Not many people can single-handedly transform the world — but billionaires can.
Billionaires collectively have trillions of dollars parked in private foundations and donor-advised funds, tax havens, assets, and investment funds. It’s hard to visualize that kind of money, but the analogy of time is useful. A million seconds is 12 minutes. A billion seconds is 31 years. And a trillion seconds is 31,688 years.
An Oxfam analysis prior to the pandemic found that billionaires own as much wealth as the poorest 4.6 billion people combined, and the richest 22 men own as much wealth as all of the women in Africa. Worldwide, an estimated 689 million people live on less than $1.90 a day.
The overwhelming majority of humans will never come close to possessing $1 million. Since COVID-19 emerged, inequalities have only grown more pronounced — during the pandemic, billionaires in the United States added $1.8 trillion to their collective net worth.
Liquidating just their pandemic earnings would be enough to ease the daily suffering of billions of people and protect biodiversity at a time when millions of species face extinction.
In fact, helping all countries comfortably adapt to climate change would cost $1.8 trillion — a clean transfer of wealth that would prevent hundreds of millions of people from dying and being displaced by climate disasters. In doing so, they’d be saving countries $7.1 trillion in climate costs.
For a lower price tag, $6 billion could prevent 41 million people from starving this year. For less than $10 billion, billionaires could fully fund the UN’s refugee programs, helping to resettle some of the most vulnerable people in the world. And for $35 billion annually, billionaires could close the global funding gap for education, ensuring that every child can go to school.
Yet most of the world’s super wealthy hardly donate to charitable causes, and they’re becoming less generous over time, with a few notable exceptions. Forbes’ 400 Philanthropy Score found that the number of American billionaires who gave away 20% of their annual income sharply declined between 2018 and 2019. Most of them gave away less than 1% of their income during this period.
So what are they spending their money on?
1. Private Islands and Land
Billionaires love to buy vast tracts of land. Most of the time, the uber-wealthy buy land — such as remote islands — for lavish villas and estates. Sometimes, they dispossess communities and harm the environment in the process.
They could instead follow the lead of billionaires like Hansjörg Wyss who have bought land and then established wildlife reserves to protect plants, animals, and broader ecosystems. Land could also simply be returned to Indigenous people through a process known as “land back” after centuries of colonial violence and dispossession.