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Jeff Bezos' 'O'Neill colony' dreams ignore the plight of millions living on Earth now

The world is in crisis and workers everywhere, including at Amazon, are hurting. Where is Bezos’ pledge to help with our current problems?
Artist renderings of manufactured environments that could exist in space in the future.
Artist renderings of manufactured environments that could exist in space in the future.Blue Origin

At a much-anticipated event in Washington on May 9, Amazon CEO and richest-man-in-the-world Jeff Bezos laid out the long-term vision for Blue Origin, the aerospace firm he founded in 2000. Bezos detailed how he’s working on cutting the cost of getting to space and getting humanity back on the moon — “this time to stay” — in service of his longer-term vision of having up to a trillion humans living in “manufactured worlds” to be built by future generations.

These miles-long “O’Neill colonies,” named after physics professor Gerard K. O’Neill, would be placed above Earth and rotated to create artificial gravity. According to Bezos, they would also be incredibly lush. Each structure could hold up to a million humans, allowing the population to expand to a trillion with “a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins.” The choice set forth by Bezos is extreme: eventual “stasis and rationing” if we don’t colonize space, or “growth and dynamism” if we do.

The choice set forth by Bezos is extreme: eventual “stasis and rationing” if we don’t colonize space, or “growth and dynamism” if we do.

Put in such terms, the choice seems obvious. This is by design. Aware of potential criticism, Bezos began and ended the presentation by talking about how Earth is by far the best planet in our solar system and how we need to protect it. But these caveats failed to make the presentation less bizarre. The world’s top scientists are telling us that we have 11 years to cut global carbon emissions by 45 percent in order to avoid making the planet a much more difficult place to live for future generations. Where is Bezos’ pledge to help make this real — and really pressing — goal happen?

I want to be clear: Problems on Earth should not stop us from scientific research and space exploration. However, to see a man like Bezos, whose great wealth is derived from an empire built by allegedly underpaid and mistreated workers, talk about creating perfect communities in space is a step too far. Let me explain why.

Amazon’s warehouse workers have reported being micromanaged to the extent that they have to pick an item as often as every seven seconds and are penalized for taking bathroom breaks. Some workers have reported peeing in bottles during their shifts, while some pregnant women are suing the company because they say they were fired for asking for more bathroom breaks. Workers reported not having adequate air conditioning in summer, or adequate heat in winter — if they got any at all. Amazon is notorious for opposing the unionization of its workers, denying them a unified voice to negotiate for better working conditions. But that’s not the only thing to be concerned about.

The company made a big deal of its commitment to power its data centers with 100 percent renewable energy between 2014 and 2016, but an investigation by Gizmodo’s Brian Merchant found that the company hadn’t announced any new clean-energy deals since 2016 and had abandoned plans for its last scheduled wind farm — at least until the day Merchant published his story, when Amazon conveniently announced three new projects after not responding to a request for comment. The company’s renewable use seems to have plateaued at around 50 percent, and that could decline as its expansion continues. And since slowing its renewable investment, Amazon has also been poaching a major new client: the oil and gas industry.

At the very moment we need to be rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels and adopting renewable technologies, Amazon is selling fossil-fuel companies technologies that will allow them to extract more oil, faster and at lower cost. How can Bezos claim that we need to do everything we can to ensure Earth remains livable for generations to come, when the company from which he derives his wealth is courting the very companies most responsible for climate change as major new clients?

During the Blue Origin presentation, Bezos talked about the possibility of creating natural parks in his space colonies — but what about the parks we already have here on planet Earth? We can and should be at least as equally focused on making our way of life compatible with life on Earth as we are with doing so on fantastical moon colonies that won’t be workable for several generations, at the earliest.

The United Nations’ recent biodiversity report laid out the extent of our impact on the species we’re supposed to be sharing this planet with. The world’s leading scientists on these matters reported that the biomass of wild animals has fallen a staggering 82 percent, natural ecosystems have lost half their area, and a million species are at risk of extinction. These species won’t be saved by space colonies.

Yet, whenever a plan that would really address the climate emergency is put forward, it’s labeled too expensive or not unrealistic — Howard Schultz and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, have said as much about the Green New Deal. Even Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a “green dream.” The cost of inaction — worse natural disasters, people displaced by them, disrupted food systems and more — is rarely considered. And if taxes need to be raised to fund a green transition, hiking them on uber-rich people dreaming of space colonies and massive corporations like Amazon is a great place to start.

We also need to ask ourselves a more fundamental question: Who gets to decide the future of space? We’ve always looked up at our moon, its pale glow in the night sky, and seen a body that was beautiful, pristine and largely beyond our reach. Yet now billionaires like Bezos call it a “gift” that they want to turn into an open pit mine that will produce the resources to build space colonies. Is spoiling and pillaging other planets and moons in our solar system really the answer for the forces of extractive capitalism that have already torn up our own? I’m not sure — but I certainly don’t think the captains of capitalism should be the ones making the decisions.

As I watched the Blue Origin presentation, I didn’t see a hopeful vision of the future; rather, I thought of the 2013 film “Elysium.” In the film, Matt Damon plays a man trying to survive in a climate-ravaged Los Angeles where jobs are few, health care is poor and residents are policed by cruel, humanoid robots. The citizens of Earth have no say over their lives, but are ruled by the rich and powerful who have moved off-world to a space colony similar to what Bezos described. But better. On Elysium, any malady can be cured, robots are servants and the rich don’t have to worry about the poor souls they left behind — or so they think.

When introducing the O’Neill colonies, Bezos said that “people are going to want to live here,” but I couldn’t help but wonder who will get the opportunity. If you think a house in San Francisco is expensive, I can’t imagine what you’d have to pay on one of his manufactured space Edens. But I am sure I wouldn’t be able to afford it.