Space travel, philanthropy, and our moral imagination

Like many folks working in philanthropy, our team had many and varied reactions to Jeff Bezos’ recent interview that highlights how he plans to spend the bulk of his fortune, i.e. space travel, as well as recent philanthropic trends from Silicon Valley.

Here’s a peek into our emails as they flew back and forth, and where we landed, reinforcing why it is time to deepen the core and turn up the volume of our work.

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Jennifer: Media frames upholding that Bezos deserves to spend the money the way he wants, is the same as saying he deserves to amass that much wealth. Do the wealthy elite, the 1 percent, really “deserve” to bag 82% of the world’s wealth? This initiative is the face of that.

So then do the rich have a duty to the poor? No more than any other person has a duty to their fellow humans. But we don’t get to a place where the collective good and the commons are restored, then wage stagnation and modern slavery, decimation of natural resources, corporate capture and corruption can remain the norm.

Since globalization, more and more products and resources are being produced, yet less and fewer people are being employed for this process to be completed. Consider how businesses like Amazon are moving online to sell their products and services, cutting out hundreds of millions of jobs in retail. in the US alone, it’s predicted that almost half of all current jobs will be lost over the next two decades. Will people still support Jeff Bezos to do what he wants then?

Money does NOT confer wisdom, nor virtue, especially when it’s extracted from a global economy built on violent conquest and commodification of poor countries’ resources.

Jessie: Does he really think space travel is the most pressing issue of the “here and now” of our time, his stated intention for his philanthropy!?

The contrast is between rich white dudes from the U.S. who can just flippantly decide to massively fund space travel and their families’ adventures to Iceland, and the majority of the world that is forced to make choices between paying off debt vs. having a good meal, or buying a home vs. sending a kid to college. This dichotomy is unjust to say the least, and Bezos’ decisions about how to spend his fortune are a flagrant, ignorant display of his privilege and role in perpetuating wealth inequality.

Vini: I believe even Jeff Bezos can be moved. Climate change is both a ‘here and now’ and requires a long term solution. I know we are responding to his annoying “rich people can have the whole world attitude.” But what we have to offer as a beautiful alternative of what to do with your wealth is so much more compelling than simply our rage.

Rajiv: Bezos’ decision to invest his fortune in space travel seems to me like he’s abdicating his faith in our planet and its people. He’s giving up on the forces of life that sustain this land and its people.

And our work is is predicated on the exact opposite belief — that our grassroots partners have faith in the forces of life and have never given up on our land and its people because they are so fundamentally committed to human development and ecological regeneration.

We choose hope, life, and faith in our communities (women, youth, Indigenous Peoples), in grassroots solutions, and in Mother Earth herself to heal, to resolve, to repair, to honor what feels right, and to meet adversity with resilience and courage and joy.

Lindley: What a perfect case study of our broken systems – a refusal to acknowledge the social innovation led by those impacted by the extractive systems upon which Amazon builds its fortune. When I skimmed this, I felt angry and frustrated…[but also] an insatiable belief that we can generate and compel a different narrative.

When people face the doom and gloom story of climate change or poverty or income inequality, it’s easy to want to bolt (to the stars). But what gives me so much hope is that people across the globe have solutions that do work and that are working right now.

Bezos is calling for scaled solutions to absorb his money. What would it look like to invest in infrastructure to disseminate billions to those directly impacted by the reality he is running from? The ingenuity of the billions not touring the planet, but seeking balance with it, seems like scale worth backing.

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