Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

Let’s say I win the lottery, and want to use my $50 million winnings to save the planet. For example, I could fund enviro groups. I could fund political campaigns to defeat Big Oil’s congressmen. Or I could provide subsidies to buyers of electric cars. But where would I find the biggest bang for my big bucks?

Hypothetically yours,
Mark M.
Athens, Ohio

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A. Dearest Mark,

I would suggest you donate it to Grist. As it happens, we’re in the middle of a fundraising campaign, and $50 million would go a long way. (So would $5, come to think of it.) Imagine all the cruelty-free peppermint tea I could buy with that kind of cashola!

Your question is an intriguing one, and I will gladly use it as a break from discussions of dish soap and lightbulbs, not that I don’t love those too. Let’s indulge in a bit of good old-fashioned fantasizing.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What I would do with your hypothetical money, Mark, is a combination of things. First I’d take a tiny piece of it and upgrade my dwelling to make it as energy-efficient as possible. Then I’d invest another tiny piece of it in some sort of socially responsible way, creating an eco-nest egg for myself while supporting businesses that are doing the right thing. Then I’d pour myself a big glass of organic chocolate milk and look through an eco-crowdfunding site like ioby or Mosaic to find interesting and innovative ideas that need a boost. I would shy away from the ugly money games of politics and support solutions instead.

Figuring other people might like the chance to play with your Monopoly money, I reached out to a few sustainability leaders for their ideas. They all had a lot to say, and I cannot possibly do them justice in this space, so we’ve collected their full answers here.

But to paraphrase: Starting close to home, Grist’s own David Roberts offered a similar idea to mine, with a bit more focus and a bit less chocolate milk: “I would break it up into 50 $1 million chunks and seed-fund 50 different people/organizations doing work around community-based distributed energy … A little money in that area, spent strategically, could go a long way.”

José Quinoñez, executive director of Mission Asset Fund, says he would “invest every penny in funding advocacy groups that focus all of their energy on changing public policy … the only way to bend the curve on deadly emissions is to change our laws.”

Weighing in from SustainAbility, Executive Director Mark Lee offered another approach: “Like an investor trying to stay afloat while succeeding in the marketplace, I’d diversify,” he said, and laid out a plan for investing five $10 million chunks in five areas: a promising grassroots campaign; daring entrepreneurs; climate adaptation and mitigation efforts near home; conservation of biodiversity in an emerging economy; and key political battles. He would also, he added, “play The Barenaked Ladies’ ‘If I Had a Million Dollars’ 50 times.” (Remind me to stay away from Mark’s neck of the woods.)

Erika Allen, Chicago and national projects director of Growing Power, discussed the idea with her 5-year-old son: “He would buy buildings in the town and make sure everyone has a nice place to live and lots of strawberries to eat.” Erika would invest in “community food systems that are closed loop … that recirculate wealth and monetize everyone’s contributions and inputs.”

Green-investment pioneer Jack Robinson says programs focusing on human behavior are what really need a $50 million injection: “Unless and until employees, consumers, and voters integrate sustainability into all aspects of their daily lives, the planet will remain at risk.”

And Auden Schendler, VP of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of Getting Green Done, would put the money toward building a civil rights-style movement to solve climate change: “That would have much greater impact than, say, trying to fight Big Oil’s influence in politics, which laughs at your silly $50 million.”

As I said earlier, you can read everything these smart people had to say here. I’ll bet your fellow readers have even more ideas, which they will now share with us. In short, Mark, opinions on this topic are as diverse as the ideas and projects that could use our help. Too bad your windfall was a mythical one. Or was it? Call me.