Nov 02

What’s Your Environmental Net Worth?


In the world of personal finance, there’s a lot of emphasis given to the net worth calculation.  There’s plenty of debate about how much attention should be focused on it, but most everyone agrees that it’s a good tool to quickly gauge the health of your finances.

For those not familiar with the calculation, it’s simply the value of all your money and belongings minus the value of any debts you owe.  Generally speaking, if your net worth is increasing on a monthly or yearly basis, then you have healthy personal finance habits.  If it’s decreasing, you might need to take a second look at how you’re managing your money or you eventually risk running out of it and digging a very deep hole of debt.

How can those of us living environmentally conscious lives apply this to our own situation? It seems there ought to be a way to quickly gauge our progress or regression in our pursuit of sustainability.  We need to be able to look at our “environmental net worth.”

What is Environmental Net Worth

What would an environmental net worth be?  Well, on a basic level, it would be just like any financial net worth calculation – the sum of your environmental contributions minus your grievances. By adding up everything you’re doing to make the world a better place and subtracting the things that could be perceived as damaging, you can get a quick look at your overall contribution to society.

You could track your environmental net worth over time and see how you’ve progressed. You’d be able to tell if you’re growing and developing by contributing more to a healthy planet. Or, you could identify dips or regressions and find what may have caused them and how to avoid them in the future.

Why is it important?

An environmental net worth calculation is important for the same reason that it’s important to personal finance – it can demystify a seemingly convoluted and confusing situation.

Many people go through life not knowing whether what they’re doing is actually working or not.  There’s usually an intuitive feeling of progress or regression, but for many, it’s just not accurate.  Just as with anything in this world, if it can be measured, it can be improved.

By establishing a way to concretely measure our contributions to the environment, we’ll be better prepared to leave a better world for ourselves and future generations.

How is it calculated?

So how can you calculate your environmental net worth?  This is, of course, the most difficult part.  In a traditional net worth calculation, there’s a really handy tool, we call it money, that’s universally used to measure the value and worth of an object for comparison sake.

In the new environmental economy, such a tool doesn’t really exist yet.  We need a common denominator that we can all use to convert the results of our environmental focus into for comparison’s sake.  Right now, we have a whole bunch of people doing what they think is best, but not a whole lot of data to suggest what really is or isn’t working. 

We need an environmental currency.

The closest thing we have is carbon.  It’s still a bit abstract and calculating your carbon output is not as tangible as, say, counting the dollars in your bank account, but for the time being it’s what we have to work with.

I found this calculator over at nature.org that you can use to get a baseline estimate of what your current carbon “footprint” is.  It may or may not be completely accurate for your situation, but the important thing to take away is the graph at the end comparing the different aspects to the national average.  This will give you an idea of where you can potentially improve.

Remember that,  unlike a traditional net worth calculation, we’re going for the lowest score possible.  Think golf, not basketball.

Where do I stand?

A quick run through revealed that I could really make some improvement in my housing situation.  That makes sense – I live in a big, old four bedroom home with two other people.  It’s too big for us and it’s very drafty since all of the windows are nearly 100 years old.  I kind of doubt there’s even any insulation in the exterior walls.

Since I don’t have any plans to move right now and this is a rental property, the best we can do is add weatherstripping and caulk at all the openings, add insulation in the attic space and, most importantly, get another roommate so that we’re not wasting a bedroom.  The additional body heat won’t hurt, either.

Do you keep track of your environmental net worth?  Where could you make the biggest improvements?


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Carbon Footprint image by Leonski


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  1. Kevin M

    My estimate is 56 tons of CO2 per year vs. 80 on average. I know I could improve by driving a more fuel efficient car than my Jeep but it’s paid for so won’t be replaced until it dies. We’ve tried to make our new home as efficient as possible through new EnergyStar appliances, unplugging items not in use, etc but I’m sure there is more we could do. I just wish solar panels were cheaper!

  2. Michael Thomas

    Kevin, I’m in the same situation that you are. My little, old pick up is still running like a champ and I have no plans to replace it until it dies. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using something that still works. I’m actually trying to figure out how I can go car-less once it does die. That would be a really big step for me.

  3. ConsciouslyFrugal

    According to this site, my husband and I are at 13 tons collectively (2 tons more than the world average) and I’m at 5.5 tons individually (which is the world average). Yet according to another website, the earth would need 2.1 planets to sustain my lifestyle, simply because I put that I eat a lot (that “a lot” is organic and locally sourced for the most part). And the website you cited doesn’t allow the option of “zero” bedrooms. Some of us live in studio apartments!

    So, I wonder about these tests. I think they give a decent gauge of where we could improve (my scores were drastically better once I started taking public transportation), but how could I be a world average on one and a typical American on another? Hmmmm…

  4. ConsciouslyFrugal

    Me again! Here’s a link to the other test I mentioned. I took it again–my coffee and large portions equate 1.8 earths.

    Oh, coffee and grub. How I love thee.


  5. Michael Thomas

    Hey Aldra (#3),

    You’re right, the tests aren’t at all “accurate.” Looking at how they group things, I don’t know if they were even intended to be. I think the purpose they serve is as a conversation starter – something to get you thinking about what you could do to improve. They’re based on conventions, so they’re unlikely to create a flattering score for people who approach sustainability from unconventional angles.

    I think I’d like to try my hand some time at creating my own calculator. I’m such a details oriented person, though. I’m afraid I’d make it too complicated!

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