Q. Dear Umbra,
I have a well paid job. Should I donate my income post-living expenses to organizations working to fight climate change instead of saving?
— Rolling-In-Cash Humanitarian
A. Dear RICH,
It’s a rare treat, when you write a climate advice column, to get to explore a dilemma between two good options. What a lucky place you’re in, and what an admirable inclination! I love when the holidays provoke feelings of goodwill and generosity, as opposed to bitterness and seasonal depression. It’s such a nice change of pace!
While I love the idea of hurling a massive stack of hundos, Hustlers-style, at the abstract existential threat we all know and hate, that fantasy starts to collapse once you start poking at it. To answer your question, we have to answer two additional questions: What counts as “organizations working to fight climate change,” and how do you figure out how much money you should be donating to them? In other words: how many hundos are in that stack, and what exactly are you throwing them at?
There is zero question that a transition to a carbon-neutral or -negative society doesn’t happen without, in technical terms, a fuckton of cash. Estimates range from a modest $300 billion to $44 trillion. Political will to address climate change is really, really important, but frankly, so is money. A criticism regularly levied against climate-forward billionaires running for president, for example, is that they could do a lot more good spending their money directly on climate initiatives than spending it on a likely ill-fated presidential campaign.
I’ve argued before that almost any job, in the right hands, can be a job that fights climate change. A similar, if not identical, argument can be applied to donations — we need all kinds of initiatives beyond installing solar panels in developing countries (although we need that, too!) Organizations that develop green, affordable housing? Yes! Groups that strengthen abortion access in climate-vulnerable areas? Bingo! Refugee resettlement agencies? Hell yeah! Good old-fashioned poverty alleviation projects? Yes ma’am!!!
And like I said, political will is really important. So donating money for the climate could mean throwing some much-needed financial resources at pro-climate candidates, particularly in swing districts.
So how do you pick a place to put your money? If you ask a proponent of effective altruism, you should treat charity as you would an investment — you want the biggest return per dollar, in terms of generating well-being of some sort. The Centre for Effective Altruism actually designs donation portfolios, mutual-fund style, to promote this type of giving.
I think that’s a very sensible choice for those who have a limited amount to give and want to get the most charitable bang for their buck. But ultimately, I think you need to follow your heart. If you’re trying to sustain giving away a really substantial proportion of your income, which is what it sounds like, you probably want to feel some sort of personal connection to what you’re giving it away to.
This brings us to the “how many hundos” portion of our program, which I’ve been quite looking forward to. Should you give away, truly, everything you can?
I’m Jewish, so I’m going to start with what I know, which is the law of tzedakah. It’s a fundamental Jewish principle that essentially translates to “charity,” but that doesn’t quite capture the obligation implied; it’s more about a duty to facilitate a more just world. It’s a God-given requirement to give away at least 10 percent of your income to support those in need, and to generally use whatever wealth you have to support the dignity and wellbeing of others.
Because the foundation of Judaism is to analyze and argue over the precise meaning of its various rules, there’s a spectrum of rabbinical opinions on just how burdensome tzedakah is supposed to be. There’s a Talmudic dictum floating around somewhere that a Jew should actually donate no more than 20 percent of her income to charitable causes, because that would be too burdensome on her life.
The debate over how much to give is also very much alive in the field of applied ethics. An idea similar to tzedakah appears in philosopher Peter Singer’s Principle of Sacrifice: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
Toby Ord, an Australian philosopher at the University of Oxford who studies morality and poverty, uses Singer’s Principle of Sacrifice to argue that anyone with some extra money has a moral imperative to help the poor. “In ages to come, when global poverty is no more, people will look back at our time and be dumbfounded by the moral paralysis of those who had the resources to help,” he writes. “For a moral theory to demand that we make large sacrifices in righting these wrongs is not too demanding, but just demanding enough.”
In 2009, Ord founded the organization Giving What We Can, which encourages people to make a habit of donating 10 percent of their incomes. I wrote to Julia Wise, the current president of Giving What We Can, which has since become a program of the Centre for Effective Altruism, to ask her opinion on your question.
“Your ability to do good is often best served by maintaining your own ability to contribute over the long term, rather than burning out quickly,” Wise responded in an email. “I do think people should consider their moral values in their budget, and that donating to effective charities can be a great way to live your values in the course of your daily life. But I think taken to an extreme (not having savings, not spending time with friends or family because that costs money), it can be counterproductive.”
You may hear “10 percent” and think, wow, that’s not very much! You’d be surprised. In the United States — which actually has a pretty thriving charitable culture relative to other rich countries, thanks to the influence of the church and other religious organizations — only about 53 percent of households donate to charity at all, and those that do give about $2,500 a year on average. That’s about 4 percent of the median American household income. Ten percent might be an impossible, life-hindering burden for a lot of families due to factors like the rising costs of housing and healthcare relative to wages. It might have no impact at all on the daily life of someone like Jeff Bezos.
Of course, we’re not just talking about daily life. You, RICH, are also talking about saving for the future. I’ll admit something a bit dark that has been plaguing my own personal budgeting process lately: Every time I contribute to my 401K, which is an embarrassingly recent practice, it’s hard to ignore a small internal voice that demands: “What is this FOR?” I have no freaking clue what the world will look like in 40 or 50 years, when I’m supposed to withdraw this money. I have no idea if money will even be useful at all! It could be a Waterworld barter economy situation!
But I think giving up on a future that I can look forward to, that I want to have some money for, dampens the will to fight for it. It might be a very simplistic way to look at saving, but I think that saving for the future and making even very abstract plans for it is an expression of optimism. It’s an action that says, “I think that the future will be OK, and I’m going to be around to enjoy it.”
And so is putting your money toward facilitating that future for everyone, in the form of whatever regular, consistent charitable giving or political donation you choose. So here’s my suggestion: Start at 10 percent of your income. Why not! Nice round number, and you were probably thinking of giving more anyway. See how that goes. See if you can live a little more simply, but not ascetically, and still put a little money away for yourself or your hypothetical children for the future. If you feel like you can give more, give more.
But as soon as you start to feel resentment toward your chosen causes, I think that that’s a sign that the amount you’re giving away is no longer sustainable. (Larissa MacFarquhar has a whole book about this, Strangers Drowning, that I recommend.) You want to balance your sense of duty with a sense of optimism for the world’s future. Without that, what is it all even for?