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.

Sun Lakes State Park

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.”

Acadia National Park

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.

Relentless trash in public lands 

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.

If you’re looking for some more suggestions on what you can do personally, see my guest post series on sustainability and zero waste and my more general tips on sustainable living: #1, #2, #3

60 thoughts on “Sustainability Is More Important Than Retiring Early

  1. I like that you mentioned increasing gas prices. Nordhaus has made that recommendation as well, and I am working on a post detailing some of his research but wasn’t sure I was going to say gas prices should increase. This just gave me more confidence in doing so. 🙂

    1. It’s hard, because there has to be some give there for those who really CAN’T afford the increase, but most of us absolutely can.

  2. the best and brightest are busy making the latest emoji instead of a better water treatment plant. sales and marketing get the love while technical expertise takes a back seat.

    1. There is that. And they get paid more for that sort of thing as well. Pretty darn frustrating though.

  3. Great post, I do think that environmentalism and financial independence go hand in hand. As you mentioned, the tough part of increasing the costs of things that aren’t environmentally friendly (such as gas, cheap grocery store foods, etc) is that it unequally affects the poor. People in a better financial situation can absorb those costs, while the poor can’t. It’s easy to say drive less, but when you’re priced out of the city as rents are too expensive, driving is sometimes the only option. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t need to drive as well, and higher gas prices might change their minds about it, so it goes both ways.

    That’s why it’s so important to get your financial situation in a good place so you can better absorb and focus on the things that matter!

    1. Exactly right… it’s so hard because there isn’t a single answer that is equal across the board. If only there was a way to have a sliding scale on a lot of those prices.

  4. To me, changing our “cars are holy” culture in America is the number one thing that we can do. But what scares me more is that the religion of cars is spreading to China quickly, and their numbers are obviously staggering

    1. I agree, particularly in big cities with awesome public transportation where people use cars because they see them as more convenient.

      I will admit that it gets a little trickier in rural areas where there is no public transportation and people have to travel very far distances. That is a bigger issue in the US than it is in Europe for example, where there is less empty space. It’s something to think about, though I am still confident that EVs can improve enough to make that a non-issue in the future.

      1. It completely boggles my mind that people still choose to sit in awful traffic in their personal vehicle instead of taking transit when it’s available. Then again, I hate driving, so I’ll take the bus any time I really have the chance (or just run 😉).

    2. Yeah, it’s hard when you realize even if the US was perfect now, that culture has spread so far and is having even more insane implications for the future.

    3. Luckily, China’s accelerating uptake of electric vehicles can be a somewhat inspiring trend. The penetration is far from sufficient, but the country gives prioritization and incentives for residents to buy electric vehicles.

      What’s more alarming in China is that after continued years of heavy subsidization of renewables, they severely pulled back the money earlier this year. Granted, China’s integration of all those renewables has been quite disappointing and quite often resulted in heavy curtailment because of poor power grid management. As a result, a less-than-optimal amount of renewable energy got put onto their grid because of the supply/demand imbalances.

      The pipedream is feeding electric vehicles with renewable energy. China’s got quite a lead on the U.S. in that regard because we deal with market-based mechanisms to construct renewables. We can thank China, Germany, Spain, Japan, and California for dramatically reducing installed costs for solar arrays, wind farms and lithium ion batteries.

      Their subsidies benefitted the rest of the world and people in those areas pay more for electricity. This is a classic case of pioneers getting the arrows while settlers getting the land.

  5. You are one of my favorite blogs to read in the FIRE space because of your focus on sustainablity. What “FIRE” people don’t understand about their 4% rule, 7% returns, whatever fancy math you want to insert here, is that it is all predicated on cheap and abundant energy.

    We live in a finite world. There is only limited gas, oil, water and land to go around. The past 100 years of growth has been achieved through the abundance of resources, but over time, this will be a huge challenge to our world. We are on a path to destruction of the Earth. You can have $10,000,000 in the bank, but if you can’t grow crops, heat your house, or drink clean water, good luck with that money.

    My focus for next year is to look to become more sustainable in my ways. As you’ve heard on my podcast and Twitter, I’m thinking about it a lot, and need to take more action on it. Also, what’s awesome about becoming more sustainable is that your “FI” number actually decreases!

    If you are able to grow your own food, make your own things, and live with a smaller footprint, then you don’t need all that much money!

    Getting back to finance and energy…. one of my favorite resources on the topic of connecting finance and the environment is Our Finite World (ourfiniteworld.com). Gail is an actuary by trade and looks at how finance, demographics and energy are connected. Really interesting stuff that would be great to check out.

    1. Thanks for the website link! I will definitely check it out when I have time to go down the rabbit hole. And you’re right – the things that drive up the cost of living many times are the least sustainable ones.

  6. You know, I can’t believe I never considered the environmental impact of travel. How could I have overlooked that??? I guess it shows how uncommitted to the environment I am. Life is about to get a lot quieter and simpler around my house, so I hope I can start to change that.

    1. Unfortunately the environmental impact of travel is HUGE, especially long haul flights. The aerospace industry is definitely working toward more sustainable options, but they aren’t there yet. The particulates that are released so high up are even worse than if they were on the ground as well, so they have an even bigger challenge for that.

  7. In economics, this is called tragedy of the commons. Though this phenom is usually for public goods that are free, I’d argue sustainability is a public good.

    How do we convince people to act in sustainability’s best interest? Most people are inherently selfish, and there should be some kind of progressive tax on common utilities (Gas, water, etc) so that poor people get a fair amount of these utilities.

    It’s astounding how much power the oil lobby has — why else do we not have more renewable energy here in the US? 80% of France ‘s energy is derived from nuclear energy, and they’re the largest exporter of energy in the world. Granted, radioactive cores are produced from this process, but it’s much cleaner than the equivalent of burning gas/coal/etc.

    I’m excited for driverless cars to finally reach the road because then we won’t have just one person in a car. Think of how much traffic we could reduce! Also, maybe the US will finally get bullet trains or hyperloops to cut emissions in half vs planes.

    1. Oh trust me, lots of discussion on the tragedy of the commons in my environmental science classes, especially environmental economics 😉 and the inherent selfishness is why I’m so big on things like changing out plumbing / electrical fixtures – people can still live exactly the same way but still have a MUCH smaller impact.

    2. The reason we don’t have more renewable energy in the U.S. is because we adhere to market-based mechanisms to determine which power resource will be constructed to meet power demand. These mechanisms heavily weight cost as a deciding factor and renewables haven’t been the cheapest option until recently. Another contributing factor for not having as much renewable energy is the fact electricity consumption has flat-lined since the great recession and our existing generation resources have largely been sufficient for meeting demand. Not everywhere, but for most of the country, new generation isn’t needed.

      In many states, there are renewable portfolio standards which require a certain percentage of energy or utility power sales to come from renewable resources, regardless of electricity need. These standards are largely responsible for the initial deployment of so many renewable resources in the U.S. Additional help came from federal subsidies (namely the 30% federal investment tax credit for solar and 2.3 cents production tax credit per megawatt-hour for wind), which have offset some of the costs for renewables to make them more cost-competitive.

      Simply put, for the past decade, where generation was needed, gas-fired resources have been king. Since hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling unleashed an ocean of cheap gas beneath our feet, it’s been very hard to compete with the cost-effectiveness of gas.

      However, what isn’t priced in are the negative environmental externalities of fossil fuels mentioned in the post. When taking into account the price of carbon, the calculus would surely change. Gas would be no where near as “cheap”. If prices fully reflected these externalities, the fuel mix would change.

      Solar and wind power prices have come down to be cost competitive with many traditional generation resources in many parts of the country (e.g., natural gas), but this phenomenon hasn’t happened over night. It will take many years to replace aging generation resources with renewables, though it has been very heartening to see renewables consistently picked as the best generation option in recent years.

      1. I think the problem is that it isn’t a matter of cost effectiveness anymore. Like Angela said, cost effectiveness and the sheer economics of it all is pretty meaningless if we no longer have a suitable home.

      2. But that’s the point I make at the end, they have become cost-effective in many places. These resources are now cost competitive and have largely become the default option picked out of many power resource auctions. And in places where renewables aren’t the most cost-effective option, they are still being selected due to state-level renewable portfolio standards mandating a certain % of utility sales come from renewable sources. Despite all the huff and puff about saving coal coming out of Washington these days, a large amount of renewable energy is being installed domestically. Many utilities have begun offering robust energy efficiency programs and rely on “negawatts” to balance energy supply and demand (or those megawatts which aren’t used).

        I completely agree more needs to be done and there’s plenty left to do, but the economics do need to pencil out to bring the masses on board. Relying on entire populations to be the best versions of themselves and care about someone other than themselves is not an actionable plan, in my opinion. Or at least one which will gain meaningful traction.

        It’s nice to see many cities and states set these 100% renewables milestones, but notice how they’re all many years in the future. Completely decarbonizing an economy can’t happen overnight but small actions can snowball into bigger actions. The effects can compound and lead to great results. As I said before, more needs to be done and more pressure needs to be applied to put things in action. The biggest policy change to provide a boost to sustainability would arguably be a carbon tax. In economics, if there’s an externality you wish to disincentivize (i.e., carbon emissions), the most efficient and effective way to reduce it is to tax it. This shows the true cost and weights it against other options in the market fully.

      3. I absolutely agree with you that things need to move more quickly – there are certainly more renewables in play that even just a few years ago, but we don’t have the luxury of taking fifty years to make the real changes that are necessary. And bringing full populations in is definitely the hardest part, which is why whenever possible I do think just making it happen without requiring huge lifestyle shifts is going to be a huge part of making it happen. Then again, as long as it’s easier / more convenient not to be sustainable, I don’t see the switch happening. If real life consequences got people moving, they would be moving already.

      4. as Elon Musk simply stated….The fossil fuel industry is the most heavily subsidized energy and business model in the world. It provides easy to access resources to make cheap easy to access products…. The problem is that unlike investment and subsidies into say solar of actual cash by a government via subsisides, the fossil fuel subsidies are being paid in full by the environment and climate change, pollution and loss of habitat will be the price paid when the earth cashes in on those subsidies and wants it’s money back.

      5. Paid in full is right. We can’t pretend we’re escaping anything by not paying cash up front.

    1. Or, start buying local, fair trade chocolate bars! Theo’s chocolates are delicious and much less guilt inducing, though definitely more expensive.

  8. You’re so right – if we don’t have a planet, no amount of money in the world can save us! Loved the Maslow’s Hierarchy reference…I’d actually love to see a post on strategies to get the 100 companies that contribue 71% of greenhouse gases or pollution or whatever it is on board. That’s where the biggest changes need to be made.

  9. I haven’t really thought of the environmental impact when it comes to traveling especially going cross country on a plane. I haven’t set foot on a plane in a while(close to five years now) and I guess I’m helping in way but planes will fly around according to schedule whether I’m on there or not.
    Even though I do drive, we only have one car as a family and hopefully we can keep it that way as long as possible. Logically it works out for us currently and also we drive a Prius which cuts down on gas.

    1. That is true to a degree, but most planes I’ve been on in the last few years have been mostly/completely full. And if demand dropped in general, we would see fewer flights (the number of SEA – LAX flights every single day is staggering, for example). That said, I believe air travel is absolutely here to stay, so hopefully the aerospace industry can really change the way they use resources and kick up greenhouse gases.

  10. You definitely inspire me to think about the earth less selfishly. I am often finding little ways to consume & waste less.

    1. So glad I can be an inspiration here! I love being a money inspiration, but being a sustainability inspiration is even better, to be honest 🙂

  11. Love, love, LOVE this post! And so timely as well. I love how you write the hard facts and cold truths, but still in an approachable, realistic fashion that does its best not to alienate people. You’re the best!

    1. That was my goal, and I’m glad you feel like I pulled it off! I may not change total skeptics minds, but perhaps I can encourage people who are open to it to do better.

  12. No more excuses
    No more studies
    No more stalling
    The time is now and we are in the expresslane headed over a cliff.

    I can’t help but see the endless excuses from a spectrum of the North American population that uses Nationalism veiled in the shroud of Capitalism that we must make money at all costs. The markets will decide and exploiting our natural resources, avoiding climate change protocol, seeking out renewable energy sources and basically not giving a shit about carbon footprint or sustainable practices.
    Can you sense my frustration yet? I won’t stop spreading my message and fight for the environment but when profits and freedom from personal sacrifice is still the status quo I will continue to feel sad and a bit beaten up.

    Hopefully we can all work together keep each other’s spirits high while tackling the greatest risk to the global population we have known.

    1. No more excuses
      No more studies
      No more stalling

      You’ve nailed it there. Climate change has felt “urgent” to me most of my life, and suddenly I’ve turned around and it’s been twenty years since I first really knew what was happening. Not nearly has much has changed in that time than needs to.

    1. Thank you! Now that I do have more than a few people reading this little blog of mine I want to use that platform to hopefully encourage some real change.

  13. Gas prices are around $1.50 to $1.60 a litre up here in Vancouver, but I don’t know if it is deterring people from using their cars (I don’t think it does for me).

    Very inspirational post, Angela! I am guilty of the travel hacking monopoly-esque points!

    1. They soooo feel like Monopoly money. At least the ones I “earn” from normal spending feel more real, but sign up bonuses don’t feel real at all.

  14. Great message here, Angela and I fully support and align with you. But I do think it’s alright for Mr. Money Mustache to use the siren call of personal finance to lure unsuspecting consumers into a web of environmental betterment. Gotta convert these people somehow, right??

    1. Oh I’m not going to argue with that tactic at all! Whatever works is great in my opinion 😉 I do feel that message of his gets buried though.

  15. It’s sad to see governments not really doing much about helping the environment. It’s the same with big companies. Some are helping but could they do more (and in some cases, a lot more)? Yes. Could the people be educated on eating less meat and dairy and thus reduce pollution a LOT? Yes. Would they be healthier? Of course. Could more electric powered cars be available, with lower prices? Yes. We all have to chip in with ideas and try to do as much or as little as we can. We just have to do something instead of sitting on the sidelines waiting for things to change without us.

    1. Sitting on the sidelines and ignoring it has definitely gotten us into this whole mess. Like you’ve said, we need to go about this on ALL fronts.

  16. I wholeheartedly agree with the main message of this post. And it’s great to see so many people commenting and chiming in to support this message. Certainly, aiming for zero waste as well as greater overall usage of renewable energy is important.

    What is missing for me in this sustainability and early retirement conversation though, is the recognition that most of the index funds people in the FIRE space are invested in contain the stocks of fossil fuel companies as well as companies like Nestle, Danone, Coca-Cola and so many others that produce the plastic bottles and other things that populate our landfills, roadsides, beaches, etc. Among FIRE bloggers and podcasters I’ve only ever seen this alluded to once in a post by Kristine at Frugasaurus and a random fleeting comment by Mr. Money Mustache years ago stating that he was okay with earning his money this way because he planned to donate it all back to good causes later. I am quite a big MMM fan, but I don’t share this point of view with him.

    We cast the ultimate vote with our dollars and we don’t have to limit that vote to purchasing or not purchasing something. We can also cast that vote with the money we invest. That’s the discussion I’m trying to generate on my new blog. Zero waste is great, but I think to be truly sustainable in the FIRE community one has to consider sustainable or better yet regenerative investing. I’m receiving more and more positive responses from readers as I explore meaningful investments that align with my values. I would love to see other sustainably-minded bloggers and podcasters on the path to FIRE start discussing this as well so we can all learn from each other as we navigate this uncharted territory together.

    That’s just my two cents. Please let me know what you think.

    1. You bring up some very good points. Tanja (Our Next Life) and Ms ZiYou have both talked about that issue as well. For me personally, the bulk of our savings are not in index funds, but in local, sustainable real estate, so it’s less of an issue for me directly. Though I do have some funds in index funds as well. I may look at that more closely in the future, but at this point, my plate is completely full and I’m focusing on the big wins where I can. Definitely following along with that discussion though!

      1. Not sure what you mean by local, sustainable real estate, but depending on what it is that could make for an interesting blog post if not for your own blog then as a guest post on mine at some point in the future. I would be very interested in knowing about what constitutes sustainable real estate as well as how you went about identifying a local, sustainable real estate opportunity to invest in and whether or not you considered different factors when calculating the profit potential.

      2. I work for them 😉 So, not exactly a “replicable” model for most people, unfortunately.

      1. Thank you, Bob, for sharing this link. The SRI and ESG funds available through Fidelity and a number of other investment firms are certainly a step in the right direction. I have some of my money in a similar fund available to me through my employer based retirement plan.

        For me though, these funds still fall far short of supporting companies and practices that are truly sustainable and regenerative. Most of these funds still direct our money to companies with products and practices I don’t want to support such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Master Card, Microsoft, etc. If you are interested in reading more about my views on this subject and what alternatives I am pursuing you can check out my guest post on Sisters for FI (https://wp.me/pa0UBS-4W).

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