Renowned conservationist Jeff Bezos has shared his vision for planet Earth. It’s not enough to protect it for the humans living here. No. Instead, according to the second-richest man on this planet, future generations “will visit Earth the way you visit Yellowstone National Park.”
It turns out while we’ve all been playing checkers talking about space tourism, Bezos is playing 3D chess. Everyone’s focused on billionaires sending people to the edge of space. But Bezos’ grand plan is actually to send all of humanity into space with the chance to revisit Earth like so many tourists hit the national parks each summer.
The remarks came last week at an event held at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and others talking about space policy. Bezos sat down for a one-on-one chat with Adi Ignatius, the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review. He brought up themes we’ve heard before, including his vision that all polluting industries will exist in space one day and that we’ll all live on space colonies that could, in his estimation, support 1 trillion people. But he expanded on his vision in greater detail about what, exactly, will happen to the planet we’ll all leave behind for Blue Origin-branded space colonies.
“This is the most precious planet in the world and we have to preserve it and conserve it and make sure that our children and their children and so on have this beauty in their lives,” Bezos said.
At United Nations climate talks a couple of weeks ago, Bezos upped his pledge to conservation to a total of $3 billion of his $10 billion Earth Fund. Speaking with Ignatius, he said he doesn’t view that money and Blue Origin as two separate things but rather a “duality.”
“We need to conserve what we have, restore what we’ve lost,” he said. “This planet is so small, if we want to keep growing as a civilization, using energy as a civilization, most of that needs to be done off-planet. ... This place is special. You can’t ruin it.”
To do that will require us all to live in space colonies. That would leave Earth to eventually be, in Bezos’ vision, a place for future folks to visit but not live. “They may visit Earth the way you visit Yellowstone National Park,” Bezos said. Ignatius asked a follow-up about who gets to live on Earth in this vision, which Bezos did not answer. (Which is unfortunate because I would love to know!)
It’s extremely telling that Bezos’ vision for the future of Earth is Yellowstone National Park, a place that people visit rather than live. As a former park ranger, I am contractually obliged to say national parks are cool and good. But they’re also an extremely Western construct of what constitutes “natural.” Yellowstone became a park because Americans were busy rapaciously exploiting the West as part of the whole Manifest Destiny project to colonize the region. Today, nobody outside park rangers and staff live within the park’s borders and there are strict rules that prohibit hunting and taking any resources from the park.
In fact, humans were as much a part of Yellowstone before the park was set up. Tribes used it as a place to hunt and gather resources. An estimated 27 tribes have connections to Yellowstone from a geographic range spanning from North Dakota to Washington. But while tribes have input on the park to a degree, the park itself largely fails to tell those stories or the fact that it is essentially stolen land.
In that light, Bezos’ big idea of turning Earth into Yellowstone elides the fact that humans are as much a part of this planet as they were part of Yellowstone before Americans showed up. He’s pitching a very Western solution to the very Western problem of climate change and environmental degradation, problems that Bezos’ very own businesses have played a major role in while enriching him to the point where he now has a huge sway on humanity’s next step.
I don’t say this to doubt that Bezos’ intent is good. Yellowstone is one of the most beautiful places on Earth—who wouldn’t want to protect what’s still wonderful and restore what’s lost its luster due to human actions? But while “what if pollution, but in space” and field trips back to Earth may have a sheen of science fiction chic, they also show a lack of imagination for what solutions look like for those of us living here now. Meanwhile, study after study shows that Indigenous tribes have an incredible track record of conservation. The #landback movement and Indigenous-led protests against more extraction show another pathway forward, one that reconnects us with the planet rather than making it a place to visit for a weekend.