The planet’s information infrastructure is owned by large technology companies. On the 17th of February Bezos took to Instagram, owned by Facebook, to announce that he would dedicate $10 billion towards funding ‘any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world’. In response I then searched Google to find articles on Amazon’s record of the environment which I accompanied with environmental writings from Naomi Klein and David Wallace-Wells that I had bought from Amazon. I then reached out to XR members on WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, and emailed GreenPeace activists through G-mail, owned by Google. All the while I was writing notes with an Apple laptop on Microsoft Word.
This web of platform software and hardware is representative of the operative domination that American technology companies have in the publication, transmission and articulation of knowledge. As a result, the emperors that run these companies have the power to reconfigure the entire planet. At a moment when half of the American political establishment votes consistently against climate change legislation it is of huge value that Bezos has pledged the world’s second largest philanthropic gift towards fighting ecological breakdown. Moreover, companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Google have upheld the US commitment towards keeping climate change below 2 degrees through the United for Paris.
$10 billion is a large amount of money so it is important that it is invested and co-ordinated to make sure that Amazon leads other large companies in achieving climate change targets. Mike Berners Lee, the brother of the mad man that created the internet, has provided three goals through which we can analyse Bezos’ attempts to fight climate change. Firstly, the company should improve their own impact, for instance through cutting carbon emissions. Secondly, enable others to improve their impact. Thirdly, by pushing for global arrangements.
In the last 12 months Amazon have made huge commitments towards improving their own companies climate emissions In 2018 Amazon emitted the same amount of carbon dioxide as Norway. In September 2019, Amazon pledged to go carbon neutral by 2040, supplying all its energy from ‘solar panels and other renewable energy by 2030’. The company are also committed towards putting 100,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. This being said there is a consistent pattern of Bezos making commitments toward the environment in response to discontent from Amazon workers. In September 2019 the announcement to go carbon neutral came the day before more than 1500 Amazon employees planned to walk out of work in support of the youth global climate strike. Similarly, the donation of $10 billion towards climate change came during the week of damning documentaries from the BBC and PBS on the poor working conditions in Amazon workhouses. Therefore, it seems Bezos’ articulates environmental ambition as a tactic to divert media pressure from the company’s internal politics. Citizens throughout the world are used to politicians offering the same promises and failing to deliver. We can only hope that Bezos delivers on these climate commitments and is not using them to distract from media and employee scrutiny.
Bezos’ donation of $10 billion is the biggest example of ‘enabling others to improve their impact’. This sum will ‘fund scientists, activists, NGOs – (and) any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world’. The gift equates to 7.5% of Bezos’ personal wealth. In tandem to the Bezos Earth Fund, the world’s richest man also believes that space travel will enable us to defeat climate change saying ‘if you want to protect the Earth, save the Earth, we have to go to space’, the idea being that space would resolve population problems where we could use ‘unlimited energy’ and ‘unlimited resources’. Unfortunately, back on earth, Amazon have provided the public with very little transparency over their use of clean energy and therefore has prevented the public from holding the company to account on commitments towards zero carbon emissions. Without public scrutiny Amazon may be more inclined to miss or obscure their carbon emissions progress. At a more community based level, it would be constructive for Amazon to subsidise important texts on climate change and make documentaries on books enabling the public’s ability to understand the problems we face in the coming century.
Thirdly, Mike Berners-Lee suggests that large technology companies should lobby for global environmental action. Bezos has both articulated this concern and been a product of its pressure. Through amplifying the climate change narrative Bezos influences others around the globe to make a difference. For instance, his comment that ‘anybody today who is not acknowledging that climate change is real.. are not being reasonable’ provides authority and support for the actions of groups like Extinction Rebellion who are committed to publicising the specific issues of ecological breakdown. Given the authority and publicity of Bezos these comments become effective at focusing wider society on the issue of climate change. Bezos’ own actions are in part due to the pressure he has been put under by rival Silicon Valley companies. Greenpeace reported in 2019 how Facebook and Apple were more advanced in their commitment towards going carbon neutral. Come February 2020, the Amazon Climate Pledge and the Bezos Earth fund position Amazon as the technology leaders on the subject of climate change. Competition has led these large technology companies to erode privacy through surveillance capitalism, it would be nice if the same ethic, that has irreversibly harmed the human condition, could be used to confront and limit climate change damage. Amazon also needs to commit themselves to criticise companies that deny climate change, who they have in the past supported.
On balance, Amazon have successfully fulfilled Berners-Lee’s climate change demands for improving their own impact, enabling others to improve theirs and taking a global position on the subject. It is worth remembering that employee protest and media attention has provoked Bezos to make these changes and direct protest can ensure Amazon and other tech giants effectively reach climate change goals in the future. More transparency from Amazon would allow the public to hold the company to account on their commitment to confronting climate change, with subsidies on environmental books helping educate the public. At a moment where technology monopolies own the infrastructure of knowledge solving climate change may serve to legitimise this authority. The river is flooding, the forest is burning so the planet needs Amazon to help confront ecological breakdown.