The Bezos Earth Fund's founder and Chair Jeff Bezos received the Galileo Prophets of Philanthropy Award at the Vatican on October 14, 2022, where he delivered the following remarks:
Thank you, Cardinal Turkson. Thank you, Cardinal Parolin. Thank you, Bishop Sorondo.
Distinguished guests, friends.
It is such a great privilege to be here in the Vatican today. To be here with all of you in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. I cannot think of a better place to confront the problems we face today than here, at the intersection of science and faith.
Because the problems that we face are so great and because their solution so essential, the journey we are on to solve them will require the best of science and leadership. Even that will not be enough – it will also require audacity and innovation. It requires a belief that we are here on Earth for a purpose. It requires that we act today for immediate needs but also that we have our eyes on a further horizon. A horizon much longer than our time here on Earth.
The task ahead of us is daunting. Some might even say impossible. But today, with humility scaled to the proportion of the challenge, I would like to offer a few words of advice and even a couple of words of encouragement.
The State of Our World
Before we set in on the problems of today, I would like to offer some encouragement from the challenges of the past—a recognition of the remarkable progress that we have already made.
When people wish for the "good old days," when they glamorize the past, they fail to appreciate that life has improved drastically in many ways, even over the past few decades.
When I was born in 1964, the average person lived to only 53. Today they would live to 73. In the same time period, world poverty rates have fallen by seventy-five percent, and adult literacy has doubled. And even though the world population has grown greatly in that time, food production has risen even more rapidly.
Of course, our progress isn’t contained to a single lifetime. If you go back to 1822, only 200 years ago, the average life span was only 29—less than half of today. And 200 years ago, only 12 percent of people could read. Today only 12 percent can't.
In more recent years, technology has helped us make leaps and bounds. The energy efficiency of our transportation has improved four-fold in just the past 50 years. Computation efficiency has improved by a factor of many millions. And the cost of solar power has fallen 99 percent since 1979 when President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof for the first time.
If we look back on our past with a watchful eye, what we see is a message of hope. We have been confronting challenges since we have been writing history. And we have always found the faith to rise above them.
Nevertheless, once again, it is time to sit down, find our faith, and get to work. Because despite everything that those who came before us have already done, we still find ourselves in a world with astronomical needs. Our past achievements must be used to inform today's problems, not mask their reality. It is time once again to do what many will say is impossible.
As we all know, in 2015, the world agreed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. We gave ourselves 15 years. One would hope that we would find ourselves on track. Unfortunately, we are falling short on almost every goal.
This year the rising cost of food, fuel, and fertilizer has been estimated to push another 100 million people below the poverty line. It is estimated that by the time we reach our 2030 deadline, half of the children graduating from school will do so without the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
Why is this happening? Why are we falling short? It is in part because we as a species have now grown to occupy every corner of our world. Every crevice and peak explored and exploited. The pressure that we are placing on our natural world can no longer be ignored. Compared to the planet, humanity used to be small. Our impact very minor. But for some time now, we have wielded the power to cause a significant impact to this planet.
Consider the resources we use. Over the past 100 years, our use of natural resources has increased 20-fold. If we continue as we are, the next 100 years will be the same—another 20-fold increase in our tax on this planet. Just think. By the end of this short century, we will be using 400 times more natural resources and energy than in 1900. A year when we had already begun to fill our atmosphere with the byproducts of the industrial age.
The Earth is a fragile thing – more fragile perhaps than it appears. I saw this firsthand last year when I had the privilege to see our home from space for the first time. I had been warned that the experience would change the lens through which I viewed the world, but I was not prepared for how true that would be. Looking back at our home from up there, the atmosphere is so obviously tiny, finite, and at the same time, it was also the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. That moment only deepened my faith that we must do everything we can to protect this place and preserve its beauty.
My experience reminded me of something that the astronaut Jim Lovell said. When the crew of Apollo 8 was circling the moon, Lovell looked back at the Earth and realized something important. “I’d been hoping to go to heaven when I die," he said. "Now I realize you go to heaven when you are born.” Lovell was telling us all something crucial: Earth is a paradise, and we must protect it. His Holiness Pope Francis has emphasized this same theme in his encyclical when he refers to Earth as “our common home” and describes the imperative to care for it.
What to Do?
So what do we do? How should we continue down this road of progress? Where should our priorities lie? I ask these questions because many people already have a goal, cause, or a solution that they are passionate about. They are ready to take up that torch and sprint down the path of progress to take it as far as they can. I applaud those people.
It’s important to be able to attack a problem with everything that you have in order to address the needs of others. But in order to make lasting independent change and redefine what is possible for our planet and everyone living on it, we must also look deeper. We must examine how the problems of our time intersect with each other and sometimes step slowly down the path. So I will offer four ideas that I use to guide my work.
First, remember that we must do work at both time scales: the short term and the long term. We must address immediate needs and also work on laying the foundations for a better future. Many people today are hungry. I know some of the people in this room are playing an important role in addressing that challenge. My dear friend, Jose Andres, is one of those people who serves urgent needs.
Lauren and I have been so lucky to be able to support him in his journey to feed the people who need it. His World Central Kitchen has served hundreds of millions of meals to those most in need. In Ukraine alone, he has worked with local chefs to quickly serve more than a million meals a day.
His work and the work of many others is a wonderful example of when we must run down the path. When people are in immediate danger, when crisis is looming, that is not the time to find the most sustainable solution. The one that will solve the problem not just in the moment but forever after. That is the time to jump in and get to work. To do whatever you can to provide short-term relief.
But with the same resolve, we must also work on the long term. Fixing problems at the root. Creating pre-conditions for permanent change. Change that uplifts.
Change that creates empowerment and independence. Education is an important example. Sixty million primary school-aged children are not attending school today, and the pandemic has only made this problem harder to address. The Catholic Church itself has done so much to address this need. It remains the largest non-government provider of education in the world, educating 62 million children from preschool through high school. That gift has changed the lives of so many people, including mine.
When my father came to the United States from Cuba, alone and speaking no English at the tender age of 16, the Catholic Church took him and 15 other boys under their care in a mission led by two priests in Wilmington, Delaware. They housed him and educated him, and gave him opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Later the circle continued, and he passed those opportunities on to me. Sitting here in the Vatican today, I would like to thank the Church for that gift.
My personal passion is for preschool education, where we've set up a $2 billion “Day One Fund” to provide early education to disadvantaged children.
Providing for urgent needs and finding long-term solutions are both essential. We can and must put energy into both, and both require iteration, planning, intentionality, and a lot of ingenuity.
My second suggestion is this: let’s invest in our common home, the natural world that sustains and enriches life. Our planet’s surface is made of astonishingly thin, fragile layers that together enable us to live and thrive. I’m talking about our atmosphere, the vegetation and water on the surface, and the soil beneath.
This paper-thin lining provides all the oxygen we breathe, all the food we eat, and all the water we drink. They make life livable, and their beauty also makes life worth living. These skins are essential, and they are all threatened. The world is warming, the seas rising, and the storms intensifying. Our oceans are acidifying, and our fish stocks are declining. Soil is degrading, and deserts are encroaching.
In almost all cases, it is the poor and vulnerable who are suffering most from these disasters, while they have done the least to cause them. Caring for nature is caring for people. This message is one that we must continue to spread. It is worth remembering the commandment humans were given in the Garden of Eden to “tend the garden” – to be good stewards. Faith groups have played a valuable role in spreading this message and can continue to do so. The passion and goal to care for our home must permeate our lives.
At the Glasgow Climate COP last November, the Bezos Earth Fund committed $3 billion of grants to support nature in this decade. This money is for three tasks: to help conserve what nature we have left, to restore the nature we have lost, and to find new ways to feed people that preserves nature rather than harming it.
We are focusing on geographies rich in carbon and biodiversity, where threats are great and local communities can be a central part of the solution. One critical location is the forests of the Congo Basin. This region is sometimes called the Heart of Africa and the Lungs of the World.
Lauren and I recently returned from Gabon, where we saw how leaders and community groups are finding ways to advance human progress while preserving our rainforests. In every case, it is essential that Indigenous groups and local communities play a central role in these discussions.
So whatever your goal is, and however fast you are walking the path, please consider our common home and keep it safe.
My third suggestion is this: focus on the whole system and its interconnectedness. It’s good to have a clear goal. To walk the path with confidence and purpose. But it is also important to look around and notice the goals of the others walking beside you. Because there are a lot of problems, and each one overlaps the next. They all affect one another.
Let me give you one example. One important problem people focus on is overfishing. But to focus exclusively on fishermen or the companies that employ them underestimates the complexity and interconnectedness of the problem. In fact, the depletion of fishing grounds is also affected by government subsidies given for industrial trawling. And it’s affected by the destruction of coral reefs, which is in turn driven by ocean acidification. And there are many more aspects to this complex problem.
If we want to help fishing communities and make fishing sustainable, we must look at the whole web of problems and how they connect to each other, not just the individual challenges. In real-world problems, very rarely is there a single silver bullet. And pushing in just one place in a complex web of problems is unlikely to do much more than move the problem around.
At the Bezos Earth Fund, we are working with others to monitor 50 key transitions that need to happen in order for us to address climate, nature, and development. These include phasing out internal combustion engines, decarbonizing steel and cement, raising food crop yields as well as making them more resilient, reducing food loss, and empowering Indigenous communities to manage tropical forests.
For each of these factors, we try to identify how close they are to positive tipping points and what barriers we could perhaps help remove to cross these tipping points. Whether that means investing in research, running a pilot project, doing public policy design, or monitoring and transparency, removing these obstacles requires new ways of thinking and acting. Some in policy circles call this Systems Thinking. All aspects of the problem must make progress simultaneously.
My final piece of advice is this. Be Curious, Explore, Invent and Redefine the Impossible! Look at any breakthrough in human progress – universal childhood immunization, the microchip, renewable energy. They all happened because a group of innovators refused to accept the status quo. The path was rarely easy, and there were many obstacles along the way. Even well-meaning people would whisper, “this will never work.” But work it did. Often you must not follow a path but forge a new one.
Space exploration is an example of forging a brand-new path. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon, he redefined the impossible. As a 5-year-old boy, I was one of the many people who got to watch that moment. I spent my childhood watching Star Trek, making models, and turning the garage into a laboratory for all kinds of contraptions. I was determined early on to build a path to space. Some people ask me why. Why invest so much into space when there are so many problems to be solved on Earth?
The reason is simple. Investing in space will help preserve the Earth. Our motto at Blue Origin is “For the Benefit of the Earth." We go to space not to abandon our home but to protect it. Consider energy. In space, the sun always shines, and we can collect energy in almost unlimited amounts. Energy and other resources can be harvested and used in space without harming the Earth. Earth is a garden that should be tended.
Blue Origin’s long-term goal is to move all polluting industries off Earth. That path is long, and we won’t see its end in my lifetime. Somebody else will have to pick up that torch. But for my part, I would like to do everything that I can to build a road to space. So that whoever comes along next has an easier time than I did.
And as this journey progresses, we will find things we don’t expect. Curiosity is an invaluable trait. It allows us to make discoveries we didn’t even know were there to be discovered. Curiosity enabled Copernicus to show us our place in the universe, Newton to explain gravity, Curie to open our eyes to the atom. They were dreamers and explorers. They forged a brand new path for builders to walk upon—builders who used the dreamer’s discoveries to change the world.
So, my final point is this. Our human challenges are big, but by walking side by side, working together, our human capacity to solve them is even bigger. Don't lose faith, and never ever let anyone tell you it's impossible.
Thank you so much.