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Billionaire Philanthropy: Friend or Foe?

Billionaires have become somewhat of a controversial topic in recent times, with many having finally come to grips with the ludicrous figure that is one billion dollars, pounds, euros, or grains of rice. Such a figure easily goes over many of our heads: it is such an impenetrably large number that our brain simply cannot visualise it. As a consequence, most of us are out of touch with the reality of what a mere one billion units of something look like, let alone hundreds of billions – i.e. the wealth of the world’s richest people. Courtesy of a viral TikTok user, below is a conceptualisation of Jeff Bezos’ moderate net-worth that, as of February 2021, sits at £143.6 billion.

Not a minute after raising some ethical concerns over the absurd wealth of the world’s richest amid widespread destitution, the infamous Bezos-Musk-Buffet defence squads make an appearance. These are the individuals who leap at the opportunity to shield these individuals from legitimate condemnation, ironically for free — the bootlickers, if you will.

Their most customary arguments are usually centred around three points: 1) “But they earned that money through hard work!” (spoiler, they most certainly did not), 2) “You do actually know they don’t really have all that money sitting in the bank, right?” (spoiler, that’s really not the point here) and, finally, 3) “But it’s their money and they don’t owe anyone anything, yet look, they still donate!”. Although all these arguments warrant their own rebuttals, this article will focus on the contentious phenomenon that is big philanthropy.

An overview of big philanthropy

Big philanthropy, or philanthrocapitalism, is the “selfless” practice of donating large sums of money to charities or foundations that tackle social issues ranging from poverty and education to health and the environment. Today’s list of philanthropic endeavours is bountiful: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the more recent inception of the Bezos Earth Fund, and the list goes on. Are we, however, making the mistake of assuming that these extravagant individuals act out of the kindness of their hearts? Perhaps philanthropy is a smokescreen for an easy tax cut. Fun fact: charitable donations can be deducted from income taxes. Or perhaps philanthropy has something to do with sanitising the reputation of the super-rich, shifting our focus away from the role they play in creating the dire scenes of inequality or environmental destruction they pledge to solve.

The same group of people who have lobbied for, fought for, an economy of injustice, have marketed themselves to us as saviours, as in fact the solutions to the very problems they are still busily creating. They are getting public credit for solving but the causing never gets the same notoriety.

Anand Girigharadas, Winners Take All

The question is, are they even “solving”? Despite the millions that are thrown towards countless charitable causes, with the promise of redistributing wealth to the wider society, we seem to be increasingly heading towards misadventure. Global inequality is currently at its worst in human history and wealth disparities continue to grow year after year. So what’s not working out? 

In short, the rich are axiomatically incapable of solving the problems their own riches have compounded in the first place. Exploitation, both of people and of nature, is the standard business practice that has allowed for such an accumulation of wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a handful. Throwing more money at “solving poverty” or “saving the planet” only privatises public-sector issues that necessitate collective action and structural transformation.

The Bezos Earth Fund

Let us now take a closer look at an example of the world’s wealthiest throwing money at fixing the problems they engender. Jeff Bezos, the behemoth behind Amazon, recently pledged a sum of $10 billion to his newly-founded environmental foundation, the Bezos Earth Fund. Bezos made headlines and was adulated for making “one of the largest charitable gifts ever”. Before judging this as heroic, it is worth taking note of the online shopping giant’s environmental track record.

In 2019 alone, Amazon emitted 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. By comparison, the annual CO2 emissions of Sweden (a Global North, “rich”, industrialised country) for the same year were 42.77 million metric tons. But Amazon’s talents are not limited to its carbon footprint: the giant is equally well-versed in plastic pollution. A report released in 2019 by a non-profit ocean advocacy organisation additionally calculated that Amazon produced 465 million pounds (211 million kilos) of plastic waste in the previous year, enough to encircle the world around 500 hundred times “in the form of its air pillows”. Moving away from the statistics, we also cannot understate that unsustainable practices are the lifeblood of a corporation like Amazon, which seeks to normalise mass production, over-packaging, hyperconsumerism, “retail therapy” and fast-fashion.

The bottom line

The author of Winners Take All, quoted above, is worth quoting again for his eloquence on the subject matter: what these elites have to offer us is “fake change” that strives to “maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix — and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off. Thus their do-gooding is an accomplice to greater, if more invisible, harm.”

This do-gooding is a carefully crafted way to prolong their dominion of capital for as long as possible without it being challenged. It is imperative to resist the belief that the world’s wealthy are to save us from the problems that are, in fact, the brutal consequences of the practices that land them that very wealth. The alternative is allowing the cycle to continue and sealing barbarism as our fate.

By Elisa Emch

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