Jeff Bezos, the new richest person in the world, has asked for guidance on how to spend his fortune to the benefit of humanity.

(This commentary was originally published by YES! Magazine on May 11, 2018.)

Dear Jeff:

I read the CNBC article by Catherine Clifford about your desire to spend the bulk of your fortune to benefit humanity. At the end of her piece, she refers to your June 15, 2017, tweet requesting suggestions for how best to use your fortune.

As I share your concern for the future of humanity, that tweet caught my attention and led me to your April 28 interview with Mathais Döpfner, CEO of the German publisher Axel Springer, which presented you with its annual award in Berlin.

In reviewing the interview, I note several of your key priorities.

  • You are deeply concerned about humanity’s long-term future and fear that we’re on a civilizational path to stasis and stagnation rather than one of dynamic growth and change.
  • You have a passionate lifetime interest in space driving your investment of a billion dollars a year in space tourism as a step toward populating the solar system with as many as a trillion people.
  • You love nature’s beauty and vitality, as you demonstrated in your recent dogsled ride in Norway.
  • You care about people who are suffering and want to focus your philanthropy on actions that provide immediate means to alleviate that suffering—for example, your support for a Seattle homeless shelter.

I have noticed over the years that it is our nature to get caught up in social and intellectual bubbles that provide a simplified view of our world, which is complex beyond our ability to fully comprehend.

You seem to be in that bubble common to people of great wealth who are surrounded by high-tech facilities and services, beautiful gardens, and talented, well-compensated people eager to please the boss. You’re likely to have close friends who also are wealthy and who share self-affirming assumptions about the world. This bubble is largely isolated from the daily struggles of people in the larger society.

My own bubble is one shared by an international group of intellectual activists whose primary focus is on the underlying environmental and social causes of the struggles faced by ordinary people. Our concerns center on two interrelated crises that threaten the future viability of humanity:

  • The burden of excess consumption that threatens Earth’s ability to sustain life;
  • The extreme and growing inequality that confines roughly 80 percent of the world’s population to a desperate daily struggle to acquire the necessities of food, water, shelter, transportation, education, and health care

This view frames a staggering challenge to our intelligence and creativity, which we must address if there is even to be a human species around in a hundred years to venture out into the solar system and beyond. If we fail to address the needs of everyone on a life-friendly planet like Earth, our prospects seem rather limited on planets that are unfriendly to life—which includes all the ones in this solar system.

The evident contrast between our respective bubbles made me wonder which of our bubbles represents a more accurate view of reality and can lead us to work on the most critical challenges facing humanity. Might there be a deeper truth that connects our seemingly irreconcilable worldviews? And might that connection hold a key to how you might use your fortune to the larger benefit of humanity?

My attention kept coming back to your interest in the role of humans in space. Finally, it hit me: If we are to have any prospect of success in populating planets that lack oxygen to breathe, water to drink, and soil in which to grow our food, we need to first get our relationships right, to one another and the environment, here on Earth.

I’m fascinated that your space project is named Blue Origin and its website opens with the words, “Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place.” I recall that the photo taken by the Apollo 17 crew on their return to Earth from their moon landing in December 1972 was dubbed Blue Marble. It became for many of us the iconic image of the 20th century and changed forever our perception of Earth. For all our advancing knowledge of space and its many planets, Earth remains today, insofar as we know, a unique miracle among the wonders of the universe.

Advances in environmental science are rapidly deepening our understanding of the extraordinary
complexity of life’s ability to create and maintain the conditions essential to its existence. We are only beginning to understand the processes that make Earth so distinctive among all the planets we have identified.

I have long sensed that we humans may have a special place in creation’s larger unfolding toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. Among Earth’s species, we clearly have a distinctive capacity for self-aware agency. Perhaps it is our intended purpose to contribute in some way to this continuing unfolding. Perhaps bringing neighboring planets to life is part of that purpose, which would be essential to your vision.

Your plan to provide to those who can afford it the opportunity for a life-changing experience in space, to look back at Earth with love, awe, and wonder, could contribute to an awakening to a deep sense of meaning and purpose. This, in turn, frames the following suggestions for ways in which you might use your wealth to benefit humanity in ways consistent with your values, beginning with the orientation you plan for future space tourists.

Include an introduction to the insights of ecology in their preparatory training. This can help them understand that what they will see from the vantage point of space is a product of the interactions of Earth’s many species with its geological structures to create the unique conditions on the surface essential to our existence. As a larger project, you might fund the creation of education modules for schools, colleges, and adult education programs that elaborate on the training given to your space tourists.

You might also make philanthropic contributions to the biological and ecological sciences that are building the knowledge base for such curriculum packages and for the legal and institutional changes required to transform our relationship to Earth from one of a life-threatening invasive species to one of healer and caretaker. These are all promising areas for dynamic exploration as you continue your search for productive ways to use your wealth.

We share a concern for the future of humanity and might both benefit from a conversation in which we push each other beyond our respective bubbles. We both live in the Seattle area, so this is not too difficult to arrange. I’d be happy to meet wherever is convenient for you or to host you here on Bainbridge Island.