Population and Growth: What's so far missing from the Bezos Earth Fund Donations

The “Environmental Philanthropic Industrial Complex” (EPIC) got a huge shot in the arm in mid-November 2020 when the Bezos Earth Fund made an initial round of donations to environmental and social justice groups totaling $791 million. The Fund, created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — now the world’s richest man — claims it will donate a total of $10 billion to fight climate change.

A hard look at this initial round of donations offers a glimpse into Bezos’ mindset.

First, it’s heavy on technological solutions, perhaps not surprising for a man who made his fortune from tech. From launching a satellite that will monitor methane emissions (Environmental Defense Fund = $100 million) to genetic manipulations of plants to coax them to soak up and store more carbon (Salk Institute = $30 million), Bezos clearly sees a need for technology to fix the problems that technology has created. It makes me picture a sci-fi movie where Giant Tech — Green Tech on one side -vs-Fossil Fuel Tech on the other — battles against each other for the future of the planet.

Second, so-called “nature-based solutions” are heavy in the mix of recipients. From the World Wildlife Fund ($100 million) to The Nature Conservancy ($100 million), Bezos’ donations indicate that buying and conserving landscapes and forests that sequester carbon are a strong path forward. The Nature Conservancy’s stated use of the money — to protect old growth forest on the western edge of the U.S. and Canada — indicate that wild nature may get a boost in the arm from these and future Bezos donations. I see this as a super-positive step forward for not only fighting climate change but also fighting the biodiversity crisis across the planet.

While tech and nature-based donations can and should make a difference in environmental outcomes, the first round of Bezos donations also indicates errors of omission.

First, Bezos has so far mostly missed the role that economic growth plays in escalating climate emissions. The significant emissions reductions caused by the coronavirus economic lockdowns in 2020 indicate that economic growth is the main cause of escalating emissions. Further, a November 2020 study by the University of Colorado point-blank describes how, due to the coronavirus impacts on the global economy, the “worst-case scenarios” of climate change are now unlikely. If we’re going to stop climate change, we’re likely going to have to stop and stabilize global economic growth. Bezos should take a look at the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy to fix this error.

Second, Bezos has so far completely missed the role of population growth in escalating climate emissions. A series of studies over the past few years have concluded that, for individual people, purposely decreasing population growth rates by having one fewer child can be up to 30 times more effective at cutting greenhouse gas emissions than the next best action which is “Living Car Free”. These studies and reports have come from the “American Association for the Advancement of Science”, The “Drawdown Project”, and other academic papers, and have been reported widely in the media. Further, population growth in so-called “developed” countries is much worse than population growth in the “developing” world because high-income developed countries — like the U.S. — have much higher per capita emissions. Thus, making more Americans makes climate change worse.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the world’s richest man — who made his fortune from technology, capitalistic growth, and a growing population — would not work to undermine how his wealth was created. An old friend of mine who used to be the Mayor of Boulder, Colorado, once pointed out that many of Boulder’s wealthy tech capitalists often believed that the way to solve Boulder’s various social and environmental problems involved the very path that made them rich — business-savvy tech capitalism. This is a type of logical fallacy called “false analogy” that is very common when business people try to solve non-business governmental and social problems. Further, perhaps it is the very thing that made Bezos wildly rich — business and tech capitalism — that is one of the main causes of climate change.

That said, smaller portions of Bezos’ grants, and one in particular, points to a“hedge bet” in his thinking and philanthropy. The $12 million grant to “NDN Collective” suggests that Bezos’ mind is open and expansive to not just alternative viewpoints but to challenging the very global, colonizing, capitalistic machine that made him rich. NDN Collective will use the money to “shift power, decolonize wealth, and resource Indigenous people who are on the frontlines of fighting for justice and equity". Acknowledging the “politics” of the grant, NDN nevertheless accepted the money and will use it, stating on their website, “We descend from ancestors who were in constant relationship with the land and all creation, and today, we continue to honor those ancestral teachings, living out the same values of being in right relationship with the land, our Mother Earth and all life.”