Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thoughts on Income, Wealth, and the End of the World

So I've been taking a break from the endless home improvement projects around here. And since the weather is cold (no bike rides), and my Denver Broncos are out of the playoffs (less motivation to watch football), and I can't stomach any more sappy Christmas movies, I've had plenty of time to waste cruising the interwebs collecting interesting tidbits of information, and letting them all stew in this little brain of mine. Consider yourself warned!

Now, originally, I was gonna provide links to all of the articles that caught my eye, but I couldn't find them all, so you're spared the reading assignment. You'll just have to take my word for it that this mishmash of facts and information, which seems to have congealed in my little brain, actually came from genuine sources - not just something I pulled out of mid-air.

So first, (OK, I did actually find a source for this one, though it wasn't the same article I originally read) I read that researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have calculated that climate change poses a 5% chance of human extinction by the year 2100.

Um.... let that sink in for a moment...

That is a truly terrifying statistic! 5% is like 1 in 20... and they're not merely saying there's a 5% chance of significant climate change... they're saying there's a 5% chance that 82 years from now there will be no more people left on the planet. Like extinct, dead, nada, zippo, zilch, good bye, stick a fork in the human race, we're done for.

Now, the Scripps Institute is not some sort of fringe organization... and they're not using crazy Guy McPherson assumptions either. Their numbers are coming straight from the IPCC, whose predictions are broadly considered to be very conservative among climate change scientists.

OK... so here's the next little tidbit - this is the one I really wish I could find the source for, but somehow I seem to have lost the link. Anyhow, I read about a study where they looked at a large group of people and calculated what their "carbon footprints" were - meaning how much carbon dioxide they emitted through their day to day activities. They then gathered all sorts of demographic data about said group of people - things like age, religion, race, political affiliation, marital status, and a whole slew of other stuff.

Interestingly enough, of all the demographic categories they looked at, the one that had the SMALLEST correlation with their carbon footprints was... wait for it... whether or not they considered themselves to have a "green" lifestyle! In other words, they could find little measurable difference in the carbon footprints of people who said they were concerned about the environment and trying to live in an ecologically friendly manner, and those who thought that global warming was a hoax.

The demographic category which had the strongest correlation to carbon footprint? You guessed it, income. Their basic conclusion was that wealthy people just lead high carbon lifestyles. They live in big houses, drive big cars, fly all over the world, and just generally emit a whole bunch of CO2. And even when wealthy people said they were concerned about the environment and trying to "live green," they generally weren't willing to make the sorts of changes that would really have a meaningful impact.

OK... next piece of data. This one came from a presentation given by Kevin Anderson, a respected climate change scientist. It's no secret that people from different parts of the world have very different carbon footprints. Yes... we here in the US are the worst offenders. But here's the tidbit that struck me: within each individual country, it is the top 10% (economically speaking) who do the vast majority of the emitting.

This graphic wasn't from Anderson's talk, but it illustrates the point he was making

Now, here's the final little tidbit. (And I do have the link for this one.) It was an interesting little article about a personal finance blogger by the name of Derek Sall who has come up with a somewhat unconventional way to determine your personal wealth. He says it has nothing to do with your income per se, and everything to do with how long you could last if you lost your job tomorrow. Here's his little "Wealth Scale."

  • Less than a month: Broke
  • 1-3 Months: Teetering
  • 3-6 Months: Satisfactory
  • 6 Months - 2 Years: Well Off
  • 2-5 Years: Wealthy
  • 5 or more Years: Ultra Wealthy
You can probably guess that he's preaching to the choir here, but I did find it somewhat amusing that according to Mr. Sall, I am in the Ultra Wealthy category! Not bad for someone who, judging by income alone, would be considered barely above the poverty level. 

OK... so that's what's been sifting around in my brain the past week or two... and when you put all that together and stir, here's what I come up with.

Saving humanity from climate change cannot be achieved via the Great Green Guilt Parade. Instead, we ought to focus on teaching people to live beneath their means. 

Crazy as it might seem, that little revelation gave me quite a bit of hope. I have long believed that the moralistic approach to environmentalism was a losing game. It's not that I don't think it is immoral to leave future generations a planet that's uninhabitable, I just think that when push comes to shove, moralism has a pretty poor track record in terms of actually changing human behavior.

But if the goal is learning to live happy, contented lives on less money - rather than all of this "greener than thou" nonsense - I think there's a much greater chance of success. I mean, think of the possibilities! All we have to do in order to save humanity is convince people to work less, rest more, save their money, and enjoy being "Ultra Wealthy." Sounds like a recipe for a much healthier and happier society, if you ask me - that is certainly my own experience when it comes to living with less.

So what do you think? Can frugal living save the planet?


  1. Having people live below their means, at least those above the poverty level, would solve a whole lot more than just big carbon footprints.

  2. If living below means entails less consumption, less debt, less waste and more attention or mindfulness in people's daily lives, then yes. Nice post.

    1. I also think it's also a much easier sell than "you should suffer for the sake of the planet!"

  3. Ideally, yes, living simpler, frugal lives should work, and I agree with L&L, it would solve more problems than carbon footprints. I guess I'm just cynical in regards to people actually living that lifestyle--"And even when wealthy people said they were concerned about the environment and trying to "live green," they generally weren't willing to make the sorts of changes that would really have a meaningful impact." I just had a conversation with someone at work who is considering working a resource position, like I do. She is struggling with personal issues (mommy guilt over not seeing her kids enough, insomnia, anxiety) but even though her concerns are affecting her health, she is hesitant to reduce her hours because of her consumer lifestyle (her husband works full time so benefits aren't an issue). I kinda think that's the overwhelming mindset of most Americans. If they aren't willing to change for personal (non-monetary) gain, will they consider changing for the needs of our world?

    Sorry to be a pessimist. I DO really appreciate that your green approach isn't an in-your-face one. :)

    1. Well, I do not disagree with you. If our society excels at anything, it's self destructive behavior. So, I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, saying "problem solved, woo hoo, this is easy."

      But I do think that if people realized that by living slightly more simple lives, they could retire early, live with less stress, and just generally be happier, well... I think there's more of a chance of getting people on board, than there is by saying "you're evil if you don't buy organic." Heavy emphasis on the word "chance."

  4. Thank you for doing the research on this. I suspected it was true and I try to live my life this way, but it’s nice to know there’s data to back it up :)

    1. I'm snickering at the idea that my random internet browsing qualifies as "research" - but, you're welcome! :-)

  5. It's a topsy-turvy world we seem to live in.
    Years ago my jeans would get worn into holes at the knees after I'd spent hours kneeling as I worked in the garden. Then I'd apply patches to get a bit more wear out of them.
    I would never have dreamt of appearing in public in holey or patched clothes.
    These days...
    "Conspicuous consumption" is a real thing.
    Fortunately my parents were adults through the 1930s and 1940s and I've absorbed their prudent and mindful habits.
    Best wishes to you; keep it simple :)

    1. It does make me hopeful that at least the whole idea of living frugally has gotten a bit of traction in the past few years. I know there's a LOOOONG way to go, but at this point I'll take all the hope I can get.

  6. I agree that the personal benefits of the frugality message could resonate more that environmentalism morality argument. But I'm still not sure enough people and companies will make the drastic changes needed to make a real difference. And that includes me. I live fairly frugal compared to average Americans, but even so I'm still loathe to do the big things needed to make a real dent in my footprint. Sure I recycle, compost, live in a small house, spend less than most. But things like using public transportation daily (it's currently almost never), not turning on the A/C, etc. feel like a sacrifice.

    Others have had similar ideas tho, and some success. I read that Mr. Money Mustache and Jacob from the ole Early Retirement Extreme blog shared their be frugal and retire early messages because they thought it was a more palatable way to get people to consume less.

    1. Well, the fact that you live in a small house is, in and of itself a pretty big thing. Plus... no kids - I've read that having even one fewer child is the single most impactful thing one can do.

      Honestly, I'm of the opinion that solving this problem will pretty much require a complete societal reboot. At the very least, we'll need the sorts of changes that probably won't be possible without legislative intervention - things like better efficiency standards and discontinuing subsidies to fossil fuels.

      In the meantime, I will continue to look for the "sweet spot" where environmentalism meets cheapness & laziness!

  7. I recently read Affluence without Abundance about the bushman (hunter-gather) society in Africa. A culture that was egalitarian, respected the environment and other living beings, didn't use more than was absolutely needed, 15-30 hours of work per week total (including finding food, prepping it, making clothes, everything!) etc. Basically a way of life that humans used successfully for about 200,000 years until they were pushed to the side by mostly white settlers who didn't value their "primitive" lifestyle. And the author went into great detail about how almost all the advances we've made since then have basically been "solving" problems that we've caused by not living a hunter-gather lifestyle . .

    I do like how you're selling the green lifestyle though. Maybe if we could get a celebrity to make it look cool and a President who cares about the future of humanity more than money?

    1. OK, now you're reminding me of the movie, "The Gods Must be Crazy." It might be before your time, but it's sort of a quirky comedy about a bushman who discovers a Coke bottle, and suddenly he has this useful thing that nobody else in the society has, and it totally disrupts their idyllic world. Hmmm... I think about that movie every time I'm washing out a glass jar to reuse!

      Anyhow, it's an interesting concept - that the downfall of humanity actually began with the onset of agriculture. Somehow I don't think the world could support 7.5 billion hunter gatherers... of course, there wouldn't be 7.5 billion of us if we were still hunter gatherers.

      Well anyhow, I might have to check that book out, it sounds interesting.

    2. I haven't seen it but there was a whole chapter about that movie because the main character in the movie was from the tribe that the book is about. The author met him once and gave him a glass Coke bottle as a gift. :)

      I'm not sure you would enjoy the book (it was mostly about the Bushmen having their lands and way of life destroyed) but maybe you would! You might be interested in that chapter at least.

    3. Coke in a glass bottle is what I should've written . . I made it sound like the author gave him just the empty bottle, ha!

    4. Well, it definitely sounds a bit depressing, but probably still information worth having...

  8. I totally agree with you that frugality and buying/using/consuming less is a much overlooked part of the solution to not totally destroying the planet- the information about people who try to live a ‘green lifestyle’ not actually being any greener than those who don’t is fascinating but not really surprising when I think about it. So much of ‘being eco friendly’ seems to be about purchasing the eco friendly version of something (perhaps because that is how our society/economy works).

    It’s certainly given me food for thought, as I am definitely not prepared to give up certain things- we only need two cars because I can’t get public transport/walk to a couple of hobbies that I have. (Having said that, I am not sure public transport here is actually the frugal option!)

    In any case, I have been mulling things over and, as the first thing I need to change is my own habits, I will be thinking of ways to make 2018 a more frugal year. I won’t be giving up purchasing things altogether, but I would like to redefine what I categorise as ‘necessary’- it’s so easy to justify purchases, when actually I might be happier with the money in the savings account!

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with the whole green purchasing thing. Our consumerist society would like for us to believe that we can shop ourselves out of this predicament, but I just don't think it works that way.

      We are just sooooo conditioned to believe that buying things will make us happy. It's been a rather spendy year for me what with all of the home remodeling, so I'm also looking forward to a more frugal 2018.

  9. Now this was really interesting. I'm not surprised by the information that the wealthy regardless of saying they live green use the most carbon, Heck just look at Al Gore with all his flying around. Seriously, I don't know any of his other choices only that air travel is one of the worst things we can do.

    The end of human life in 82 years is scary to me. Makes me wish I never had children who would have to watch their children face what's coming. I haven't prescribed to the Guy McPherson ten years left theory but I do believe by the time my grandchildren are adults they will be inhabiting a much different world than you or I knew. I've tried to set them up with skills they can use to get by but I fear I won't be able to teach them enough. For example, growing food, each year I face new hurdles due to weather. How can I expect to teach them to deal with weather that I can't even imagine.

    As for being wealthy. I'll have to work on that, this house has eaten up most of my savings. I'm okay with that because most of the money has gone to improving the insulation and adding the raised beds along with things that will make the house safer such as redoing the electrical wiring.

    1. You know, sometimes I forget just how far out on the fringe people like you and I are when it comes to lifestyle. I've been fantasizing about straw bale homes recently, so I was up on Zillow, and I happened upon some very strange things. There were these enormous ostentatious mansions... in the middle of nowhere - not near the ski resorts or any other tourist attractions. Seriously, the closest city was Pueblo, which is sorta like Colorado's version of Detroit in terms of economy these days. Anyhow, there was this whole subdivision of brand new mansions, and I just couldn't figure out who was possibly buying these things - clearly not some executive commuting from Pueblo, since there aren't any executives in Pueblo! Then CatMan pointed out that they're probably vacation homes. Honestly, it sorta gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. 7000 square foot vacation homes?!? No wonder the top 1% have enormous carbon footprints!

      Anyhow, I too am feeling quite negative about the future these days, but I'm trying to look for the positives wherever I can find them. So maybe if folks like you and I can show the world that you can be happy and fulfilled with soooo much less than most people think you need - well, maybe there's some hope after all.

    2. I totally understand that sick feeling! Sometimes I go on house tours because I'm looking for good ideas to steal. But so many of the houses are so gigantic and over-the-top that just imagining paying for them and dealing with all that upkeep makes me feel sick. Other people will be all "Wow!" and I'm just "No! Ow!"

    3. Ha! I totally know what you mean. CatMan and I ride all over the city, and sometimes we end up in very wealthy neighborhoods. They're sorta eerie actually - the houses are HUGE, and they all have enormous yards with beautiful decks and swing-sets that look like playgrounds... but you never see anyone except the hired help out and about. My first thought is always that the utilities bills alone would probably cost more than an entire mortgage in a more reasonable neighborhood.

  10. Your saying that "climate change poses a 5% chance of human extinction by the year 2100" grabbed me and pulled me into kind of a mini-depression. There's really no denying that we've waited too long and there's nothing we can do and my poor, poor nieces are just yet another set of people for whom my apologies are meaningless (on top of blacks, other minorities, gays, Muslims, etc.). Even if we didn't have ignorant/evil [expletives] governing the most irresponsible country in the world, it would still be too late. Part of me does hope for mass assassinations done by other people. Part of me says I may as well enjoy what we have while I still can. But the rest of me has planted my head firmly back into the sand again so that I can live. The same way people had to learn to do after the invention of atomic bombs.

    Okay, so now that that's taken care of, I can move on to the rest of your post: teaching people to live beneath their means. This reminds me of one of my favorite books, _Your Money or Your Life_ which posits that there is an ideal amount of spending that is "enough." Beyond that, the difficulties tend to outweigh the benefits. The problem is that the idea of "enough" is barely even in our vocabulary. Our culture is about having the most and being the best. Being "good enough" even at hobbies is not normal. For example, when I was learning to ski at Crested Butte, I really liked the bunny slope and I felt no need to challenge myself and learn to deal with scarier slopes (except for all my friends pressuring me to) so long as I still enjoyed that slope. No, our culture is that if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward.

    I do think living below our means (for those who have more than a living wage) might work (if it's not too late already). And I do like your idea from another post about sharing how we do that with others. I will work on this. Maybe I can come up with a post on "enough" at least.

    1. OK... I'm laughing out loud at the mass assassinations part. You know, I've thought a lot about this whole topic, and reluctantly come to the conclusion that as much as I would like to blame a select group of "evildoers," when it comes right down to it, the individual players are not the problem, it's the system. And when I say "system" I'm not just referring to our government or economy - I mean something much broader... encompassing all of the above plus more intangible things like culture and just basic human nature. I'm not denying that there are individuals who commit horrible acts against both nature and their fellow human beings, but when it comes right down to it, they're just people who have been deeply damaged by our society, and they're acting it out - sorta like an abused animal lashing out. That doesn't diminish the reality, but it does make me less angry about it all.

      Anyhow, I LOVE the book Your Money or your Life. It had a huge impact on me when I read it back in the 1990s. I totally agree that we don't understand the concept of "enough" - and once again I look to the system. Everywhere I look I see profoundly damaged people trying to fill their emotional holes with money, or things, or accolades, or achievement, or... the list goes on.

      I don't know exactly what I'm saying here, and I'm not entirely sure it's optimistic, but I do believe that the main ingredient we're missing is compassion.


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