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Jeff Bezos Is a Post-Earth Capitalist

Bezos admits that the limitless growth that made him the world's richest man is incompatible with a habitable Earth.

by Caroline Haskins
13 May 2019, 8:45am

Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Last Thursday night, ultra-billionaire Jeff Bezos – whose net worth is in excess of $157 billion –outlined a vision of an “incredible civilisation” with trillions of people living in space, at a small, invite only event in Washington, DC.

Bezos organised the event to unveil a new lunar lander developed by his space company Blue Origin. But the specifications of this lunar lander matter less than Bezos’s vision of utopia.

Bezos pitched a version of the future that’s departed from the reality of capitalism, climate change, and the intractable connections between those two things. Bezos admits that limitless growth – the growth that made him the richest man in the world – is incompatible with a habitable earth. But instead of announcing investments in renewable energy or public infrastructure, Bezos pitches an escape from earth.

Bezos argued that space “colonies” are a solution to humanity’s “long range” problems, like energy availability and ceilings on capitalist notions of unfettered, limitless growth. Space colonies, Bezos said, are a way to expand the human population and offset the impacts of agriculture and industry on Earth. This strategy, according to Bezos, leaves Earth an idyllic paradise: a place to go on vacation, a place to go to college – in other words, a place for the elite.

“We get to have both,” Bezos said. “We get to preserve this unique gem of a planet, which is completely irreplaceable. There is no plan B. We have to save this planet, and we shouldn’t give up a future of our grandchildren’s grandchildren of dynamism and growth. We can have both.”

He’s wrong.

Bezos argues that a capitalist logic of endless growth is the way to save the Earth from poverty, homelessness, and environmental catastrophe. (Bezos does not say “climate change” or “global warming” but “pollution.”) However, capitalism is an economic system that is inextricably tied with colonial history, enslaving people and exploiting labourers, and extracting and stripping as much away from the Earth as possible in order to fuel growth. Capitalism is not the solution to the problems that Bezos describes. It’s the root of the problem.

Lisa Lowe, a professor of American studies at Yale Universities who has written extensively about colonial and capitalist history, explains in her book The Intimacies of the Four Continents that the classic liberal, pro-capitalism ideas of freedom, fairly-waged labor, and “free trade” have always hinged on certain people not getting access to those privileges: namely, people native or indigenous to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

The shift from mercantilism to capitalism in the nineteenth century was accompanied by economic growth in Western, colonising nations, but not enslaved or colonised populations. The privileges of capitalism have been conditional from the start.

“It is the pronounced asymmetry of the colonial divisions of humanity that is the signature feature of liberal modes of distinction that privilege particular subjects and societies as rational, civilised and human,” Lowe writes, “and treat others as the labouring, replaceable, or disposable contexts that constitute that humanity."

The exploitation of these people was directly accompanied by the exploitation of the Earth. In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein referred to this logic as “extractivism”: this mindset, which informs and fuels capitalism, argues that humans are the rulers of the Earth, and therefore, humans are entitled to take as much as they want from it.

“It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue,” Klein writes. “It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations.”

Klein explains that extractivism also relies on “sacrifice zones,” places that capitalist leaders deem acceptable losses. They’re places that are “drained, poisoned, or otherwise destroyed” for the sake of corporate or shareholder profit.

These “sacrifice zones” are the same place from which colonisers enslaved, exploited, and subjugated native and indigenous populations. They’re also the same places that are the most vulnerable to climate change. Think about Mozambique, which has been devastated by an unprecedented wave of back-to-back tropical cyclones. Think about Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which is simultaneously sinking and flooding, and displacing residents from an ancient cultural hub. Think about Myanmar, a country plagued by civil war and genocide, which just experienced a mudslide that killed 54 people.

None of these events are “natural disasters,” or coincidences. They’re earth-system-driven disasters striking areas that the so-called invisible hand of the market has deemed worthy of sacrifice and destruction. This is climate change and colonialism simultaneously.

Meanwhile, Bezos is arguing that we’re going to have trillions of people living on rotating cylinders in space, complete with trains, farms, and recreational zero G zones. He doesn’t talk about the resources that will be extracted along the way, or the working class people whose labor is necessary to create this luxury. Instead, he reiterates a classic science-fiction trope of zero-gravity adventure and opulence.

Bezos's version of a space utopia.
Image: YouTube/Blue Origin

Bezos uses the same logic of climate “realists” who say that economic regulations and redistributive policies are less realistic than geo-engineering, or in this case, spending hundreds of billions of dollars building the infrastructure necessary to transplant humans from the Earth to space.

And now space, according to Bezos, is going to be a place for industry. It will be a place controlled by private companies, entrepreneurs, and first movers.

“What you’re going to do is you’re going to have whole industries,” Bezos said. “There are going to be thousands of future companies doing this work. A whole system of entrepreneurial activity, unleashed. Creative people coming up with new ideas about how to use space.”

Private entities like Amazon will be in charge of how to divide up space responsibly and treat workers ethically. But why should we expect Bezos to govern an Earth-space civilisation ethically when he has not even governed his own company ethically?

Amazon is facing discrimination lawsuits from Muslim women and pregnant workers, it exploits Amazon Flex drivers and warehouse workers. Meanwhile, it receives billions of dollars in state and federal subsidies to build new facilities. Building these facilities can set off chain reactions that leave local governments without a tax base, kill small businesses, and ultimately have a hollowing-out effect on many of America's cities and towns. Amazon’s revenues are only possible from exploiting and displacing people less rich and powerful than Bezos, and from building a shadow infrastructure that has quickly replaced many of the services America has traditionally relied on.

Building a profit-driven future in space, according to Bezos, must also involve giving the earth a new purpose: being a haven for vacation and college, activities that are largely associated with the elite.

“Earth ends up zoned, residential, and light industry,” Bezos said. “It’ll be a beautiful place to live, it’ll be a beautiful place to visit, it’ll be a beautiful place to go to college, and do some light industry.”

This version of the future – at least, to the elaborate and specific extent that Bezos is pitching it – won’t happen. Bezos is using the same PR strategy that has been so successful for Elon Musk by pitching an elaborate, extraterrestrial future in order to draw people’s attention away from the glaring problems within their current, terrestrial business ventures (or personal brands).

In this case, Bezos is characterising himself as the genius pioneer with the heart, spirit, and courage necessary to advance humanity toward a better future. But this vision of a better future is completely detached from reality. He’s tapping into a cowboy, frontier mythology that has always benefited the military and corporate agendas of men who look like him.

“Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?” Bezos asked. “This is an easy choice. We know what we want.”

But he’s setting up a false premise, and he’s advocating for future written by and for captains of industry without input from anyone else, or concern for how they will be impacted.

Sweeping policy proposals like the Green New Deal outline a version of the future with redistributive economic policies, with subsidies are moved away from the fossil fuel industry and into renewable energy, and with governments that make investments in public transportation and social services. It’s version of the future that’s focused on fairness, equity, and real human bodies. It’s a version of the future that is grounded on Earth, and not science-fiction.

We don’t have to buy in to Bezos’s version of the future. The Earth, and the people living and breathing on it, deserve better.