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Jeff Bezos eyes space as a new ‘sacrifice zone’

That’s bad news for sacrifice zones still on this planet 

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin New Shepard Space Vehicle Flies The Billionaire And Other Passengers To Space
VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20: Jeff Bezos walks near Blue Origin’s New Shepard after flying into space on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos and the crew that flew with him were the first human spaceflight for the company.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After Jeff Bezos’ brief escape from Earth yesterday, the founder of retail giant Amazon had an idea. “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space and keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “That’s going to take decades to achieve, but you have to start. And big things start with small steps.”

Big things do start with small steps, but this particular idea is a big step backward. Jetting up to space to manufacture stuff in zero gravity is a logistical nightmare with astronomical costs, to say the least. And it’s not actually a very innovative plan. Sticking unwanted stuff in a place that’s seemingly out of sight, out of mind is a tired idea. It’s the same old mindset that has dumped industrial waste on colonized peoples and neighborhoods of color for centuries.

Long before rich, white men were catapulting themselves into space, they approached whatever was the “frontier” at the time with dollar signs in their eyes and destruction in their wake. As a result today, land sacred to the Shoshone and Paiute tribes was designated a nuclear dump site in Nevada. A rural stretch of land along the Mississippi River, where formerly enslaved people and their descendants made their homes, became Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” after more than 150 refineries and petrochemical facilities moved in.

Their land and homes became “sacrifice zones” for industry and Western development, environmental justice advocates often say. As Amazon’s founder, Bezos is responsible for the creation of new “sacrifice zones” for his retail empire’s warehouses. Those still need to be addressed — maybe he could start there, before creating any new ones in space?

Speaking personally, Amazon now has a huge footprint in the region where I grew up, California’s “Inland Empire.” When I was a kid there, the place was still sort of the badlands of Los Angeles — a potential pitstop for city and beach town dwellers on their drive through the desert to Las Vegas. It was a place that was out of sight and out of mind for the Bezoses of the world.

Now the region is increasingly dominated by retail warehouses that butt up against peoples’ houses and are magnets for polluting trucks and planes. The Inland Empire has some of the worst air pollution in the nation. Amazon is its biggest private employer in the region, and it’s faced pressure from residents and its own employees to clean up its act.

“Every time I see one of those [Amazon] trucks with a smiley face on it, it feels like it’s taunting people,” says Adrian Martinez, a senior attorney with the nonprofit organization Earthjustice. Earthjustice currently represents environmental groups that have filed suit against the developer of a new air cargo logistics center in the Inland Empire that houses Amazon.

An Amazon Prime truck drives into the BNSF rail yard. The rail yard sits across the street from a soccer field and community center in San Bernardino, California and attracts a steady stream of truck traffic.
An Amazon Prime truck drives into the BNSF rail yard across the street from a soccer field and community center in San Bernardino, California.
Image: Justine Calma / The Verge

Amazon and Bezos have both made splashy pledges to combat climate change. But the residents Martinez represents are still breathing in Amazon’s pollution. “That’s what they are, they’re pledges. And I think I’ll feel a lot more confident when I see zero emission trucks rolling through the neighborhoods of my clients,” Martinez says.

People like Martinez aren’t asking Bezos, Amazon, or other corporate polluters to move their pollution into space. They’re asking for things like more electric delivery vehicles on the road, a much lighter lift than figuring out how to expand industry in space. They’re asking for the pollution to stop in the first place, and for billionaires to stop engineering new “sacrifice zones.”