Jeff Bezos can't save the Earth by leaving it

The Amazon CEO’s galactic ambition is worth taking seriously, but it shouldn't be space or bust.

(Valerie Niemeyer/Crosscut)

In case you hadn’t heard, Jeff Bezos is really, really rich. At the end of January, Amazon.com Inc. reported holiday revenue and profit that blew past expectations. The company’s stock prices surged and its value once again flirted with the trillion-dollar mark. News reports fixated on the Amazon founder and CEO’s fortune, which grew by about $13 billion in a matter of minutes. The man suddenly had a net worth of nearly $130 billion.

What does wealth at that scale even mean? For one thing, obviously, it means you can buy whatever you want — anything money can buy. A $65 million private jet? No problem. A $165 million estate in Beverly Hills? Go for it. But consumer goods, even the most luxurious of luxury consumer goods, can’t adequately convey the significance of this much money.

More than buying power, it’s a form of social power — essentially, the ability to command the labor of other human beings. A person living on Seattle’s minimum wage would find it a stretch to enlist the labor of, say, a massage therapist for the occasional hour. A well-off homeowner, on the other hand, can set in motion a small crew of skilled workers to remodel a kitchen or build a deck. Bezos, with his billions, is in another league altogether. He can call into existence vast armies of human beings to do, within the broad bounds of the law and what people are willing to do for pay, whatever he desires. He could, if he wanted, pay thousands of workers to try to dig a hole through the Earth to China, and when they couldn’t dig any further, he could pay them to fill it all in again.

In fact, Bezos has decided to journey in the opposite direction — not to the center of the Earth, but outward, into space. Blue Origin, the space flight enterprise funded entirely from his personal fortune, is headquartered in Kent, right here in King County. In 2018, just a few days before Amazon took the gloves off to kill a modest Seattle tax on big business, Bezos explained in an interview: “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.” The Twitterverse latched on to this remark and was pleased to suggest some other uses for Bezos’s billions. It was easy to hear in his words a kind of flippancy, the out-of-touch attitude of a man so unimaginably rich that not merely the world, but the universe, has become his playground.

But there’s more to the story, as becomes clear if you actually listen to the interview, or even better, read Franklin Foer’s excellent piece on Bezos that appeared in The Atlantic last fall. For one thing, Bezos has a lifelong obsession with space travel. As a child he devoured science fiction, and he was and is a total Star Trek nerd. As a teenager he read a book by the physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who imagined human civilization expanding into space, not by colonizing other planets, but by constructing enormous habitats to float between the Earth and the moon, spinning to simulate gravity. Above all else, Blue Origin is about building the infrastructure that will allow a new generation of entrepreneurs to realize that vision.

This all may still sound frivolous. But Bezos is not merely the exceptional geek who, entertaining the idle thought, “Whoa, wouldn’t it be cool if …,” can actually make a serious go at whatever comes out of his mouth next. In fact, he ardently believes that we must go to space on a mission — to save Earth.

Bezos believes we are running out of room, resources and energy on our home planet. In 2016, speaking at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, he explained: “We need to go into space if we want to continue to have a growing civilization. If you take baseline energy usage on Earth and compound it at just 3% a year for less than 500 years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. That’s just not going to happen.” Without new room to grow, humanity faces a grim future of stasis, rationing, stagnation. But if we can mine the moon and the asteroids and build ourselves some O’Neill cylinders, the Earth can be salvaged and turned into a paradise — or, more prosaically, “end up zoned residential and light industry.” Eventually our solar system could support a trillion humans, with “a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts.”

Let’s take a moment to appreciate what is admirable in all this. When it comes to billionaires peering anxiously into the crystal ball of the future and making plans, things could be much worse. Bezos is not investing in a palatial underground bunker, or scheming to upload his consciousness to the cloud, or preparing some other personal escape from the coming apocalypse. He has a vision that includes the rest of us, too, still in our flesh-and-blood forms, enjoying “Maui on its best day, all year long.” He’s genuinely worried about humanity’s future, he has a plan and he’s doing his best to execute it.

There’s something else to appreciate, too. Jeff Bezos is a man whose day job is basically to stoke the fires of global consumerism, spurring on the devastation of the Earth in the name of profit (sorry, “the customer”). So it’s nice to hear him acknowledge that we have a problem. Bezos’s choice of 3% sounds suspiciously like what’s often considered the ideal growth rate for a developed capitalist economy. Sure, he’s talking about energy, and you might argue that long before we run out of that, we’ll run out of other things — untapped markets, debt-fueled demand, docile workers. But you don’t have to agree precisely with Bezos’s analysis of the problem, or buy into his solution, to appreciate that he’s grappling with a question many of his peers would prefer to avoid altogether: Jeff thinks we can’t keep this up much longer unless we go to space. What’s your plan?

And this brings us to the limits of the Bezos vision. For him, it’s space or bust. He is apparently unable to imagine the continuing progress of science and technology, or the flourishing of art and culture, on any basis other than an ever-expanding whirlwind of production, distribution and consumption, resource extraction and the endless piling up of material wealth. It’s notable that in fishing for exemplars of creative genius, Bezos reached back centuries, to times when the Earth supported a fraction of today’s population. Maybe, just maybe, a society’s artistic and scientific achievements, its capacity for ingenuity and originality, don’t have all that much to do with the sheer quantity of human souls. Maybe what we need most today is to find a way to live that doesn’t systematically snuff out, misdirect or neglect the human potential of the great mass of people who already exist.

I’m not saying that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will never live in great rotating cylinders filled with elk, elevated trains and replicas of medieval cities. I was never a Bezos-level nerd, but my adolescence contained its share of Carl Sagan and wormholes and gazing up at the stars. I have nothing against mining asteroids. I just think that when humanity does expand into space, it will be a collective endeavor, filled with purpose and adventure, not something we’re driven to do because the imperative of 3% GDP growth is coming up behind us like the yawning jaws of a bear. Let’s climb that tree because we want to see the view.

For now, though, it’s a billionaire’s world. We can keep fighting to wrest away some of their wealth in taxes, and we can pressure them to make better choices. But in large measure, Jeff Bezos and his ilk get to decide what our problems are and what solutions deserve attention, labor and resources. But let’s finish on the bright side. Space tourism may soon be a thing — this year, in fact — and the man behind it has a track record of “customer obsession” and cutting costs. Start saving those quarters!

About the Authors & Contributors

Katie Wilson

Katie Wilson

Katie Wilson, a contributing columnist, is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.