Build a Sustainable Life

As a young biologist and environmental scientist, I heard a lot about sustainability.  In ecology, a system is said to be sustainable when it is both diverse and productive, indefinitely.  A development project (also a system) is said to be sustainable if it is both diverse and productive, indefinitely, in terms of the environment, economy and human sociopolitical metrics.  In fact, you can apply the concept of sustainability to any system, including financial systems.  And your life, a system in and of its self.  Personally, I am finding that the more I look the more I find that the various ‘types’ of sustainability generally are interrelated and by affecting one, one can affect another.

So, I think that to build a sustainable life, in all aspects including finance,  should be our goal.  Or at least that’s how I relate to the matter and find meaning in it.  For example, I am finding that where I think about the environmental impacts of my decisions and adjust accordingly, I also end up saving money, bringing me that much closer to retirement and my own financial sustainability.  And I am not sure if anyone else has written extensively yet about emotional sustainability, but I think it is an important piece of the puzzle.  As Yuval puts it in his exploration of Buddhism in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, all people:

“…suffer…from anxiety, frustration and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseperable part of the human conditions.  People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces.  Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content.  Those who live in poverty dream of riches.  Those who have a million want two million.  Those who have two million want 10 million.  Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied.”

Gautama, the first ‘enlightened one’, or ‘Buddha’, set out to solve this puzzle and found that man suffers only in thought, and not actually in real life.  That is, man can make a hell of a heaven or a heaven of a hell, without any change in external circumstances.

“Great gods can send us rain, social institutions can provide justice and good health care, and lucky coincidences can turn us into millionaires, but none of them can change our basic mental patterns.  Hence the greatest kings are doomed to live in angst, constantly fleeing grief and anguish, forever chasing after greater pleasures.”

And there you have it folks, for millenia now Buddhism (and other old schools of thought such as Stoicism) have held the secret to an early retirement and a life of freedom!  Just keep in mind, it’s all in your head!  That is, do some calculations and figure out your goals and don’t let your emotions – such as your greedy desire to save more than you actually need or to try to spend your way to bliss – work against you.  All that will come of this is that you will work longer than you actually have to and stifle your real desire to free yourself of the reigns of your slave-to-the-dollar mentality and collective drone-people think.

“Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle.  If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering.  If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it.  There can actually be riches in the sadness.”

In the end, it all comes down to our mental patterns.  Everything.  Including our finances and the way we view our money and our work.  Gautama developed meditation techniques to attempt to train the mind to be present, focusing on questions like “What am I experiencing now?” rather than on “What would I rather be experiencing?”, and concluded that “A person who does not crave cannot suffer”.

And that is one reason why meditation is becoming more and more popular in recent years and decades in the west.  It works.  I do it in the morning for 10 minutes at least 6 days most weeks.  It helps one to prioritize, stay present and practice gratitude for what they have already.  Without it as a daily practice, I find I am scattered, daydreaming and wishing for things I don’t yet have.  As described by Harari, nothing external to us can cultivate our mental patterns, we must take charge of this our selves.

Time is as valuable as money.  I am starting to think that the right balance of the two is what makes for a good life.  So when I talk to people about my early retirement plan, and the way I believe I will be able to pay my basic bills and live a simple but good life on my eventual investment returns (assuming 7% annually) and rental income, people say things like “well that’s not very much income” or “you’re just going to spend your savings?”.

And to this I have so many thoughts and agitated responses to get off my chest!  Primarily, “no, I don’t plan to spend any of my savings except for in the case of emergencies”.  Remember, I am retiring, and intending to live off the returns of my savings and investments indefinitely.  Also, I am not really retiring.  Yes my income level may be relatively low, but I will still only be 33 and plan to find income here and there along the way, all of which goes directly to my bottom line because I will be debt-free and have enough passive income to at least cover all of my bills and basic expenses!  I believe that by creating that space in my life to explore the things that spark genuine curiosity in me, some income is likely inevitable.  Also, if I really felt the need to bump up my account, I could bear an occasional summer job here and there over the next 50 years or so of retirement.

Almost all of us can find ways we can all live on so much less than we currently do, especially when push comes to shove.  In fact I completed the Footprint Calculator again recently and learned that even when retired and living my goals of which I believe to be a very simple life, it turns out I would still be living very unsustainably, with 3.8 earths required by if everyone on the planet were to take up the same lifestyle.  It seems I still have a lot of work to do in retirement.  Oh, the irony.



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