Six years ago, my life was fairly normal. I taught full-time at a high school. Most of my colleagues had similar interests and values. They shared teaching strategies and how to help kids. Most of them, politically, leaned to the left.
Other jobs attract more right-leaning folk. That became apparent when I quit teaching and began to give investment presentations. Right wing capitalism has a lot of fans. People packed auditoriums to hear me speak about making money. But these people weren’t drawn to my handsome face or my colorful jokes. Instead, they came for the topic. They wanted to increase their wealth.
I’ve spoken at several international companies. After I speak, corporate executives often invite me out for dinner. They often want to talk about money. But after each string of talks, I flee to my own Bohemia.
For most of the past two years, my wife and I have lived in a camper van in Mexico and Central America. When I’m invited to give a series of investment talks, we store the van and pray that it’s still there when we return. So far, we haven’t been disappointed.
Our goal was to drive to Argentina (after shipping our van around the Darién Gap). But civil skirmishes erupted in Nicaragua last year, just as we approached Nicaragua’s northern border. We turned our van around and drove back to Mexico.
Throughout Mexico and Central America, we met plenty of people who would cringe if they knew I give investment talks, so I almost never bring that up. Some are American. Others are Canadian, European or South American. Many of them also create paltry carbon footprints. For example, most of them shun material consumption. Many of them use solar power for their day-to-day energy needs. Most of them don’t buy plastic toys for their kids, unless they’re second-hand. They wouldn’t buy a new car, a new phone or a new RV… even if they had the money.
Many of them live in RVs. They might work online, or they scrape together a living making jewelry and art. The Argentinians we met were the most prolific nomads, making artwork out of strings and beads that they sell at Mexican markets. Some of them homeschool their children as they move from town to town. Such is the case with the married couple, Stacey Joy and Matheu DeSilva. Stacey, originally from California, writes and sings some of the loveliest songs I’ve ever heard.
They spend most of their time in Mexico and Central America. They find performance gigs, and they homeschool their three young sons while living in a 1979 Airstream motorhome.
Matheu recently authored a book, Falling To Fly. Susan Page, the Executive Director of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival says it’s, “a stunning book that reads like the best of novels…it’s sometimes easy to forget that Falling to Fly is, in fact, a true story–until we reach the end and are called to consider some uncomfortable questions about ourselves and how our choices impact the wider world.”
It’s the philosophy behind these “uncomfortable questions” that drew a cool reception from Matheu after he read my book, Millionaire Teacher. Matheu made it clear. He hates how I invest. I recommend a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds. Matheu, however, says that by doing so, I’m supporting oil companies, materialism, global warming and a variety of other greed-driven sins. I thought I could win him over when I talked about socially responsible index (SRI) funds. But he wasn’t impressed. SRI funds, after all, still include companies like WalMart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. They don’t exactly make the world a better place.
But before you sell your portfolio and move into a solar-powered yurt off the grid, there’s something to remember: When you buy a company’s corporate bonds, you are supporting that business. You’re loaning the company money. And the company uses that money (the loan) to fuel its enterprise.
But when you own shares in a publicly traded company, you aren’t fueling that business. You are simply buying a piece of that business on the open market. In other words, when you own a company’s stock (directly or through an index fund) your money doesn’t do a thing to support the earnings of that business.
Here are two case examples. Assume Joe has $1 million in Exxon Mobil shares. He lives off the grid and uses solar power. Joe only buys recycled products. He never flies in an airplane, and he always makes his food from scratch. If that were the case, his carbon footprint would be low. Really low.
Now assume a guy named Tim doesn’t own a single stock. He drives a new Tesla because he wants to reduce his carbon footprint. But he lives in a huge house (that must be heated and air-conditioned). He buys plastic junk for his kids that caused manufacturing emissions. He buys the latest iPhone every year. Twice, he has remodeled his home with brand new wood, marble and plastic materials. He also flies around the world to yoga retreats twice a year.
Environmentally, Tim does a lot of damage, especially compared to Joe. Tim doesn’t own shares of Exxon Mobil. But through the acquisition of newly manufactured goods, and by flying around the world and owning a big house, he directly supports big oil and deforestation. In contrast, Joe owns $1 million of Exxon Mobil shares. But his ownership doesn’t do anything to increase his or anyone else’s carbon footprint.
Perhaps, however, I’m just defending my position in the face of a purer view. There’s just one thing I know: Iceland recently lost its first glacier to global warming. We did that: average working stiffs. But we didn’t do it by owning mutual funds that include oil companies, airline stocks, car companies or manufacturing firms. Instead, we fueled global warming by our use and consumption of these products. If we consume less, these companies will be forced to extract less oil, cut down fewer trees, and make fewer manufactured goods. Not everyone wants to be Matheu DeSilva. But he certainly walks the walk, and that’s worth thinking about.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas