The Case for Getting Rich (and Saving the Planet)

By Tara McKenna

Having been in the environmental space for a while now, it seems clear to me that there’s a strong narrative that money is bad, and capitalism is evil.

I don’t disagree that there are some very rich people who make choices that are greedy and that negatively affect people and the planet (there are plenty). Similarly, the endless growth mindset of capitalism doesn’t work on a planet with finite resources. The math just doesn’t work.

But for us mere mortals who aren’t flying around in our private jets with billions in the bank, we shouldn’t ignore the importance of money and wealth. In contrast, I believe we’d be doing ourselves and the planet some huge favours if we got rich too.

Let’s get back to basics here. If we think money is bad, we need to keep in mind that money itself is simply a means to exchange goods and services. Money is a tool to exchange value.

If a baker is baking bread to sell, and you buy that bread with cash, that’s because you value the bread someone else made that you didn’t have to make. You value the bread because you need to eat to live. Simple enough, right?

In this context, money is great. It contributed to a meal you got to eat. And presumably, you offered value through some form of work to obtain the money you used to pay the baker. That’s how our economic system works.

Sure, our economic system has led to an excessive level of consumption that is destroying our ecosystems, contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss, polluting our oceans and more. The stuff that makes our heads spin and want to give up and watch Netflix.

So instead of mindlessly spending all your money on crap you don’t need, save a few bucks and get rich.

But what does it even mean to be “rich”? It’s so subjective, and there are many ways to define it that don’t include money. You can be rich with a loving family, great social life, good job, food to eat and a roof over your head. But what about money?

A common understanding of who the “rich” people are is quite often shaped by what we see on social media or TV. Images that come to mind typically include people with fancy sports cars, big houses, stellar wardrobes, and exotic vacations. That’s one way to be rich, but not the only way.

In addition, just because people have such material possessions doesn’t mean they’re wealthy. It could mean they have a lot of debt, and their lifestyle is all about appearances. Or, they have high incomes and a net worth of zero because they spend every cent they make on an expensive lifestyle (again, appearances). In the latter case, if they lost their source of income tomorrow, they’d be left with nothing because they never bothered to save and invest.

People can be wealthy at almost all income levels. Wealth simply means you pay yourself some of your income to save and invest. If you don’t think you could save or invest any of your money, then it might be time to assess your financial situation to see if you can change your expenses, your income, or both. Plus, it’s about building the habit more than saving bucketloads of your income (although that would be great too) – start small if you need to.

The point of this story is that becoming rich is good for the planet because buying less stuff means you’re consuming less (bonus for the planet), which gives you the opportunity to save, invest, and build wealth. This is great for a solid financial future.

Additionally, when you have extra money, that gives you a chance to give to important causes that improve the state of the planet, like nature conservation. There’s so much you can do with money to help other people and the environment.

Here’s a quote that I love from Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the book Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss. Ayaan is a women’s rights activist, champion of free speech, and best-selling author. In Tim’s book he asks what advice Ayaan would give to college grads.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali said: “Many students come to me full of wonderful intentions hoping to change the world; they plan to spend their time helping the poor and disadvantaged. I tell them to first graduate and make a lot of money, and only then figure out how best to help the disadvantaged... I have seen so many former students in their 30s and 40s struggling to make ends meet... It’s a well-worn cliche, but you have to help yourself before you help others. This is too often lost on idealistic students.”

It's like the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Instead, fill your cup up. Go get rich and be such an awesome person that you save the planet, too.