In 2011, Michael Bloomberg gave the Sierra Club $50 million, the biggest donation in the club’s history, to expand the organization’s Beyond Coal initiative, which sought to shut down coal-fired power plants across the country. He gave $30 million more in 2015. The Beyond Coal campaign now says it has helped shut down 251 coal-burning plants, thanks in large part to Bloomberg’s donations.
The campaign’s success is good news if you’re an environmentalist who wants to replace coal with renewable energy, but not so great if you’re a coal miner watching his livelihood slip away. In a democracy, both sides might argue the issue of whether to shut down coal-fired power plants to their legislators or express their preference at the voting booth. But Bloomberg’s $80 million in donations inarguably gave a boost to the environmentalists’ side, and led to changes on the ground.
Bloomberg’s gift is not unusual in an era in which extreme wealth is growing in America. Individuals made rich by the tech boom or the financial markets are vowing to give money away at unprecedented levels. But this type of philanthropy creates challenges in a democracy, argues David Callahan, the founder and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy, in his new book, The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. The gifts come at a time when government is shrinking, and when, in some cases, philanthropic dollars replace or supplant government functions. That can mean that it’s philanthropists who decide what scientific issues are researched, what types of schools exist in communities, and what initiatives get on ballots. “It’s great to have these new donors appearing on the scene at a time when government is being cut,” Callahan told me, in a phone interview. “On the other hand, there’s no question that with money comes power and influence.”