The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has opened its new fossil hall, and the results are spectacular. By embedding extinct organisms within their ecological context, the exhibit provides visitors with a vivid sense of the way life has been forced to adapt to changes in global climate, a process that sometimes involved mass extinction.
But there is also an incredible incongruity at the heart of this project: an exhibit illustrating the monumental effects of global warming bears the name of a man who has dedicated himself to undermining the scientific consensus on climate change.
In 2012, David Koch gave the largest single donation in the museum’s history, offering $35 million to overhaul its aging dinosaur hall. Long spellbound by dinosaurs, Koch jumped at the chance to fund this undertaking. But while his money has helped to preserve fossils and communicate discoveries about the evolution of life on Earth to a broader public, behind the scenes he also has donated large sums to organizations that encourage the United States to pull back on its efforts to curb the effects of global warming.
Koch’s public support of the Smithsonian might appear inconsistent with his private efforts to undermine climate science. And yet, these seemingly contradictory endeavors represent an age-old strategy among wealthy elites, who have long used highly visible acts of conspicuous generosity to distract attention away from a more secretive, and questionable, political agenda.
Koch is hardly the first philanthropist to spend his money on dinosaurs. During the late 19th century, the investment banker George Peabody endowed a museum that still bears his name at Yale University. He did so on the condition that Yale hire his nephew, Othniel Charles Marsh, who discovered some of the most iconic dinosaurs currently on display at the Smithsonian. Similarly, J.P. Morgan was one of the founding trustees of the New York natural history museum, and his nephew, Henry Fairfield Osborn, served as its first curator of paleontology.
Even the most famous philanthropist of all time, Andrew Carnegie, was heavily invested in dinosaurs. Carnegie was so enamored with these remarkable creatures that curators at his museum in Pittsburgh named a new species in his honor: Diplodocus carnegii.
By and large, American philanthropists at the time were also committed supporters of liberal reform efforts such as nature conservation. Wealthy elites were often avid big-game hunters, and they joined forces with naturalists such as George Bird Grinnell to form organizations such as the Sierra Club that advocated for the creation of wilderness preserves. They also supported controlled breeding programs at the Bronx Zoo and elsewhere that sought to bring endangered species such as the American bison back from the brink of extinction. And at the museum, they paid for the creation of spectacular habitat dioramas and dinosaur exhibitions that showcased the way that all living things are intimately connected as parts of a larger ecological whole.
Koch’s extensive contributions to prominent scientific organizations such as the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, among others, are part of this history.
But Koch’s philanthropic support of science also clashes at times with his extensive political advocacy. Together with his brother Charles, David Koch built his father’s oil business into the second-largest privately held company in the United States, with $110 billion in annual revenue.
Over the past several decades, the Koch brothers have become major political players, using their enormous wealth to advance a political agenda that directly benefits Koch Industries. After David Koch’s failed bid to run for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, the two brothers embarked on a covert mission to reconfigure the intellectual landscape of American conservatism. Speaking to Brian Doherty, the author of “Radicals for Capitalism,” Charles Koch was surprisingly forthright about their tactics. “To bring about social change,” Koch explained, requires “a strategy” that is “vertically and horizontally integrated,” spanning “from idea creation to policy development to education to grassroots organizations to lobbying to litigation to political action.”
This translated into supporting think tanks, academic programs and advocacy groups with anodyne names such as Americans for Prosperity that mask their radical goals and shield wealthy donors from public scrutiny. These organizations champion a large number of different conservative causes, including a rollback of efforts designed to mitigate global warming and other environmental regulations that pose a threat to the Kochs’ business interests.
This strategy has proved effective. Whereas climate change was once a point of serious debate within the Republican Party, the past decade has seen staunch opposition to policies such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that have come to serve as a litmus test of one’s fealty to conservative orthodoxy. As a result, although the scientific consensus about the anthropogenic roots of climate change continues to grow, the Trump administration has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, and scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are facing intense pressure to issue more sanguine prognoses about the economic effects of climate change.
While the Koch brothers have made no secret of their personal disdain for President Trump, and they vehemently disagree with him on issues such as immigration and tariffs, they are in lock-step when it comes to global warming.
How then might we understand David Koch’s support of the Smithsonian’s new dinosaur exhibition? Consider the example of Carnegie. Prominent displays of public munificence allowed the famous steel magnate to build up a reputation for personal altruism at a time of fast-rising inequality. Highly visible acts of philanthropic largesse cemented his reputation as a generous benefactor of science even as he ruthlessly consolidated his vast empire of steel and worked hard to quash North America’s nascent labor movement. His philanthropic bequests also helped Carnegie broadcast moral qualities that were essential to establishing him as a desirable partner in commercial affairs.
Carnegie’s example illustrates that philanthropy did not interfere with the bottom line. Indeed, it could advance corporate welfare. Insofar as it offered wealthy elites such as Carnegie a convenient means to enlarge their social network, augment their reputation and leave a lasting legacy behind, it ought to be seen as a key component of a much larger cycle of wealth accumulation that dominated the first Gilded Age.
While there is no denying that Koch’s overt support of an institution such as the Smithsonian runs counter to his more covert attempts to undermine the science on climate change, both are a lucrative investment of sorts. In one case, the benefits primarily come in the form of reputational gains, allowing Koch to rub shoulders with other members of high society while earning praise for his support of famous cultural institutions. But at the same time, he can leverage his personal fortune behind the scenes to shape public policy in ways that directly benefit his oil business.
We should applaud curators and exhibit designers at the Smithsonian for putting Koch’s money to such good use. But we should also pause and reflect on what it means that his name is emblazoned on the new fossil hall. Is it not time for the National Museum of Natural History to follow the lead of its peers in the art world, who have recently begun to engage in a more searching debate about the vested interests of private philanthropy? If the Tate Gallery in London or the Guggenheim in New York will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family because of their connections to the opioid crisis, shouldn’t our natural history museums refuse to take money derived from energy companies such as Koch Industries?