global climate crisis.
At first glance, this benevolent giving seems relatively simplistic. In recent years, Americans have ranked climate change as an area of concern nearly as high as economic stability. And as wildfires ravage the West while hurricanes tear down the East as a derivation of climate change, Bezos’s effort to mitigate such a social distress appears to be a fortunate man sharing his spoils for the good of humanity.
But in reality, this style of billionaire philanthropy is problematically complex beyond perception. While Bezos may play the facade of an environmental conservationist, it cannot be ignored that Amazon as an individual private company emits more carbon than 156 out of the world’s 203 countries. It cannot be ignored that under Bezos’s control, Amazon’s carbon footprint increased by nearly 19% just last year, with no sign of slowing down. And it cannot be ignored that Amazon continues to provide massive cloud infrastructure to major players in the fossil fuel industry, inclusive of both BP and Chesapeake Energy – diametrically opposed to the climate solution he claims to want.
Bezos is not the exception but rather emblematic of the rule: the tendency of the ultra-wealthy to loudly announce philanthropic efforts that satiate public scorn while maintaining vastly more damaging profit practices under the table.
Mark Zuckerberg, chairman of Facebook, announced multiple efforts to help develop African industry and committed to investing resources into IT across the continent after Facebook underwent scrutiny for its profit practices undermining democracy in the region. On the contrary, it was later revealed by the London School of Economics that many of these initiatives were highly exploitative, leading to both human capital flight and data exploitation of students.
Stewart Resnick, president of the Wonderful Company, donated $750 million to the California Institute of Technology to promote environmental sustainability. This, of course, only followed after criticism rose from his decades of famously controlling and gouging California’s limited water supply and building a multi-billion dollar empire off of constricting natural resources from average citizens to build a national farming conglomerate.
Elon Musk, CEO and co-founder of Tesla, publicly endorsed 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang for his working-class UBI initiative and platformed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ pop culture galore to his nearly-60 million Twitter followers while covertly donating to Republicans in key races including Sens. Thom Thillis, John Cornyn, and Joni Ernst alongside the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The list goes on, and the problem within this cycle of billionaire philanthropy is clear. As Brazilian critical pedagogist Paulo Freire once penned, “In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity’, [economic oppressors] must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this cycle, which is nourished by despair and poverty.”
That is to say, for problems to be fixed, those same problems must first exist. Individuals like Bezos, Zuckerberg, Resnick, Musk, and many more who themselves create many of these sustainability and development problems to begin with then face public pressure to remedy those issues; but in doing so often submit to the same greed that started it all.
We ought not to accept their virtue-signaling philanthropy as an acceptable concession; rather, we need to view it as a call for a dramatic shift in both economic and political power in this country.
The billionaire-class in this country has shown a clear disinterest in self-regulation. They’re far from altruistic, and even further disconnected from the impacts that their rapacious decisions have on the working class. And while we might not dismantle the exploitative profit practices of these corporations immediately, what we can do as consumers is to direct consumer trends away from corporations. What we can do as voters is to elect fiscal egalitarians who refuse corporate money and will make sure these companies abide by the law like the rest of us. What we can do as informed citizens is to make sure we understand that when billionaires announce a philanthropy project, it’s more than often a publicity cover for the egregious business practices that made them who they are.
What we must do is to not let them get away with it.