The Sustainability Factor: Environmentalism through Financialism

The Sustainability Factor

Hello $wanigans! Welcome back to The Green Swan. Today I wanted to introduce you to some concepts on sustainability. I watched a couple great documentaries recently titled Cowspiracy and Sustainable. I wasn’t necessarily super excited to watch these, I’ve never considered myself an environmentalist, but they were selected for me by Netflix based on my recent viewing of various food and vegan documentaries. Gotta love the algorithm! At a moment of weakness I decided to hit play…and I’m glad I did.

While this is a financial independence blog, by now you may be realizing this isn’t a post on the sustainability of investments through retirement. Nope, we’re going down a different rabbit hole today…it is about time I open your eyes to the world of environmental sustainability. I’ll also touch on how I stumbled into the environmentalist movement. Am I an environmentalist??? Maybe I have become one, unbeknownst to me, via financialism…

I Smell a Cowspiracy

First, let me hit you with some Q&A:

  1. What’s the biggest driver of greenhouse gases? Cars, right? That’s what I would have said anyway, but believe it or not the answer is livestock at 51% of all greenhouse gases whereas cars/transportation is only 13%. WTF, huh? Yeah, I guess cows give off quite a bit of methane gas… Why have we always been led to believe cars are the biggest polluter of greenhouse gases? Sounds like a cowspiracy to me.
  2. What’s the biggest use of fresh water? This question is for all the readers out west living in draught conditions (yes, you California). Domestic water use? Golf courses? Nope and nope…animal agriculture accounts for 55% of water use! Domestic is only 5%! The amount of water that goes into animal agriculture to produce one burger is 660 gallons of water…that’s enough water to shower for two months! So Californians, feel mislead about needing to curtail domestic water use because of the draught? Sounds like a cowspiracy to me. How about a veggie burger and nice, long shower tonight?

Enough with the Q&A, here’s just a few more facts:

  1. Livestock covers 45% of the Earths total land.
  2. 1/3rd of land is desertified due to livestock (definitely not sustainable).
  3. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Yes, the rainforest is disappearing fast…1-2 acres per second.
  4. It takes 1/6th of an acre to feed one person for one year on a vegan diet and 3 acres for a meat eater.

All this is going on and on and I will speak for myself here, I’ve been 100% blind to it all…until now. We may want to rethink a couple things or we’re headed to a crisis. The question is what crisis will hit first; climate change, water / draught conditions, deforestation and land issues? The list goes on.

Or maybe the better question is what crisis hasn’t hit yet? Check out the awesome infographic from Cowspiracy:

Cowspiracy

Am I an Environmentalist?

All this begs the question I’ve finally reflected on…am I an environmentalist?! The guy who grew up in the Midwest hunting and fishing and surrounded by tons of animal agriculture? I guess I am. You can add environmentalist to the growing list of weird and obscure subcultures I belong to which also includes the financial independence / retire early subculture and the whole-food, vegan subculture. How the heck did that happen?

Well a quick recap…I care a lot about money. I love money. I save it tirelessly and endlessly. I am continuously on the lookout for making and saving more money. Eventually this led to the discovery of financial independence. But what good is money if I am unhealthy and die young? Getting sick is no way to live and it is super expensive. So it is probably best to get a lot of money and live a healthy lifestyle so that I can enjoy the money more and for longer. I’ve always been focused on health and wellness and nutrition. This ultimately led to me stumbling on the whole food plant based diet. I’m now a full-on convert. I bought solar panels two years ago because it was a smart financial decision. It’s only a matter of time before I get an electric car that will also be powered by my rooftop solar panels.

So here I am…living a vegan lifestyle, an owner of solar panels, watching documentaries on sustainable living. Sounds like an environmentalist! And as a matter of fact, I don’t think you can be an environmentalist without being a vegan. I’ll just put that out there. How could someone consider themselves an environmentalist while being a meat eater after listing the Cowspiracy facts above? Sustainability, my friends.

Carbon and Climate Change

Carbon is a big deal. Since the industrial revolution (around 1751) there has been 356 billion gigatons of carbon released into the atmosphere. Half of this has occurred since 1980. In the 2010 UN climate talks, 167 countries adopted the threshold that we must not pass a 2 degree Celsius change in temperature above the pre-industrial levels. To remain within this level, it was determined that no more than 565 gigatons can be released by 2050. Sadly, we are on pace to exceed this target by 2028…

Average temperature has already increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius. Even if we turn off all carbon emissions overnight, temperature will increase another 0.8 degrees Celsius because of the delayed effect carbon has and the long time it takes for heat to be absorbed by the oceans before it improves the atmosphere.

The problem is that we are all addicted to carbon. Worldwide, governments and private entities have trillions of dollars of value dependent on the continued burning of fossil fuels. Renewable energy (my solar panels…) alone isn’t the savior because it is decades off before it will replace fossil fuels.

Look at our food economy, we are addicted to animal agriculture! But reducing methane emissions would create tangible benefits almost immediately! I think vegans deserve a little thanks…and maybe it is time you consider transitioning as well?

My Carbon Footprint

Let’s take a quick look at my carbon footprint. It’s hard to find a great calculator out there that truly weighs all things carbon. The EPA has a decent one which measures household carbon footprint from home energy, transportation and waste and compares it to the average.

While I have a gas guzzling SUV that gets about 20 mpg, my wife and I basically get by on one vehicle. We carpool to work and drive maybe 12,500 miles per year. In terms of household energy, our solar panels reduce most all of our electricity consumption. However, we use natural gas for heat in the winter which results in a good amount of carbon emissions. Lastly, our waste carbon footprint is minimal and we are good recyclers. All-in-all, we are well below the US average in terms of carbon footprint as shown below.

Cowspiracy

But what about diet? I thought being on a plant based diet cut the carbon footprint by 50% compared to meat eaters (per the Cowspiracy infographic)? Why doesn’t the EPA factor this in given it is a huge component of our personal carbon footprint? Come on EPA, get in the game! I’m starting to smell a cowspiracy here.

The calculator that I like the most is from The Nature Conservancy. It only took 5 minutes or so to fill out but the calculator has a more fulsome approach and advanced options to get as detailed as possible. For example, I was able to build in the air travel our family takes each year…that’s a hidden consideration to the carbon footprint! Plus, it factors in the hidden but oh so important diet.

Cowspiracy

Overall, my family’s carbon footprint is 45 tons per year (42% better than average). As you could guess, the biggest variance of my footprint compared to the average is the fact we own solar panels and that are vegans. Our household carbon emissions are estimated at 9 tons / year compared to the average home footprint of 14 tons (that’s a 36% lower footprint!). Our food related carbon footprint is 6 tons / year compared to the 9 tons for the average person (33% less!).

Another good source I found on carbon footprint related to food shows that being vegan can cut the carbon footprint by over 50% as shown below.

Cowspiracy

How about you? What’s your footprint?

The Green Swan is so Damn Green

Don’t worry, The Green Swan isn’t turning into an environmental blog. I am trying to do my part though. One article on environmentalism isn’t all bad is it? Hopefully I shed some light on this important topic and perhaps motivate a few of you fine folks to take a closer look at your carbon footprint.

Thanks for taking a look!

The Green Swan

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3 Comments

  1. Nice post! As a nerdy engineer, I’ve been calculating and offsetting my carbon footprint for many years. I use the Ecological Footprint calculator (http://www.footprintcalculator.org/) because it allows you to estimate “secondary impacts” that includes food and other purchases like financial products, clothing, etc. I have been a vegetarian for almost two decades and the main reason was due to factory farming that is incredibly inhumane and as you discuss above, costly from an environmental, social, and economic perspective. However, when grazed effectively, animals raised for food can actually help increase the productivity and carbon storage of a piece of land. Ben Hewitt and Ben Falk (two Vermont homesteaders) have a couple really nice books about this topic.

    In my experience I’ve found that focusing on living a more mindful and sustainable lifestyle is not only more rewarding since living unsustainably means we are living inefficiently, but it makes it easier to avoid costly lifestyle inflation. While the term “environmentalist” can be viewed negatively by some, we only have this one planet to share. With all of our modern conveniences it is common to feel disconnected from nature, but it is important to recognize that if we t bankrupt our natural capital, we will eventually bankrupt our financial capital.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Heather! I will check out that calculator right now. I’m curious to know what steps you’ve taken to offset your carbon footprint?

      Interesting point on grazing effectively being helpful to carbon storage. The Cowspiracy documentary touched on that concept, although quickly. I’m very curious to hear more though so I’ll check out those books! Thanks.

  2. Regarding books, I’ve really been enjoying the various author’s published by Chelsea Green Publishing (https://www.chelseagreen.com/). The handful that I have read at this point (including the two Ben’s I mentioned) were really well written and had a lot of great practical info.

    I’ve been working to reduce my carbon footprint since the early 2000s when I first learned about this in college (as part of my sustainability focus). In a way it’s like working towards FI, with a lot of small changes and tweaks in my mindset followed by behavior changes that reduce our footprint and expenses. One of the biggest changes has been living a car-lite lifestyle for many years and eventually going car-free in 2014. I also hate waste and am naturally frugal, which helps since I only ever buy what I need (including food, which results in methane production in landfills). Living a more local lifestyle has also helped. I’ve been working hard to pursue hobbies and set up my life so that I don’t feel the need to “get away”.

    Basically finding ways to be content with myself and my life as it already is reduces the desire to acquire and/or consume things that ultimately don’t add value or joy to my life.

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