Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO-turned-not-quite-astronaut, has been inspired by his time off-world.
A year and a half ago, the media mogul announced the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund: a $10 billion foundation which he said would “… explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.” The exact details remained hazy, however, until fairly recently, when Bezos set out his vision for the first 10 years of the Fund. Now, fresh from his jaunt to the edge of space, it appears Bezos has experienced the "overview effect" and has decided where the first $1 billion of it is going: into conservation efforts in the tropical Andes, the Congo Basin, and the Pacific Ocean.
“Nature is our life support system and it’s fragile. I was reminded of this just this July when I went into space with Blue Origin,” Bezos said at an event launching the project on Monday. “I’d heard that seeing the Earth from space changes one’s point of view of the world. But I was not prepared for just how much that would be true.”
Along with the conservation of biodiversity hotspots across the planet, Bezos has another objective for this latest donation: the protection of 30 percent of Earth’s oceans and land by the end of the decade. This is one of the targets in a draft UN agreement aimed at cutting the planet-wide extinction rate by a factor of 10 (thereby bringing it down to a mere 10 times what would be expected if humans weren’t a thing).
While the so-called “30x30” goal has been heralded by scientists and governments alike as the only way to avoid a global climate catastrophe, it has also seen its fair share of criticism. Some scientists fear governments may fall into the trap of prioritizing the size of protected areas over the biodiversity levels, while many Indigenous rights groups worry about the prospect of what’s known as “fortress conservation.” This is “the idea that to protect forests and biodiversity, ecosystems need to function in isolation, devoid of people,” United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, told the Guardian back in 2018. “This model … ignores the growing body of evidence that forests thrive when Indigenous Peoples remain on their customary lands and have legally recognized rights to manage and protect them.”
Bezos may have had this in mind on Monday, announcing his donation would center Indigenous and local communities in biodiversity protection. Grants from the Earth Fund are also set to be distributed later this year and, he said, will prioritize countries and regions with a standing commitment to environmental protection.
“Living down here, the world and the atmosphere seem vast and they seem stable,” he said, notwithstanding the few hundred people who perished in record heatwaves across milder parts of the US and Canada just months before.
“But looking back at Earth from there, the atmosphere seems thin and the world finite,” he continued. “Both beautiful, both fragile.”
While the magnate’s recent pivot to environmentalism is certainly welcome, the irony in the move has not gone unnoticed. In Amazon’s last three years with Bezos at the helm, the company’s annual carbon emissions grew to nearly 61 million metric tons – nearly as much as the entire country of Belarus – and when global carbon emissions dropped by 7 percent last year, Amazon’s rose by nearly one-fifth.
His new focus, Blue Origin, may have inspired him to save the planet, but many critics have pointed out that popping up to space every now and then is anything but environmentally friendly. A billion dollars a year – 1 percent of the amount some scientists believe could save the planet from an environmental apocalypse – may not be able to counteract the potential impact of a successful space tourism company.
Still, it’s not the first time a view from above has prompted some soul-searching on the precariousness of life. As Carl Sagan wrote in 1990 when Voyager 1 sent back its iconic “Pale Blue Dot”: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world… it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”