Bezos Letter / Op-Ed
Enough is enough! Share this letter to call out billionaire philanthropists and shift the field toward systemic, just, and equitable philanthropic practices.
A condensed version of this letter was published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 29, 2020.
Field and Movement statements:
Dear Mr. Bezos,
We are writing to welcome you to the world of climate change philanthropy. As long-time funders and organizers for social justice, we write to share some of what we have learned, and to invite you and the Bezos Earth Fund team to engage in conversation to discuss both our concerns and the potential for us to do extraordinary work together.
We invite you to discuss with us: How will we, as a nation, address our most pressing environmental, social, and political issues in this time of crisis? What is the role of a billionaire and other people of wealth — whose wealth has been derived from this fundamentally broken and rigged system?
As a newly-minted climate funder, we also call on you to not unilaterally decide what to do with this fund, but to share that power with people who live the realities of climate change every day and know, far better than any billionaire ever could, what needs to be done to radically change the course of the American economy. It is an economy that once created a middle class, but that now serves a shamefully small number of people at the expense of all others and the planet itself.
Philanthropy is no substitute for justice: Amazon must change its business practices to be considered a responsible company.
We call what you and Amazon do “extractive capitalism” because it is just that: Amazon extracts its wealth by exploiting the environment and the labor of millions of employees who work in stressful and unsafe conditions — solely for the benefit of yourself and a handful of other wealthy people. These workers, all of whom you could afford to pay a living wage while maintaining your status as the richest man who ever lived, are then discarded by you when they become sick, injured, unable to work, or when they demand better working conditions and pay.
You enrich yourself on the labor of your employees; use monopolistic practices to drive small, local businesses out of work; and make use of the USPS and other public infrastructure for your benefit — all while washing your hands of the dire environmental and societal costs of your business practices. You pay no corporate taxes and leave the public to support Amazon employees who can’t afford to feed their families or pay rent.
You recently announced the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund for climate change, an amount equivalent to what you earn roughly every six weeks. In a world in which one man earns every fifteen minutes more than others earn in a lifetime, it is clear that charity is no substitute for justice, and that the benevolence of the powerful does little to heal the deep wounds left by a system designed to enrich the rich and exploit the poor. (That $10 billion, we will note, is far less than the $30 billion you have reportedly made during the first two months of the COVID-19 crisis.)
Before you look to save the planet, Mr. Bezos, we ask you to pay a living wage to your employees, to provide safe working conditions, to stop engaging in union-busting activities, and to act on the demands of your own employees to quickly and aggressively reduce Amazon’s climate impacts.
Philanthropy is no substitute for paying your taxes: Amazon must pay its taxes and advocate for higher tax rates for corporations and the very rich.
While corporate media lavishes praise on the largesse of billionaires, we see other heroes. They are the grassroots leaders and activists who dedicate their lives to stopping the harm done by companies like yours, and to inspiring their communities to build a new, equitable economy that benefits everyone. These leaders know their communities because they are from them. Against all odds, they are dedicated to the idea that we can have vibrant cities and small towns in which people have jobs that honor their dignity and provide a living wage, and that we can have communities that are resilient enough to withstand the growing effects of climate change. They are visioning, practicing, and building democratic, just, and sustainable businesses that will anchor a Just Transition to a low carbon future.
Now, the global COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on every gap, fissure, and crack in our society. What some have called “the great equalizer” is no such thing. While the rich stay home or escape to gated second homes, your employees are forced to work under dangerous conditions. While the rich skip the lines for testing and treatment, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor people are dying at wildly disproportionate rates.
This is no accident. The accumulation of wealth at this scale can only happen through an economic system built on the extreme extraction of our natural resources, the exploitation of human labor and suffering, and the avoidance of taxation. Over the last several decades, we have seen the consequences of wealthy individuals using their resources to drive disaster capitalism and privatize essential public systems. While the rich have become richer, they have used their undue influence over our politicians and political system to weaken the public sphere and rig the economy even more. We have watched cities and towns suffer under the divestment from public coffers and social safety nets and an accompanying shift to reliance on charity to meet fundamental needs. Even in Seattle, where your headquarters are, you held the city hostage in order to kill a small tax that would have helped house those without homes, even as your company takes billions of dollars in public subsidies.
We are here to tell you: What we need is not so much your philanthropy, but for your wealth to be taxed and for your employees to be paid a living wage. It is unconscionable that your own employees pay more in taxes than the world’s richest company.
The pandemic has exposed every crack in society: Amazon and the Bezos Fund should work to strengthen our society, not just enrich a few.
Many of us have spent years addressing the interlinked crises of climate change and the extractive economy, both of which pose an existential threat to our children, all species, and the planet as we know it and have disproportionate impacts on Indigenous, Black, brown, poor, and working class communities. Now the coronavirus crisis is revealing the pre-existing and deeply-rooted inequities baked into the structures of our society.
And so what should be a coordinated governmental response to this moment — from production of essential personal protective equipment and ventilators, to the delivery of critical services and goods — is instead a weak, chaotic, and disjointed one that often puts profit ahead of saving lives.
COVID-19 is both illuminating and exacerbating the injustices within our systems, as we see socialism for the rich while our public healthcare and economic systems collapse. This is not the shared sacrifice FDR called for during the Great Depression. This is the widespread sickness, the long-held belief of some, that the endless accumulation of wealth is the ultimate goal. You, for example, the wealthiest man in the world, are now asking the public to donate to a fund to supplement low-wage and impacted Amazon employees. The hypocrisy is astounding.
An authentic response to this moment would require a re-envisioning of the entire Amazon business empire. It would stop the inhumane treatment and abuse of frontline workers and ensure paid sick leave, healthcare, safety and protections for workers, and a living wage for all employees. As philanthropists, we are following and funding the leadership of workers and frontline communities staging walkouts and strikes and who, like Athena, are working to disrupt the current reality. We call on you to do the same, so you and all of us know that you are truly contributing to undoing, rather than deepening, structural inequities.
Philanthropy is not simply about giving away money: the Bezos Earth Fund should learn from others’ mistakes in resourcing the grasstops and market-based, false solutions.
While we are sparing no criticism, we commend you for making a first step with this fund to address climate change. Now we ask not what you plan to do with the $10 billion, but how grassroots leaders across the country would allocate these funds. Climate change, after all, is a symptom of a broken system. To truly address it, we must imagine, and begin to put into place, an economic system rooted in regeneration and justice, in which all of our community members have what they need while we live in balance with our natural systems.
Because you are relatively new to philanthropy, we want to share some of what we have learned about giving. We have seen that it is a mistake for major donors to focus their giving on large and mainstream environmental organizations, the so-called Big Greens, often criticized for causing environmental harm through their false solutions such as carbon offset schemes that allow their corporate donors to continue polluting. But more than that, to truly combat climate change, we need local solutions developed by local leaders who are building resilient regional ecosystems and economies that will enable us to meet our needs in a post-carbon world.
A serious response to the climate crisis would actually require a complete re-tooling of your entire business empire. Failing that, you could surprise the philanthropic establishment by funding grassroots solutions accountable to the communities and places they serve and supporting a larger ecosystem of organizations that are based not just in Washington D.C., but in rural and urban communities around the country. And by providing funding support for Indigenous leadership, not only because their communities have often been the most affected by the extractive economy, but because honoring their experience and wisdom is crucial to creating a regenerative economy and healing our relationships with the planet and one another.
Most importantly: It is not enough to give money. You must also give the power of decision-making to those on the front lines of racial, gender, health, environmental, climate, housing, and other injustices, who know what needs to be done to heal the deep wounds in our cities and towns caused by the predatory practices of extractive capitalism.
The Bezos Earth Fund has an opportunity to do extraordinary work — if you build partnerships with grassroots leaders across the country.
As funders and organizers, we support communities and workers who are organizing a full-scale, just transition of our economy because we know that an economy designed to extract as much profit as possible for a few can never meet the human needs of present and future generations. This is especially true for our community members who have been historically oppressed through capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the right-wing, carceral state.
Our social movements and communities are not seeking “charity”, nor the corporate takeover of core functions of the state, nor market-based solutions to intersecting crises. We are demanding the redistribution and community control of resources and power, and strong public infrastructure to ensure that communities, both urban and rural, can survive and thrive. That means centering local human needs and ecological health, rather than extracting profit, and distributing risk and prosperity across our communities.
Therefore, any funding dedicated to changing systems and confronting acute or chronic crises, whether the interlinked economic and climate crises or COVID-19, must not only distribute resources, but fundamentally shift power. Who makes the decisions, and how those decisions are made, will determine the fund’s success or failure. This isn’t just a protocol, a set of prescriptive practices that a funder can check off a list. This is about working in deep relationship with grassroots social movements and developing shared vision, values, and practice around power and what we collectively value.
The Bezos Earth Fund is not (yet) an example of the kind of leadership we need at this moment. If you are looking to be a leader in the philanthropic and climate realms, the only path is one in which grassroots leaders have seats at the decision-making table and control the distribution of resources. The Fund’s decision-making board should include at least two-thirds representation from organized frontline communities. You can achieve this by moving funds immediately to an ecosystem of already-established funds and movement groups that integrate frontline community members into transparent, participatory resource-sharing processes, including: the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact Fund, hosted by Grassroots International, NDN Collective, CLIMA Fund, Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, Thousand Currents, and other funds nominated by grassroots movement partners.
We invite you to engage in deep dialogue to align our work in support of people and the planet.
In the coming weeks and months we will share more details about what we believe the Bezos Earth Fund can do to be in service to humanity. For now, we ask that you act boldly to respond to the immediate crisis the pandemic poses by supporting the People's Bailout to ensure the survival of working people and marginalized communities during the pandemic; and by coordinating with others in philanthropy to provide emergency funding to frontline organizations.
We will not applaud billionaires for doing the bare minimum while ultimately upholding the structures that protect their class interests and privilege while leaving everyone else behind. Your money, if taxed at the post-World War II rates that created the broad middle class, would be largely in the public domain. That’s why we call on you to spend it through a process that shares power, even as we ask you to support the long-term organizing required to create a fair and just economy.
And while much good can be done with $10 billion, this fund will not provide you with cover to continue practices that harm people and the planet. We call on you to immediately publish a plan for drastically reducing Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions, as your employees have demanded you do. We call on you to pay a living wage with real benefits to every employee. And we call on you to cease your monopolistic business practices that are tearing the heart out of small towns and large cities across the country. This moment requires unprecedented action and equity-driven funding of grassroots leadership. We call upon you, as well as other billionaires, to invest in the leadership of frontline community-based organizations that are already creating the just transition we need to a regenerative economy. We are ready and willing to support you in moving towards these calls to action by sharing the experience, knowledge, and tools we have developed through the last thirty years.