For 'sustainable lifestyles' to succeed, we must talk about money

money dollars
CC BY-SA 2.0 Flickr

As a rule, I've always disliked the eco-truism that you "vote with your dollars." "One person, one vote" is a very different notion to "one dollar, one vote."

That's why you vote with the ballot box.

Still, whether it is supporting clean energy, packaging-free shopping or boycotting unsustainable fishing, what we do (and don't!) spend our money on does have a profound impact on the economy and society we would like to see.

Two sides of the same coin
Focusing only on how we spend our money, however, leaves an equally (perhaps more) important aspect unexamined: And that's how we save and invest what we don't spend. While institutions ranging from the Rockefeller Foundation to the World Council of Churches have been rethinking their investments in fossil fuels of late, I'd hazard a guess that many of us ordinary citizens have not put as much thought into our own savings and pensions.

The carbon bubble
There was a time when ethical investing was mostly about ethics. Increasingly, however, there's a cold hard financial calculation to be made. In fact, many people (including the Governor of the Bank of England) are increasingly concerned that most fossil fuels are unburnable, meaning many existing reserves and investments in future exploration are in very real danger of becoming worthless. And the world's largest investors are calling for major climate action.

I recently met with both my financial advisor and, separately, a close relative who is way more money savvy than myself. In both cases, there was perhaps a slight eye roll when I started talking about divestment and ethics. When I explained the topic of the carbon bubble, however, their ears pricked up.

There are alternatives
I don't think I convinced either of my two audiences that fossil fuels are going to disappear overnight, but once I drew their attention to recent declines in Chinese coal production and a stall in global carbon emissions they did appear to concede that basing future investment decisions simply on past patterns of consumption might not be the wisest of strategies.

They also, in both cases, agreed that divesting from fossil fuels would do little to nothing to hurt my retirement. In fact, once we started looking into it, there were plenty of healthy-looking options for not just fossil-fuel free investing, but actively supporting clean technologies and emerging solutions. (In fact, one recent Morgan Stanley study suggests "ethical" stocks outperform conventional.)

More options all the time
When I first became involved in environmentalism, I remember the "ethical" banks and financial products I came across were mostly about negative screens: meaning avoiding putting money in arms, pornography, tobacco or maybe fossil fuels. While there's some pleasure to be had in knowing what you are not supporting, critics have pointed out that where you don't invest, somebody else will. Nowadays, however, there are countless ways that you can put your money to work for the better.

From Triodos Bank, which only invests in positive solutions like renewables (and actively calls for more happiness, less greed!) to bonds backed by solar power or peer-to-peer slow money financing, the list of options is growing all the time. Each, of course, has its own advantages and disadvantages, risks and opportunities, so I am not advocating for any one approach. I'm not even suggesting we all need to move our money now. I do, however, think we need to get more comfortable about talking and thinking about money.

Our culture (and perhaps particularly our movement) has a complex relationship with money. We don't like to talk about it too much in public. Many of us (myself included) are intimidated by "the markets" and the loud, oh-so-grown-up voices of the financial "experts/" But we can't afford to let this topic slide.

We don't vote with our dollars. But we do send a signal. Let's make sure that signal reflects the world we want to see.

Tags: Activism | Economics | Ethical


treehugger slideshows