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Could Amazon Be a Leader in Fighting Climate Change?

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One of the most important mantras of organizing is that you have to meet people where they are at and then work to move them to a more sophisticated understanding of social change where they feel empowered to act.

There’s been a movement of Amazon workers demanding that the company be a leader in fighting climate change. Here’s an interview with one of the workers involved:

Gizmodo: So you’re comfortable going on the record here?

Rebecca Sheppard: Yes, I’m comfortable. On the letter, everyone publicly signs their full name and their job title. So I’m Rebecca Sheppard. I’m a senior product manager at Amazon Air. I’m in the aviation field.

I think airplanes are awesome, and I also think airplanes are using a lot of jet fuel. I believe that if anyone can figure out a way to take a stagnant industry like aviation and make it sustainable, it’s Amazon. So I feel really motivated, but I don’t think we’ll be able to do this without a companywide plan to match the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. So that’s why we have this open letter, this movement, all of these employees coming together, both as employees and as owners of Amazon stock. My income is based on Amazon stock, and being a person who obviously wants to be financially successful, I want Amazon to be financially successful.

The generations, the times are changing, we’re switching from baby boomers to millennials, and climate change is important. It drives customers’ decisions, it drives us on all sorts of consumer decisions, we want to work for a company that’s at the forefront of that, because I think that’s how Amazon stays financially soluble. Amazon has a term called ‘Day 1’; about how we keep being innovative. This is how we stay ‘Day 1’.

Gizmodo: This resolution has already collected thousands of signatures, which seems to have exceeded expectations. How does that feel?

Sheppard: I feel probably the most energized I have in six years. I’ve been working in aviation since 2013, and don’t think I’ve ever felt at home with the impact that it has on the climate. And that being said, I think it takes a lot of action from a lot of people to make the changes that we need, so it’s just been really inspiring and motivating and energizing to work with all these people who feel the same way and realize that we are empowered to make this change, so I feel great.

Gizmodo: How did you get involved in the effort in the first place?

Sheppard: I had been really struggling—and I think, again, this is something that a lot of my peers feel—to be motivated to come into work every day. Because it’s hard to see stagnation. Amazon’s innovative, it’s constantly creating, it’s building, it’s redesigning industries. And yet I’m in aviation, and honestly, it’s not redesigning there. And I think that there’s a lot of potential there. I saw the shareholder resolution come through from the New York Times and immediately reached out to [one of the organizers] over email and she told me I could become more involved and so a group of us has been meeting and the numbers keep growing, especially with this letter. The number of people who want to be more involved is astronomical. It’s definitely got momentum.

Climate change is too big for just one person, it’s too big for just one company, and I do think that this generation, my generation, tend to care the most. But it’s not us alone. You see people who have been in this industry for 30 years and they’re just as passionate and just as engaged.

I’m really conflicted here. I get it. Sheppard at least kind of gets it too. Let me offer one more quote:

Sheppard: Climate change is really personal to me. I’m from a coastal town and I’ve watched the erosion of the places where I’ve grown up. Homes nearly sinking into the ocean, or being in the ocean as I’ve grown up, and realizing that the sea level is rising, having that be in my face my entire life, has made a huge impact on me. I remember when a neighbor from three roads down from me, their porch ended up in our backyard from a hurricane, it really drove home to me, I think I was 8 at the time, that we’re all interconnected. What we do in the US and in India in the Middle East, it’s impacting the whole planet. And we really need to come together as a species to preserve this planet.

It’s hitting the most vulnerable communities the most. I’m fortunate that I can now live in Seattle, and that my parents can get another home and that my friends whose homes were destroyed in Wilmington had places to go, but there people in other countries, like Bangladesh, that don’t have those options. We need to have compassion to see that, and actually actively feel the impacts of climate change and not just keep our heads in the sand. That’s something that I feel, and everyone in this organization and the people at Amazon feel.

I’m excited for them to see the power that we have in this movement and realize that we can all drive change together.

So, one on level this is good. Here is a person who sees the world’s biggest problem, knows that something has to be done, and is trying to do something.

On the other hand, she, and I think this is true of many, many people, really fails to question why we are in this mess in the first place and what really has to be done. First, there is nothing worse for the climate than aviation. We all may love airplanes, but there is no solution to climate that involves airplanes short of some massive technological innovation where they produce no climate change causing gases. It’s great that she wants Amazon to separate itself from oil companies, but what uses more oil and gas than Amazon, a company designed to bring almost anything around the world to your home in a couple of days?

Moreover, can we solve climate change under a capitalist system? The answer is almost certainly not. Capitalism is an economic system that seeks to maximize both natural resources and labor for profit. We might make small adjustments–as we did as a society in the 1970s through that era’s environmental regulations–but at best they are going to buy a little time under a system that is always finding new ways to manipulate nature for money. Put bluntly, Jeff Bezos is the enemy of the planet and he almost inherently cannot be part of the solution.

That said, we are where we are as a society. Nearly no one is really ready to do what is necessary to save the planet–banning fossil fuel production and consumption entirely is the only step that will really make a big difference. So, you have to accept environmental activism where it exists and hope to move them to a more sophisticated understanding how capitalism cannot save us. This will almost certainly happen far too slowly to save the planet from being completely unrecognizable for us in a century, but then I honestly have no idea how anyone can possibly be optimistic enough about the future to have children in 2019.

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