Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced this week that he will spend $10 billion to fight global warming. Either he has a distinctive sense of irony, or he has realized how his company is accelerating climate change.
Amazon’s carbon footprint is staggering. The transport of any kind of merchandise is fundamentally reliant on oil. Because Amazon delivers anything everywhere, it has an enormous carbon footprint. In 2018, Amazon emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — greater than the carbon footprint of Switzerland.
But the emissions from delivering items all over the world is not the real issue. I mean, Elon Musk is soon going to make an electric pickup truck, right? The real hypocrisy of Amazon — and therefore Bezos’ gesture — is that its business model relies upon overconsumption. This is what is truly destroying the earth.
Reducing consumption lowers profits
It is simple economics: Amazon's lower prices and ease of purchasing increase demand, and Amazon then increases the supply to meet that demand. The net effect of this cycle is that Amazon sells more stuff — and the resources required to make that stuff, and to package and ship it all over the world, increase as well. Rinse and repeat.
We must focus not only on the emissions associated with delivering products, but also on the material demands to make them. Science tells us that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, which means that all the products purchased on Amazon come from the earth and will all return to the earth.
Getting stuff from the earth is not easy; it requires, at a minimum, disturbing landscapes, mining and processing, and transporting raw materials. Disposing of this stuff also requires massive landfills or trash incinerators, or, as happens all too often, it is just lost in the oceans or other natural landscapes.
It’s no surprise that global consumption is increasing. We make, consume and toss more garbage every year. It is also no surprise that most natural systems on earth are showing signs of collapse, that plastic is accumulating in massive gyres in the oceans or that species might be going extinct today faster than the dinosaurs disappeared — the only difference being that our consumer culture has replaced the meteor slamming into earth at 43,000 miles per hour.
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For Amazon, reducing consumption means lower profits, clearly an untenable option. But as individuals, we can make an impact by reducing our Amazon consumption, particularly purchases of cheap, single-use items.
A simpler way to think about it is this: Buy much less, and buy better.
As for Bezos, there is a way he could spend his money that would make a real impact. Since his company encourages overconsumption of goods and overexploitation of nature, his environmental efforts should do the opposite — preserve nature.
Don't touch half the earth
Doug Tompkins, the founder of North Face, established Tompkins Conservation and spent millions buying up vast stretches of natural landscapes and turning them into national parks. So far, they have created 13 parks in Chile and Argentina, protecting 14.2 million acres — an area twice the size of Massachusetts.
The Nature Needs Half movement is based on a similar principle, the idea that a landscape loses critical functions for supporting life when roughly 50% of it is disturbed. The solution: Don’t touch half the earth.
The Bezos philosophy is different. “If you want to protect the earth, save the earth, we have to go to space,” he said a year ago. That's another attempt to maintain our consumer culture at any cost.
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Wouldn’t it be easier to save the planet we already have rather than try to manufacture products from the moon so that we can continue our breakneck pace of consumption? Conservation initiatives don’t require investing in start-ups or space exploration.
Unlike many techno fixes, the outcomes of conservation are essentially guaranteed. But conservation isn’t easy, and it can be expensive. The most effective way for Bezos to spend his billions is to partner with these groups and others to target the best opportunities for conservation and, by extension, limit the areas on earth that can be impacted to produce Amazon’s products.
Desecrating the earth while claiming to save it won't cut it. If Bezos truly wants to join the climate change revolution, he could begin with the public recognition that Amazon’s corporate model is inherently unsustainable.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amazon is helping destroy the earth so Jeff Bezos should preserve it