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Jeff Bezos: Blue Origin ‘is the most important work I’m doing’

Amazon’s founder is stepping down as CEO, in part to spend more time on his space company. This excerpt from his collected writings helps explain why.

Jeff Bezos: Blue Origin ‘is the most important work I’m doing’
[Photos: Elif Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; courtesy of Blue Origin]
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Blue Origin is the most important work I’m doing. I have great conviction about it, based on a simple argument: Earth is the best planet.

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The big question we need to ponder is: Why do we need to go to space? My answer is different from the common “plan B” argument: The Earth gets destroyed and you want to be somewhere else. It’s unmotivating and doesn’t work for me. When I was in high school I wrote, “The earth is finite, and if the world economy and population are to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.” I still believe this.

The question “What’s the best planet in this solar system” is easy to answer because we have sent robotic probes to all the other ones. Some inspections have been flybys, but we’ve examined them all. Earth is the best planet—it is not close. This one is really good. My friends who want to move to Mars? I say, “Do me a favor. Go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first and see if you like it—because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.” Don’t even get me started on Venus.

Look at Earth. It is incredible. Jim Lovell, one of my real heroes, while he was circling around the moon on the Apollo 8 mission, did something amazing. He put out his thumb and realized that, with it at arm’s length, he could cover the whole Earth. Everything he’d ever known, he could cover with his thumb, and he said something amazing. You know the old saying “I hope I go to heaven when I die.” He said, “I realized at that moment, you go to heaven when you’re born.” Earth is heaven.

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The astronomer Carl Sagan was so poetic: “On that blue dot, that’s where everyone you know, and everyone you ever heard of, and every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. A very small stage in a great cosmic arena.” For all of human history the Earth has felt big to us, and actually in a really correct sense, it has been big. Humanity has been small. That’s not true anymore. The Earth is no longer big. Humanity is big. Earth seems big to us, but it’s finite. We have to realize that there are immediate problems, things that we need to work on, and we are working on those things. They’re urgent. I’m talking about poverty, hunger, homelessness, pollution, overfishing in the oceans. The list of immediate problems is very long, and we need to work on those things urgently, in the here and now. But there are also long-range problems: We need to work on them too, and they take a long time to solve. You can’t wait until the long-range problems are urgent to work on them. We can do both. We can work on the problems in the here and now, and we can get started on the long-range problems.

We want to go to space to protect this planet. That’s why the company is named Blue Origin—for the blue planet, which is where we’re from. But we don’t want to face a civilization of stasis, and that is the real issue if we just stay on this planet—that’s the long-term issue.

Our energy usage is unsustainable

A very fundamental long-range problem is that we will run out of energy on Earth. This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen. As animals, humans use ninety-seven watts of power—that’s our metabolic rate as animals—but as members of the developed world, we use ten thousand watts of power. And we get a lot of benefit from it. We live in an era of dynamism and growth. You live a better life than your grandparents did, and your grandparents lived better lives than their grandparents did, and a big part of that is the abundance of energy we have been able to harvest and use to our benefit. There are many good things that happen when we use energy. When you go to the hospital, you’re using a lot of energy. Medical equipment, transportation, the kinds of entertainments that we enjoy, the medications we use—all these things require a tremendous amount of energy. We don’t want to stop using energy. But our use levels are unsustainable.

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We must have a future of dynamism for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

The historic compounding rate of global energy usage is 3 percent a year. It doesn’t sound like very much, but over many years the compounding becomes extreme. Three percent compounded annually is the equivalent of doubling human energy use every twenty-five years. If you take global energy use today, you can power everything by covering Nevada in solar cells. Now, that seems challenging, but it also seems possible, and it is mostly desert anyway. But in just a couple hundred years, at that 3 percent historic compounding rate, we’ll need to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. Now, that’s not going to happen. That’s a very impractical solution, and we can be sure it won’t work. So what can we do?

Well, one thing we can do is focus on efficiency, and that is a good idea. The problem, though, is that it’s already assumed. As we’ve been growing our energy usage 3 percent a year for centuries, we have always focused on efficiency. Let me give you some examples. Two hundred years ago you had to work eighty-four hours to afford one hour of artificial light. Today you have to work 1.5 seconds to afford an hour of artificial light. We’ve moved from candles to oil lamps to incandescent bulbs to LEDs and gotten tremendous efficiency gains. Another example is air transportation. In the half-century of commercial aviation, we’ve seen a fourfold efficiency gain. Half a century ago it took 109 gallons of fuel to fly one person across the country. Today, in a modern 787, it takes only 24. It’s an incredible improvement. It’s very dramatic.

How about computation? Computational efficiency has increased one trillion times. The Univac could do fifteen calculations with one kilowatt second of energy. A modern processor can do seventeen trillion calculations with one kilowatt second of energy. Now, what happens when we get very efficient? We use more of these things. Artificial light has gotten very inexpensive, so we use a lot of it. Air transport has gotten very inexpensive, so we use a lot of it. Computation has gotten very inexpensive, so we even have SnapChat.

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We have an ever-increasing demand for energy. And even in the face of increasing efficiency, we will be using more and more energy. That 3 percent compound growth rate already assumes great efficiency gains in the future. What happens when unlimited demand meets finite resources? The answer is incredibly simple: rationing. That’s the path we would find ourselves on, and that path would lead, for the first time, to your grandchildren and their grandchildren having worse lives than you. That’s a bad path.

We must have a future of dynamism for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We cannot let them fall prey to stasis and rationing, and it’s this generation’s job to build that road to space so that the future generations can unleash their creativity. When that is possible, when the infrastructure is in place for future space entrepreneurs, just as it was for me in 1994 to start Amazon, you will see amazing things happen, and it will happen fast. I guarantee it. People are so creative once they’re unleashed. If this generation builds the road to space, builds that infrastructure, we will get to see thousands of future entrepreneurs building a real space industry, and I want to inspire them. This vision sounds very big, and it is. None of this is easy. All of it is hard, but I want to inspire you. So think about this: Big things start small.


Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos. Invent and Wander is co-published by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, and Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2021 Jeffrey P. Bezos. All rights reserved.