Updated on 10.03.07

Your Money or Your Life: Prosperity and the Planet

Trent Hamm

YMOYLThis is the third part of The Simple Dollar Book Club reading of Your Money or Your Life. Want to know more?

Your Money Or Your Life has a reputation in some circles for having a leftist political perspective, and it shows through in this section, subtitled “Prosperity and the Planet.”

The crux of the argument over these twelve pages is that a consumerist lifestyle does significant damage to the planet as a whole, not just in terms of environmental damage, but in terms of global social issues as well. As we consume more and more of these resources, eventually we deplete what’s available to all of us.

Regardless of my personal feelings on environmentalism (I believe pretty strongly in minimizing my own footprint, but I have a hard time preaching to others on the topic), I felt this was perhaps the weakest point in the entire book. It’s an attempt to try to tie individual simplicity to a greater good inside of a book that’s largely going to be read by people interested in getting their finances in shape.

There are some powerful cases out there for treating the environment with more respect – this twelve page treatise isn’t one of them. Because it’s told with such strength right off the bat in the book before any of the great financial material that follows, it likely turns off some people who are trying to get in tune with their financial situation and don’t want to read about environmentalism. That’s unfortunate.

I tend to believe that there are a lot of compelling arguments against consumerism and the environment just happens to be one of many. Leading with it, especially with the environment being a hot political issue in the last few years, seems destined to damage the argument.

Does the environment argument hold much water with you? I’m okay with it, I just find it to be overbearing. Thankfully, the book starts kicking it up a notch in the next section.

Tomorrow, we’ll keep going through the first chapter, focusing on the section “The Beginning of a New Road Map for Money.” That section is on pages 21 through 29 in my paperback version of the book.

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  1. mgroves says:

    I find that usually when someone says “consumerism”, what they are actually attacking is capitalism.

  2. I agree. Nothing wrong with promoting a healthy environmental theme, but this book does tend to get a bit preachy (probably why I gave up on reading it a while ago).

    I’m committed to getting through the whole thing this time though!

    Looking forward to the financial goodies.

  3. Kate says:

    The environmental argument is compelling to me. I do a lot of things to minimize my own footprint. But yes, I agree that such arguments can feel like a bludgeoning to people who either don’t care, or don’t feel like they have much individual control over the broader issues. Even to someone who believes wholeheartedly in environmental protection, the relentlessly negative news about how humans are screwing up the planet is pretty depressing. There’s a sense of futility or helplessness that comes up in response to such arguments that weakens resolve and encourages folks to just tune it out, because the problems are so much bigger than any one of us. And we obviously can’t count on a unified effort from our fellow humans. Jared Diamond’s Collapse sums it up pretty well.

  4. rhbee says:

    It is so strange to read these arguements again and in this context. I mean my own and my partners and the idea of thinking about a future and the value of frugality in helping one get there. In my life time, I began thinking about these issues in college in the late 60’s and teaching them/living them in the 70’s. To read them here though is to make them fresh which I like. But I have to agree that we live in a very sensitive time as far as discussing this because every issue seems to come with such political baggage. If you want to read an interesting side bar to this section take a look at today’s issue of http://www.alternet.org and the article on the grandparents teachin a lesson in ecology, check out the comments, you’ll see that we are not the only ones who are reacting to the preachiness.

    Anyway, that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. When I was reading this section last night I couldn’t help thinking that the real answer to the effect of consumerism is thinking and acting on retirement. When you do that, you have to decide how much is enough and from that point forward you are out of the rat race, right?

  5. Lisa says:

    I found this book to lifechanging. Usually anything lifechanging is at a minimum uncomfortable and possibly even radical to the person who wants or needs to change. Although true and necessary to know, this is more than most out of control spenders can handle. Its probably better to read it after you’ve worked the program for a while. Take it in on your second time reading the book.

  6. Ben Gonzalez says:

    The reason authors put these politically correct topics in their books is to get a good review. Here we are living in the greatest times in history. Despite what most of you think, the most peaceful time in history, and an age of unprecedented wealth and prosperity.

    I can understand conservation, in the sense of wanting to preserve wilderness for future generations but this new idea that intentions should outweigh facts or history is plain ridiculous.

    Haven’t any of you people noticed the rise in beef , milk, corn and other food commodities? Many are attributing this increase to the demand for food-based fuels. Which to me just happens to be the most baffling idea of the ages – use the most fragile and needed resource we have as a source of energy – when fossil fuels just sit there? Who could dream up such idiocy?

  7. Teri Pittman says:

    I took a class on the book, from one of the folks actually profiled in another YMOL book. And it seemed to be that the whole concept is very structured to relatively well off middle class folks. If I were to have a yard sale, I’d make very little. I just don’t have a lot of assets. I don’t have a job that pays well, so I doubt that I’ll be able to ever save enough to cross over into FI. There is some merit to the book, but parts of it just don’t seem terribly useful to me.

  8. Doug says:

    The book’s negativity towards work (as mentioned in several replies last section) and the impression it gives that you have to reach the authors definition of FI can discourage people, and I’m sure Teri is not alone feeling that way. Not having enough assets to have a yard sale is a sign that you are living within your means. To me, if you can eliminate bad debt, spend less than you earn, and can find an agreeable job – that is a great achievement.

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    That’s good, Lisa. If this piece is politically or socially difficult for you to swallow, it might be worth skipping over if you’re reading this book for the first time. It’s not essential to the overall message of the book.

  10. Andrew says:

    I must say, like most of the others, I’ve had these thoughts before on how our drive towards consumerism is harming the environment and wholly unnecessary for our needs. Everywhere that anyone can think of a way to make life easier, they throw it in some non-biodegradable packing and try to sell it to the average north american (e.g. I saw pre-packed salad toppings at the store yesterday….for those who can’t mix dried coconut, raisins and cranberries together – didn’t see the price, but must have been at least 3.99 for a small ~100 g pack!!!). They’re everywhere you look, and you see consumption everywhere you turn, and I just hope I’m not around when things go belly up (though at 26, it’s not a guarantee). Regardless of my thoughts on that, we’re reading this book to learn financial intelligence, integrity and independence….bring on the good stuff!

  11. lorax says:

    This section has a few great points:

    1) Resources will run out. Oil will. No one debates if, just when. Kate’s point about Jarad Diamond’s Collapse is on point.

    2) The GDP is *an* indicator of economic activity. That doesn’t mean that the activity is productive. Having individuals focused on productive activity is a good thing. After all, paying people to visit casinos would (temporally) increase the GDP.

    3) The tragedy of the commons is with us still.

    Economists generally agree that if environmental factors were included in costs, individual’s activity would be much different. Not many would buy SUVs if they had to pay for a war to keep the oil flowing. If we had to pay the true cost of trash disposal, we’d recycle more. These are externalities now, so we can ignore them financially.

    The sad thing is that until these externalities are incorporated into our cost structures, we see consumerism vs the environment as a moral argument. This leads to statements like “I *believe* in environmentalism”. It isn’t a belief!

  12. lorax says:

    Oops, I should have said:
    This leads to statements like “I *believe* in environmentalism”. It isn’t a *religion*!

  13. Mrs. Micah says:

    I wouldn’t have led with it, but I think it’s definitely worth including. Since I don’t have the book yet, I’m not positive about all they said. But I think it’s crazy, for example, how much packaging things come in, how much when we buy something we end up throwing stuff away immediately. And how surpassing the Joneses leads us to consume more natural resources than is sustainable.

  14. Christine says:

    I kept looking ahead for the good stuff! Was this talking about “zero sum” economics? I’d like to study more on economics, because I’ve never felt that if someone else has a lot that they’ve taken it away from me. And I think there’s a lot more abundance and resilience in the earth than some ideologies represent. Much of the lack and destruction in the world is more due to the corruption and violence preventing people from building and acheiving in their lives and land than to consumerism in the US.

  15. Monica says:

    A big part of the reason why I try to be frugal and not wasteful is for environmental reasons. There are lots of things that I do that have very little impact on my finances (or even a negative impact) that I continue to do for the sake of the planet.

  16. rhbee says:

    Christine’s point is well taken. But to introduce those ideas into this book would have led its readers even further afield. I, also, have to agree with Monica. A lot of what I do as a part of my life isn’t about finance as much as it is about using the planet respectfully. But Ben, though I like the energy of your comment, I can’t agree that this is the greatest of times or the most peaceful. America is not easy right now. Conflicting reports of the economy’s success/excess, distrust of the government, constant politization of every discussion, the tremendous increase in security measures that rob us of our privacy. You are dreaming of the fifties is you think this is peace and we are the greatest.

  17. guinness416 says:

    Wasn’t this book written twenty years ago (I may be way off base in remembering this)? The authors were quite well ahead of their time. I also find it bizarre that environmentalism is one of those black-or-white politically controversial issues in America. Where I come from, it really isn’t at this time.

  18. Kris says:

    I found I liked the environmental message much moreso than the anti-job one. Like mgroves (the first commentor), I’m weary of anti-capitalism, but having grown up on Long Island, am used to seeing really disturbing amounts of unbridled consumerism. (Really? You need a freakin’ HUMVEE to take your kids to school?)

    The more we accept being content with what we have, the better it will be for Mama Nature. I think that’s what they were trying to get across.

  19. Mariette says:

    Guinness: you’re correct, it was published in 1992 which really blew me away in reading this section, how ahead of their time they were. I found this section incredibly inspiring, but I’ve been advocating for environmental causes, organics, fair trade, lessening my footprint, etc for nearly 15 years.

    “Much of the lack and destruction in the world is more due to the corruption and violence preventing people from building and acheiving in their lives and land than to consumerism in the US.”

    Christine, while much of the destruction in the world is due to corruption and greed (like the decimation of Thailand’s teak forests or the tiger reserves in India that now have no tigers.) A lot of the destruction is caused directly by U.S. consumerism. The U.S. consumes more than 1/4 of the world’s resources (about 30%) and we only have 5% of the world population, many atrocities have been and continue to be committed in order to supply us with those resources. For example, slave labor in gold and gem mines only exists because there is a market for it that is extremely profitable, and many corrupt regimes (Liberia & Charles Taylor comes to mind) promote wars, oppression and slavery in order to harvest those products. Oil and timber also have this problem, the only reason the regime in Burma has succeeded in staying in power for so long is that the oil and timber companies prop it up so that they can continue harvesting their products.

    Whew, how was that for a rant. We can go on and on, but I think you get the point.

  20. Lilly says:

    This caught me. It just seems so interesting that when I stop, I want to keep on reading!

  21. Betty Ann says:

    I don’t think it was overbearing at all.

    I think it was totally Logical to inform people have consumerism affects the environment.

    I don’t think it was depressing except momentarily because we have the Power to fit thing by being more environmentally conscious.

    We can still have a cool home but with panels to make our own electricity and that is still being a GREAT Capitalism Nation. All businesses can still make money by being more GREEN and selling more GREEN products which might go down in cost with businesses competing for customers.

    We can consume the greener products so still are living in a Capitalism Nation. :)

    By adding those pages that is one thing that sets this book apart from other Financial Books; that we have to know our finances are part of all our choices; our time; our environment impact..etc.

    You know right now building an Environmentally friendly new home cost more than a regular home; so hard to afford one. (even with some future tax breaks)–but imagine more businesses competing the prices would go down and cost the same for material; and more would be educated on how to build such homes..

    I think that some READERS are reading into that it was supposed to be depressing and who wants to feel bad… go buy more stuff to cheer up (just joking).

  22. Jennifer says:

    I must reluctantly admit that the first time I read this book (several years ago) I found this section eye opening. As a person who spent most of her free time “shopping”, I hadn’t given much thought to my consumerist lifestyle. I no longer consider “shopping” to be one of my hobbies.

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