The natural gas explosion I mentioned last week ended up being a much smaller deal than the headlines first made it sound, and everything is back to normal as far as garbage service and home natural gas usage. Whenever some acute situation requires changes to daily lives, be it a break in the natural gas pipeline, wildfires, or a drought, people tend to respond reasonably well. In South Africa, residents rallied around the avoidance of Day Zero, continually pushing the date back until things seemed to be okay. But things are decidedly not okay. Cape Town will continue to battle serious water shortages. California is seeing its worst wildfires that now stretch across the western half of the North American continent. Hurricane season continues to devastate seaside communities and warmer ocean waters are increasing the severity of storms.
The problem is that dealing only with the acute issues isn’t enough. As the newest UN report on climate change stated just this past week, climate change as a whole is an acute issue. We are well past the time to be complacent when it comes to our emissions both at a personal level and at a global level. I published my very first blog post fifteen months ago after New York Magazine published yet another article about the urgency of climate change.
But here we are, another fifteen months have gone by, and we are no closer to making the big changes that are necessary to save our planet and ourselves. Perhaps that statement seems like an overreaction, but it is not. We are past the time where we can dither on and stick our heads in the sand. If we don’t make big changes, really big changes, we are going to be too late. Perhaps we already are.
The Environment Is More Important Than Money
Really, the environment is more important than almost anything else we do. Or, to be blunt, more important than anything else. Without taking care of our planet long term, nothing else will matter.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs begins with physiological needs for good reason: food, water, shelter, If we don’t take climate change seriously, those physiological needs are seriously threatened. While those with the most money will be able to insulate themselves from the worst of it, this is a global problem, and we are responsible for caring for all of us on this shared planet. And ultimately, money has not solved this problem, but instead has been a huge part of the problem. Consumerism in general and the endless need for more stuff, the belief that bigger and more is always better, is hurting all of us.
In a lot of ways, the financial independence, retire early movement has been a base level antidote to this drive to more consumption and does encourage environmentalism along with the virtues of frugality. However, there is nothing that says frugality and sustainability have to coexist at all times. There are plenty of ways to be cheap that still aren’t great for the environment: the cheapest, factory farmed, grocery store meat; fast fashion; free samples; old energy hogging appliances, the list goes on.
Travel hacking has made it cheaper and easier to travel the globe, and I’m guilty of this as well. Even if you can go for free, just one transoceanic flight is a huge cost to the environment. While I will continue to reduce the financial cost of our travel, I am very aware that if I were a perfect environmentalist, I would never step foot on an airplane again.
When you don’t pay for plane flights with cash but with Monopoly money-esq travel hacked points, it’s easy to debate the reasons to just hop on a plane for a weekend or for an extra trip or two each year, all while adding to the greenhouse gases to our atmosphere that impact the extent of climate change. There are absolute social reasons to exploring our world, and even environmental reasons in helping to understand why we do want to protect our planet, but I do worry about the unmitigated travel costs that have gotten a blank check under the guise of “experiences over things.”
Just because you are frugal does not mean you are environmentally superior. Mr Money Mustache himself is absolutely an environmentalist, but I’m afraid that part of his message has often gotten drowned out by the siren call of early retirement and the escape from the rat race.
Ultimately, early retirement can draw those who are inherently selfish and more concerned with their personal life situation and not the rest of humanity. Harsh words from a blogger who is usually known as the community builder and uplifter, I know, but they are true ones. I worry that focusing only on a very small internal locus of control ignores the bigger, more important issues of our time, namely climate change. If the most important goal is to look at what gets us individually to a place of stability and security in terms of money, then everything else gets pushed to a second or third tier of importance, and it’s easy to make decisions that are best for us financially while hurting the people and the planet that surround us.
Of course, not everyone who is chasing financial independence is selfish and only looking inwardly. The freedom from needing a paycheck can allow you to care more, volunteer more, change more, but only if you’re interested in doing that in the first place. However, living a more sustainable life is ultimately also a selfish endeavor. I selfishly want to live in a world where I don’t have to worry about running out of water, more extreme weather events, and food scarcity. When it comes to the planet, what is good for one of us is good for all of us, and that’s the piece that seems to be missing over and over again. No matter who you are or what you do or where you live, a more sustainable planet is better for all of us.
Unfortunately, realizing that requires a look out farther than one week, one month, or one year ahead of now. Those of us in the financial independence community are perhaps better at looking out ahead than most, but the focus still is on money and how we will fare individually. If the world as a whole is in bad shape, it won’t matter so much how well we’ve insulated ourselves financially. Yes, finances are important, and yes, preparing for the future is essential, but that preparation must include an eye to the environment, not just our bank accounts.
Gas Prices Should Go Up
Since I promised a climate change rant today, I’m going to continue down the unpopular opinion rabbit hole. Gas prices should go up. A lot. So should water prices and electricity and natural gas bills and clothing and food. Everything we consume should reflect the embodied environmental cost of that good. Right now, we don’t pay the costs to the environment, there are subsidies to bad corporate practices, and the goal has been to reduce the cost of everything while ignoring what it is really costing us all. That $10 t-shirt is not really “just” $10. That pork loin for $1/pound is a lot more expensive than that. If we saw the true cost of all the things we buy in a given month, perhaps we would look more closely at how we spend our money, and not just in a way to keep more of it for ourselves.
Of course, even this is not any kind of a perfect solution. Increasing costs of all our basic goods and services would unequally impact those who can least afford a cost increase. Though the people who can least afford it are also the ones who are the ones who are also unequally impacted by those poor environmental practices. No matter what, we need to look more closely and more seriously at how we are treating our planet. We are well past time to treating climate change with the urgency of a natural gas explosion.
So What Can You Do?
Now that I’ve gone on for some time about how important sustainability is and the urgency in which we need to address it, what can you do to make a difference? Not everyone will work in a career like I do that revolves around making a larger impact on our environment, but everyone can do quite a bit. Just like voting, every small change matters, and every person deciding to live differently matters a whole lot.
Similarly to the way I extol the virtues of tracking your finances, a great place to start is to track your trash; until you know where you stand, it’s hard to make real changes. Crash diets, crash budgets, and crash zero waste all don’t work. Small, regular steps matter a whole lot, and they add up to much better changes long term. Begin with what you can do personally. If we all march toward a better future, perhaps the prediction doesn’t have to be so dire. And if you want to do more? Educate yourself. Talk to your senators and representatives. Vote with your dollars and your voice. The time is past to be quiet and cautious.