Retire early... to save the planet?
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
If it’s not this, it must be the opposite.
How often do you witness this sort of thinking? When I pay attention I find it’s everywhere, framing nearly every argument. Author Daniel Quinn calls it two-handedness: imagining there are only two options, usually framed as opposites. Democrat or Republican. City or country. When it comes to addressing our environmental challenges, the dichotomy is between individual consumer choices or collective action.
Before you misunderstand me, let me state clearly that I am not against collective action. I’m all for it. The assumption that it must be one or the other is a major flaw in two-handed thinking. Good answers to our problems should contain both, or rather, neither.
Recent opinion (George Monbiot gives an example) champions collective action, and rejects individual consumer choices, not without good reason. "Buying green” is fantastic marketing, but an ecological wash. Although it arguably makes your laundry smell better, choosing Seventh Generation over Tide does not help the earth much. Even choosing a Tesla over a Corolla may not make a big difference.
But I think Monbiot and the rest of us are also wrong about individual consumption. There is a consumer choice that can change your personal impact for the better. That choice is not to consume.
Not consume? But a person has to eat! Okay, that’s true. I’m not suggesting you go on an air diet. Stick with me for a minute.
“Consumer spending” includes things you may not think of as part of your typical spending habits, like healthcare and buying a house. Some of these things aren’t discretionary. Gotta have food and shelter. Nevertheless, you personally have at least some control over these choices. I can choose to grow some of my food rather than buy it, even if it’s just a little basil in a window box. I can choose to love the house I have rather than buy a bigger one.
The money we shell out is a BIG deal. Consumer spending accounted for 68% of the U.S. economy in 2018. It’s the only thing propping up economic growth in late 2019, while sectors like manufacturing are “softening” (read: falling).
But think about that for a minute: over two thirds of the output (and therefore the damage) of the largest economy in the world is under the direct control of one or another of my neighbors. We conjure new products into existence by buying them, and when we do so, we also conjure the pollution generated by their manufacture. Turn that around: by not buying new products, we prevent their manufacture, and therefore their pollution.
What would have happened in 2018, if every person in America had put half the money they made in savings, rather than spending it conjuring more stuff? US GDP would have shrunk by 34%. GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, and it’s one very flawed measure of the total economic activity of a country. When GDP goes negative, that’s called a recession. There’s never been a recession like that here, ever. The Great Depression didn’t even come close.
Instead, our economy and therefore our impact grows nearly every year. It has to, in order for interest on debt to be paid. Here’s the amount by which U.S. GDP grew in 2018 (compared to 2017): 2.9%. That’s 2.9% more CO2 into the atmosphere, and 2.9% more waste into the rivers. So what if, rather than everybody doing it, just one person out of ten in the United States had decided to cut their consumer spending by half? GDP would have been 3.4% less than it was in 2018. It would have been less than in 2017, shrinking instead of growing. Less economic activity translates to less damage to the Earth’s ecosystems.
Who would ever choose to cut their spending in half, just to save the earth? We’re told over and over that’s the sort of hardship and misery that the public will never swallow. But thousands of people are doing exactly that, and many of them aren’t even thinking of the environment.
Minimalists are cutting their spending because they want to be able to (gasp) park in their garages, and enjoy their weekends doing anything other than dealing with stuff. Tiny house dwellers are cutting their spending because they don’t have space for a 15th accent pillow from Target. And FIREs (Financial Independence/Retire Early) are cutting their spending by 50 or 80% to ultimately take control of their time. Not to save the planet, but to save themselves.
None of these people think reducing their consumption harms their quality of life. Just the opposite. All of these people are reducing their consumption to increase their quality of life. We find this in our family all the time: we make some conscious decision that improves our lives in three different ways, and discover that the fourth thing it does is to also reduce our environmental impact. This isn’t automatic; some decisions that feel nice are bad for the planet, like beach vacations. Others, like showering in the garden, are worth doing first for the pleasure of it, and second for the pollution reduction.
I would even argue that reducing consumption for the sake of the planet might be the wrong way to go about it. If I try to change my life for purely environmental reasons, some company is already there to “help” me feel better about our ecological woes while actually buying more stuff. More tech. More trinkets. A much more expensive car.
If, however, I want to cut my expenses to make my life better, then the FIRE community is there for me (on the internet, of course, not at my kitchen table). They have a thousand hacks to share, not sell, from favorite frugal recipes to tips on dealing with unsupportive spouses. Absolutely endless encouragement and moral support. This wonderful woman will even break my budget down line by line and sic her whole frugal community on it, for free.
And unlike a spendy new car, changing my life to make it nicer and less damaging isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, so it doesn’t have to be scary. I’m not risking much. Every little change makes the next one easier. Most of them are easy to un-do, if I discover they’re not for me. If I try cutting my meat consumption and find I feel like crap after a month, well, I add a little back in, or eat a little more healthy fat. No big. All I did was save some money and learn something about myself, plus maybe find a new favorite recipe. I can change something else instead.
Everywhere I look in the frugality/minimalism community, there’s a relentless focus on what works for you. For real. Not the illusion of choice among almost-identical products. It’s an absolutely inspiring recognition that we all have different needs.
If you’re working for low wages for the cost of living in your area, I recognize that cutting your consumption by 50% isn’t possible. Cutting by 1% may not be possible. You may be eating every dollar you make, and you probably know a lot more about frugality than I do. Same deal if you have a disability or addiction or mental illness, are caring for an ageing parent, have a baby or are a single parent. Several of these things have been true for me at one point or another, so I understand what it’s like when your cognitive load is so high you can’t even think about anything extra.
But for those of us who could make some change, it’s a disservice to ourselves not to try. We’re talking about life getting better here, not worse. People in the middle or upper-middle income range, with more flexibility and more choice, have greater environmental impact than folks who are struggling. Switch that around: if you have greater impact, you have greater responsibility. Response-ability. Literally, a greater ability to respond.
Here’s a tiny example of unintended benefits. My friend was re-working her budget again to squeeze a little more out of it. She’s got three kids, one income and a farm, so it matters. I mentioned that she keeps her house quite cool in the summer, which costs a lot because we live in the south. She thought she couldn’t warm it up, especially at night, because of her asthma.
But she tried it, slowly, one degree at a time, and found that it wasn’t too uncomfortable to raise her thermostat significantly. Her asthma didn’t get noticeably worse. Her power bill went down. Her environmental impact fell, even though that wasn’t her goal. And then, like magic, she discovered that her body tolerated the heat while working outside much better. Huge benefit, given the farming. Totally not what she was trying to achieve.
We aren’t FIRE around here because my husband gets huge fulfillment out of his job, and isn’t planning on stopping even if he could. However, we are privileged to choose something financially similar: living on one income. This gives us great flexibility; because we only needed to find one good job, we had a lot more choice in where to live. We chose an inexpensive area, which makes the one income workable. Because I don’t work a 9-5, I’m able to work on our lives. Like all those FIRE people, I work my butt off on things that matter to me that I could never get paid for.
We used my labor to design our little house, which we then built mostly with our hands and a couple of trusty power drills. This has more than halved our housing costs. We use it to homeschool our two kids, turn our focus to our land, and reduce our driving. We use it to grow an increasing portion of our food, which has reduced our grocery spending.
We aren’t saving 50% of our income, but we are getting through the investment phase of our homesteading while also building savings (cleaning up the land, planting hundreds of trees and fixing the equipment and structures is expensive). The day is swiftly approaching when our consumer spending will fall significantly.
All of these things make our lives better, healthier, cheaper or all three, and also happen to reduce our impact. When I grow too many sweet potatoes or eggs I give them away to our friends, neighbors, family or co-workers. Some of these people give me back far more than I gave them, if they have extra. Some give me back nothing, and I don’t care. It may not even out. That isn’t the point.
I recognize that it’s a fantastic privilege to have extra time to help others get their projects done. Not everyone has the ability to choose it. But it’s also a privilege no one can have unless they choose it. We could have chosen to waste our time and money keeping up with the Joneses instead, and been poorer and sadder for it, because the people we help also help us. Sometimes this is an explicit trade, paint and goat-sitting for tractor work, but usually it’s more reciprocal than transactional. I help because it feels good.
Trading or gifting time and effort isn’t only a country pastime. I bet you can think of services you pay for or struggle to do yourself that could be taken care of in your community. Childcare, handyman tasks and landscaping are a natural fit, but you’re limited only by your own creativity. By reducing our consumption, we can all gain ourselves time to do things that matter to us but don’t count as official employment. We gain ourselves space to make the positive impact we want to see. That freeing-up of labor and mental energy is essential as we begin to confront the shocks of environmental damage.
We are reaching the physical limits of the planet, and this means that one of these years GDP is going to fall anyway, whether or not 10% of us choose to live 50% better starting tomorrow. Because our economy is built on the assumption of continuous growth, unplanned contraction is messy. Our economy is the way we keep ourselves warm and fed, so contraction causes suffering and even death.
But if we plan to reduce our consumption before it happens to us, if we plan to have more time and human energy to give away rather than sell, the impact is softened. If we direct our focus towards making connections and building resilience, and away from making money and buying things, we will all be better off than we otherwise would have been.
Usually when we say “collective action” we mean big collections of people, and big actions. Marching, protesting, voting. But helping each other with the small tasks of life, watching someone’s kids so they don’t have to hire a sitter or fixing their sink so they don’t need a plumber, these are actions we take together. They’re collective, and if they add up to meaningful reductions in consumer spending, even just for one out of ten of us, the math says they really can make a difference. We can choose the products of each other, rather than “choosing” between two products on a shelf. It’s both of the usual solutions, and neither. A third hand.
How do you personally reduce your consumption, and why? Are you thinking of making a change to meet some of your needs outside the monetary system? Share your secrets below. I always need new ideas.