Growing up, billionaires were a source of inspiration for me seemingly by default. After all, for a child, why wouldn’t they be? Hardworking and often self-made, they seemed like the embodiment of the American dream, akin to real-life heroes.
Little did I know, however, that such adoration of the affluent was something the world would follow, and thus undermine our accountability as individuals. Inspired by Naomi Klein — the author of the New York Times bestseller “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” which explores the myths around the climate debate and how capitalism relates to the looming crisis — I argue that it is irresponsible on our part to expect billionaires to come to the rescue of this dying planet.
It is not hard to notice that we stand at a tipping point in terms of environmentalism. With wildlife populations having decreased by an average of 60% in just a little more than 40 years and 2020 being the hottest year on record, it seems that we are on the verge of an ecological breakdown of epic proportions.
Despite these conditions, we see relatively little urgency in individual behavior, especially in the United States, to actively address the issues resulting from climate change. However, even if individuals believe this problem is an urgent issue, the inefficacy of the government lets them down. According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans think the federal government isn’t doing enough to mitigate climate change. In such a dire situation, no wonder that people feel a suspension of disbelief, a nihilist feeling that makes them wonder, “What will my individual actions accomplish?”
This downplay of individual action naturally shifts the responsibility to another class of people that does seem powerful on the individual level: the extraordinarily affluent. A 2019 study from the Cato Institute showed that 65% of Americans believe wealthy people “invest their money in new businesses that create jobs and new technology.” Accompanied by this public perception of creative economic power, billionaire philanthropy seems like a saving grace for a planet in environmental crisis.
Seemingly driven by social responsibility, the richest people in the world often play the part of noble champions in their public efforts to cure this crisis. Entrepreneur Richard Branson pledged in 2006 to donate more than $3 billion to develop biofuels, while the likes of Warren Buffet and Michael Bloomberg have acknowledged the need for climate-based action. Buffet claimed in 2007 that “the odds are good that global warming is serious” and “if you have to make a mistake, err on the side of the planet. Build a margin of safety to take care of the only planet we have.” Bloomberg went as far as pledging $500 million to eliminate the use of coal in the United States.
However, “green billionaires” are a myth. Various philanthropic activities or sensitivity shown by many billionaires for the climate either seem to have a hidden motive or are simply misleading. According to a 2015 Oxfam report, the richest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for nearly half of global carbon emissions. Furthermore, Branson invested less than $300 million of his proposed fund, which went to fringe green initiatives such as car fuel efficiency. Buffet’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, still funds the Chevron corporation, a major fossil fuel player, and Bloomberg’s renewed efforts toward climate change cannot hide his personal connection to Willett Advisors, a company that invests in natural gas. Beyond the apparent hypocrisy, however, there is the question of institutional responsibility when society accepts these rich rescuers.
While it is tempting to praise short-term grants from billionaires, however sizable they may be, these grants not only represent abject state failure but also provide an avenue of power to these mythical figures that can be used for personal leverage. Not only does this win billionaires media sympathy from the people, enhancing their image of capitalistic idolatry, but we also find them accessing power on Capitol Hill, which can be devastating in the long run. Such was the case when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation helped influence the creation of the pro-charter school Race to the Top program from Barack Obama’s administration because of their widespread advocacy efforts.
In accepting the power of private money as a long-term solution to mitigate climate change, it is easy to unconsciously rid ourselves of any responsibility to contribute to the process ourselves. We find ourselves risking complacency, safe in the knowledge that wealthy cultural influences such as Elon Musk will fix the world. However, sole reliance on philanthropy cannot solve this crisis on its own. The extent of a problem collectively created by billions of people cannot be resolved by the actions of a handful of individuals, no matter how powerful they may be. Sustainable practices and widespread adoption of these practices are the only way forward.
It would be wrong to assume that all philanthropy is bad. In fact, promising initiatives such as Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion pledge to solve the climate crisis might be helpful to the cause. But we cannot fall into a culture of reliance on a handful of such people because it is neither democratic nor sustainable. We need to take stock of the crisis, hold ourselves accountable and take action, no matter how small it seems, to overcome this problem.