Who’s Supposed to Save the Planet?


Hansjörg Wyss fell in love with America’s national parks and public lands while working for the Colorado Highway Department as a student in 1958. Though originally from Switzerland, Wyss spent much of his life climbing and hiking in the Rocky Mountains before moving to the East Coast to attend Harvard Business School, from which he graduated in 1965. From there, Wyss started successful medical research and design company, Synthes, based in Pennsylvania.

Illustration By Cate Johnson

In 1998, Wyss called on his appreciation and gratitude for the United States’ landscapes that inspired his creativity and success and thus, created the Wyss Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to ensure that public land remains protected, so that everyone could have the opportunity to experience it as Wyss did. Today, the Wyss Foundation supports many projects, including those in conservation, education, and social justice.

Wyss, who now lives in Wilson, Wyo., is both a successful entrepreneur and an avid philanthropist, and has been for two decades. So why is there sudden interest in his work? On Oct. 31, the New York Times published a story authored by Wyss. It was titled “We Have to Save the Planet. So I’m Donating $1 Billion.”

“For my part, I have decided to donate $1 billion over the next decade to help accelerate land and ocean conservation efforts around the world,” said Wyss. With this money, Wyss hopes to protect 30 percent of the planet’s surface by 2030. The funds will be allocated towards locally led conservation efforts around the world, groups seeking to raise public awareness about the gravity of the issue, organizations pushing to increase global targets for land and ocean protection, and scientific studies to identify the best strategies to reach the target.

Wyss’s generosity in this massive undertaking is commendable. His actions, however, can’t help but raise a question: whose job is it to save the planet? Wyss is just one of many wealthy philanthropists pledging their personal funds to a global problem. The fact that individuals feel the need to make huge donations may reflect a failure of the public sector and of the global community to take real and sustained action.

This is shown in the U.S.; on the national level, the economic and political risks that politicians take to address climate change is substantial. Because oil and natural gas industries maintain a strong handle on the national economy and job market — and thus have large influence on politics in the U.S. — it is difficult for politicians to speak out against these massive industries or deny their funding.

On the global scale, we have seen the difficulty of intergovernmental collaboration time and time again, starting with the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1995 up until the most recent documentation, the Paris Agreement in 2015. While these crucial conversations are happening, they seem to make little progress to address climate change. This is due to the lack of a global law enforcement system and is compounded by the individual self-interest of each nation to grow and maintain their economies, most of which are heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

Mitigating climate change is a complicated issue. That said, the responsibility of individuals, whether that be as consumers or as donors, does seem misplaced when issues of climate change have been largely due to and/or exacerbated by institutional failures to regulate big, harmful industries. With institutional failure in mind, individual actions incur doubt; are donations by Wyss and others like him a dangerous crutch for the successive failures of public institutions and regulations? Or are these philanthropic moves harmlessly fueled by the moral intentions of successful entrepreneurs wanting to give back?

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