Franklin Foer: Jeff Bezos’s master plan
It is possible to watch Jeff Bezos’s public-spirited commitments and respond: Well, at least someone is doing something. And isn’t a private government run by Bezos preferable to a public government run by Donald Trump?
Trumpism may indeed pose the most immediate danger; the growing concentration of power in one man, however, is hardly a democratic path. And whereas Trump is curbed by Congress, courts, and elections, there is no meaningful public oversight of Bezos’s power. His investments and donations—not to mention the dominance of his sprawling firm and his ownership of one of the nation’s most important newspapers—give him an outsize role in shaping the human future.
Thus far, the extent of the public’s knowledge about the new foundation largely derives from an Instagram post by its namesake. There’s no clear sense of the projects it will bankroll, even though a contribution of that scale will inevitably set the agenda of academics and nongovernmental organizations. Bezos’s personal biases—his penchant for technological solutions, his skepticism of government regulation—will likely shape how the Bezos Earth Fund disperses cash. And that will, in turn, shape how activists and researchers craft their grant proposals, how they attempt to please a funder who can float their operations.
Even as Bezos funds his initiative, Amazon has a strong interest in shaping the climate debate, so that whatever government response eventually emerges doesn’t injure its business. (To cover its right flank, last year the company co-sponsored the annual gala of a climate-denying think tank.) After all, Amazon’s constellation of servers has a massive carbon footprint, about the same as that of a wealthy European nation; the company is transforming global patterns of consumption, so that cheap goods can almost instantaneously arrive at any doorstep. Even if Amazon aims to slash its own emissions, it’s creating an economy that seems likely to undermine its stated goal of carbon neutrality. A reasonable debate about planetary future would at least question the wisdom of the same-day delivery of plastic tchotchkes made in China. Then there are the policies that permit companies, like Amazon, to pay virtually nothing in taxes—revenue that would ideally fund, say, a Green New Deal. It hardly seems likely that the Bezos Earth Foundation will seek to erode the very basis of the fortune that funds it.
Read: $10 billion? In this climate?
A skeptical response to the Bezos Earth Fund doesn’t preclude the hope that it will do real good. Michael Bloomberg’s climate philanthropy has played an important role in shutting down coal-fired power plants. And unlike Obama-era policy, Bloomberg’s efforts have proved difficult for the Trump administration to roll back. Perhaps Bezos will find similarly effective vehicles for injecting his money. Given the influence of the Koch brothers and the rest of the fossil-fuel industry, the political fight over climate policy is in desperate need of a bottomless benefactor.