Yvon Chouinard is not messing around. Until last week, he was a billionaire. Then he gave it all away. Chouinard is the founder of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company. He has often been described as a reluctant billionaire. There are worse things to be reluctant about.
Chouinard, a devoted environmentalist, put his money where his mouth is. He signed over his company to a trust that will direct money not reinvested in the company – roughly £87 million per year – to work that is being described as having environmental purpose. Exactly what this is remains to be mapped out, but it will “fight the environmental crisis, protect nature and biodiversity, and support thriving communities”.
Chouinard’s family are no longer controlling the company. “Earth is now our only shareholder,” he wrote. His move raises many interesting questions. How do you measure which step, of a few that are similar, has more environmental purpose than another? Will this money be enough to make a marked difference? And why don’t other super-wealthy people give more of it away?
How much does one person need? Really. To be comfortable in your super-wealth, how much money will keep you? £10m? £100m? Perhaps a tidy two billion will keep the wolf from the door. There are only so many Franz Kline’s you can find wall space for, only so many superyachts you need. If there is a finite amount, shouldn’t you then find ways to get it into the hands of people who need it?
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Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife MacKenzie Scott is doing her best to empty her account. She’s already given away £3.4 billion. Which is staggering until you realise that she was worth around £34bn before she started. Still, that’s a dent. And she’s not stopping. What if others did the same? Elon Musk is worth around £245bn. If he, somehow, liquidated his assets, that would plug the gap the entire EU is trying to raise to meet energy bill rises. And still leave him around £120bn to build hypersonic tunnels or rockets or whatever other obscenely expensive toy he wanted to kick around.
The other question is should the super-wealthy carry the can? Should they be the backstop when governments go missing? Last week former PM Gordon Brown laid out in simple, terrifying terms the “winter tsunami of hardship” that lies ahead for so many. The food bank, he said, not social security, was the national safety net for those on the verge and it was charity, not Universal Credit, that was the last line of defence. That has little to do with government. Though governance has brought us to this place.