Billionaire philanthropy has been big news as governments, corporations and individuals alike awake to the immensity of the dawning climate crisis. Michael R. Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies recently committed $85 million to combat pollution from petrochemical plants in the U.S. and $204 million to further marine preservation through the Bloomberg Ocean Initiative, as well as hundreds of millions more towards sustainable energy transitions across the globe. Likewise, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $1.27 billion toward the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Overall, the 25 biggest philanthropists in the U.S. had donated a cumulative $149 billion as of January of last year, according to Forbes.
Giving it away hasn’t hurt them any, however, as together they were still worth just under $800 billion when their assets were tallied by the business magazine. With more wealth than the majority of the U.S. population combined, billionaires have the financial power to affect change in a way that no other group of people does. With this unique position comes not just the moral imperative to use billionaire philanthropy to repair the damage done by the unfettered consumerism upon which their fortunes have been built, but also a responsibility to their fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.
Humanity took giant strides and accomplished massive collective feats in order to arrive at the place we are today. Together, we have achieved what our ancestors would see as unfathomable technological advancement and an unimaginable accumulation of wealth. The very conditions that billionaires rely on to even exist were borne out of the sum total of human endeavors — not their individual contributions. But — while it has taken all of us to get us where we are — the environmental costs and financial benefits have been so unequally distributed that, overall, billionaire philanthropy appears paltry in comparison to the bulk of issues facing humankind.
Recent comments by Bill Gates seemingly peeled back the curtain — exposing his aversion to degrowth and motivation to maintain the status quo through yet-to-be-invented technologies. This willingness to sacrifice the Global South on the altar of profit and overconsumption in the Global North begs the question — are billionaires really donating toward the benefit of society, or are they just investing in their own future markets?
Considering the immense fortunes that they continue to amass regardless, it’s a fair inquiry. The U.N.’s predictions on the severity and immediacy of the climate crisis make it clear that life on Earth is at a crossroads. Humanity can choose sustainable and equitable resource distribution across the globe or we can continue on the path to disaster with our hopes pinned to those who seem to be seeing the impending crisis as an investment opportunity. For all of the tangible and financial help that the billionaire philanthropy class has given back, by shoring up the systems that keep their profits rolling in instead of supporting massive societal change, they’ve made it clear where their loyalties will always lie.
Although most billionaire philanthropists continue to get richer while giving away small percentages of their exorbitant wealth, there are a few ex-billionaires who stand out from the pack. Among them, Yu Pengnian and Andrew Carnegie — who gave away all of their wealth before they passed — and Charles “Chuck” Feeney. Now in his 90s, Feeney lives a modest, fortune-free lifestyle after donating all but $2 million in retirement.
Feeney is living proof that billionaires can give back to society without expecting a return on their investment. Unfortunately, while his de-fortuning may have moved Bill and Melinda Gates along with Warren Buffet to form the Giving Pledge, his fellow billionaires have failed miserably at following in his footsteps. If only more of them would take his advice: "I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living — to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition." We would stand a much better chance at fighting climate change if the wealthiest among us finally recognized their responsibility to the people and the planet that made them that way, after all.
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Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.