On 20 July 2021 yet another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, launched himself into space in the latest chapter of a seemingly ego-driven race to establish space tourism whilst progressing grand visions of interplanetary travel and colonisation.
Bezos, a man worth $203.7bn, seems incapable of comprehending other avenues his wealth could be utilised for. He observed in 2018 that “the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.” Considering Bezos is well known to have been influenced by physicist Gerard O’Neil, who envisioned humans living on space stations orbiting the earth as conditions became intolerable, the clichéd question that has been asked is why not direct his interest and philanthropy into solving problems on earth first?
Mirroring Amazon’s relentless attitude to growth, Bezos views stasis – the point where humanity stops growing to preserve finite resources on earth – as a catastrophe. However, this justification seems a little weak: a ploy to distract critics from his selfish allocation of funds to a childish ambition whilst earth cries out for powerful people with righteous aims.
Whilst Bezos has contributed to solving existential threats on earth (including pledging 10 billion dollars in 2020 to fight climate change), his company has promoted and benefited from the cult of hyper consumerism, helping to push consumption to unprecedented levels and holding a virtual monopoly over internet shopping. Amazon can’t be held responsible for the green credentials of the energy used to manufacture products it helps to sell but it can be fairly charged for fostering an environment of often-needless excess which contributes to the warming of our planet.
Bezos’s treatment of his workers and contractors, documented on Penny Post before, and his slippery manoeuvring around tax, are other fairly obvious areas Bezos could be deploying his financial resource. On the day Bezos flew into space, Paul Vilscek, an Amazon employee, committed suicide at a Las Vegas Amazon Warehouse. This has led to claims that Amazon tried to “cover up the situation” and has re-awakened previous allegations about Amazon’s record as an employer, including often unsafe working conditions, excessive productivity targets and timed toilet breaks. Amazon’s income in the UK soared by 51 percent during 2020 to £19.4 billion – unsurprising considering pandemic shopping habits – and whilst Amazon has not released corporation tax details for 2020, in 2019 it paid just £293 million on £12.7 billion of income made in the UK. This was made possible by basing European business from the tax haven of Luxembourg.
Bezos continues to liquidate a billion dollars’ worth of Amazon stock a year to fund Blue Origin, his aerospace company. It’s a sad state of affairs when a billionaire believes the answers to humanity’s gravest threats lies in outer space rather than pragmatic, achievable solutions such as curing disease and fighting climate change. Bezos and the rest of the billionaire space league, including Branson and Musk, should rein in their egos. Childhood dreams of space colonisation should be seen as just that – childhood dreams. Meanwhile, there’s a clear and present problem down here on earth where the rest of us, like it or not, are stuck.