It looks as if a trail that needs to be blazed in the real world will be led by a man who made his billions in cyberspace. Amazon Inc’s founder Jeff Bezos has just declared his resolve to combat the climate crisis that is upon us. The world’s richest man, estimated to be worth some $130 billion, has set up the Bezos Earth Fund (BEF) with an initial pledge of $10 billion to defend our home planet from the ravages of global warming. “We can save earth," he said in a post on Instagram. His initiative will fund the mitigation efforts of scientists, activists and non-government organizations, as also any programme that “offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world". Among other things, the BEF aims to spread awareness of existing eco-friendly technologies and aid the development of new ones to avert the climatic catastrophe that critics of capitalism, such as Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, have accused the world’s high and mighty of ignoring. So long as the economy crowds out ecology as the chief concern of the powerful, goes the worry, we would be staring at doom within the span of a generation or two. The message appears to have trickled up. Amazon, in particular, has been under pressure from its own employees to join forces with climate warriors, and Bezos’s stance should reassure not just them but the rest of us as well.
The BEF is one of the biggest charitable endowments ever. It is also the most ambitious in its goal. If the money is deployed effectively, it could not just match but surpass the impact of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which earned its reputation as a do-gooder by focussing on specific outcomes. Bezos’s philanthropic record has been disappointing all these years. He was slammed, for example, for not signing the Giving Pledge, under which the world’s ultra-rich vowed to give away half their fortunes to charity. But if the BEF manages to show some success against a threat as daunting as the one it has taken on, it could serve as a beacon for others in search of a worthy purpose. The West is awash with money, much of it chasing assets around the world that might yield anything above average returns. It would be naïve to expect such investments to get diverted to the planet’s cause. Many of the wealthy also seem sceptical of the problem at hand. But this sort of denialism is in decline, and if the BEF shows that big money could help keep mercury levels from soaring too high, other large purses may begin to open.
To back up his $10 billion endowment, the world’s richest man may want to consider turning into a green campaigner himself. It would be interesting if that leads him to engage critics of the free market. Under attack nowadays is Adam Smith’s classic proposition that people acting separately in their own interest would serve everyone’s well-being, thanks to an “invisible hand" that deploys the dynamic interaction of demand and supply to allocate resources efficiently. This efficiency was expected to work in our common favour. However, to many, the wanton exploitation of the planet proves the contrary. Bezos’s own Blue Origin space project has been under fire for its high carbon footprint. Market mechanisms like carbon pricing have been proposed as solutions, but his emphasis on technology suggests that he does not expect these to stop the depredations of capitalist development.