“With great power comes great responsibility.” Possibly Voltaire, definitely Spider Man, but not, it seems, Jeff Bezos.
Jeff Bezos, in an interview with Business Insider in 2018 (when he was “worth” $132 billion) said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”
There is a current among the uber wealthy to project space as their future – as though they can avoid the problems involved in destroying the conditions for human survival on Earth by getting “off world”. As though they were exposed to too many plays of “The Final Countdown” at an impressionable age. The fantasy in that song, that – having trashed the Earth – everyone could head off to live on Venus (not an enticing prospect with an surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, air pressure at ground level 92 times greater than Earth’s – and enough to crush anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on it – and an atmosphere largely comprised of dense clouds of sulphuric acid) and that the Venusians would be welcoming to a species that had just destroyed their own habitat and wanted to have another go in theirs; is only marginally less absurd than the idea that life on Mars (with virtually no oxygen, no water cycle, no vegetation, an average temperature of -67C and dust storms thousands of kilometres wide that last for months) would be remotely desirable compared to living – say – in an upscale part of Seattle.
In an interview with CBS News in July 2019 Bezos said “Human beings are in the process of destroying this planet” and – in a leap of imagination that treats planetary destruction as a given premise instead of an avoidable problem – produces a wild fantasy of off world manufacturing, with factories on the Moon within a few hundred years. Seeing William Shatner echoing these delusions this week was like hearing an echo of the blithe optimism of the 1960s that his character in Star Trek embodied- in which the future was all flying cars and galactic exploration – well out of its time. Kirk out.
What Bezos seems to be missing here is that the Amazon – the other one – is on fire NOW; and we don’t have a few hundred years to deal with keeping our planet habitable. We have a decade to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have half a chance of getting through to the end of the century with a civilisation intact. Recognising that business as usual – including his business as usual – is “destroying this planet” would probably make most people think that anyone with a spare $132 billion might want to put most or all of it into stopping the destruction. This does not seem to have occurred to him.
Its the phrases “my financial lottery winnings from Amazon” and “the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource” that stick out from his original quote (my emphasis).
His “winnings” from Amazon are not a lottery but the result of profoundly ruthless and dehumanising management systems that are part of the reason our planet is being destroyed in the first place. Mr Bezos’s “winnings” are the flip side of the following.
- Amazon pays 15% below average wage rates for warehouse workers.
- Workers employed at the Amazon depot in Dunfermline were found sleeping in tents near the factory because the cost of transport took such a huge chunk out of their meagre wages that they couldn’t afford to commute.
- In Ohio, 700 of their workers are on food stamps.
- Workers are often employed as “permatemps” to minimise their legal rights at work.
- Delivery workers are paid by the package, putting them under huge pressure to zip round as quickly as possible – the implications of this for safe driving should concern everyone.
- In 2013, they had the second highest turnover of workers of any company in the Fortune 500 Index. According to a Study by Pay Scales, the average Amazon worker can’t stick it out beyond a year.
- Warehouse workers are tied to electronic monitors that keep them to targets that are set just beyond what they can do if they work flat out without a breather. Some workers have taken to peeing in bottles so they don’t lose the time taken in going to the loo.
- As a result, in the UK, there have been 600 ambulance calls to Amazon Warehouses in the last 3 years. Just over one every other day. The Rugely depot in particular looks like a place to avoid getting a job if you possibly can – with 115 call outs.
The “logic” of this is – while the company is waiting for robots to take over, they will treat their workers as much like robots as possible. Seen this way, people are robots with needs that present as flaws.
Treating workers as throw away resources is of a piece with treating the Earth’s resources in the same way.
Amazon made $3 billion profits on $180 billion in sales in 2017. It paid no Federal taxes in the United States in 2017 and 2018. In the UK between 2016 and 2017, even though business increased by a third, the tax paid was halved – to a tiny £4 million (about the same as the annual budget for one medium sized secondary school).
So we have a company that treats its workers like robots, burns them up and spits them out, does not contribute to the social costs of creating its labour force or the infrastructure that sustains them, or the transport infrastructure along which the company’s goods are delivered, or anything else. An essentially parasitic relationship.
And we have an owner who thinks he, personally, has the right not only to keep his “lottery winnings” but to blow them on space exploration rather than the million and one tasks that face us in keeping this planet habitable for the next generation.
The sheer entitled self indulgence of people like this shows them up as unfit to control such concentrations of wealth; and any society that sets them up as “aspirational” role models – because what else should you aspire to if not to become filthily, selfishly, rich – is dooming itself to self destruction. A future future determined by people like this is not good enough for humanity, nor is it viable. Saving ourselves means becoming more human, more social, less robotic, less exploited and exploiting.
We can do better than them.