Last month I attended a presentation by Paul Hawken editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, which was released last year. This plan developed by a team of scientists, consists of 80 solutions (see the summary here) grouped into seven categories: energy; food; women and girls; buildings and cities; land use; transport; and materials. I thought it could be interesting to ponder some of the suggested solutions in relation to the pursuit of financial independence. This seems especially timely given recent posts emphasizing sustainability and climate change on other FI oriented blogs, most notably Our Next Life and Tread Lightly, Retire Early.
In preparing this comprehensive list the Drawdown scientists focused on the following criteria:
- Is the solution currently available and scaling?
- Is it economically viable? In other words, is there a business case?
- Does it have the potential to reduce GHGs in the atmosphere, either through avoided emissions or sequestration, by at least 50 million tons of greenhouse gases over 30 years.
- Are there any negative results, such as pollution, reduced food security, land conversion, etc.? And if so, do the positive benefits outweigh the negatives?
- Do we have sufficient data to be able to model these technologies at global scale?
I find Drawdown to be very helpful in presenting technical and scientific facts and information in a digestable, actionable way. However, before proceeding I want to point out that given the criteria outlined above and the very nature of Project Drawdown, this team of scientists never makes an overt overarching case for “less.” From what I can see the way the scientists present these solutions in most cases (certainly not all) seeks to minimize the negative effects of existing practices or transition us to more efficient and environmentally friendly practices without discouraging us from over consuming and taxing the planet in the first place. Project Drawdown is not alone in this approach of exploring more efficient options to maintain current levels of consumption, but I’d like to see more discussion emphasizing the importance for those of us in western nations of consuming less.
With that said let’s take a look at some of the Drawdown recommendations and ponder how they might further us along on the FIRE path…. but first a brief preface/disclaimer – I am not a scientist, far from it, so bear with me as I navigate my way through some of the technical talk below….
The scientists’ data shows that the #1 solution involves better refrigerant management. Less environmentally damaging refrigerants have been developed and will be used in new refrigerators, air conditioners, etc. going forward, but disposal of earlier dangerous refrigerants remains an issue because ninety percent of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life. One thing each of us can do is to make sure we properly dispose of refrigerators and a/c units by contacting our local sanitation department when getting rid of them. Every May I dumpster dive at local universities as students are moving out of the dorms. It is amazing and distressing to witness all of the mini-refrigerators that get thrown in the trash dumpsters instead of being sold, given away, or at the very least properly disposed of. (Hint: For anyone looking for a side hustle idea that can help protect the planet and its people consider dumpster diving at local universities at the end of the semester to rescue and re-sell those mini-fridges as well as the textbooks and other valuable items that get discarded.)
In the spirit of encouraging “less” I propose the radical idea of running our air-conditioners less for those of us who have them. One option would be to simply set your thermostat one or two degrees higher than your usual comfort level and find other less environmentally harmful ways to cool your home, such as using ceiling or other fans. My boyfriend does not use a/c (or heat) at his house. Being somewhat of a MacGyver type he converted a small cooler he no longer needed into a swamp cooler he can fill with ice and run to keep me cool all night long when I sleep over in the summer.
Another approach I don’t see discussed much in the FIRE sphere is passive cooling. Given the prominence of the DIY mindset in many FIRE discussions one would think we might hear more about this money saving hack and energy efficiency optimization.
When I was house shopping one of the desired features on my list was “sits on an east-west axis,” which allows for better air flow through the house and is an integral feature of a passively cooled home. Unfortunately, that was one of the features that the house I did purchase doesn’t have. Now I live in a house with other positive features that sits on a north-south axis with it’s west side bordering an empty lot. I have planted a neem tree on that side of the house to add some shade because the Florida sun beats down on that side of the house all afternoon and evening in the summer. At the same time I want to be careful to not cover too much of the roof in case I decide to add more solar coverage than what I have already with my solar hot water heater. I’ll admit I haven’t done much more on this front because much of what I read leaves me believing that in Florida it may be easier to incorporate passive cooling into a new build than to retrofit for it and also in part because there aren’t that many contractors specializing in it here.
Similarly, solution #31 is insulation. According to the Drawdown team, “air infiltration accounts for 25 to 60 percent of energy used to heat and cool a home—energy that is simply wasted.” Mr. Money Mustache has referenced the benefits of insulation in numerous posts including one entitled Beating the Stock Market With DIY Insulation. Can you do more to insulate your home reducing your energy use and keeping more of your money to invest? Last on the list at #80 is retrofitting. The money homeowners spend retrofitting their homes for passive cooling and heating, adding more insulation, or by installing higher quality, more efficient heating and cooling equipment is usually recouped, sometimes in just a few years.
Solutions #2 and 8 on the list relate to energy – onshore wind and solar farms (in that order). Continuing with an earlier mentioned theme I would first and foremost suggest each of us consider using LESS electricity in general. By that I mean not just upgrading our homes with more efficient electrical equipment, but actually plugging things in or turning them on less frequently. And owning fewer things to plug in. Sure onshore wind and solar farms are preferable alternatives to fossil fuels, but it still is extractive (requiring energy and natural resources) to produce and assemble the equipment in the first place.
Coming in at # 10 is rooftop solar. A solar water heater was installed on the roof of my home when it was built in 2010. I have not yet installed any more solar panels on my roof largely because I don’t have enough cash on hand to pay for the installation outright and my low and erratic self-employed earnings make it challenging for me to qualify for a loan option with an attractive interest rate. In the interim I signed up with Arcadia Power, which buys Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), a commodity that certifies that a unit of electricity was produced with renewable energy sources. This means my house is still powered by the same energy sources my local utility uses, but by buying power through Arcadia, I offset the environmental impact of buying carbon-emitting “dirty” energy from Duke Energy. This allows me to help drive the demand for sustainably sourced electricity without installing a full on solar array. Check here to see if this clean energy option is available where you live and offset 50% of the energy used in your home with renewable energy credits at no additional cost to you.
Another way we can vote with our dollars here is to invest in green energy funds that contain solar and wind energy holdings. If you are limited to an employer based retirement plan voice your preference for socially responsible investing options and divesting from fossil-fuel companies. The Drawdown solutions criteria considered negative effects so I’m hoping that the version of solar farms they are advocating for does not involve clear cutting forests or grasslands to establish them.
The Drawdown Project was first brought to my attention by a wonderful man, who like me is very active in our local urban agriculture scene here in Tampa Bay. He got excited (and spread that excitement) because he saw how many of the solutions pertained to food and land use. Anyone who has read previous posts on this site likely has picked up on the fact that I source most of my food from local grocery store dumpsters and augment that with food I grow, forage, and receive from fellow gardeners.
Solution #3 – food waste – came as no surprise to me. This wasted food for the most part ends up rotting in landfills and releasing a tremendous amount of methane gas.
I witness huge amounts of still edible food going to waste in grocery store dumpsters on a weekly basis. That’s in addition to the food that didn’t make it off the farm or out of the distribution center in the first place because of imperfections in its appearance. Topping it all off we westerners are prone to letting food spoil in our refrigerators instead of eating it. Many FI blogs and podcasts have covered meal planning and advanced food prep, which are great ways to reduce household food waste. For tips on avoiding food waste at home check out this post from fellow FI blogger Frugasaurus.
Producing food in the first place requires significant inputs including seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, and financial capital. That’s why the Food Recovery Hierarchy prepared by the US EPA indicates, reducing the amount of excess food produced in the first place is the highest best way to begin addressing this issue. Most grocery stores donate food to non-profits, but they still throw out tons of food. I meet people from Food Not Bombs and other organizations working to feed the homeless at grocery store dumpsters frequently because there’s still so much still edible food that gets thrown out instead of donated.
Composting makes the Drawdown list at #60. If food can’t be fed to humans or animals or used for industrial purposes then composting it is a way better option than sending it to a landfill or incinerator since compost produces rich soil for growing more food or other plants. It seems to me that people on the path to FI would be especially interested in creating something that’s also referred to as “black gold” that you can then use to grow more food in your yard increasing your living capital. If your city doesn’t have a municipal composting initiative like San Francisco and NYC and you don’t have the time, space, or desire to compost yourself check on Share Waste to find someone nearby, who would be delighted to add your food scraps to their own compost pile.
I could lose credibility with some readers, especially vegans, over # 4, a plant rich diet. I eat a very plant rich diet and I also eat animal products. For the most part, I eat animal products that were either rescued from the dumpster (still cold), safely and sustainably hunted or caught by others and gifted to me, or purchased from my local grassfed meat vendor or health food store. I also eat nutrient dense animal parts that others don’t usually eat (such as liver, kidneys, and heart) thus keeping food from going to waste and hopefully requiring less livestock to be raised in the first place. The best grassfed beef deal in my town is at the health food store where I can buy a pound of beef hearts for $2.49. I’ve eaten snack bars with cricket flour and would be open to learning more about it as a viable alternative source of animal protein.
I know that conventional forms of raising animals are extremely detrimental to the environment because of the large amounts of water used and greenhouse gases emitted through their practices. I also am aware though, what a very large amount of water – 1 gallon per nut – it takes to grow almonds and pistachios and the ensuing environmental costs of this. After listening to this NPR Planet Money piece from 2015 about growing nuts amidst the California drought I stopped purchasing almonds and pistachios. (I will still rescue these nuts and eat unopened packages of them from the dumpster.)
Further down the list we encounter solutions that demonstrate sustainable, even regenerative ways to raise livestock and simultaneously sequester carbon. #9 is silvopasture, an agroforestry practice that integrates livestock, forage production (such as mushrooms), and forestry on the same land management unit. Managed grazing makes the list at #19.
I would love to invest in a silvopasture operation or farm practicing managed grazing. I’d actually like to invest in a business addressing pretty much any of these solutions instead of purchasing stock in companies such as Microsoft or McDonald’s. During the Q & A with Paul Hawken after his remarks, I asked him how non-accredited investors could direct monies they have to invest into companies trying to reverse global warming instead of cause it. He really liked my question, but didn’t know the answer. He said he’d take it back to the project team for further discussion. In the meantime, I continue to do my own research to find regenerative investment options and will share them on this site’s Resources page and in related blog posts as I find them.
Drawdown is such a comprehensive plan and has so many synergies with financial independence that I am going to stop here for now and make this a two part blog post.
It would be great to hear from you now. What do you think about the solutions recommended in Drawdown? Do you see them being complementary with your FIRE journey?
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