An Interview with Juliet Schor, Author of Plenitude

juliet_schorEarly in the life of this blog, several readers wrote to me to recommend a book called Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. I quickly biked to the library, checked it out, read it cover-to-cover, and found that I agreed fully with its premise. It has been part of this blog’s Book List ever since. The author Juliet Schor is a Ph.D Economist and has been teaching Economics and Sociology at Harvard and Boston College (as well as publishing major books) for over 20 years.

She is also a co-founder of the Center for a New American Dream, a group whose goals align so perfectly with my own that I felt like traveling to the Washington DC area to give them all hugs when I discovered them (through Twitter) earlier this year. More of What Matters – now there’s a great mission statement for you.

Through this New Dream connection, I was able to track down Juliet Schor herself for the following interview. We focused on the fun aspects of the big picture of social change, and the question of “What if everyone became frugal?

Mr. Money Mustache:  How did your own life lead you into this prominent role as a spokesperson for social change? Did it start in childhood or was it caused by experiences as an adult?

Juliet Schor: I was interested in activism early on. I started reading critical books when I was young and by the time I was in high school I had become an organizer for the United Farmworkers Union, the Cesar Chavez group that was boycotting lettuce and grapes, to improve conditions for migrant farmworkers. I also became active in anti-war activities in high school and started a group called Students Against the War. My parents had been politically active when they were young, although I didn’t know this until I was a teenager.

MM:  I often get complaints to the effect of, “Well, if everyone did what you are doing  (saving more, consuming less, and working less after financial independence), the economy would collapse.” I disagree and I think the economics would work out surprisingly well if we added more free time for all of us into the equation. What do you think would happen, and how might we make the shift over a period of time?

Juliet Schor:  I’ve written about this, particularly in the epilogue to The Overspent American. If people gradually transition to less consumption, the economy will adjust. The main reason is that downshifting also results in fewer hours offered in the labor market. So demand and supply of labor are gradually reduced in tandem. That means less consumer demand shouldn’t result in higher unemployment, which is the main thing to worry about. The key here is gradual. A sudden cutback in consumer demand will lead to panic and recession. In the US, we need to consume less, save and invest more, in the right kinds of things: clean energy for one.

MM: Economists say that productivity per hour is the key to a society’s standard of living. Under a Plenitude model, if we tended to work a bit less on average, would you expect to see our productivity increase (due to reducing stress and harvesting only the best hours from the minds of workers) or decrease (perhaps due to losing some economy of scale from such massive production)?

Juliet Schor: A Plenitude model should result in higher productivity, because you are right, shorter hours tend to be associated with higher per hour productivity. People can work more intensively and with better results if they have to do it for a shorter time. That’s what historical experience shows. For businesses, it’s the per hour productivity that’s key. Costs really depend on that, because many people are paid by the hour.

MM: I find that regardless of how much my own family earns (or does not earn, depending on the year), our spending remains roughly constant around $25,000 per year. Do you find yourself maintaining a lower-than-average spending or consumption rate in your own lifestyle? And if so, do you ever notice a culture clash when visiting high-income friends and colleagues with more typical lifestyles?

Juliet Schor: I think our expenses are declining. Some years ago we stopped eating out much. We drive very old cars. We put a lot of insulation into our home, which dramatically reduced our heating bills. We are doing much less leisure travel than we used to because we are concerned about our carbon footprint. We refinanced our mortgage. Right now both children are out of the house, so that reduced our food costs. We’ve had heavy educational expenses for our children, so that’s going in the other direction. But that’ll be over fairly soon.

MM: Another criticism of moving our culture away from work-to-consume is that we would become bored and stagnate with all the extra free time. I disagree, as I find that since retiring from real work, I do a similar amount of productive stuff each day, it just doesn’t feel like work anymore. Do you think the American public could properly handle a big reduction in working hours and increase in free time?

Juliet Schor: I think it varies by group. Women have traditionally had an easier time. I think that there are sub-groups within young adults who are desperate for more time. I don’t think we’ll stagnate, but it is true that there is a skill (or art) to spending time. As the economist Tibor Scitovsky argued, we need to cultivate the skills to spend time in ways that yield high well-being. Gardening, DIY, hobbies are excellent activities for doing so.

MM: You have been encouraging us to get back into a more local, community-based economic model. I have been doing this a lot in recent years, just because it is fun. But I always assumed the national/international model is more efficient, and the local way (like keeping chickens even though they cost more than buying the best organic eggs at a store) was more of a luxury. Do you think local trade can actually improve fairness, or the unemployment rate, or some other measurable thing?

Juliet Schor: The national/international model looks more efficient than it is because it’s not paying its true costs in terms of carbon pollution, and the unemployment it leads to at home. I do think that localizing will reduce unemployment by creating more demand locally, and that in turn leads to more fairness/less inequality. In Plenitude I argued that new high tech small scale technology makes local production more efficient than in the past*. I think that’s one key to why local economies are now a viable alternative to the giant corporations and globalized structures. Their resilience in the face of uncertainties such as disasters and financial panics is another.

MM: A lot of this has to do with bringing the human race back to the rhythm of its own planet. Anyone with a scientific background can see how quickly we are tearing this place apart, but most consumers are blissfully unaware of the direct connection between shopping and destroying.

Juliet Schor: Amen. Before Donella Meadows died she and I discussed this issue of rhythms. The ecological problem can be summed up as a gap between the fast pace of the economy and the rhythms of the planet.

MM: But how much consumption is a sustainable amount? If the wealthy countries cut their resource consumption in half, or in four, would that do the trick? Or are there other quantifiable changes that need to be made?

Juliet Schor: The key right now is carbon. Rich countries need to decarbonize completely, at a rate of about 8-10% reductions per year over the next couple of decades. That’ll also reduce resource consumption, because energy demand drives the demand for other resources. That’s the goal we need to focus on.

MM: I have become a big fan of the data-driven philanthropy of Gates Foundation and others like it. But I can’t help noticing that increasing the income of less wealthy nations also increases their love of cars, fast food, trash, and all of our own problems. Will they have to go through everything we did, or is it possible for an economy to go from poor to wealthier and become ecologically friendly at the same time?

Juliet Schor: There’s no question poor countries can leapfrog as we call it, with cleaner technologies, and especially renewable energy. Rapid transit bus systems, solar and wind power, enhancing small scale food production for local use are all trends that are growing in global south countries.

MM: Finally, other than adopting a better life ourselves, what steps do you recommend that more committed people can take to help nudge the world towards the Plenitude model for living?

Juliet Schor: Right now our biggest task is to take on the fossil fuel companies who are driving the world off the climate cliff. Pushing Obama on Keystone XL is a start, and trying to prevent any new fossil fuel investment is key. Today I read a great piece in Rolling Stone about yet another Koch Brother (Billy) exporting what may be the dirtiest fuel in the world, petcoke, from the US. We need to expose and stop that.

MM: Thanks very much for sharing your time with us, Juliet! Although I take an unusual approach with this blog, coming at the issue from the backside of individualism, personal wealth, and with occasional profanity, we clearly have the same goals in mind and it is great to have you on the team. Thanks for everything you do.

*MM Comment: Juliet makes a great point here. There are several areas where localized production has become more efficient than mass-production. Solar electricity production and smaller-scale software design are two examples of things that can now be produced locally at an individual house, without the burden of transmission losses, commercial real estate leases, or pointy-haired managers and unnecessary conference calls.  I can also make good furniture more cheaply than a furniture store can sell it, even at a wage of $50 per hour. With fancy things like aquaponics and 3-D printing rising in popularity, it makes sense that several more key areas of production might start to become local again.

Further Reading: A New York Times interview with Juliet from 1998. We were a nation of aspiring Sucka Consumers even way back then.. and that is before the SUV craze and the borrow-home-equity-to-buy-more-stuff crazes even hit us. Will our current economic boom be different? I’m wagering that you and I can make it so.

  • Mark Ferguson February 6, 2014, 10:07 am

    I am curious. If you travel less to reduce your carbon footprint, wouldn’t driving old cars have the opposite effect? The older the car the more emissions it would have due to worn out parts and less efficient emissions equipment.

    • Mr, 1500 February 6, 2014, 10:10 am

      The energy and byproducts of producing a new car would far outweigh any of the gains.

    • Miss Growing Green February 6, 2014, 10:14 am

      Interesting point, but consider this:

      Whether you drive a new or old car, the number one thing that is going to reduce your footprint is to limit the amount of driving you do.

      It’s true, newer cars have better technology, and apples-to-apples, should have lower emissions. *However*, I would argue that the carbon footprint associated with replacing your car every few years as it becomes “old” would have a much higher footprint than buying an old used car and driving it for 10 years, especially if you’ve adhered to rule #1: drive less.

      If you aren’t driving long distances for commutes, the difference in carbon footprint between a new and old car should be less than the carbon footprint associated with manufacturing new cars and shipping them from all over the world to you.

      • Paula February 14, 2014, 2:43 pm

        You are right! Any old fridge that is still working is better for the environment than a new fridge in your kitchen and the old, not yet broken fridge on a landfill.
        Unfortunatly the companies don’t tell the whole truth.
        You need to research to find out about the truth.

        • Glen September 19, 2016, 7:12 pm

          Refrigerator technology has been progressing rapidly over the past 20 years or so, especially in insulation and compressor efficiency. The energy star website has an on-line calculator that shows how much you could save (money, electricity, and pounds of CO2) by replacing your old fridge with a newer one. In many jurisdictions, your local electric utility will actually pay you to recycle you old working fridge for you. Old refrigerators are not wonderful for the environment, they are more like the junker cars belching black smoke and unburnt gas out their tailpipes, gross polluters.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 6, 2014, 10:15 am

      It depends on how old we are talking: my nearly-new 2005 Scion xA (bought used in 2008) is close to new cars in its production of smog-forming emissions like NOx. Keeping a 1984 carbureted vehicle on the road would be a different story.

      But Carbon (CO2) doesn’t care about how new your car is – it’s a byproduct of just burning gasoline, so the only way to win this contest is to burn as little fuel as possible.

      Remember that new cars generate massive pollution and carbon before they even start for the first time – because of the mining and manufacturing required to produce all that steel and plastic, electronics, rubber and glass.

      About 20 tons of carbon come out of the manufacturing process, which is equal to burning about 2000 gallons of fuel, which is like driving 70,000 miles in a reasonably efficient car.

      70,000 miles before you drive it off the lot. That’s more than I have driven in my 39-year lifetime so far.

      • Matt February 6, 2014, 11:25 am

        79,000 miles in 39 years? Can’t lie: That is pretty badass.

      • WageSlave February 6, 2014, 11:44 am

        I’ve heard similar numbers for computers… IIRC, 70% of a computer’s energy usage is the manufacturing of it. I used to be a hyper-upgrader, rationalizing it by saying, “but it uses so much less energy”. When in fact, I was doing far more harm then good.

        I suspect that in general, from a global perspective, buying quality *used* energy-consuming products (cars, electronics) is always more efficient than buying new. *Maybe* not if it sees near 100% utilization, but definitely if it sees rare usage. More to be saved by lowering usage (e.g. less driving) than more efficient usage.

      • kiwano February 6, 2014, 1:18 pm

        My immediate reaction to this figure was to wonder if I’ve done anywhere near as well myself. My first estimate was to look at last year (probably the heaviest driving year in my life) and multiply it by how long I’ve been alive. That gave a figure over 70k miles (and reminded me that I wasted a lot of time and money driving last year). Then I remembered that last year was not representative of my usual driving rate at all, and started tallying up all the driving I can remember ever having done (I didn’t count my time as a passenger in a car, nor did I discount my driving based on how many passengers I had, figuring that, apart from my family’s fondness for recreational driving when I was a child, these things would even out).

        I ended up with a figure of about 20k miles in my 34 year life. This became interesting enough to comment on when I converted it to km (<35,000km) and noticed that it was less than the circumference of the Earth. Well not immediately; what also made it interesting was that I remember making a blog post about 10 years ago estimating that I'd have biked a circumference by my 29th birthday (an estimate that held).

        This got me wondering about ratios of distance covered by bike vs. car over lifetimes, years, etc., and whether that would be an interesting metric to follow/optimize in pursuit of badassity…

      • spectra February 6, 2014, 11:56 pm

        Yes cars have incrementally developed better and better catalytic converters for the six aggregate pollutants. (NOx, Sox, pb, pm, co, and ozone) to the point where they are efficient enough to actually leave air cleaner than was brought into the air intake. like you said now we need to focus on co2. Co2 is the ultimate carbon energy sync and is difficult to catalytical remove. Just don’t drive a diesel semi and you’ll be fine (most still don’t have catalytic converters)

      • Insourcelife February 7, 2014, 11:57 am

        79K in 39 years, huh? Looking at my records for each of the cars I’ve had since buying my first one in 2001 it appears that I’m right around 170K miles. I’m also 39. That’s a difference between someone who retired at 30 and someone who still works, since most of these miles are from commuting.

      • Maverick February 8, 2014, 2:10 am

        Not quite true…it’s a bit more complex than that. The EPA emission standards for Tier 2 light duty vehicles is significantly more stringent from 2005 to 2013/2014 model years. Some contributing emission components, such as NOx are on the order of 14 to 22 times higher for the older (2005) light duty vehicles. During operation, a new light duty model vehicle today typically produces more emissions during warm up (to normal operating temperatures when emission controls are fully functional) than during the remainder of a 14 mile commute. So, once your vehicle is at operating temperature, emissions drop off significantly…this is why owners should combine trips/errands! Furthermore, the EPA acknowledges that a light duty vehicle will increase it’s emissions on the order of about 20% after 50K miles to 150K miles (the EPA expected life) due to wear of components. I will grant you the emissions for the manufacturing processes of new vehicles is significant (but I don’t have any specific numbers to share at this time). However, I can find evidence of some US manufacturing plants that recycle a significant portion of their waste stream. In several plants, zero waste goes to a landfill.

        AGENCY; 40 CFR Parts 80, 85, and 86

    • Leslie February 6, 2014, 10:38 am

      I have a 2001 Prius which is old by some standards yet it is a very low emission vehicle. It has 65K miles on it so still has a lot of life left. I agree that it is the amount of driving that makes a bigger difference in emissions than actual mpg of the car.

      • Juliet Schor February 6, 2014, 5:52 pm

        Me too! A 2002 Prius with a little over that amount of mileage. Great comments everyone–what an intelligent and informed discussion! Thank you all. Juliet

        • Melanie February 7, 2014, 8:48 am

          I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts on spending and lifestyle. I had heard your name before in an article I read last year about controlling your spending. (http://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/g201306/how-control-your-spending/) I looked up and ordered your book, “The Overspent American”, from Amazon. Looking forward to reading it!

        • Daniel Conway March 27, 2014, 1:41 pm

          I have a 1994 Honda civic VX and usually get 37-44 city/hwy mpg. It has 130,000 miles on it but with luck I’ll drive it many more years:)

    • Ricky February 6, 2014, 6:55 pm

      Driving an old car doesn’t have an opposite effect, it has a more intense effect…possibly what you meant to say. To say it has an opposite effect would be asking if driving an older car emits fewer emissions the more you drive it.

    • Kenoryn February 7, 2014, 12:33 pm

      Actually I find that newer cars are often worse for fuel economy (which is the only factor involved in CO2 production). There’s an assumption that newer cars are always getting more efficient, but this isn’t supported by the evidence. In fact, newer cars are getting larger and heavier as they get more gadgets, airbags etc. added to them. Older cars are often simpler. In its last year of life (2013) my 1997 Saturn SL1, at 16, had better fuel economy than most new hybrids, other than the Prius. (It was also lightweight due to having partly plastic body panels, which unfortunately no one is doing anymore.)

      • Doug February 7, 2014, 10:05 pm

        Yes, the engines and transmissions in newer cars are more energy efficient than older ones. So compare a car from 20 years ago, when it was new, with a newer one of the same size and the newer car is more fuel efficient. That’s the good news. The bad news is many buyers want bigger cars and SUVs, so there is less gain in overall fuel economy.

      • Ellery March 3, 2014, 7:46 am

        I was just telling someone about my dad’s Nissan 4 door in 1995, which got 45 miles to the gallon on the highway. In my opinion, based on that, the hybrids should be getting 70-90 miles per gallon to make the expense of buying one worth it to me. In the meantime, I’ll bike and walk when I can- my two favorite ways of getting around!

  • Miss Growing Green February 6, 2014, 10:09 am

    GREAT interview! That book is definitely on my to-read list now (right after I finish the one I’m currently reading- Man’s Search for Meaning, also recommended by MMM :)

    I really love how she highlights the importance of carbon and the *true* cost of things. There are so many things that seem inexpensive to us because we’re not paying the real cost for them, the earth is. Once carbon markets are implemented and there is more accountability, “cheap” things that come from China may not be so cheap anymore, and the local systems will have a greater advantage.

    Mr. Growing Green has basically dedicated his career to looking at these kinds of things, and my blog really tries to focus on the “green” aspect of frugality, and making the two mesh. Very applicable read for me- thanks MMM!

    • Ted Hu February 6, 2014, 3:34 pm

      In economics, that’s known as exogenous costs not fully priced or modeled endogenously within the formal market system. Pollution is actually both an exogenous shock and cost economically.

      Mere mortals have a very hard time perceiving diffused costs. For example, a recent article outlined the math showing that the warming to the earth’s oceans by just a “few degrees” was equal in energy absorbed by the worlds water mass of 12 Hiroshima bombs EVERY DAY.

      Heating a few trillion gallons of water for a few degrees celsius is not something your friendly neighborhood volcano or solar sunspot can account for. Which makes the call for decarbonization more important than ever. People are experiencing extreme climate change – crazy volatility and variance of temperature all over the world. Places once hot are cold, cold are now crazy hot.

      Microeconomically exogenous costs are hidden from view. Cumulatively speaking they add up to huge exogenous macroeconomic impacts that we fail to perceive, arising from unbridled carbon orders of magnitude greater than what has accrued on earth for the past ten thousand years.

      This is what makes climate change deniers alongside creationists who engender pseudo-science so insidious to society. Their story time substitutes for science will do great harm to my 3 year old by the time he’s grown and my wife and I are no longer on this earth.

      Meanwhile, in the here and now, engendering localized trade and economies is a huge step in the right direction, as well as buying or using sustainable products.

      • Flannel Guy ROI February 7, 2014, 12:41 am

        Cutting a little meat out of your diet goes a long way too. This HBR article (link at end) says, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

        Not that locally-sourced food and local economies are a step in the wrong direction, but that is a pretty outsized benefit for a small change.

        Personally, I would LOVE if these long term costs / exogenous costs were priced into the market via carbon tax or cap and trade system. This would spark some real innovation in the private sector.

        That being said, I am not the best at leading by example because I think the solution, or damage control at this point, to climate change is going to have to be policy-based.

        It is sort of like when Warren Buffet advocated for higher investment taxes so his secretary wouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than guys like him. People criticized him for not voluntarily giving more money in taxes since that was what he was advocating for. But I don’t think that is a fair criticism. I am sure he would happily pay the extra tax if the laws were changed, but until then you play by the existing rules because otherwise you are just shooting yourself in the foot.

        Not that I am for mindless consumption and use of earth’s resources, but I’m not going to have less children because I am concerned for the environment. But if costs were allocated differently, more fairly and realistically, maybe I would. And of course I would vote and advocate for such changes in a heartbeat.

        I commend the voluntary efforts undertaken by people like MMM and Mrs. Schor. We need leaders to help with the cultural acceptance of these ideas, but the problem can only be solved with macro-level solutions / policies in my opinion.

        HBR Meatless Link – http://blogs.hbr.org/2011/06/local-food-or-less-meat-data-t/

        • Marisa February 7, 2014, 8:49 am

          That is probably because commercial feedlot and dairy industries create a lot of CO2. If you buy these things from local farmers its not a problem.

          • Kenoryn February 7, 2014, 12:57 pm

            Actually there’s more to it than that. That may be part of the problem (and particularly transportation of the goods vs. locally acquiring them) but meat has such a high footprint simply because of the enormous energy loss inherent in growing food to feed to an animal over a long period of time, having the animal convert some of that food into body mass, and then eating the animal, rather than just growing food to feed yourself. You have to add all the energy required to house and care for the animal, as well as land used to do so, water treated and consumed, and waste produced, to the land and energy required to grow food for the animal. Plus, food has to be fed to the animal over an extended period, whereas you just eat the animal once. So the energy required to produce x quantity of an animal to eat are much greater than the energy to produce x quantity of a vegetable to eat.

            You’re right, though, that this is especially problematic at a large scale and with industrial farming techniques. Often on small-scale farms animals form part of the farm’s cycle, consuming farm waste by-products (e.g. unsellable food) and producing fertilizer, making use of marginal land where food can’t be grown but which is ideal as pasture land, or contributing other services to a farm such as pest control (e.g. having ducks to eat your potato bugs and slugs.) Most of that doesn’t happen on a commercial feedlot (other than producing fertilizer and maybe biogas). And feedlots are more likely to have most or all of their feed in the form of corn vs. grass-fed.

            As an example of all this, the EPA reports that corn is the largest crop grown in the U.S., and that 80% of U.S. corn goes to feed livestock. A Cornell U. ecologist estimates that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grain that goes to feed livestock.

            • Gerard April 26, 2014, 10:12 am

              I think marginal land is the real game-changer here. Livestock cultures developed in part because it sucks to eat grass. There are huge areas of the world where (mostly thanks to low rainfall and/or soil fertility) we can “grow” sheep but not vegetables or typical grains. In Canada, a lot of these marginal areas have reverted to wilderness as people abandoned subsistence farming. So now we use our good land for animal fodder and tract housing, and our bad land for raccoons. In a smarter system, we’d move livestock to the bad land (and to land that can’t grow corn without being drenched with fertilizer), and keep the good land for broccoli. Of course, that’ll increase the cost of meat, but maybe it’s worth it.
              (And, just to call bullshit on myself, it strikes me that there are other human foods that could be grown on a lot of marginal land — things like amaranth that remain closer to their weedy ancestors.)

  • Andrew February 6, 2014, 10:16 am


    Thanks for the aquaponics shout out! My side project, AutoMicroFarm (http://automicrofarm.com), aims to become like solar panels but for your food.

    I’d love to chat more about this!

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 6, 2014, 10:19 am

      That sounds great, Andrew! Do you want to start an experiment which involves me running one of these things, eating the resulting salads nightly, and raving about it to the envious MMM readership? If so, we need to talk ;-)

      • Andrew February 6, 2014, 10:23 am

        That would be great, MMM, but we’re still working on finding an inexpensive way to manufacture the systems. If you don’t mind, I’ll follow up with an email to pick your brain on how to build it cheaply (we’ve corresponded before, so I have your email address).

        • mjmphx February 6, 2014, 12:18 pm

          Andrew – very interesting. I’m a thermal-mechanical engineer with an interest in sustainable agri/aquaculture and a bit of slack in my work commitments right now. If there’s a way I can assist, let me know.

          (My expertise is heating and cooling systems, but I’ve done a good deal of actually building stuff. I’m in sunny Arizona, not sure how your evaporation rates work under insolation of 900W/m^2.)


      • Jordan Read February 6, 2014, 11:32 am

        Ditto for me @Andrew. I was going to mention how awesome it was that MMM mentioned aquaponics. I hit you up on G+. I’ve been focusing more on custom implementations, but I’m definitely interested in a kit as far as wider adoption.

      • tokenadult February 7, 2014, 9:08 am

        I started a simple hydroponic system in my apartment. I get about two salads a week and endless herbs. The herbs grow so fast I can’t use them. Still hoping to figure out what went wrong with my tomatos and mini sweet bell peppers (I LOVE those things and had fantasies of giving up the 3 buck a bag hefty price…)

        • Joanie February 16, 2014, 10:45 am

          How wonderful!!! Perhaps lack of pollination since you don’t have insect help. I find that I have to enact artificial pollination even outside in the city of toronto.

      • sba February 12, 2014, 10:27 am

        Check out The Aquaponic Source right there in Longmont. I toured the facilities when I passed though last month. On such a small scale, it won’t save you on the food bill, but it’s definitely interesting to see where things are headed, and it’s great education for the kids.

    • crazyworld February 6, 2014, 11:35 am

      I have a question about aquaponics – saw someone selling greens grown this way at the farmers market, but did not buy because I wasn’t convinced that plants could get good nutrients without being rooted in soil. How does this actually work (nutrient-wise)?

      • Jordan Read February 6, 2014, 12:05 pm

        In a super-simplified form, the waste of the fish (which normally creates stuff to clean) is converted from ammonia to nitrites and then from nitrites to nitrates, which plants like. This is done by a few different very common bacteria.
        Good references here: http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/

      • T-Lou February 7, 2014, 3:20 pm

        For a few years my daughter kept a small fish tank – which invariably fell to me to clean. Once or twice a month I would take out about 2/3rds of the water and share about 2 gallons amongst my houseplants (of which I have many). How I hated that fish tank – but how my plants thrived.

    • HealthyWealthyExpat February 7, 2014, 3:31 am

      Man, every time MMM posts a new article, I learn something new – not only from him, but from all you great readers who post comments. This looks like a very promising project! Keep us informed.

    • Mrs. GreenPennyGardener February 8, 2014, 10:08 am

      I haven’t done a ton of research on aquaponics, but from what I know about it, it doesn’t make sense to me how it is more sustainable than growing plants in the ground. First of all, you can grow in the soil without having to bring in any extra inputs from outside your garden, since you can create compost and fertilizer to amend your soil and feed your plants from the resources in your garden. However, an aquaponics system needs constant electricity to run the pump (and the lights if you are growing indoors), plus the inputs of fish food, the growing medium and the actual construction of the unit. Second, I have heard the claim that aquaponics uses less water – however, the plant will always need the same amount of water whether you are using aquaponics or growing in the soil. As long as you are delivering the water efficiently, right to the plant when and where it needs it (with a drip irrigation system for example) you will not use more water growing in soil. I am not saying that aquaponics could not work well in certain situations and I like the fact that it also produces fish. But I don’t think we should rule out planting a vegetable garden in the ground. Unless you live in an apartment in a big city, almost everyone has some kind of yard, and if everyone converted a small portion of that to a vegetable garden, think of the enormously green benefits it would have! Plus a garden in the soil is better for the earth than paving over that soil and then building a system to grow without soil on top of it.

      • Kacy November 24, 2015, 12:46 pm

        I agree with you 100%. It’s really difficult (translate:impossible) to beat nature. Aquaponics is an interesting application for urban locations, but a pond or a lake requires way less inputs, and is self-regulating. My problem with aquaponics is the energy consumption as well as the fish food. Since you are essentially using the fish poop to fertilize your plants, the fish food is a key component. I’d prefer not to indirectly consume a bunch of ingredients I can’t pronounce (take a look at AquaNourish Omnivorous Aquaponic Fish Feed on amazon). In my mind, aquaponics is pretty similar to factory farming. Yeah, you may get good production quantity wise, but what about the quality?

  • Ronnie February 6, 2014, 10:45 am

    I find that many high-consuming folks I know with big carbon footprints understand how their lifestyle impacts their community and the world yet they continue without any meaningful change. We are at a point where even the mass media is reporting on how bad things are getting globally (collapsing fisheries, top-soil depletion, obesity due to sedentary lifestyles, etc.) yet most people continue on that treadmill. Why is that? Convenience I suppose.

    It’s easier to eat crappy food, increase debt – consume like crazy, and subsequently become unhealthy/unhappy/die younger than it is to work hard to break from the norm and do what MMM is doing. Many are enlightened but choose to take the path of least resistance and not change for the better. I’ve made major lifestyle changes in the past year and am now 17 months away from a way-early retirement. Keep up the good work MMM!

    • EscapeVelocity2020 February 6, 2014, 7:24 pm

      You should read ‘The Conundrum’ by David Owen, or listen to a podcast of the author’s discussion with Russ Roberts (http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/02/david_owen_on_t.html). The synopsis: Owen argues that efficiency innovation has increased energy use rather than reduced it. Only large reductions in consumption are likely to matter and that prescription is unappealing to most people. Owen points out that New York City, ironically perhaps, is one of the greenest places to live because of the efficiency of density. The conversation concludes with a discussion of how to best approach global warming given these seeming realities.

  • Will Murphey February 6, 2014, 10:50 am

    As far as becoming “bored and stagnate” at least for my family; after reaching financial independence, we have become more productive. We have been exercising, helping more with family matters, and started creating value for others instead of just taking and consuming. Our overall footprint has reduced in many ways after early retirement.

  • Kristen February 6, 2014, 11:01 am

    I chuckled when I saw this article pop up on Twitter because I just checked out The Overspent American (by Schor) from my library and as I was reading it, I thought, “I wonder what Mr. MM would think of this book!”

    I also really appreciate you asking the “What if everyone became frugal??” question. I’ve been wanting to pose that question to an economist forever! It makes so much sense to me to buy fewer things, but to buy quality items that last a long time (and that’s what I encourage my blog readers to do), but the naysayers (“The economy will collapse if you do that!”) make me a little nervous. It’s lovely to know that as long as it happens gradually, all will be well.

    • Jordan Read February 6, 2014, 11:41 am


      When I went back through and read the blogs from the beginning, one of my favorites was the one regarding a Badass Utopia (http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2013/07/16/a-badass-utopia/). Since then I’ve done some major thinking about it, and I think it would be awesome. If you haven’t seen that article, I highly recommend it.

    • MoneyAhoy February 7, 2014, 5:22 am

      I agree with the author and MMM,

      If everyone just consumed less and worked less, it would be a natural balance.

      And, so what if we have a huge recession? That’s time for the economy to refocus where it’s going. A little short term pain for long term gain is always a good thing in my book!

  • Marcia February 6, 2014, 11:14 am

    Great interview! I just read The Overspent American a month or two ago (borrowed in on inter library loan) based on a recommendation from the MMM boards. I really enjoyed it, and despite it being >15 years old or so, it really resonated (and still much of it holds true, maybe even moreso than before).

  • Jordan Read February 6, 2014, 11:37 am

    Good interview. Looks like I have another book to add to my ever-growing list. I love the part on living with the rhythm of the planet. I’ve contemplated doing the year long internship at polyface farms, since that seems to be well in-line with what you were talking about. A crazy mix of economy of scale while still maintaining the integrity of it all. Maybe after FIRE…

  • WageSlave February 6, 2014, 11:50 am

    Quote: I often get complaints to the effect of, “Well, if everyone did what you are doing (saving more, consuming less, and working less after financial independence), the economy would collapse.”

    I agree that it wouldn’t collapse, however… I’m about 2/3 the way through Jacob Fisker’s ERE book right now, and he’s made several comments about how our consumer society pulls stuff (natural resources) out of the ground, massages them into short-lived toys or entertainment, then throws them back into the ground (landfills). And he adds that, the faster this occurs, the more “productive” society becomes. And GDP does in fact capture some of that pointless churn (while at the same time missing important value-add activities like homemaking).

    So I suspect that “if everyone did like MMM”, GDP might in fact suffer. But my point is that it looks like GDP is a poor measure of society’s productivity.

    • EscapeVelocity2020 February 6, 2014, 7:51 pm

      One really interesting concept I came across this week, Consumer Surplus. It’s basically the non-monetary added value of improvements – quality, durability, features. A great example is Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica, that the internet has granted access to a multi-peer reviewed, living document for ‘free’ compared to a weighty, cumbersome set of volumes for thousands of dollars. GDP actually goes down because of this since there is an overall lower monetary exchange, but value to the consumer has gone up! One could argue that GDP is becoming a misleading measure of a country’s economic progress. (I give credit to Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, co-author of “The Second Machine Age”).

    • HealthyWealthyExpat February 7, 2014, 3:34 am

      Yes, GDP as a measure of productivity and human growth has plenty of holes in it. The big one is: can the world afford limitless “growth”? Look like most people on this blog would agree that it can’t. Of course, we could all ship off to that promising desert called Mars…;-)

  • frugalparagon February 6, 2014, 11:51 am

    The idea that the true cost of international consumption–in terms of pollution–is hidden by cheap goods is interesting. Those artificially low prices also seem to be why it’s so hard to get anything fixed these days (instead of just buying a new one). The book Walkable City (http://www.amazon.com/Walkable-City-Downtown-Save-America/dp/0865477728) make a similar point about how the true costs of driving (including details like the cost of maintaining a parking space) are hidden in the costs of goods, in taxes, etc.

  • Miles Dividend MD February 6, 2014, 12:00 pm

    This is a fantastic post. I must read this book.

    To my mind humanities fundamental challenge is in translating what we know to be right (ie consume less, address carbon emissions, etc..) into something that we want to do for our own selfish reasons.

    It seems that Ms Schor does a great job of the former, while MMMs genius is really the latter. (ie we we become motivated to conserve not because it is morally right, but because early retirement will make us happier.)


  • Free to Pursue February 6, 2014, 12:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this interview. I reserved both books at my local library with a few clicks of the mouse. Can’t wait to read them in a few weeks’ time.

    On the question of slacking: Not possible! I find I am happier than working at a corporate job and, as a result, MUCH more productive. I focus on what I want to produce and how I want to go about it (be it for friends, family, organizations or for my own interests) and the resulting output speaks for itself…I find the problem is more deciding what NOT to do to ensure I don’t take on too many new activities or commit to too many opportunities.

    For the self-directed, being FI is the best gift you can give yourself. You open so many doors for yourself and get to try so many things you would not likely have while working for “The Man”.

    When it comes to living a better life, my belly is fuller than it ever was when I had an additional $100K in annual income.

    I hope many more people discover and embrace this new way of living. We will all be better for it from a health, wealth and personal fulfillment perspective.

  • Stefanie February 6, 2014, 12:19 pm

    I would love to see a return to a local economy, as well as more bartering and trade of resources (not just cash). I always find it interesting how in a huge city like NYC, local businesses are plentiful and very much supported by the neighborhood. But when I travel to smaller towns and cities across the country, it’s the exact same layout of Walmart’s, Applebee’s, etc. almost everywhere with an occasional mom and pop shop in the mix.

    • Free to Pursue February 6, 2014, 1:13 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly. Large/denser cities (# of people per square mile) seem to mean people stay closer to home and are less likely to use/own personal motorized transportation to get to big box stores. NYC also planned for services to be close to city residents (within X number of city blocks) to reduce congestion. It’s both good planning and a focus on healthy neighborhoods.

    • Scott February 6, 2014, 1:14 pm

      I found this interview enlightening in the sense that MMM and Juliet share the same goals in terms of using less resources and being better stewards of our scarce environmental resources. After I found this blog about a year or so ago, I have put my huge house up for sale intending to downsize and live within biking distance to work — so I can save money. I’ve been motivated to learn how to become much more efficient in my heating and cooling usage; both are now down more than 50%. I’ve cut out cable, reduced my grocery bill by half, etc. All of these things were done in an effort to become financially independent so that I can control my own life once again.

      In short, my goal has always been to improve my financial situation, but I have simultaneously seriously reduced my overall use of environmental resources. Well done, MMM! I have responded to the message of badassity (which has the same effect of reducing my carbon footprint). I would never have done these things as a response to an appeal to “reduce carbonization immediately by 8-10%,” or by rejecting the Keystone Pipeline, etc. No offense to Juliet at all; I am just pointing out that appeals to self-interested badassity seem more likely to accomplish the reduction of carbonization by creating a win-win solution.

      • Mr. Money Mustache February 6, 2014, 1:49 pm

        Thanks Scott! And indeed, none of this stuff I’m preaching about living on lower spending would be worth anything if it didn’t make your life way the hell better in the process. This is why I was so shocked to hear the Guardian reporter in the previous article angrily telling me I am advocating “Living like a Pauper”. Buying less stuff, putting more effort into your life, learning more, watching less TV, driving less, biking more, and spending more time outdoors with people you care about is THE LIFE!!

        So it’s actually a triple win: better life, WAY more money, and sparing the ecosystem from an unsightly catastrophe.

  • Kitty February 6, 2014, 12:19 pm

    I’m not seeing Sacred Economics on MMM, right? I just went through your book list and so many of those books are my favorites, too. I’m an old econ major though – we’re all a bit weird. I remember how happy I felt when I latched onto a used copy of Your Money or Your Life years ago.

    I’m now reading Sacred Economics and learning how to maneuver through a gift economy to make sure I receive energy back to meet my own needs – that’s always been stumbling block. Also, on my to read list is one called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. There are good videos online about both of these and Sacred Economics is completely free online.

    Another book that has paid me back many times over is Nikki & David Goldbeck’s American Wholefoods Cuisine.

    • Free to Pursue February 7, 2014, 6:12 am

      Thank you for these Kitty. I’ve added them to my reading list. I agree that Your Money or You Life is a life changing read.

      I find it unfortunate that folks look at a low consumption lifestyle and think only about what they will/might lose when, in reality, there is the opportunity to gain so much! I can’t see myself going back.

      Reducing my carbon footprint is definitely not a driver. Living more fundamental values of increasing self-sufficiency, however, is.

  • Carl Milsted February 6, 2014, 12:28 pm

    As long as we measure national prosperity using GDP, politicians will distain the Mustachian Way. Thrift? Work at home? What about those poor neglected Federal Reserve Notes dry rotting in mattresses?

    Eco liberals need to learn to hate Keynes as much as they hate the Koch brothers.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 6, 2014, 2:13 pm

      Hey, maybe we don’t need to throw Keynes himself out with the current over-hyping of GDP. After all, when he invented that shit we really did benefit from an expanding economy, because it brought along drastic improvements in human wellbeing like access to antibiotics and communications. In recent decades, we passed the abundance threshold and have just being pursuing ridiculousness, which makes GDP less useful.

      Meanwhile, he also came up with some spectacular insights on the relationship between improved productivity and the ability to decrease our working hours: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/10/keynes-was-incredibly-right-about-the-future-he-was-wrong-about-how-wed-be-spending-it/

      Which is really what Mustachianism is all about.

      I’d suggest hating neither Keynes nor Koch, and instead look at each individual idea and decide if it has merit.

      • Ted Hu February 6, 2014, 3:49 pm

        Actually Keynes was a genius. There’s not a major economic question he has not thought and addressed already. Those who delve deeply into his work like me are often astounded by his lucid and incisive treatment of pretty complex economic knots – he is the Einstein of economics.

        Just look up his The Economic Consequences of the Peace where he predicted WWII right after WWI based on his up close fly on wall view of how punitive and misguided the Versailles Treaty was shaping up to be.

        Anyway, Keynes, for example, gave support to a reduction in working time as a way of achieving full employment. In a letter to the poet TS Eliot in 1945, Keynes suggested that less work represented the “ultimate solution” to unemployment. Keynes also saw merit in using productivity gains to reduce work time and famously looked forward to a time (around 2030) when people would be required to work 15 hours a week. Working less was a part of Keynes’s vision of a “good society”.

        The ultimate solution put forward by Keynes and identified by him explicitly as one of three essential “ingredients of a cure.” Why do our self-styled Keynesians insist on restricting their policy tool kit to only two of those three ingredients and eschewing the third and ultimate ingredient?

        In a letter to the poet, T.S. Eliot, dated April 5, 1945, John Maynard Keynes identified shorter hours of work as one of three “ingredients of a cure” for unemployment. The other two ingredients were investment and more consumption. Keynes regarded investment as “first aid,” while he called working less the “ultimate solution.” A more thorough and formal presentation of his view appeared in a note Keynes prepared in May 1943 on “The Long-Term Problem of Full Employment.” In that note, Keynes projected three phases of post-war economic performance. During the third phase, estimated to commence some ten to fifteen years after the end of the war, “It becomes necessary to encourage wise consumption and discourage saving, — and to absorb some part of the unwanted surplus by increased leisure, more holidays (which are a wonderfully good way of getting rid of money) and shorter hours.”

        Yes, Keynes like Einstein was a bit of an idealist and optimist. His timelines were quite aggressive. Nonetheless I think he’s spot on on the balance.

        • Doug February 8, 2014, 8:03 pm

          Yes, he was ABSOLUTELY spot on with his ideas. The problem is he was so far ahead of his time that few people understood his ideas, and most people still don’t get it now. That has happened a lot in history. For example in the early nineteenth century an inventor named Richard Trevithick built a prototype vehicle with a steam engine to drive the wheels. Nobody got it at the time and he died poor. I mean really, a vehicle with a motor to drive the wheels? What a stupid idea, why would anyone want something like that? Similarly, Napoleon wondered why any sane person would want a ship propelled by a steam engine. I could go on and on but, I think you get the picture.

        • Carl Milsted February 9, 2014, 7:46 am

          The French tried Keynes’ third suggestion. Unemployment remained worse than U.S. unemployment last I checked.

      • EscapeVelocity2020 February 6, 2014, 8:07 pm

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTQnarzmTOc (can you embed a YouTube video on these comments?) I’m actually surprised that MMM supports Keynes, although he did have a killer mustache. Hayek is much more Mustachian.

      • Carl Milsted February 7, 2014, 10:12 am

        Your Mustachian way of life is based on savings. Keynes wrote of the Paradox of Thrift, and presented a host of prescriptions to thwart thrift and keep that circular flow of money going around and around.

        Regarding the Post article: assuming a more prosperous future a century out was a no brainer. Mere extrapolation. This didn’t require any genius.

        Pull out a old copy of Samuelson’s economics text — far more readable than Keynes himself — and read of the horrors of “unemployed resources.” Want to have a factory that only runs when more widgets are needed? That factory is an “unemployed resource” when the resources are not needed. Quick, break out the stimulus packages! Run up that federal budget deficit to use up excess savings!

        Our unnecessarily frantic existence is in large part due to Keynes.

        • Kenoryn February 7, 2014, 1:14 pm

          However, consider that MMM’s savings are invested, not tucked under the mattress – thus still part of the economy.

          • Karen T February 18, 2014, 8:50 pm

            I’ve been trying to puzzle this out on my own but I am not sure about this, so I’d appreciate some feedback. If achieving an MMM lifestyle is based on investing what is saved, the return on investment when a society goes into a slower growth phase will go down, necessitating greater savings for the same investment income. Or is there a problem with my logic?

            • Carl Milsted February 19, 2014, 9:08 am

              You nailed it Karen. If people saved more, the return on investment would go down.

              Wages, however, would go up. Adam Smith pointed this out back in 1776.

              When a society first goes capitalist, the first investors/capitalists make a killing because capital is scarce with respect to labor. As the society matures, things balance out. When governments run chronic budget deficits and discourage savings, however, the age of the wealth mongers is extended, despite the income tax and welfare state.

        • Leslie February 7, 2014, 8:15 pm

          The MM way of life is also based on spending time and money on investments instead of depreciating assets like cars.

      • Chris February 8, 2014, 11:28 am

        Keynes also wrote a piece called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (http://bit.ly/LIpVZE) (also cited in the Washington Post piece), in which he essentially acknowledged that all economic growth (and all his eponymous stimuli) is a means to an end, that end being having ENOUGH to go around. He called this “solving our economic problem”, and argued that after it occurred our biggest problem would be finding meaning in a life that doesn’t demand perpetual work, because our work has become our primary source of identity.

        To large degree, I think we have reached this point of having enough, in the greater scheme of things. Though that plenty very badly needs to be more equitably distributed. At this point we’re frantically growing and working hard just out of habit, not because we need to accumulate more (non-natural) capital.

  • tct February 6, 2014, 12:55 pm

    After reading Juliets response to your interview question:
    “Do you find yourself maintaining a lower-than-average spending or consumption rate in your own lifestyle?”
    I get the feeling that she talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. This is typical of most people. I think your blog is successful not just because of your ideas but more importantly you teach what you preach.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 6, 2014, 1:56 pm

      Uh-oh TCT, that sounds an awful lot like the incorrect speculation that people on other websites make about me.

      I have read other interviews with her and it sounds like the Schor family is indeed far more minimalist than almost any other Harvard professor and multi-decade bestselling author you are likely to run into. On the other hand, I would guess that she has to do a fair amount of business and conference travel as an international advocate of this stuff, which surely provides some frustrating irony at times (I am a fan of helping to counteract such trips with carbon credits via Terrapass or Carbonfund.org).

      But just to be sure, I may have to make a stop at her house during the filming of the mini documentary on bike commuting I’m working on later this year. After all, the rules clearly state that we must ALL ride bikes :-)

      • lurker February 6, 2014, 3:43 pm

        that’s a decent workout as wouldn’t it be best to BIKE there??????

        • Patrick February 20, 2014, 4:28 am

          Bicycles are great intra-city travel machines but not ideal inter-city travel machines. I’m still hoping folding bikes will drop in price so that my bicycle could travel with me on the plane :)

      • gr8bkset February 9, 2014, 9:56 am

        We should distinguish the types of travel. If she traveled for self indulgent that would be wasteful. However she is traveling to spread ideas of lowering carbon one’s footprint which will have a multiplicative positive effect which I think should be OK.

      • Patrick February 20, 2014, 4:26 am

        A mini documentary on bike commuting? I can’t wait, because that’s definitely the aspect of mustachianism I think most of your readers ignore. I was a bike commuter before I became a mustachian (or maybe I was a mustachian all along?) but there are too many Mustachians that still aren’t bike commuters!

  • D.E. Radtke February 6, 2014, 2:15 pm

    “A lot of this has to do with bringing the human race back to the rhythm of its own planet.”

    Well said MMM! You could tag all of your posts with that sentence.

    I read The Overspent American by Schor a few years ago before I discovered the MMM blog and it really opened up my mind to the possibilities of work and free time. I was a GM for a small online retailer and I tried to apply the strategy of having everyone work fewer hours a week but get paid the same. We had 4 warehouse employees, so each of them could essentially take 1 day off a week except Monday which was our busy day and maybe a few weeks out of the year which were known to be busy. Our office employees could have done the same thing also.

    But… it was basically impossible to convince the owners or even the employees themselves to try this strategy out since I wouldn’t need to ask for permission to make the change if they all had my back. I even suggested trying 1 half day a week for everyone just to see if productivity would decline, stay the same or possibly even “magically” increase. I still could not get anyone on board to give the idea a try. My last effort was to say they could read the book on the clock every day for a bit to see if it would change their minds. Nope. No one wanted to get paid to read either.

    Folks are afraid of change which has been said countless times on this blog and in the comments.

    Last year I sat down and truly asked myself if I was afraid of change also?

    I said NOPE and quit my rat race job and never looked back.

    One co-worker followed in my foot steps and is much happier with his new found balance of work and free time so I feel I made a difference.

    • 205guy February 15, 2014, 12:01 pm

      Wow, I didn’t know reduced hours were a) ever considered in US business (so kudos to you for trying to introduce it), and b) so damn hard to make people even think about, let alone experiment. Seems like you really have to be the owner of the business to do such a thing (maybe that’s where you are headed someday). In Europe, reduced hours are something that everyone (all employees) want, and laws are being implemented to force business owners to implement them. And most European countries already have a very efficient workforce (working less hours overall for the same or higher per capita GDP–as flawed as that metric is). In France, they experimented with the 35-hour mandatory work week.

      I am reminded of Yvon Chouinard (a mountain and rock climber originally, which I think is significant) who founded the Patagonia company and made it one of the first progressive companies I’d heard of in the 90’s. I thought it was just another trendy clothing company that had lost sight of its true outdoor roots, but it was in fact a company that pioneered reduced hours, family time off, on-site daycare, and 1% for the planet, among other things.

      I highly recommend his book about it called “Let my people go surfing.” Here’s an excerpt:


  • JayP February 6, 2014, 2:25 pm

    Have to disagree about the Keystone pipeline(or oil drilling/shipping in general). Drive less and there will be less need for gas. Continue the current pattern and we’d be better off getting the stuff from here than the Middle East. I call it the California mindset – dont drill or produce here but we’ll drive like crazy and get it from some other place.

    • Tim February 6, 2014, 3:36 pm

      I agree with JayP. One of the great strengths of this site is the use of real data to drive decisions rather than ideology. The State Department’s environmental reports indicate that Keystone XL will have “minimal” effects on greenhouse gases (source: http://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/finalseis/index.htm).

      • HealthyWealthyExpat February 7, 2014, 3:44 am

        Agreed. There is too much misinformation going around regarding Keystone XL. I haven’t really decided if I personally support it or not, but I do know that more and more of that oil is now going by rail, which is a much more dangerous option – both for humans and for the environment. A lot of people also don’t realize that there are already hundreds of pipelines criss-crossing that area, so we’re not looking at something new or unique here. These are just a few facts that have largely been ignored, but as I said, I haven’t taken a side – I just feel it’s important to become informed about both sides of any issue before making any firm decision.

        • No Waste February 7, 2014, 9:26 am

          I think the objection to the XLP is not so much directly related to its environmental impact in and of itself, but rather, the fact that additional investment in fossil fuel infrastructure furthers global dependence on it for energy.

          For the record, I support the XLP and responsible use of fossil fuels.

        • RetiredAt63 February 7, 2014, 12:30 pm

          The oilsands oil will get extracted and sold, one way or another. If Keystone is not built, there are proposals for pipelines to the BC coast – there are Asian nations who will buy it, and the Canadian federal government is very supportive.

          After the rail accident in Lac Megantic (Quebec) I would rather see oil go by pipeline wherever possible. Rail and truck are potentially more dangerous. I know personally of a tanker truck that ended up in a lake (driver fell asleep). The damage could have been much worse than it was.

          • Pylortes February 8, 2014, 8:00 pm

            I have to give you guys props! MMM readers are a sharp crew. I agreed with almost everything in the article except the opposition to the pipeline, and you guys laser pointed right to that issue.

            As has been mentioned, if the U.S. does not build the pipeline, it will be built to B.C instead and then the oil will be placed on tankers across the Pacific and sold in China/Asia. You want to know a really inefficient, resource wasting method to move oil around? Place it on hundreds or thousands of tanker ships and move it half way across the world on ships. The pipeline to U.S. refineries is a much better solution. If course I agree the best solution is to reduce our demand/consumption of oil (MMM’s idea of increased taxes is a good one). The crew around here never ceases to impress me!

            • Joel February 9, 2014, 9:56 am

              I also agree with all these reasons for the pipeline. You have to think about it rationally and logically then it makes sense. Not having voted for the guy in either election, President Obama’s goal of having the US oil independent is a lot like an individual being financially independent. It will pay dividends in the long term of involving us in fewer foreign wars, seeing that more of our money stays in America to build our infrastructure here, and leading to more non-fossil fuel investment so we are prepared when our resources run low. I know it is looked down on, but BP’s energy report released a few weeks ago is very enlightening and encouraging. Especially from an American standpoint.

    • Wen February 9, 2014, 12:05 pm

      I believe the Keystone XL pipeline is a step in the wrong direction. Tar sands oil is not just your everyday oil. It’s one of the dirtiest sources of fossil fuels out there. It produces more greenhouse gas emissions and tears up the landscape more than conventional oil. It’s not so simple that we can just say oil is oil, and it’s better to get it from here than the Middle East.

      While I agree with many of your points, to me it all comes down to greenhouse gases. Will the Keystone XL increase greenhouses gases? The new State Department’s report (http://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/documents/organization/221135.pdf) states that “the total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.” Yes, it would. So let’s not build it.

      We should be investing in energy sources that are LESS carbon intensive, not more. And tar sands oil is definitely more carbon intensive. It’s a step backwards. We should not be building any more tar sands oil pipelines, here in the US, in Canada, or anywhere else.

      Yes, let’s drive less, and buy less, and use less new stuff. But also, let’s encourage the government to choose wise environmental policy — we also need that to create the widespread changes we want to see.

      • Tim February 11, 2014, 5:37 pm

        I suggest you read more than just the summary page. In the link I posted above you can read the whole thing, including where the amount of greenhouse gases resulting from Keystone XL is described as minimal.

        • Wen February 14, 2014, 2:15 pm

          Thanks Tim — I would read the whole report if it weren’t 1000 pages long! Wow.

          I did check out the appendix though (http://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/documents/organization/221192.pdf) and it appears that the part that says GHG emissions are “minimal” is referring just to “connected actions”, not the construction or operation of the pipeline itself. For those, it says that direct GHG emissions be will be “equivalent to annual GHG emissions from combusting fuels in approximately 300,000 passenger vehicles” and the indirect GHG emissions could be equivalent to up to 5,708,000 passenger vehicles.

          But I don’t feel the exact numbers are as important as the main point, which is that building the KXL pipeline will expand fossil fuel production and increase GHG emissions. And that, I feel, is a step in the wrong direction.

          • Tim February 14, 2014, 3:20 pm

            Yeah, it’s nice and long, and not particularly well organized. But I think the part you should read is page 1.4-10 at http://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/documents/organization/221147.pdf
            “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States. Limitations on pipeline transport would force more crude oil to be transported via other modes of transportation, such as rail, which would probably (but not certainly) be more expensive.”

            Basically, not building the pipeline won’t affect demand or supply in any way. Therefore, it won’t affect fossil fuel production or GHG emission in any way. What would change is the method of shipping, from an environmentally friendly pipeline to a more GHG-intensive method (either rail or truck). I know it’s weird to think, but building the pipeline is actually the environmentally friendly choice.

    • Chris February 9, 2014, 12:40 pm

      Tar sands oil, which the Keystone XL pipeline would carry, is not just regular oil. At this point, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel (so to speak) in terms of cost-effectively extracting fossil fuels, and tar sands oil is right down there at the bottom. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) ratio – basically how much you get out for how much you put in – for tar sands oil is about 3:1. (http://bit.ly/1efc2c9) Conventional oil is currently around 12:1. Solar photovoltaic panels average around 6:1. Even using current pricing structures (which don’t put a price on carbon), infrastructure to move tar sands oil is a bad investment.

      Also, tar sands extraction leaves a toxic moonscape in its wake (http://read.bi/Kt7vMp).

      But the biggest reason to not build the Keystone XL pipeline is what it would mean for carbon emissions and climate change. The impact on the climate of the pipeline itself is substantial, leading long-time NASA climate scientist James Hansen to declare that the burning of all tar sands oil would effectively constitute “game over for the climate” (http://nyti.ms/1fW1q6Y)

      Yes the carbon reductions from stopping Keystone XL pale in comparison to those to be achieved by closing existing and ceasing construction of new coal power plants. But at this point we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing among emission reduction strategies based on political expediency. The climate is not subject to political appeasement. The laws of physics cannot be changed by a majority vote. They are immutable and we flout them at our peril. If you step out a 5th story window while declaring with utmost certainty that the law of gravity doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that you won’t fall to your death.

      In his article “The Terrifying New Math of Global Warming”(http://rol.st/NpomBw), Bill McKibben explains that in order to keep the global temperature from rising more then 2 degrees C, we need to leave 80% of the proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. If the US is serious about slowing climate change, then it makes no sense to begin new fossil fuel infrastructure projects – like Keystone XL – that will commit us to increased CO2 emissions for decades to come.

      The reasoning that, “yeah, we’ll stop using fossil fuels, after we build Keystone XL” is the reasoning of an addict. It’s like saying “yeah, I’ll go sober, after this one last six pack.” And the underlying premise the “oilsands oil will get extracted and sold, one way or another” is false. The presumption that our only choices are to move it by rail or move it by pipeline is false. We can choose to leave tar sands oil in the ground. British Columbia has already rejected the proposed alternate route to the west coast (http://bit.ly/NpotwX). Keystone XL is TransCanada’s last-ditch effort to ease the way to get tar sands oil to a global market (NOT to the US).

    • Charles February 9, 2014, 3:12 pm


      This article neatly sums up why opposing Keystone XL is more a political statement than something that will actually stop climate change (in tech speak, it’s more about mind share than market share):

      This is why the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is actually very important (the final decision probably doesn’t really matter).

  • Saskia February 6, 2014, 3:22 pm

    Great to hear Juliet’s perspective. Thanks! Regarding localized production, I have to disagree with your statement about keeping chickens (that they cost more than buying the best organic eggs.) I know this isn’t true for us, because I track every dollar in YNAB. It costs about $16/mo to feed 3 chickens organically and they give us at least a dozen eggs a week, so that’s about $4/dozen. True free range, organic, fresh eggs are way pricier than that around here. Plus–and this is just as important to me–they make lots of manure that I combine with yard debris to get rich compost that would otherwise cost me $5-10 a bag. And don’t forget about entertainment value; “chicken TV” is way better than real TV. For us, chickens pay their own way.

    • Ronnie February 6, 2014, 3:31 pm

      Saskia said:

      “And don’t forget about entertainment value; “chicken TV” is way better than real TV.”

      Saskia – you left out entertainment value for neighbors!

      I live in a high-density city (Seattle) and my friends who live across the street have chickens. All five of them cruise through my front yard/flower beds once a day like clockwork and always make me smile. Everyone on the block loves them!! my 5 cats and 2 labs just ignore them although they do watch their back.

  • Tyler February 6, 2014, 4:23 pm

    A great interview that reminds me of a book written by Michael Lewis called, “The Resilience Imperative”. Many of the things mentioned by Juliet are looked at from all different angles by Lewis using relevant case studies and statistics. For instance, the incorporating of carbon costs into our non-renewable resources, and the need for transitioning to more local and sustainable economies. Thanks MM, a lot of great stuff mentioned here that need to reach the eyes and ears of many more!

  • Emily February 6, 2014, 5:16 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your interview with Juilet! The Overspent American changed my life at 21 and I am always thrilled to read more of her insights. Your mutual views on bringing the earth back to its own rhythms have me inspired to reduce my carbon footprint. Thank you!

  • Nick February 6, 2014, 5:17 pm

    Overall that was another great article. I would say that I find her comments such as “Pushing Obama on Keystone XL is a start, and trying to prevent any new fossil fuel investment is key” a little off base. Living lower down on the demand curve is the only truly sustainable way to lower fossil fuel consumption. Stopping the XL pipeline will likely result in another pipeline getting built through beautiful rain forests in B.C. It’s like the war on drugs, you have to reduce demand otherwise it’s an uphill battle. Keep up the good work.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 6, 2014, 10:05 pm

      Well, I think the idea on XL is that it would send a political message to oil investors that we are now a fossil-fuel-unfriendly country.

      This would tend to raise oil prices even as it decreased the desirability of investing in new oil projects.

      Of course, other countries would pick up some of the slack, so I’m not sure how well it would work. But in general, moderately higher oil prices do amazing things towards making great new energy technologies pop out of the woodwork. Investment flows there instead, so it is a great example of short term pain, long term gain.

      Even more effective might just be a plain old gasoline tax like everyone else does. Win/win since we get to make money on the pipeline AND the tax, and demand is still reduced.

      • Flannel Guy ROI February 7, 2014, 12:49 am

        Pretty well-versed on these current topics Mr. Low Information Diet ;)

      • No Waste February 7, 2014, 9:37 am

        I have thoroughly enjoyed MMM for a few years now.

        But I always get caught up in the short-term pain, long-term gain thesis.

        By amassing a fortune (in global terms) you’ve been able to establish an amazingly luxurious life and so any pain felt by you and your family would be negligible.

        However, I think the “short-term” pain would actually be quite protracted and result in years of struggles for families with children – children that made no choices to arrive in their current situation. Children with struggles at home tend to struggle at school, and then struggle as adults as a result.

        Although it is nice to imagine a quick and tidy transition to Utopia, this would go against just about everything in human nature (reptile brain). It would be very painful. Communes failed for a reason.

        I totally lost myself with all that. What was I talking about again?

  • Elle February 6, 2014, 6:10 pm

    MMM wrote: “[M]ost consumers are blissfully unaware of the direct connection between shopping and destroying.”

    I think most stock investors are unaware of the direct connection between owning shares in companies and destroying. This site’s simultaneous encouragement to be more respectful of the planet’s resources but also buy stocks requires that one be comfortable with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

    • Free_at_50 February 16, 2014, 5:01 am

      This is a great point. To be truly consistent Mustachians should only be able to invest in things that align with their values like renewable energy companies. I guess I am only 50% Mustachian! :)

  • phred February 6, 2014, 6:32 pm

    But Carbon (CO2) doesn’t care about how new your aquaponic system is – it’s a byproduct of just burning petro-energy, so the only way to win this contest is to burn as little fuel as possible.

    Remember that new aquaponic systems generate massive pollution and carbon before they even start for the first time – because of the mining and manufacturing required to produce all that steel and plastic, electronics, rubber and glass used to make plywood, metal fasteners, plastic (ugh!) pond liners, pea gravel (transport & washing), coir & vermiculite, plastic (more oil) tanks, electric pumps, plastic hose and tubing, glass and greenhouse structuring, meters and guages. To this we add the recurring costs of electricity, imported fish such as tilapia, fish medicines, top off water

    About 20 tons of carbon come out of the manufacturing process, which is equal to burning about 2000 gallons of fuel, which is like driving 70,000 miles in a reasonably efficient car.
    Okay, maybe not 20 tons of carbon — at least not yet. But, don’t ever believe that aquaponics is a sustainable way to go local. This would be like looking at a car based only on its mileage, and not based on the environmental destruction caused by its manufacture. Aquaponics – in total – takes up a much bigger footprint than the little food growing building seen by a passerby.

  • phred February 6, 2014, 6:52 pm

    ” I think that’s one key to why local economies are now a viable alternative to the giant corporations and globalized structures. Their resilience in the face of uncertainties such as disasters and financial panics is another.”

    Tain’t necessarily so – at least for the disasters part. When a community or even a region suffers a disaster such as widespread flooding, forest fire, hurricanes, and so on help has to come from outside the area, and the help usually needs to be massive. Sometimes even several countries need to pitch in.

    As for localizing increasing employment – that certainly has to be true. What else could it be? Every time we have a corporate merger the result is one complete set of managers and supervisors being made unnecessary. So, if all businesses remained local more people in total would have jobs. Of course, once you’ve supplied your local market then what? Just let the machinery sit idle? Kind of a waste?

    But fairness? Tain’t necessarily so. Otherwise most would be content to live in their villages instead of migrating to big city life.

    • Kitty February 6, 2014, 7:06 pm

      This comment made me think about the two tornadoes in Kansas in the last decade. I personally know families that lost everything and have been deeply involved in the recovery and rebuilds. I think many would disagree with the statement that help needs to come in from the outside. Gosh, I’m going to get some backlash on this. But, in both of these instances there were thousands of people and groups and dollars rolling in and so much waste and mismanagement and creation of infrastructure and administrative jobs that were not sustainable. A new $4 million dollar high school that won’t even hold the 100 kids it needs to serve – no classroom space. A new tourist shopping strip in a place with no tourism except those who came to view the famous tornado’s path. The real after picture of these movements to “help” these communities recover isn’t shown much. The whole disaster recovery thing has become a for profit industry in itself and disconnected from the original community and what they need.

      • phred February 8, 2014, 7:53 am

        I never meant to imply the locals stood around and did nothing. It’s just many/most times the local area has neither the raw materials nor some of the skills needed to do their own fixing. The examples I thought of as I first wrote were the Gulf coast after Katrina, the BP oil spill, earthquakes destroying villages in Asia, floods ditto, floods here (send in the National Guard and lots of MREs)…

        Yeah, it’s unfortunate that disaster relief frequently involves gypsy contractors and white collar scam artists. Maybe some day we’ll get it right.

        I would not expect many of the administrative jobs to stick around once the community is back on its feet. Even the jobs for the locals would disappear once the trash is cleared away; the emergrency money for their paychecks came from outside

        I help run the county foodbank. The foodbank is needed because the county can’t support its own

  • Dr. Doom February 6, 2014, 7:31 pm

    I’m definitely going to read this book. This woman works at the same place I do, Boston College. Although she’s a really smart professor and I’m a just a code-and-infrastructure monkey.

    On a related note, the big thing that freaks me out about FIRE and the 4% rule is always the “are things different now?” question. The only affirmative answer to that question which I can’t refute is “Yes, there are now over 7 billion of us on the planet and we can’t continue to increase physical demands on the earth.” It’s my hope that this book will calm me down a bit on this issue, although I suspect it’ll be quite the opposite.

  • Patrick February 6, 2014, 7:33 pm

    Interesting comment by Ms Schor regarding the Keystone pipeline – and how it should be opposed.

    Just read an article in Fortune magazine how wasteful it is to transport the oil via rail and truck vs the pipeline – that environmentalists are really a cause of excess carbon usage by protesting the line. The oil will be transported regardless.


    Not sure the link will work – but a different perspective.

    • Flannel Guy ROI February 7, 2014, 1:03 am

      Rail and truck are more expensive transport options because they are more energy-intensive (truck more than rail). So there would be a marginal reduction in demand for tar sands oil if XL wasn’t approved because of higher transport costs.

      I have seen some reports say the XL won’t really make that much of a difference to climate change. It is more symbolic. I wonder what the administration will do now that the State Dept. approved it again.

      One one hand it would be a nice symbolic gesture to show the world that we are carbon-unfriendly. On the other hand, it could deplete some political capital from the Dems right before mid-term elections and make subsequent climate legislation more difficult.

      A less symbolic move, but one with more bang for the buck from a political capital standpoint would be to target existing coal utility plant emissions standards with executive EPA ruling. This would be contested in the DC court of appeals where the Dems just got a bunch of nominees confirmed and now hold a majority. The nice thing about this is you could wait till 2015 after the mid-term elections.

    • Dave February 7, 2014, 8:23 am

      This is definitely the one point I disagree with her on. If keystone doesn’t get built, it isn’t helping anyone. Building a pipeline doesn’t increase consumer demand for oil, and the demand we have right now needs to come from somewhere. Does it make more sense to use tankers coming from Human Rights abusing middle eastern countries to obtain oil instead of Canada? I don’t think so. I agree that we need to get off the fossil fuel addiction, but until then, fighting Keystone XL is counter-productive.

  • Ann Stanley February 6, 2014, 9:10 pm

    MMM, your writing just gets better and better and I’m loving all the links. You’re inspiring me as a writer now (which really bugs me because you’re a freakin’ engineer and I’m an English teacher!). Anyway, just sayin’, the writing’s great, ideas aside. The post before this one was hilarious. I’ll keep practising…

  • Carl February 7, 2014, 7:01 am

    Personally I think the carbon talk is bunk.

    If the air was a 100 yard football field, C02 would start at the 1/2 yard line and go to the goal line. 1/2 a yard.

    I agree with many things on MMM, but people like this lady are not helping.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 7, 2014, 3:52 pm

      Wow, the life’s work of a nearly-100% consensus of the world’s best scientists, debunked with a single football analogy!

      If you’re going to challenge something about global warming, at least follow the lead of the guy who wrote “The Rational Optimist”. He said the future societies will be richer than us, so they can more easily deal with the costs of carbon reduction and moving the coastal cities inland than we can. But even he had his cost-of-renewable-energy calculations all wrong, because everything dropped right after he wrote it.

      Just saying “climate change is not real” is not an intelligent option. It automatically rules out your opinion from serious consideration, so you get no benefit from chanting it out. Even Exxon has given up on climate change denial lobbying.

      • phred February 8, 2014, 8:04 am

        How are future societies going to be richer than us? Every large intro of technology seems to have put more people out of work then the number of jobs it has created.
        The number on foodstamps has risen, wages have gone down for many, hours worked for an hourly wage have lessened. Maybe after all the poor have died off the 1% will feel richer because there will be more space.
        My take for the future is that most will be living on the sidewalks just like in BladeRunner

      • Matt February 8, 2014, 10:09 am

        Just a small quibble with this, since it seems to me that there is sometimes a sort of disconnect between how people regard financial matters, and how they look at environmental ones:
        Wall Street invests lots of money and brainpower into trying to predict the behavior of a very complicated system (the economy) since obviously there is a fortune to be made by whoever can succeed. Climate scientists are also trying to understand a complex system, again by using a lot of data and brainpower to model its behavior. Now, the fact that Wall Street’s stock pickers can’t consistently outperform an index fund suggests that their models aren’t really very accurate. By analogy, doesn’t this suggest that we should regard the climate scientists’ predictions with a bit of skepticism, since maybe there are some limits currently to our ability to understand complex systems? In a lot of writing on the climate, I don’t see any sense of these limits. This article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-sachs/keystone-the-pipeline-to_b_4716229.html) by Jeffrey Sachs is a recent example. He brushes aside the fact that scientists failed to predict the pause in global warming since 1988, and attributes this (with great assurance) to currents in the Pacific. I am inclined to take such predictions with a grain of salt, since I don’t think that Sachs or anyone else understands fully what is going on.
        This is not to say that the consensus of the scientific community is wrong, or should be disregarded. But I think we should look skeptically at thinkers and advocates who seem unaware of (or unwilling to admit) the limits of their understanding. The problem is that this isn’t just an academic exercise, since some people promote fairly radical policies, which would carry serious costs, based on their predictions of the climate.

        • Mr. Frugal Toque February 9, 2014, 5:53 am

          There are very large error bars on the global warming predictions made by scientists, due to the very complex factors you mention. However, we keep hitting the hot end of those predictions.

          “He brushes aside the fact that scientists failed to predict the pause in global warming since 1988”

          There has not been a global pause in global warming since 1998, and certainly not 1988. 1998 was an unusually warm year.


          • Mark Schreiner July 4, 2023, 5:55 pm

            Jeffrey Sachs unfortunately is a shill who, in earlier days, was perhaps a serious and legitimate economist. What he as said for the past two decades is essentially driven by an agenda, but with his left-over scientific sheen. Social science fiction, if you will. I am not taking a side on this debate, just saying that debunking Jeffrey Sachs is like debunking a politician who makes claims not because they are true but because he/she seeks to win support for a policy he/she has already decided is worthwhile.

  • Dave February 7, 2014, 7:08 am

    Great article.

    I’ve been steamed for years that even though I have become much more productive at work I never get to share in the productivity improvements I have made. Only the owners of the business get the benefits. My hours remain the same. It seems like after decades of making improvements my work week should have dropped from a basic 40 hours per week to 20 hours per week for the same money. It has not.

    This is the greatest website in the world. I have made drastic changes in my lifestyle because of it and even though I have come late to the party it has already allowed me to to shave off 7 years of having to work so, even if you don’t learn about this till your fourties you can still get to the freedom train earlier than thought. Seven years is a lot of extra free time to enjoy life.

    One thing I have noticed is that the capitalists have a lot in common with the average person: they are unable to control their desires. One million isn’t enough, ten million isn’t enough. Even a billion is not enough with these people. And we let just a few thousand business owners control the entire continent with their uncontrollable urges to power. We all pay a terrible price by kowtowing to them and basically worshipping them as if they are somehow more intelligent. We need to get self-actualized and start saying no to these people at the top.

    • Carl Milsted February 7, 2014, 10:02 am

      This is the paradox of employment. Methinks a more leisure society needs to be one of doing jobs vs. having jobs. And a society where more people own smaller businesses. With employment by the hour, there is always the call to do makework.

    • Kenoryn February 7, 2014, 1:41 pm

      I have always figured I’d be a lot more productive when at work if I were paid for the things I accomplished rather than for the time I spend in this building. I read an interview awhile ago with a CEO who was moving to this model of paying her employees, but now I can’t find it.

      In a few years, I’ll be working for myself and then I will get paid for the work I do!

    • Marcia February 8, 2014, 2:56 pm

      That’s where you want to increase your salary because of the improvements. That can be hard. I struggle with it too, working for a company that just wants to pay the least they can. I worked part time for less pay for awhile too. My output per hour was even better then.

  • Rachel P. February 7, 2014, 8:16 am

    Great interview MMM! It was interesting to read in Schor’s 1998 NYT article that, “Tabulating a survey of employees at a big, unnamed telecommunications company, Ms. Schor found that for every hour of television watched weekly, spending rose by $208 a year. This group watched enough TV to cost each person more than $2,200 a year”.

    It seems that we cannot escape the fact that television and media are enormous drivers of consumption, both in this country and increasingly, abroad. I’ve noticed among many families I know who have downscaled their lifestyles for more freedom, that TV watching is one of the first things to go. They usually have little interest in passive entertainment and are much more aware of how the media feeds us unrealistic images or more more more.

  • Alexis February 7, 2014, 8:32 am


    My hero. Such a great author. Her books are both readable and interesting, not to mention well-researched.

    Thank you Ms. Schor! And MMM, for interviewing her :)

  • theFIREstarter February 7, 2014, 8:35 am

    What a brilliantly optimistic view of the future!

    The book is on my list… off to the library quick sharp!

  • coachtv February 7, 2014, 9:04 am

    I have been coming around here for a month or so and love the site. This blog brought to mind a book I read probably 15 years ago that might be worth a trip to the library: A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Humane Existence by Ferenc Máté. The basic premise: We must place simple human needs and the human spirit far ahead of material wealth. We must rethink our concepts of career, home life, habits, and what we call security and success.

  • Chris February 7, 2014, 9:50 am

    It’s great to see Juliet Schor, steady-state economics (implicitly), and climate change emerge as issues on MMM. As a fan of both Mustachianism and a liveable climate, I’ve been trying to figure out what “Climate Mustachianism” – that is, covering expenses exclusively off of interest, in perpetuity – might look like.

    In this case, the interest would be the Earth’s carbon absorption capacity, which according to the Fair Climate Fund (http://bit.ly/1d33ZUj) is estimated to be about 12 billion metric tons per year. Every person on Earth shares this interest, so each person (assuming 7 billion people right now) gets about 1.7 tons/year. This is the carbon interest we have to live on each year, and there is no “work income” in this scenario – we only get interest. Our carbon “spending” per person in the US (in the form of emissions) is around 17 tons/year — TEN TIMES our income. That’s some serious carbon debt.

    Ideally we’d find some way to increase the principal (natural capital), that is, invest more in the ecosystems – like forests and oceans – that process our pollution. This would give us more interest to live on. But we can only increase this principal so much, and trends have long been going in the other direction – that is, we’ve been liquidating natural capital while increasing our spending (churning out more pollution).

    The effects of carbon debt are much less immediately visible than the effects of economic debt. There’s not going to be a carbon debt collector calling you. But they’re no less real. To large degree we are insulated from the effects of our carbon debt (i.e. climate change) by space (happening somewhere else), time (happening to our children and grandchildren) and affluence (we can avoid it by moving or buying stuff). This makes it hard to feel compelled to act now to reduce our carbon spending, even among those of us who understand both climate science and the concepts of living off of interest.

    • Kenoryn February 7, 2014, 1:46 pm

      Great way of looking at this and relating it to Mustachian/financial terms!

      • Chris February 8, 2014, 10:46 am

        Thanks Kenoryn. :)

    • phred February 8, 2014, 8:13 am

      Many state parks & forests will welcome your volunteering to help them plant trees. I do this with my Scout group all the time (they let us camp free in return).

      Other than that, you need to be the neighborhood good example. Drive a bike instead of a car. Grow a veg garden; then, tell your neighbors how to garden well. Refinish furniture from the thrift instead of “redecorating”. It has to start with each of us rather than making the “them” do it.

      • Chris February 8, 2014, 11:02 am

        Thanks phred for the suggestion to volunteer to plant trees at state parks and forests. And free camping? Sounds like a win-win.

        I wholeheartedly agree with you about each of us walking our talk and setting a good example and not just relying on others to make the change. I’m fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood that to some degree already “gets it”.

        My wife and I have organized several block parties and created a list serv to build community and keep everybody connected, and to allow people to ask each other for help rather than always having to outsource. Yes we have a garden but also learn from our neighbors, who essentially have an urban farm, including chickens, rabbits, a greenhouse, and row upon row of veggies, all in Oakland, CA. So we have a lot to learn and something to aspire to.

        I’ve been vegan for 14 years, we don’t buy packaged food, don’t have a car, our yearly total household energy use is less than 3000 kWh, take the train across the country to visit family rather than fly, etc. So I think we do a decent job of walking the talk.

        But climate change is not an issue that we can solve as individuals. We have to create the right incentives, and get the market to tell people the true costs and benefits of their decisions. The process of making this change is something that can only be done collectively. “Mutual coersion, mutually agreed-upon”, as Garrett Hardin would say.

  • Frugal Epicurean February 7, 2014, 10:55 am

    An old book in a similar vein I was forced to read as a freshman in college back in the early 80s is “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” by E. F. Schumacher. It was published back in 1973 but is still amazingly relevant. Too bad more people didn’t pay attention 40 years ago…

    I’ve just asked my local library to buy Schor’s book. (I also asked them to get a copy of William Irvine’s “Guide to a Good Life,” based on MMM’s recommendation. They’re getting tired of me there.)

  • Insourcelife February 7, 2014, 11:44 am

    I didn’t even know an organization like this (New American Dream) could exist in this country. Time to check it out…

  • Frugal Dadoffive February 7, 2014, 1:15 pm

    I must caution you “Solar electricity production (is an example of) things that can now be produced locally at an individual house” – ignores the rest of the supply chain, from the (energy and hours-intensive) technology development, to production in China, shipping, installation costs….
    Solar in particular is not price-competitive because the total supply chain just is not as efficient as a centralized plant and distribution network. If it was, it would be price-competitive!
    Interesting than many of the same people who want to build say trains (high capital costs etc) to get us out of cars do not recognize this error. It’s the same argument turned around. Individual solar panels are much the same as having a car in your driveway even though you have a train station in your yard.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 7, 2014, 3:43 pm

      Ahh, but solar power IS price competitive, due to the massive drop in panel prices over the past few years. I have been running the numbers on it regularly for about 10 years, and for the last several it has come out cheaper than the national average for power. Even before accounting for the cost of carbon. Also US-made panels don’t significantly alter the equation when compared to Chinese ones, and the encapsulated energy in the equipment is pretty low – pays for its carbon footprint within months.

      A lot of it depends on how much you spend on the inverter and if you can handle your own installation.

      • Amicable Skeptic February 7, 2014, 9:20 pm

        To be fair solar’s competitiveness depends on where you live, but the day is fast approaching when solar will be flat out cheaper than grid electricity in 90% of the country. This is likely to have some really interesting effects on the utility industry and beyond. Maybe everything will start switching to DC so no inverters are needed? Maybe electric cars will be used to hold the extra energy generated in the middle of the day? Maybe we’ll stop blowing mountains up for coal? It’s an exciting future to be a part of no?

        • phred February 8, 2014, 8:19 am

          The utility industry is already starting to bill solar installations for using their wires to transmit solar power to the grid.
          While solar panels and thin-film solar has become economical, I still wonder about the costs of the battery bank.
          It used to be that solar power caused more deaths than coal-fired power plants. The installers kept falling off the roofs.

      • Chris February 8, 2014, 8:53 pm

        This Economist article covers a new USB power delivery standard ( 100 Watts). It seems like a compelling idea that solar panels could easily power USB standard “outlets” in the home with DC power, charging devices and powering LED lights without the need for an inverter. Seems like it would be a pretty simple approach to solar power at home.


        • 205guy February 16, 2014, 2:48 am

          This is genius! I’ve been thinking we need to switch back to DC for local solar PV distribution in the house. I am planning a PV system with DC wiring for lights in my house, and a battery bank to run them at night when needed. I’ll keep the grid for the big appliances (fridge, toaster, washer, etc) and try to convert as much of the other loads to DC. All the small electronics run on DC and so it would eliminate the AC transformer. I was thinking that 12V DC needs some practical plug other than the stupid cigarette lighter plug used in RVing. I imagined something like a 2-prong plug with on prong perpendicular to the other. But the USB plug is such an obvious answer–I can’t wait until it becomes adopted.

  • Doug February 7, 2014, 10:13 pm

    Wow, Juliet Schor is an economist? She’s a very atypical one, as most economists believe the solution to all our problems is endless economic growth. In fact I read somewhere that anyone who thinks growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a fool or an economist. It’s great to know there actually are some economists out there who think outside the box and have some common sense. Everything she said in that interview made a lot of sense.

    • phred February 8, 2014, 9:08 am

      I’m not too sure about the common sense part. I went to her group’s website. Their big thing, for now, seems to be to increase the number of retail stores in the community. Just what we need — more stuff with which to fill the garage.

      I’ll agree that shopping in a locally owned store keeps money in the community a little bit longer, and provides more low-paying jobs than does a bigbox. But, hey – you’re still buying imports from outside the area; retailing does not build strong, prosperous communities unless the community has a mega mall to provide lots of tax revenue provided by “foreigners” driving 20 miles to come shop.

      She also claims a reduced workweek will give one more time for hobbies (such as writing nonsense on someone else’s blog – Ha!). Well, reduced hours means a reduced paycheck. Many hobbies are expensive; have you priced quality artist’s brushes lately.

      Rather than reading her book, you’ll be better off with Yeager’s The Cheapskate Next Door. The economists worth reading combine not only ecology but also bio-energy. You might start with Ecological and General Systems by Howard Odum. For light reading, I recommend the books by historian Jane Jacobs

      Many communities used to have lots of small shops. They all disappeared when the big boxes arrived. There is something of human nature in play here. My own community has lots of locally owned restaurants that serve good meals at fair prices. Still, most of the town prefers McDonalds. We need to solve this problem first.

  • GoCubsGo February 8, 2014, 8:47 am

    Interesting interview. I like that you asked about developing countries and their newly acquired appetite for consumption as that is the biggest overall threat in my opinion. Unfortunately, I kind of think the answer was glossed over and overly optimistic. China is the elephant in the room. Every major supercar manufacturer is scrambling to set up operations in China as they are disproportionately buying $500K+ automobiles (plus they are building a$8K everyman cars that will cause an explosion in car ownership). Air quality is horrendous and their government openly lies about it. The byproducts of their recent boom would make 1950’s american industrialism look clean as snow. I don’t see them “leapfrogging” anything. India is up next and that’s a scary thought. Not sure how much of the good we’ve done in the U.S. will be be completely reversed by those countries. Kinda complainypants but it scares the sh*t out of me.

    • phred February 8, 2014, 9:11 am

      Germany has a wonderful railroad system, and even more wonderful bicycle paths. Yet, as soon as they could afford it, all my teen-aged friends over there bought cars. Go figure

      • plam February 9, 2014, 8:35 pm

        The proportion of younger people with driver’s licenses has been declining everywhere, most notably in the US but also in Germany; see page 8:


        You can observe a small decrease in the German 18-24 licensed-drivers proportion and an increase in the 45+ proportion between 2003 and 2008.

        The US number is totally striking between 1983 and 2008; taking 20-24, for instance, it’s down by about 10%, from 90% to 80%.

    • bk February 11, 2014, 8:06 pm

      FWIW, India with its huge population is responsible for 7% of global warming, the US for 22% UK and Germany together for over 10%. So there is perhaps little comparison.

      Re some of world poorest Indians, The American Interest says:

      “On solar power, Mr Froman said: “[India’s] domestic content requirements discriminate against US exports by requiring solar power developers to use Indian-manufactured equipment instead of US equipment.”When India launched the latest phase of its solar programme in October, it said half of the key equipment could now be imported, but it also broadened the types of technology that had to be Indian-made.

  • DAD February 9, 2014, 5:39 pm

    It seems so simple, doesn’t it? This is how civilization worked for a majority of human existence.

  • aw February 14, 2014, 10:28 am

    She missed it on carbon – it’s black carbon that has the biggest impact on warming and glacial melt. Black carbon forms when we inefficiently burn fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass. Black carbon is fine particulate matter that gets into the atmosphere, absorbs light and warms the atmosphere. Black carbon lands on white glacial ice, leaving a layer of soot on top. That absorbs heat and melts the ice. Look at a photo of a glacier — the surface ain’t white anymore – it’s covered in a layer of black soot. The biggest source of black carbon is diesel engines and burning crap. But, the biggest source of black carbon comes from each of us when we burn wood. Residential wood burning accounts for more than 30 percent of the PM2.5 black carbon in winter air in the U.S. The Senate had a big push to stop third-world women from burning biomass for cooking to reduce black carbon. Each time you throw another log on the backyard firepit or wood stove, you’re warming the planet. If you have to burn wood, get the most efficient burning, small, indoor stove possible and use it right! Your neighbors will thank you when they don’t have to breathe your damned smoke, and your asthmatic kid will be healthier. Don’t burn wood for fun – you’re melting the damn glaciers! Black carbon is short term – it’s in the atmosphere for only two weeks and then falls back to earth. This is a low-cost, quick fix to heal our planet and our lungs. Learn more at: http://www.epa.gov/blackcarbon/

    • Chris February 15, 2014, 4:44 pm

      Black carbon is indeed a significant contributor to climate change, but to the best of our current knowledge (http://e360.yale.edu/feature/carl_zimmer_black_carbon_and_global_warming_worse_than_thought/2611/), its contribution to “radiative forcing”, as it’s apparently called, is not believed to be as great as that of carbon dioxide. And as for blaming WOMEN in DEVELOPING COUNTRIES for causing climate change…well, I think we in the rich countries have a long way to go to clean up our own act first.

      As has been mentioned elsewhere, our per capita carbon footprints are typically 5-10 times as large as those in developing countries. I completely agree with you about the health effects of exposure to combustion pollutants and the urgent need to reduce those exposures, especially among the poor, who have few alternatives. But black carbon in no way lets us off the hook for our own greenhouse gas emissions.

      And phred, burning wood is indeed carbon neutral, in the sense that trees absorbed their carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air, and release it back into the air again when they are burned. But all forms of carbon do not have an equal effect on climate change. So it may be possible that in some cases wood combustion has a net warming effect on the climate, even though it is carbon neutral.

      What I’ve learned is that the details of climate science are incredibly complex, so be wary of simple explanations from either side. What we can say with a great deal of certainty is that the Earth is warming, and that we’re causing it by emitting (mostly combustion) pollutants at a rate that the Earth’s systems can’t keep up with.

  • phred February 15, 2014, 10:28 am

    Thank you for telling us about black carbon. Everyone in the wood game has been telling us that wood is carbon neutral. What bunk!

  • Mr. Grump February 15, 2014, 10:48 am

    Congratulations MMM on interviewing such a successful author. So many blogs get dismissed as junk or “personal opinion” they never get the recognition they deserve. Couple this with the interview with the Washington Post and the fact successfully published authors will agree to an interview with you is amazing. You are truly making a difference in the world.

  • 205guy February 16, 2014, 3:22 am

    Late commenter here, but I just wanted to say that I love the concept of the New American Dream. I discovered the group 10 years ago, and the name clicks for me. I lived in Europe for a while, and when I moved back to the US, I felt disconnected. I wasn’t into TV or “sports” on TV, or talking about gadgets and such, and I thought those things were really dumbing people down. For a while, I was into Adbusters for their anti-consumerist style, but in the end, they were just too anti for me, and rather preachy.

    I wasn’t really sure how to define what I felt was needed in American society, until I heard about the Center for a New American Dream, and I thought that’s exactly what we need. We need to redefine the American Dream around quality not quantity, community not media, time and experience not money. After getting everything we needed to live comfortably from the old American Dream, I totally believe it time for a new one.

    To be honest, I read their emails, but I admit to not participating much, though I have a mostly non consumerist, mustachian lifestyle already. I need to make time to connect with community, because I think that’s an important way to learn and share.

    BTW, another “tribe” that I felt a member of was the Mother Earth News magazine. It covers a lot of gardening and DIY projects to be self-sufficient, eat well, and make or repair your own stuff (tools, small vehicles, etc.). One article was about frowning sorghum for sugar, and another was about going beyond brewing and wine,asking to distilling spirits. It not strictly off-grid, nor just homesteading, or even weld-it-yourself hardcore, but it supports those things for buying less processed and industrial stuff.

  • Jon Maroni February 18, 2014, 10:21 pm

    As a salaried employee I can tell you how powerful hourly employment can be. I would estimate that only 80% of my hours worked are truly productive and when I was an hourly employee I was much more motivated to make those hours count. I would be a huge fan of working less, and definitely think it would increase productivity. Motivation is critical, and when I became salaried I’ll admit that my motivation decreased a little bit.

    Also thank you for bringing up that if consumption would decrease the economy wouldn’t collapse. Thank goodness there are so many people out there rejecting that load of crap.

  • Kureen April 10, 2015, 2:01 pm

    I would love to see the MMM thoughts on solar since we live in Arizona. The numbers don’t workout in my mind as being worth it but maybe I am looking at it wrong. Our electric bill is crazy high in the summer. I would love to lower it. We also have a pool and that drives up our electricity use.

  • Lana Wilson September 29, 2015, 9:04 pm

    The link takes to a site that states they are located in Charlottesville, not Washington DC ( thats where I live, in DC) So is there a NewDream in DC or no? I didn’t find any references…. hmmm

  • Stine April 20, 2020, 5:05 pm

    Anyone else reading this during ‘corona-times’?! While I wish we were making this change gradually as recommended here, here’s hoping a local economic model will lend us the resilience to overcome this 👍🏼


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