Chapter 18: Practical Advice for Everyone

Finally, the time you have been waiting for. I apologise for having placed this section so late in the book, but I am sure you will understand the reason for doing so. Had I not explained the premises, many of these pieces of advice would not make sense, and then I would have had to explain the reason for each one – often resulting in overly long explanations, which would have diverted the attention from the main focus. But now you have all the tools, and the correct mindset to evaluate them critically, and they should make sense right away. In fact, you might have thought of some of them yourself as you were reading before, and this list will be a nice summary that organises your thoughts clearly and concisely.

1.1 Need Less, Live More

The richest person is not the one who has the most, but the one who needs the least.”

– Anonymous

The economy is evolving rapidly, automation is replacing human workers, more so every day. Unemployment is rising, and even those who still have a job are potentially in jeopardy. In a situation like this, very few are safe. So what choices do you have?

Self help books typically focus on how to maximise your income. Some of them are useful, more of them are hogwash. If you are lucky enough to pick from the good pile, and you dedicate a great deal of time and effort, you might be able to succeed (luck and serendipity also play a major role in the process). The advice offered mainly revolves around the following points: build a strong network of connections and high level friendships, be flexible and self-employed, and learn how to market yourself. That's it! Typically you will read 400 pages on how to do that, and then you try it out. While this might work for some people – because it does work in certain cases – I see several problems with this approach when talking to a larger public. First of all, it does not scale. The very nature of the system does not allow everyone to be successful. It is a logical, as well as mathematical, impossibility.

Suppose everyone became well connected, street smart, and learned how to market themselves really well. What would happen? Since the system requires you to have a competitive advantage over someone else in order to succeed, those who want to excel will have become even more street smart, and develop even more sophisticated marketing techniques. These people will then gravitate towards each other, like more massive bodies in the universe attracting one another, creating a new elitist network of even stronger connections. It is a never-ending cycle, where the winners are always very few, by design. This is not a bad thing per se, a meritocracy revolves around this very idea that if you are better at doing something than someone else, you will excel in that area, and your accomplishments will be recognised. I do not see a problem with that, if you want to take it to the next level. The problem is that we are not even at the most basic level. There are millions of people in highly developed countries, and billions in the developing world, who do not have access to the necessities required to live a healthy and decent life. Which brings us to the other impossibility.

Should you dedicate your life to becoming more financially successful, thus ensuring your ability to pursue your dreams? Or should you stop chasing the unachievable dream of success, strip yourself of the material goods, and live a life of austerity? Might there be a third way, one that takes the best of both? Is it possible for everyone to live a happy life, while pursuing their dreams? It is difficult to say.

The Greeks spoke of virtue (Latin: ‘virtus’, Greek: – ‘arete’), a sort of moral excellence which valued as a foundation ‘a principled and good moral being’, thereby promoting collective and individual greatness. In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined a virtue as a balanced point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. The point of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but at a golden mean, sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, confidence the mean between self-deprecation and vanity, and generosity the mean between miserliness and extravagance. To find the golden mean requires common-sense, not necessarily high intelligence. In Aristotle’s sense, virtue is excellence at being human, a skill that helps a person survive, thrive, form meaningful relationships, and find happiness. Learning virtue is usually difficult at first, but becomes easier with practice over time until it becomes a habit.1

There is an idea, which takes inspiration from Aristotle’s philosophy, that is slowly finding its way around think tanks, activist groups, and communities all around the world. The idea is that instead of trying to make more and more money or to abandon money altogether, we should try finding the golden mean by reducing the need for money in the first place.

This usually causes much misunderstanding, so let me be as clear as possible. Being rich is a relative concept. If you make $100,000 a year, but you have $120,000 of expenses, you are relatively poor. That is, you are poor relative to the amount of money to feel comfortable with what you need. If, on the other hand, you make $40,000 (most people2 do3 ), but your expenses fluctuate around $30,000, you are indeed relatively rich. Reducing your need for money does not mean that you have to live a life of sacrifice, and give up the things you like. On the contrary. You do not have to constantly feel bad about what you doing. You do not have to take a u-turn and flip your life overnight. You can do the things you enjoy, and in some cases much more, with less. You can live a life of virtue, in the Greek sense, a life of greatness and fulfilment, without having to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, and without giving yourself over to a life of austerity.

Some people refer to this as downshifting, and the idea is pretty straightforward. Live simpler lives, escape from the rat race of obsessive materialism and reduce the stress, overtime, and psychological expense that typically go along with it. It is possible to find an improved balance between leisure and work, focusing life goals on personal fulfilment and relationship building instead of the all-consuming pursuit of economic success. There is no need for dramatic or sudden changes that may jeopardise your stability, you can start with simple things, make a plan, build upon that, and see yourself living a better, more fulfilling, and happier life.

It sounds like an impossible win-win scenario, so what is the catch? The catch is that there is no silver bullet. No formula that will work for everyone. And most importantly, nobody that will give you a precise list of instructions that you just have to follow.

Not all of us can be physicists, biologists, computer scientists, biotechnologists. You have to find out what your strengths are, what you love to do, and how that can sustain you. We cannot all be mathematical geniuses or musical prodigies, but we can all find something that we are good at and that we enjoy doing. To achieve a life of virtue, full of passion and interest, while ensuring that you have enough to go by, you have to be smart and take a look at all the possibilities that come before you. And to do that you start by studying and learning new things, and expanding your horizons.

1.2 Educate Yourself

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

– Chinese Proverb4

This old Chinese proverb has been true for thousands of years. But given the recent massive decline in fish stocks,5 I think it needs some adjustments. So here is my updated version:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a little more. Teach him how to be a problem solver, and he can face any challenge that lies ahead of him.

Whatever list of things to do I can come up with, it will never solve your life’s problems by itself. It can be a good starting point, an inspiration, but situations are constantly changing, evolving, and the only way to keep pace with the world is to educate yourself to be a critical thinker and a problem solver.

Education has always been of great interest to me. I remember very vividly when I was at school, starting from primary, all the way to high school. It was one of the most painful periods of my life. I remember the utter boredom of sitting at my desk, listening to uninspiring lessons, learning series of rules, memorising numbers and words, looking at the clock, waiting for the pain to end, when it finally turned 16:30 and I could go home. But it was not always like that.

My mother is a librarian. When I was in kindergarten, she used to take me to the public library where she worked, until she finished her shift. There I was, sitting at the desk, with nobody around to tell me what to do, or how I should do it. I had the chance to pick up books of all sorts, well before I was able to read. My mom told me that, from a very early age, I was fascinated by science books. I was looking at drawings of atoms and electromagnetic fields, pictures of all species of animals, stars and galaxies, mechanical devices, dinosaurs, and all sorts of other interesting things. I do not remember much, but she said that, as far back as she can remember, I wanted to know about the world and explore all branches of knowledge. My enthusiasm and fascination for our universe were insatiable. Then, the time came for me to go to school, and I was hit in the face, like a bus at full speed crushing into a brick wall. I could not understand why the teachers could not – or more probably did not want to – answer my questions. But most of all, I could not believe that they were not even interested in what they were teaching! I tried, and tried, and tried, and…nothing. Disappointment preceded surrender.

I was considered a strange kid. I was always wondering about what the biggest animal was, how did we know there were dinosaurs 60 million years ago, and not 2 million, or 10 million (this was well before the film Jurassic Park come out), why were elephants so big, why did spiders have eight legs instead of six, how could the hummingbird fly and how fast did it flap its wings, why and how did planets form? To my teachers, these were irrelevant questions. I did not have to know the answer to them in order to pass the tests. They were not in the curricula. So why did I bother so much wanting to know more?

The frustration reached the point where I just gave up on the school system, and continued researching on my own. I did not leave school, though. I did as I was told to do and mostly shut up during the lessons, as required. But I diverted all my efforts in researching and studying on my own things that were outside the state requirements. I devoured every edition of the Guinness book of records and The World Factbook. I simply could not stop. It felt as if I were being attracted to the data, as if an invisible force was pushing me towards it. It was only later in life that I realised how to make sense of this information, how to challenge and verify its authenticity, how to contextualise it. It was not something that anybody taught me, I had to learn it the hard way.

Now, this was before the Internet became a widespread phenomenon. When I think of the immense effort that I had to put in in order to know and understand just a little more, and I compare it to how easy it is today, it simply blows my mind! What required dozens of hours of painful research, often through non-interactive and quite unattractive books, is now available in seconds, often in videos, lectures, and conferences held by the most amazing thinkers of our time. A poor kid in Uganda has access to more knowledge than the president of the United States did 30 years ago. Such a dramatic change has no precedent in human history. The invention of the printing press is a pallid, almost insignificant event in comparison. Today, it is possible to receive a world-class education, where the best teachers, coming from the most prestigious universities in the world, teach any subject, for free. This is such a mind blowing and revolutionary thought that I am surprised so few people are aware of it.

iTunes is installed on more than 400 million computers worldwide,6 yet when I talk to people about it, very few know that it can be used for something other than music and films. On May 30, 2007, Apple announced the launch of iTunesU, which delivers university lectures from the major universities around the world, for free. These are high quality video lectures, often the same that you would get from a $200,000 degree, only that you can watch them at home, or on the bus, pause them, re-view them, and they do not cost anything. The materials are collected from a variety of locations around the world, including colleges, universities, museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions of educational value. There are currently more than 100,000 files available for download, from Oxford, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge…There are literally hundreds of them. This approach was pioneered by OpenCourseWare, a cultural movement that started in 1999 in Germany, and took off when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched its MIT OpenCourseWare in October 2002. Since then it has been reinforced by the launch of similar projects at Yale, Michigan University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Similar institutes in Japan and China developed, and it quickly spread all over the planet. MIT’s reasoning behind OCW was to ‘enhance human learning worldwide by the availability of a web of knowledge’.7

This immense potential offered by this remains largely untapped in my opinion, even though things are quickly changing. The reason for this is the lack of personal motivation to follow the courses on the part of potential learners, as well as the difficulty of the material.

Now a new player has come in, and it has already started to change the game. It was the late 2004, when Salman Khan was discussing with his little cousin Nadia about the nature of the universe and other things like that. Nadia struck him as a highly intelligent young girl, who was ready to begin a career in the sciences in the near future. When he said that to her parents, they were startled, because the girl has been struggling with some basic math at school. Sal could not believe what he just heard. How could someone who was tackling highly sophisticated issues struggle with basic math? Something was wrong with the school system. He began tutoring her over the Internet, and that proved to be very effective. When other relatives and friends sought his tutelage, he decided it would be more practical and beneficial to distribute the tutorials on YouTube. It was November 16, 2006. At the time he was a Hedge Fund analyst, making quite a lot of money, and in the process of becoming a very successful businessman.

Money, power, stability. What more could anyone ask for?

Purpose. Sal was still working at his job during the day, while recording micro-lectures for his relatives at night. Suddenly other people began to watch them. More and more. And they started writing to him as well. One day he received this letter:

“Mr. Khan,

No teacher has ever done me any good – this may sound harsh but I mean it quite literally. I was force fed medication to keep me from talking and chastised for not speaking out when called on. Where I am from blacks are not welcomed with open arms into schools – my mother and her sisters had to go to a small shack two hours from home when they went to school. About five years ago my family collected enough money to move from where i was born, so that I could have a chance at having an education and living a real life. But without a real mastery of elementary math I was slow to progress.

I am now in college and learning more than I ever have in my life. But an inadequate math background has been holding me back. I found the Kahn Academy in June of 2009, right after I completed Math 141 (a college algebra course). I have spent the entire summer on your youtube page. And I just wanted to thank you for everything you are doing. You are a Godsend. Last week I tested for a math placement exam and I am now in Honors Math 200. No question was answered incorrectly. My placement test holder was so impressed by the breadth of my knowledge of math that he said I should be in Linear algebra.

Mr. Khan, I can say without any doubt that you have changed my life and the lives of everyone in my family”.

A few days after that, Sal quit his job to work on the ’Khan Academy’ full-time ( ). The conscience and the realisation that you are helping other people, building an “emphatic civilisation”,8 based on the sharing of scientific knowledge, for the betterment of humankind; that is something worth waking up for in the morning. “With so little effort on my own part, I can empower an unlimited amount of people for all time. I can’t imagine a better use of my time.” – said Sal. The mission of the academy is nothing less than to “provide a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”.

I bet you remember those times back in college, when you and your friends tried to figure out the intuition behind a concept, or how to solve a specific problem. It would take hours, a bunch of minds working non-stop to find a solution, and a considerable number of headaches, when finally somebody screams ‘Eureka!’ (or ‘Fuck yeah!’, in many cases). The person then explains the solution to the riddle to everyone else, which typically takes no more than 10 minutes. Would it not be great if you could just skip the four hours and have the teacher explain it in an intuitive and practical manner in minutes? I thought it was a mere dream, until I saw Sal’s videos.

The whole story is absurd and fascinating at the same time. One guy who takes on MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, becoming more popular and appreciated than those established institutions throughout the world? One person who wants to build the biggest online school, centre for reason, art and science, by himself? Yep, apparently he is really doing it!

It?s been a couple of years since I decided I wanted to learn chemistry. When I discovered MIT OpenCourseWare and iTunesU I was blown away. Lessons from Stanford, Harvard and MIT recorded, available for free on the internet? Wow. “I need to take some time off to learn a ton of subjects”, I thought. But of course, that time never came. I got back from work at 8pm, feeling exhausted, and while I enjoyed keeping my brain working, I usually watched a TED talk or a conference from the Singularity University, but it was too difficult to try to follow a course on Quantum Entanglement or Biochemistry at 11pm. With Sal’s videos, in their 13-minute format, I could enjoy learning at any time of the day –at a lunch break, on the train, after dinner, you name it.

The concepts are easy, very well presented, and I cannot stress this enough, they are intuitive. I have always been interested in why something happens, how does it work, what makes it work, what are the conditions under which it does not, and so on. Anybody can apply a formula, especially computers. But can you derive the formula? Can you explain how they came up with it? With the advent of Wolfram Alpha,9 it becomes clear that doing mechanical calculations by hand is pretty much obsolete nowadays. What matters most is the idea, the concept, the intuition.

I immediately started to follow the chemistry lessons from Khan Academy, and I felt the excitement of discovery and understanding every time I watched one of those videos. It all seems quite strange, but it makes a whole lot of sense if you contextualise it. The exponential growth of information technology and the advent of the free software movement has lead to a groundbreaking shift in our mental paradigm. Information is ever more accessible, reliable, and most of all free to all. GNU, Linux, Creative Commons, Wikipedia, OpenCourseWare, and now the Khan academy. It is a logical consequence of the exponential growth of technology and culture.

Sal expressed his desire to teach as many subjects as possible. As of now (mid 2012), there are more then 3,200 lectures, spanning mathematics, history, healthcare and medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, microeconomics, and computer science. And it is basically just him teaching (although it is expanding rapidly with new great teachers). Surely the question must have crossed your mind: ‘Who is this guy? What qualifies him to teach such a variety of subjects?’. Sal was valedictorian of his high school class and attained a perfect score in the math portion of his SATs. He has a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, another Bachelor in electrical engineering and computer science, and a Master of Science in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As if that was not enough, he also holds a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School. And he did all that before turning 32. He knows what he is talking about.

I wrote about the Khan Academy back in 2009, when (almost) nobody knew of it. Now, it?s the biggest school in the history of humanity. It has already delivered 150 million lectures to millions of students worldwide. And it?s just warming up. It received millions of dollars in donations from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and the O’Sullivan Foundation. It was featured on CNN, PBS, CBS, TED, and Charlie Rose, just to name a few. It is expanding and improving every day. It?s being translated in more than 40 languages, and they expect to completely cover the 10 most spoken languages in just a few years. There are some schools running trials to see if this approach can be integrated in the classical learning environment. The preliminary results are astounding. Rather than rendering the teachers obsolete, it actually helps them become better mentors, leaving more time to do one-to-one, real-life interaction with students. Students can learn on their own, at home, and then have more productive time in school, by doing exercises together, solidifying their knowledge, or by teaching each other what they just learned. In Sal’s words:

“This could be the DNA for a physical school where students spend 20% of their day watching videos and doing self-paced exercises and the rest of the day building robots or painting pictures or composing music or whatever.”10

So the teacher becomes more of a mentor, a guide, rather than an authority figure. They have a dashboard of all of their students, they can see what they are working on, how well they are doing, and intervene only when students are struggling on a specific topic.

Sounds incredible? Amazing?! Too good to be true? So what?s the catch? It seems unbelievable, but there is no catch. Khan Academy is free. The lessons are in Creative Commons. The code for the website and the platform is completely Open Source. You can learn at your own pace. You can choose to follow only the subjects you like, or you can follow the suggested path. You can even ask your school to integrate it. Or you can use it on you own, then go to school and kick ass anyway. The lessons are fun, easy, and very intuitive. They are expanding rapidly, and improving every day.

What is missing from this picture? Two things: the lack of academic achievements, and the difficulty of teaching the arts and humanities through this medium. But I see none of them as an obstacle. As we have seen, things are evolving rapidly. Anything that is touched by exponentially expanding technologies follows the curve of accelerating change.11 The educational system will have to adjust itself to realities like the Khan Academy, not the other way around. The reason parents send their children to school is not to learn (sadly), but to earn a degree, which will make it easier for them to find a job. And this equation is no longer true. As Dale J. Stephens, Michael Ellsberg, and many others have pointed out, traditional education is overrated, and what makes you competitive in the workforce is not necessarily your academic achievements. Sure, having a Ph.D. from Stanford helps, but it is not a sufficient requirement for success anymore. If your goal is to go and work at Google, PayPal, Microsoft, or any other of those technology giants, then soon achieving proficiency on the Khan Academy may look more palatable than a degree from a traditional institution. Smart universities understand this, and they are reforming pretty quickly. MIT just launched MITx, which offers a portfolio of MIT courses for free to a virtual community of learners around the world. It will also enhance the educational experience of its on-campus students, offering them online tools that supplement and enrich their classroom and laboratory experiences. With a small fee, people who follow the online course can also receive a valid certificate from MIT.

Last autumn, I took part in one of the first experiments of massive online learning, when Sebastian Thrun, Peter Norving, and Andrew Ng launched the Stanford courses on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. They were still rough experiments, with ups and downs, but the results were incredible nonetheless. Hundreds of thousand of people participated in these 10-week courses, which were more or less like the ones that regular Stanford students followed. In the end, if you were good and did your homework right (all through automated software), in addition to having acquired a solid knowledge and understanding of a sophisticated and useful subject, you also received a statement of accomplishment, that you can put in your curriculum. The nice thing is that you followed the course week by week, and you had a class of thousands of people to work with, ask questions, and discuss the lessons and exercises with. It was a wonderful experience. Sebastian Thrun was so excited that he decided to leave his Professorship at Stanford and dedicate his time to teach to millions of students worldwide, for free ( ). Sounds familiar?

The approach by Andrew Ng inspired many others, who are now teaching under the umbrella of a non-profit called ‘Coursera’, with high level subjects such as Model Thinking, Natural Language Processing, Game Theory, Probabilistic Graphical Models, Cryptography, Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Software as a Service, Computer Vision, Computer Science, Machine Learning, Human-Computer Interaction, Making Green Buildings, Information Theory, Anatomy, and Computer Security. Needless to say, this is just the beginning. It is the natural evolution of education when combined with technology. Embrace change, or die.

So, how does this apply to you? How does this help you? In case you haven?t noticed, this is your winning ticket. You can become an expert, or at least have access to the tools that will allow you to become an expert, at almost anything, for free. Soon there will be high quality courses on molecular engineering, nanotechnology, sustainable technologies for the production of energy, food, houses, anything really. Education will be ever more relevant, easy, engaging, and most of all, free. Today, the best investment you can make is in yourself.

The tools of creativity are in everybody’s hands, and they are becoming increasingly easier and more accessible. You have an opportunity that nobody else has ever had in human history.

Carpe diem.

1.3 Educate Others

Now, what good is saving yourself, if everyone else fails? Don?t keep this knowledge to yourself, share it with as many people as you can! Don?t think of it in terms of getting a competitive advantage for yourself. That is the old, myopic vision of self-interest. The more people become educated and know about these things, the more they can help in solving the challenges that we all face. Happiness is found in sharing, and sharing leads to incredible discoveries. I see a day, not so far way, when people will be judged not by their ability to outsmart others, but by their ability to help others. Not by their ability to be the best students, but by their ability to be the best teachers.

That?s a world truly worth living in!

1.4 Grow Your Own Food

This one is so obvious it almost makes me feel stupid to say it. Food is a form of energy, possibly the most important form of energy. It?s what our body runs on. But it?s also a form of power. Growing your own food is not just a leisure activity, or a hobby. It?s about taking the power back into your own hands. Roger Doiron calls this a Subversive Plot, one that instead of being about secrecy promotes openness and sharing. It?s a plot that does not benefit the few at the expenses of the many, but one that empowers each individual, and when we put all together we are all safer, healthier, and more independent. There are several advantages in keeping a personal garden, I will just list a few of them here.

  • Improve your health (and your family’s). Studies have shown that most of our illnesses are caused by bad diets and bad food. Not only is eating more fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy, but if you grow them yourself your children are twice as likely to eat healthier as well.12
  • Save money. This goes without saying. Food prices have gone up significantly in the last years, and are likely to go up in the future. Why? Because it takes at least 10 calories of oil (equivalent) for each calorie of food we produce. Oil prices have gone up, and they can only go up from now on. Homegrown food can be an excellent supplement to your groceries, and in a typical family of four you can save up to $3,000 or more (the exact amount depends on a variety of factors).
  • Reduce your environmental impact. This may not be of interest to all of you, but it should be. Consider that the ecosystems are all connected, and we all depend upon them. Even if you do not care about the environment per se, you should at least know that neglecting it will eventually hit you in the face. Try not to use chemical pesticides and fertilisers, there are many internet websites with great guides on how to use natural systems at their best, with minimum effort and maximum results (see permaculture), even if you live in the city (urban agriculture, hydroponics/aquaponics gardens).
  • Enjoy outdoor life. Planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting are a great way to get some physical activity. Gardening also helps you relax and have time to think or let your mind wonder.
  • Community and family time. Having a garden is a rewarding activity. It can be a great way to spend some time with your kids, and do something useful at the same time. Likewise, if you have friends who do not have a backyard and cannot grow their own food, share your garden! It will also give you a chance to share your produce with your neighbours, help each other out, and start rebuilding a sense of community.
  • Enjoy food that tastes better. The freshest food you can have is that one that you pick yourself. When you go to the supermarket, the food that hit the shelves has been produced far away, harvested, packed, shipped, moved via trucks, airplanes, trains, boats, containers (oil, oil, oil). How long has it been sitting there before you picked it up? A day? A week? A month? Where has it been exactly? Where was it stored? What did they put in to make it look so flawless (and often tasteless)? Believe me, when you grab that fruit or veggie that you grew yourself and take a good juicy bite, you will know that you made the right choice.
  • Stop being a slave to the food companies. Need I say more?

1.5 Eat Less Meat

This point is often misunderstood, as it carries a lot of emotional baggage, both from the pro and the against-meat side of the debate. I do not want to pick either. I am making a purely analytical statement based on simple physics and biology.

The physics. Producing lots of meat and using it as the primary source of food is highly inefficient. Intensive livestock production requires large quantities of harvested feed. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “Ranching-induced deforestation is one of the main causes of loss of some unique plant and animal species in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America as well as carbon release in the atmosphere.’? It further states that “Expanding livestock production is one of the main drivers of the destruction of tropical rain forests in Latin America, which is causing serious environmental degradation in the region.’? An earlier FAO study found that 90% of deforestation is caused by unsustainable agricultural practices. Logging and plantation forestry, though not as major contributors to deforestation, play a greater role in forest degradation.13

Raising animals for human consumption accounts for approximately 40% of the total amount of agricultural output in industrialised countries today and livestock is the world’s largest land user. Grazing occupies 26% of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface, and feed crop production uses about one third of all arable land.14 At a global scale, it has been estimated that livestock contribute, directly and indirectly, to about 9% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of methane emissions and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions.15 Just to give you a sense of the proportions involved, the production of 1 kg of wheat requires about 1 tonne of water. To produce to same amount of beef, we need more than 15 tonnes of water.16 Not to mention other negative externalities of meat production, such as the loss of biodiversity and loss of local livestock breeds, the production and dissemination of antibiotic-resistant and pathogenic bacteria in animals and food, the release of naturally-occurring and synthetic hormones, ectoparasiticides and derivatives, the accumulation of heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants.

The biology. Excessive meat consumption (particularly red meat) has been linked to many health problems, such as colon cancer,17 oesophageal, lung, pancreatic and endometrial cancer,18 breast cancer,19 stomach cancer,20 lymphoma,21 bladder cancer,22 lung cancer,23 various cardiovascular diseases,24 diabetes,25 obesity,26 hypertension and arthritis.27

I think that is quite enough.

The conclusion. Does this mean we should all become vegan? No. From the ethical perspective there is an intense debate going on which people will hold different views on, so I will leave it at that. Furthermore, even given the evidence above, there is absolutely no consensus around the fact that ‘meat is bad’ per se. The physical and biological evidence simply suggests that overproduction and overconsumption of meat is not such a great idea. Then, in addition to the physical reality, there is also the human aspect. Many people like to eat meat. Lots of delicacies in cuisines from all around the world have meat in their dishes. Should we be expected to willingly (or worse, forcefully) cast all of that aside and start living the vegan way? I propose a more common sense approach. Why don?t we try to just reduce meat consumption? It puts less strain on the environment, and it is healthier for us. You do not have to abandon meat altogether, just try not to eat it 14 times per week. Maybe start with 10, then eventually go to 5, or 2. See how it goes. Experiment. It does not have to feel like a sacrifice. Just try it out, and if you really cannot live without two meals of meat a day, then so be it. If, on the other hand, you find yourself living just as well, but with half or a fraction of the amount of meat you used to consume, then even better! You will live healthier, help the environment, and save some money too!

1.6 Hungry, Hungry, Houses (Save Energy)

When people talk about energy problems and their solutions these days, they associate it with renewable energy. The widespread idea is that the only problem is the source (hydrocarbon, which is very limited and takes a long time to form), and that if we just switched to solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass, biofuel, tidal, or wave (which are renewable) then we would all be OK.

It is a bit like saying that if a barrel is leaking water because it has more holes than Swiss cheese, the solution is to pump more water in.

barrel comic

Figure 1.1: A comic strip I did back in 2009 for Blog Action Day.

Making energy from renewable resources in your own house is great, but before you even start thinking about that, you should take care of big elephant in the room. Most of the energy we use is actually wasted. And I am not talking about the kids keeping the lights on around the house (although it?s better not to do that). Yes, we should not waste tap water when brushing our teeth, but compare that to the amount of drinkable water we waste every time we flush the toilet and the teeth-cleaning saving looks just laughable. Energy is wasted in heating, bad insulation systems, old appliances, bad designs, bad habits, and most of all bad thinking. Why would you install 10kw of solar photovoltaics, when you could retrofit your house first, and then need only a fraction of those?

Buildings are the ultimate end-users for 68% of coal and 55% of natural gas in the United States. There is a huge opportunity to mitigate fossil fuel consumption in this sector, and it has yet to be exploited. Also, consider that energy is not just electricity or oil. Water is energy, and by cutting your water consumption in half you need half the amount of gas to heat, half the electricity to move the pumps. We do not think about it in that way, but everything is connected, and everything that moves needs energy. Ceteris paribus, retrofitting is always cheaper and more efficient than simply switching to another source of energy. That means it has a greater return of investment, it costs less, and saves more. There are a million things you do, but here are just a few:

  • LED lightbulbs. They are less energy hungry, they do not contain toxic chemicals, and they last longer. And for those who love the yellowish “old style” feeling, they come in colours, too.
  • High efficiency household appliances. In the EU they have classes A++ and A+++, in the United States they are certified by the Energy Star. They really save a lot of energy.
  • Programmable thermostats that make use of Artificial Intelligence software. These beauties can save up to 50% of your annual consumption (the Nest is a good example of such a system.28 ).
  • Hot water heater ‘blanket’. Newer heaters have relatively high insulation, so to see if an Insulation Blanket is right for you, just put your hand on the outside of the heater. If it feels warm, then you can save money by wrapping it.29
  • Standby power reduction. Save money with a few ’smart’ power strips for your electronics where it is convenient. They automatically sense the sleep mode, shut off phantom loss and also shut off any ’associated’ electronics that you plug into the same strip.30
  • Reduce water use by installing aerators and low-flow shower heads (again, another 50% savings).

A conservative estimate says that the tuneups listed above have an average payback time of one year or less, a return of investment of 100%, and when combined can give you annual savings of more than a $1,000. That is, every year. And with rising costs of electricity, gas, and water, savings can only increase.

You can get creative and find many other ideas, and there is a plethora of websites run by enthusiasts dedicated to home retrofitting. Green And Save has an excellent table with all kinds of retrofitting (tuneups, remodelling, advanced systems), complete with payback time, added cost, annual savings, 10-year savings, and return of investment.31 Then, if you want to get serious you can do deep energy retrofitting that makes use of integrative design32 , starting with insulating your walls, roof, basements, ducts, and replacing windows. This can take more time and money upfront, but it will prove itself in the long run, not just in saving but also in the quality of your home.

Remember that you do not have to do everything at once, and you do not have to do everything. Be smart and make use of the right technologies according to your living and environmental conditions, your house design, and your habits. According to the Green and Save simulation, if you did all the tune-ups, remodelling and advanced systems retrofitting, for an investment cost of $86,000 you can save up to $300,000 in 20 years. Of course your house will be slightly different, and you might want to choose to do only a few fixes, but it gives you a sense of proportion. Table 1.1 is a summary of the Return of Investment Tables.

Green Tune-ups
Payback Time Added cost

Annual savings

10-year savings ROI
1.2 years $1,320


$11,360 96.5%
Green remodel
Payback Time Added cost

Annual savings

10-year savings ROI
4.2 years $15,814


$43,480 26.8%
Green advanced systems
Payback Time Added cost

Annual savings

20-year savings ROI
8.7 years $69,590


$182,170 11.8%

Table 1.1: Summary of house retrofit savings.

1.7 Make Your Own Energy

Energy independence used to be very hard. Today, it seems like a crime not doing it. While the cost of fossil fuels has gone up, the cost of renewable technologies has drastically fallen.

Solar is already cheaper than nuclear33 , and in some places (like Italy and Spain) it will become cheaper than oil starting next year, possibly even without incentives34 (with incentives this becomes an even easier task35 ). Solar is an exponentially growing technology, where we consistently observe a drop in costs and a rise in efficiency.36 Depending on where you live, hot water solar panels have a payback time of 4-10 years, photovoltaics of 6-12 years, and hot air collectors of 1-2 years. Consider that these technologies operate at a minimum of 80% their original efficiency up until 30 years of use (they have a warranty), but even after that period they still work, just slightly less efficiently. Also, solar photovoltaics drop in cost by about half every two years, it already became incredibly cheap compared to what it was just five years ago, and it will continue to improve.

There are heat pumps, wind turbines, various systems of microgeneration and a myriad of technologies available to help you generate the energy you need. But remember, that has to be the last step of the way. Energy saving should be your first priority, energy production comes afterwards.

The most important form of energy is that of our brains. Use it wisely.

1.8 Ditch the Car

Having a car is convenient. You can use it whenever you want, move around with ease, do long trips, go to work, hang around with friends. Life would not be the same without a car. If you live in a rural area, you do not really have a choice, as without a car you are stuck in the middle of nowhere. However, if you live in the city (most people do), owning a car may be more of a hassle than a convenience. Here are a few reasons why you should consider not owning a car:

  • Saving money. You may associate the cost of the car with the cost of gas prices. Given that they rise every single day, just this fact should make you wonder if keeping a car is really worth it, but in fact there are many other things to consider. Payment, repair, maintenance, insurance, depreciation…the true cost of owning a car is something between $5,000 and $15,000 annually (depending on the car, the location, and its usage).37 That?s a lot of money. Think about how much you could save by using a combination of public transport, bicycle, walking, and the occasional car rental whenever needed.
  • Reduce accidents. If you tried to license a technology that injures 1.6 million people and kills another 40,000 every year in Europe alone, they’d never let you open your business. Yet that is exactly what car accidents do.38 Things will change when self-driving cars become ubiquitous, but then again, by that time almost nobody will need to own a car. Why go through all the hassle, when you can just call the closest automated car with your cellphone, hop in, and let it drive you around? Payments can be done automatically with the phone, cars will be operating at maximum efficiency, at a fraction of the cost.
  • Cleaner air. Until we switch to fully electric cars, powered by all-renewable energies, cars will pollute. The more people use them, the less liveable the city is.It?s as simple as that.
  • Rediscover your community. Research has shown a direct correlation between the amount of traffic on a street and the number of neighbours people know by name. The fewer cars there are, the more likely people are to spend time outside their front doors. If you want to get to know people in your area, walk.39
  • Avoid traffic and stress. Particularly useful in rush hours, using a bike can save you a considerable amount of time, not to mention stress.
  • Be healthier. In 2010, the CDC reported higher numbers once more, counting 35.7% of American adults as obese, and 17% of American children.40 As of February 2012 experts predict that over half the United States population will be obese in just 3 years compared to a 1/3 of the United Kingdom who could be obese by 2020.41 Walking, cycling, running, skating, whatever you decide, will make you healthier. Not just that, but you will be saving a hell of a lot of money in health care (medicines, visits, surgery and who knows what as a consequence of neglecting your body). ou might not even need to go to the gym, which again saves you more money.

If you really need a car for special circumstances, you can always resort to carsharing, a very popular system that is growing rapidly around the world. Carsharing is different from a typical rental services and offers many advantages, as it is not limited by office hours; reservation, pickup, and return is all self-service; vehicles can be rented by the minute, by the hour, as well as by the day; locations are distributed throughout the service area, and often located for access by public transportation; insurance and fuel costs are included in the rates. Many parallel system have evolved out of this idea, such as peer-to-peer car rental system in Germany, The Netherlands, the UK, the US, Canada, Spain, and Slovenia.42

Of course there is the good old carpooling, which is now much easier thanks to the Internet and mobile apps. There are many websites that help you find a ride, you can even choose the kind of person you would like to share the car with, based on your tastes in music, movies, art, or sports. And, why not, you could even find your partner in this way!


1 Virtue. Wikipedia.

2 Average Salary In United States.

3 National Average Wage Index. The United States Social Security Administration.

4 Regrettably, the origin of this quote is unknown, although it is generally cited as being Chinese. Over the years, the quote has been misattributed to Confucius, Lao Tzu, Laozi, and Guan Zhong. This is a Chinese Proverb, which loosely means “It is better to teach someone how to do something than to do it for them”.

5 Decline in fish stocks, 1999. World Resources Institute.

6 iPhone 5 announcement: 3 important things to watch, 2012. MSN Finance.

7 Why MIT decided to give away all its course materials via the Internet, C. M. Vest, 2004. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 50(21), B20.

8 See The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Jeremy Rifkin, 2009. Tarcher.

9 Wolfram Alpha is an online service that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data, rather than providing a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer as a search engine might. The goal is to “make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.”

10 College 2.0: A Self-Appointed Teacher Runs a One-Man ‘Academy’ on YouTube, Jeffrey R. Young, 2010. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

11 Accelerating change. Wikipedia.

12 Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

13 FAO – Cattle ranching is encroaching on forests in Latin America, 2005. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

14 Ethics and Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific (ECCAP) Project, Robert A. Kanaly, Lea Ivy O. Manzanero, Gerard Foley, Sivanandam Panneerselvam, Darryl Macer, 2010. Working Group 13 Report, Energy Flow, Environment and Ethical Implications for Meat Production.

15 Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, H. Steinfeld et al, 2006. Livestock, Environment and Development. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

16 Water footprints of nations, AK Chapagain, AY Hoekstra, 2004. Value of Water Research Report Series (UNESCO-IHE) 6.

17 Eating Lots of Red Meat Linked to Colon Cancer. American Cancer Society.

18 Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, 2007. World Cancer Research Fund. p. 116.

19 Breast Cancer Risk Linked To Red Meat, Study Finds, Rob Stein, 2006. The Washington Post.

20 Study Links Meat Consumption to Gastric Cancer. National Cancer Institute.

21 Study links red meat to some cancers. CNN.

22 Associations between diet and cancer, ischemic heart disease, and all-cause mortality in non-Hispanic white California Seventh-day Adventists. The American journal of clinical nutrition 70 (3 Suppl): 532S-538S.

23 Lung cancer risk and red meat consumption among Iowa women, M. C. R. Alavanja et al, 2011. Lung Cancer 34.1. pp. 37-46.

24 Relationship between meat intake and the development of acute coronary syndromes: the CARDIO2000 case-control study, Kontogianni et al, 2007. European journal of clinical nutrition 62.2. pp. 171-177.

25 Dietary Fat and Meat Intake in Relation to Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Men, R.M. Van Dam, W. C. Willett, E.B. Rimm, M. J. Stampfer, F. B. Hu, 2002. Diabetes Care 25 (3).

26 Meat consumption is associated with obesity and central obesity among US adults, Y. Wang, M. A. Beydoun, 2009. International Journal of Obesity 33 (6). pp. 621-628.

27 Dietary risk factors for the development of inflammatory polyarthritis: evidence for a role of high level of red meat consumption, D.J. Pattison et al, 2004. Arthritis & Rheumatism 50.12. pp. 3804-3812.

28 The Nest, an example of a Learning Thermostat.

29 Hot Water Heater ‘Blanket’.

30 Standby Power Reduction.

31 Master ROI Table.

32 Integrative Design: A Disruptive Source of Expanding Returns to Investments in Energy Efficiency, Amory Lovins, 2010. Rocky Mountain Institute.

33 Solar and Nuclear Costs – The Historic Crossover, John O. Blackburn and Sam Cunningham, 2010. Duke University. NC WARN: Waste Awareness & Reduction network.

34 Mapping Solar Grid Parity, John Farrell.

35 Re-Mapping Solar Grid Parity, John Farrell.

36 Smaller, cheaper, faster: Does Moore’s law apply to solar cells?, Ramez Naam, 2011. Scientific American.

37 The True Cost Of Owning A Car, 2008. Investopedia.\#axzz1u18EBznk

38 Road accident statistics in Europe, 2007. CARE and national data, European Union.

39 Cars and community – is it possible to have both?, 2009.

40 National Obesity Trends, 2010. CDC – National Center for Health Statistics.

41 Over half the US will be obese by 2015, YouTube.

42 Peer-to-peer car rental. Wikipedia.

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