Planet burns while billionaires soar

Michael Makowski
Progressive Media Project (TNS)
Blue Origin's New Shepard lifts off from the launchpad carrying Jeff Bezos and others on July 20, 2021, in Van Horn, Texas. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

While record-breaking wildfires burned across the Western United States, Amazon executive chairman and billionaire Jeff Bezos stepped out of his space capsule to a crowd of cheering fans. His company Blue Origin’s first launch into space was a success.

Bezos became the second billionaire to reach space and cement his stature as a leading private space industry figure. The three billionaires building the private space industry so far are: Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk with SpaceX and Bezos with Blue Origin. Musk has yet to make the trip to space himself.

“If we can do this,” exclaimed Branson, who preceded Bezos’s space trip by about a week, “just imagine what you can do.” With a billion dollars, he should have added.

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These billionaires see themselves as virtuous trailblazers of a new space age. While Branson has the more docile plan of business expansion and commercial space travel (think space tourism), Bezos envisions settlements on the moon. Musk, famously, locates humanity’s future in the colonization of Mars.

Besides their money, eccentricities and desire to float in space, these three men share a dislike for paying taxes. Branson has moved billions between tax havens to avoid paying in his home country of England. For a number of years, Bezos and Musk, the two richest men in the world, paid no federal income taxes.

Behind their space ambitions is a recognition of the more earthly challenges to our future: the depletion of resources, population growth and, most importantly, climate change. In his post-launch briefing, Bezos even spoke of the Earth’s fragility and the need to protect it.

“As we move about the Earth, we damage it,” he said. In a separate interview, he stressed the need to keep Earth “as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.”

Admissions like this demonstrate a willful ignorance of the billionaires’ own complicity in these existential crises.

Bezos’ Amazon is responsible for a carbon footprint that rivals that of some countries. At the same time, Bezos and his company fund a leading climate-change-denial think tank and reject grassroots employee demands for greater climate action.

Amazon has created the Amazon Climate Pledge to reach net zero emission by 2040, and Bezos has pledged $10 billion toward the new Bezos Earth Fund. One year after creating the pledge, however, the company’s carbon emissions increased by 19%, and Bezos has only given a fraction of his pledge.

Climate change is an immediate crisis that, at this point, we are in a stage of harm management and not prevention. Proponents of the Green New Deal argue that to salvage our planet and its inhabitants requires a warlike scale of mobilization. Estimates of the cost of reconstructing a new, green economy usually amount to trillions of dollars of government spending.

In short, $10 billion isn’t going to cut it.

Upon his return from the sky, Bezos made it a point to thank Amazon workers, who “paid for all this.” This rhetorical thanks is a stark contrast to the working conditions in Amazon warehouses and the union-busting efforts pushed by Amazon around the country.

It’s important to remember how these billionaires made their money and what their space race really means while so many issues persist at home.

While they continue their privatized space race, the rest of humanity is imperiled. The planet will continue to burn, and inequality will worsen until massive action and investment is taken, which means billionaires finally paying their fair share.

Billionaires would do best to put their space race on pause and focus more of their attention on this planet.

— Michael Makowski is an organizer and writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.