One of the greatest environmental issues of our time is climate change. While the powers that be debate the merits and necessity of the Paris climate agreement, carbon credits, electric vehicles, and renewable energy, we don't need to wait for corporate or government edicts to tell us how we can save the world.
The solution to climate change is very simple: spend less money and use fewer resources.
Hence, the most centsible solution to climate change you'll ever read! You and I, the individual consumer, have the power to greatly influence many changes by taking the liberty to use our noggins to think for ourselves.
What We Can Do to Tackle Climate Change
Let's first start with the most logical solution, consuming fewer resources as individual consumers.
I usually like to marvel at how American financial prosperity has rapidly advanced since World War II. If you don't believe me, here's a few mind-blowing stats:
- The average single-family house in 1950 was 983 sq. feet. Today, it's only 2500 sq. feet.
- 25% of American houses didn't have a flush toilet, today less than 1% of houses lack a running toilet
- In 1920, only 1% of all American houses had electricity and running water (in some states you can't build a house without air conditioning today)
- In 1942, the U.S. built it's first “summer peaking” power plant to handle the increasing demand for air conditioning.
- In 1975, the average household only had one television set. Today, you can expect a home to have (at least 3).
- Households internet access goes mainstream in 1995
Can you imagine growing up learning how to drive a horse and buggy to watching black-and-white tv to sending email in your life? Our grandparents and great-grandparents could.
What am I getting at with these stats, if we were to switch places with our ancestors could we survive the first day? As companies have figured how to mass produce high tech gadgets and even consumer staples, we have bought bigger houses to keep all of our “stuff.”
Most of these items require electricity or batteries to function. Each time you flip the light switch, turn on the computer, or the compressor for your fridge or air conditioner turns on, the power plant needs to burn more natural resources to satisfy your electric needs.
Even when we sleep, our appliances and gadgets still consumer electricty. Even though we only enjoy the end product, the factory and power plant are consuming raw materials and generating CO2 emissions that supposedly harm the environment.
Each time we buy a new computer, smartphone, or anything else that wasn't invented yet in 1900 contributes to the environmental crisis, whether we like to admit it or not.
Are You Willing to Give Up Your 21st Century Lifestyle to Save the Earth?
As a child, I lived in a house that was built in the 1950s and was 1000 sq. feet for a few years. Eventually, we moved into a bigger house that is closer to the 2500 sq. feet of living space. Today, the house my own family lives in has 2100 sq. feet of living space.
I don't know about you, but doesn't seem like we need to turn Amish and embrace minimalism, forgo electricity, and live a life that was very common to any human who lived on the earth from the Garden of Eden until the early 20th century.
I'm not proposing we go back to 1894 and experience another Great Manure Crisis where the sheer amount of horse manure in big cities made life-threatening disease common and the air quality “refreshing” to say the least.
Instead, Spend Less and Avoid Debt
This is my own personal theory, but the threat of climate change is a reflection of our own record amounts of consumer debt. In the post-World War II Pax Americana era, we literally “have it all.”
Now here's the ironic part, we can lose it all because of our financial recklessness.
These are three key financial benchmarks I use to make my comparison:
- The total amount of U.S. Credit Card Debt is $1 trillion
- The total amount of U.S. Car Loan Debt is $1.157 trillion
- The total amount of U.S. Home Mortgage Debt is $8.743 trillion
As a nation, we're making interest payments on buying tangible items that maybe we shouldn't have bought in the first place. When we finish using the items we purchase, they will most likely end up in the landfill because they cannot be recycled, reused, or repurposed.
I'm not saying you should sell your car and house to live in a cardboard box or cave. I plan to live in my current house until I die and we have three paid-for cars that we will sell when they are no longer operable.
What I do advocate is only buying what you absolutely need and consider living more like our grandparents and great-grandparents did. They made do with less and still lived fulfilling lives.
Here are a few ideas on how we can be 21st-century cash-savvy pioneers:
- Don't borrow money to buy consumable items (save for large purchases)
- Upgrade your smartphone when it dies, not as soon as you make the last monthly payment
- Don't buy a McMansion to “keep up with the Joneses”
- Keep your brand-new car for more than three years before trading in (even better, buy used)
- Don't rush to the store to buy the newest tech gadget (it'll be old news next month)
- Engage in a voluntary “tech fast” at least one day a year (you'll remember what 1995 was like)
- Teach your children to consume less than you did when you were there age
Will making wise financial decisions make climate change obsolete? I don't know, but by spending less money, you indirectly consumer fewer resources that can be used by future generations.
Frugality is the easiest way to ensure we do everything we can to leave the world better than we inherited it.
Here's Why I Dislike the Popular Solutions to Climate Change
Most of us think that Climate Change is a problem that needs to be left to our scientists, CEOs, and politicians.
I beg to differ.
Why I'm Leery of Government Solutions
If you've read my blog for some time, you have probably figured out that I don't like others taking money from my wallet without consent.
The one difference between the panhandler and the government is that the government requires us to give them a portion of our wealth (i.e. money). While I'm all for rendering unto Caesar, the federal government's track record with financial decision making hasn't been so hot since 1970 when we've run a national deficit, even while having record tax revenues.
In that 40 year timeframe, Democrats and Republicans have each held the White House and either chamber of Congress. Despite campaign promises to balance the budget, the national debt only continues to multiply.
I fear that if we begin paying a carbon tax, it's just going to be another tax that will be mismanaged. When the lawmakers realize they're not making enough, they will raise the tax rate, just like the original top income tax bracket has grown from 7% to 39.6%.
For every additional dollar we give to the government, that's one less dollar we (the private citizen) can spend on paying off our own debts, saving for the future, or spending it on pleasure like ice cream or vacation.
Once again, governments need taxes to pay for core services and I'm fine with paying taxes if the government actually handled our tax dollars responsibly. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
Why I Don't Think Businesses Can Solve Climate Change Themselves
Businesses aren't infallible neither. In fact, corporate environmental negligence is what helped spur the movement to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. As the size of government grows so does government spending which means tax rates need to rise. That's never a viable long-term solution in my book.
Sustainable business practices should be commonplace to ensure our great-great-grandchildren have enough resources to live the posh lifestyles we currently enjoy without having to live next to a toxic dumpsite (just google “EPA Superfund Sites Near Me” to see what I mean).
At the end of the day, the primary goal of business is to earn the most profit at the lowest possible cost. If that means throwing the environment to the wolves, so be it.
When there are no more private corporate jets and business leaders and their clients need to fly commerical (delays, lost baggage, and canceled flights included), I'll begin to take corporate environmental initiatives more seriously. Until then, corporations are only anti-climate change when it's convenient for the bottom line and the shareholders.
The B Corp movement is a nice start, but there will always be a dirty side of business as they constantly need to look for new sources of raw material to make the products we enjoy like smartphones, automobiles, electricity, and anything plastic.
Think About How Your Own Job Impacts the Environment
Did it exist 100 years ago? If so, I'm sure it was a lot more labor-intensive and time-consuming.
The business leaders 100 years ago might have had an altruistic motive of advancing mankind, but the most likely reason the Industrial Revolution was so successful was to build a successful business and boost their own income. The “average Joe” moved to the city to work in factories because of the greater income opportunities so they could finally get out of poverty.
Did they care about the environmental impact? Maybe, but their primary concern was bringing home the bacon and the sustainability issue can was kicked down the road, just like it is today.
Don't Forget About the Emerging Markets
Us developed nations (the U.S., Canada, western Europe) can only do so much to cap greenhouse gases and air pollution.
Just as our standard of living skyrocketed in the last half of the 20th century, the rest of the world is catching up. Take a second to research China, India, and even oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia. The people and leaders of these developing nations are finally realizing they too can hop on the “wealth train” and reduce the effects of poverty just like the U.S. and the West did a century before.
Even though nations like China and India have agreed to reduce CO2 emissions, this pledge can be misleading. They will still be putting the same amount of CO2 in the air as they currently are, but they will be using more “clean energy” sources for future industrial expansion.
These pledges are better than nothing, but it's like switching from a $40 monthly data plan with 1 GB of data to 4 GB for the same price. You haven't actually cut your spending, you've only renegotiated for a better deal.
The demand for electricity and natural resources will continue in other parts of the world, even if we were to bring our consumption down to zero. Other parts of the world can still theoretically keep the greenhouse gas-emitting factories and power plants humming.
Here's my solution in a nutshell: Don't wait for a government leader or an S&P 500 CEO to tell you what to do. I think you'll be disappointed with their guidance, especially when they make restrictions that you don't agree with. Instead, grab the bull by the horns and stop spending so much money on stuff you really don't need.
Not only will you consume less today, you will also stay out of debt, and also be able to leave a legacy for tomorrow.
Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.