The Green Mortgage

The Green Mortgage

1. Introduction

Note: This is a living document. I'm still actively adding sources, updating text, and creating figures and animations.

In this series, I'd like to shamelessly promote an idea I have stolen (as far as I can trace it) from Saul Griffith: the Green Mortgage.

Griffith credits much of our modern world to credit (the financial kind). The car loan (invented in the 1920s) and the 25-year mortgage (1940s) lifted a large chunk of Americans into the middle class and ignited the conflagration known as modern finance (for good or bad).

In the 2020s, he argues, we need a climate loan. The most environmentally impactful decisions on the individual level are irregular, once-a-decade decisions—things like putting solar on the roof, electric cars in the garage, energy efficient washers and dryers in the house, an electric heat pump in the basement, etc. We need new financing instruments to make it easier to make the right choice when these decisions come our way.

At these crossroad moments, our primary imperative is to electrify. Even if our electricity comes from fossil fuels, large power plants are typically more efficient than small car engines and residential furnaces. Electrifying sets us up to fully abandon fossil fuels in the future. A green mortgage is primarily an electrification mortgage

In this series, I would like to explore what a green mortgage actually looks like at different income levels and housing/family situations, what to include in the package, and how much it will cost. It's to rank different interventions by emissions saved and address complications like "when is the optimal time to replace a still-functioning gas-powered car with an electric one?"

Best of all, I'm using a new tool I've designed to make more interactive documents. This will let you play around with the parameters to see, for example, how the conclusions change as the grid becomes cleaner, or to see what the green mortgage might look like for your own home.

Start with the Rich

The rich are disproportionately responsible for climate change. This is true for countries as well as for individuals. For example, the rich tend to live in single-family detached homes, which account for 60% of all housing units (in 2000) [1] but three quarters of total residential energy use [2]. They drive further to work, own more (and larger) cars, take regular flights, maintain more lifeless, larger lawns1, and so on.

So if we're talking about getting the most bang for our buck, we have to start by rehabilitating the rich. It also make sense because they have more money to put towards initiatives like these. It's the Tesla approach of building uberexpensive Roadster's before "more affordable" Model S's before almost affordable Model 3's.

First though, I need to make an important point—one that the wealthy are not particularly keen to hear. Before anything else (i.e., before electrification), we need to decrease our consumption. Even if we fully electrify and convert to 100% renewable resources, it is impossible to scale the American dream of McMansions, ATVs, and 24/7 steaks to every person without guaranteeing the demise of the natural world.2

Which we don't want.

So if you currently occupy one of these 350+ square meter behemoths (3800+ square feet), stop being an entitled asshole, and begin by downsizing.3 That also means you, Bill4.

With this caveat, let us sketch what the green mortgage might look like for a lower upperclass US household (top 80%-95% of household incomes). This is a household with an income of roughly $100,000—300,000 a year (still falls into the "lower" category because wealth is so unbelievably unevenly distributed at the upper end[^5]).

[^5] The 96th to 99th percentiles take about twice as much in annual income as the average over the 80th to 95th percentiles, the top one percent takes four times as much as that, the top 0.01 percent takes 20 times on top of those multipliers, and so on.

2. The Financial Costs

We begin by computing the one-time installation costs of a full green renewal—electrifying everything that we could conceivably electrify. Later on, we can look at whether each of these interventions actually makes environmental sense, how quickly the investments pay for themselves, and how best to schedule the electrification.

For the sake of example, we will work with a hypothetical family of =family.size living in a =home.area, =home.num_rooms:"%i{-room}" home (valued at =home.value) with =cars.num—the "Andersons".

// Family 
family.size: `%n {people}` = NUMBER(1, 10) ?? 4

// Home
home.area: "%i m2" = NUMBER(0, 500, 10) ?? 250
home.value_per_m2: `$%i/m2 ` = NUMBER(10, 1000, 10) ?? 500
home.m2_per_room: `%i m2{/room}` = NUMBER(5, 50, 5) ?? 20
home.num_rooms: {one: `%n {room}`, other: `%n {rooms}`} = home.area / home.m2_per_room
home.value: "$%i," = home.area * home.value_per_m2 

// Cars
cars.num: "%n {cars}" = NUMBER(0, 5) ?? 2

Note 1: We'll be ignoring tax-incentives and other programs that effectively lower the price.

Note 2: See the values in green? These are our first interactive elements. Try clicking on them and dragging left or right. As a result, you'll see the values in blue start to change.

🌞 The Roof (=solar.cost)

First up on our list of interventions is the roof.

=solar.area:"{Estimating we have} %i m2 {of roof available for solar}", we can manage up to a system (=solar.kw_multiple the =solar.kw_avg_resid: "{size of the average residential installation}"). At =solar.cost_per_kw This will probably cost =solar.cost to install (I invite you to play around with Google's Project Sunroof). At a conversion factor of solar.kwh_per_day_per_kw (which depends on altitude, cloudiness, shade from trees, etc.), this installation provides the Andersons an average of solar.kwh_per_day.

home.num_stories: "%i {average stories}" = NUMBER(0.5, 5, .5) ?? 2

roof.slant: "%i deg" = NUMBER(0, 75) ?? 30
roof.area: "%i m2" = home.area/home.num_stories/COS(roof.slant)
roof.available: "%p%" = NUMBER(0, 1, .01) ?? .8

solar.area: "%i m2" = roof.area * roof.available
solar.kw_per_m2: "%f.2 kW/m2" = NUMBER(0, 1, .01) ?? .15 "%i kW/" = FLOOR(solar.area * solar.kw_per_m2)

solar.kw_avg_resid = 6
solar.kw_multiple: "%ix" = / solar.kw_avg_residential = "[@fu2016]"

solar.cost_per_kw: "$%d,/kW" = NUMBER(0, 3000, 100) ?? 1500
solar.cost: "$%d," = * solar.cost_per_kw

solar.kwh_per_day_per_kw: "%f.2 kWh {actual}/d/(kW {capacity})" = NUMBER(0, 10, 0.1) ?? 3.5
solar.kwh_per_day: "%d kWh/d" = * solar.kwh_per_day_per_kw

🚗 The Cars ($90,000)

Our family goes for an extended range Tesla Model 3 at 50,000.AndtheygetaChevyBoltfor50,000. And they get a Chevy Bolt for 35,000. Together with two level two charging stations (~$5,000), electrifying the Anderson transportation fleet will cost around $90,000.

🔋 The Battery ($20,000)

A fair number of American home-owners already experiences regular power outages. In my childhood home in New York State, I remember (with something nearing fondness) 2011's hurricane Sandy knocking us out of power for nine days.

Climate change is going to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, thus also the likelihood of regular grid outgage, so—if only for adaptation purposes—the Andersons need some batteries.

Tesla recommends one Powerwall for every 7.6 kW AC of solar installed, so our family gets two Powerwalls. That's 15,000forthebatteriesthemselves,15,000 for the batteries themselves, 1,000 for a coupling device called a "Gateway" and 3,000forinstallationcosts.Letsroundupandcallitaneven3,000 for installation costs. Let's round up and call it an even 20,000.

Between these two batteries, the family gets 27 kWh of storage capacity in addition to the capacity of the cars. That's 82 kWh for the extended range Model 3, and 65kWh for the Chevy Bolt. So, in total, the family has up to 175 kWh of storage available.

Depending on how much electricity they need for heating, whether their solar panels are obscured by a layer of snow or not, and how much they need to drive, our family should be able to outlast most storms. In order to make that statement just a little more precise, we turn to heating next.

🧦 Insulation ($45,000—60,000)

The Andersons live in an older house, so before going crazy with electric heating, they stand much to gain from investing in humble insulation (they are far enough enough North for cold winters).

  • 🪟Windows: The Andersons have between 30 and 40 square meters of glass across 50 windows1. For the sake of example, suppose all windows are single pane, and we want to upgrade everything (rather than retrofitting existing windows with an add-on glaze). The Andersons end up going for double pane rather than triple pane windows at an [average cost of 750perwindow](,whichcomestoatotalof750 per window](, which comes to a total of 37,500. Windows are not cheap, especially on older homes.
  • 🧱 Walls: Fortunately, the Andersons' home has cavity walls, which are easier to retroactively insulate than solid walls. They go with a polyurethane foam option, which costs around [25persquaremeter](,ofwhichnoteverythingisinsulable,thetotalcomesinsomewherebetween25 per square meter]( With somewhere between 300 and 500 square meters of walls, of which not everything is insulable, the total comes in somewhere between 5,000 and $10,000.
  • 🛖 Loft: With easy access to the loft, the Andersons go for a fiberglass insulating option at a very comparable price to the foam (~25persquaremeter).Thepriceforthis,usingtheroofareawecomputedforthesolarpanels,aresomewherebetween25 per square meter). The price for this, using the roof area we computed for the solar panels, are somewhere between 3,750 and $5,000
  • 🪵 Suspended floor: Another lucky strike for the Andersons: their floors are easily accessible from underneath via the basement. That means inserting new insulation isn't going to require them to tear up the floor boards. Still, it doesn't come free, 125 square meters of floor boards come to roughly $3,000 in insulation.

🌡 Heating and Cooling ($50,000)

The most straightforward electric heating solution is the heat pump, a device that transfers heat between your house and an external heat reservoir much as a fridge does. Perhaps the best feature of a heat pump is that it can pump in both directions, so it solves both heating and cooling.

Most common is the air-source heat pump, in which the reservoir is the air outside your home. But the Andersons decide to go further. They opt in for a ground-based system where the reservoir is a fluid—some kind of antifreeze—that is pumped underground (by a separate circulation pump). The more constant temperature below ground means the heat pump can work more efficiently.

The Andersons go for the larger five-ton heat pump, which by itself—at around 2,500pertonhasapricetagof2,500 per ton—has a price tag of 12,500. The costs of digging a vertical closed loop system have a roughly equal price tag.

But then there's the fact that the Anderson's live in an older house that previously got its heating via radiators. Their geothermal system is air-to-fluid, which means they will need to install ductwork throughout their house. All in all, this retrofitting costs another $20,000.

Let's round up again (to account for things like a new smart thermometer, unforeseen installation costs, etc.), and we estimate the total costs at around $50,000.

It still requires some electricity to run the fan that circulates the hot air and to keep the circulation pump going, but the Andersons have almost fully relinquished their direct dependence on oil.

🍃 Lawn ($500—5,000)

To fully rid the Andersons of their addiction to oil, we have to take a look in their garage and outside their house. The gas-powered lawn-mower, weed-wacker, chainsaw, and leaf-blower all have to go.

Now, you could electrify all these for less than $500 (as long as you choose a smaller lawn-mower). But that would spare the Anderson's an important learning opportunity.

Occupying 40 million acres of land in the continental US, lawns are America's number one crop. They're also incredibly water-, pesticide-, and time-intensive, utterly devoid of biodiversity, and let's admit it, sterile and pathetic-looking. The Andersons' lawn has to go.

That's going to be difficult for Mr. Anderson who has grown up equating lawns with success. It might be years and many sessions of psychotherapy before he shakes this more insidious, personally involving addiction, before he can suppress the urge to go blasting his leaf blower at six in the morning on a Sunday. But he has to give it up—the natural world can no longer maintain the terror of lawns.

Enough of my rant, what all this means practically is that the Green Mortgage is an opportunity for landowners to "rewild" their lawns. One-time services run upwards of $5,000, not including recurring landscaping work thereafter. Fortunately, nature-friendly landscaping tends to be less labor-intensive than conventional lawns once up and running. Since the Anderson's are already spending ridiculous amounts on landscaping crews to come by weekly, they stand to save money relatively quickly.

🍳 Appliances ($3,000—8,000)

After oil and lawns, next to go is the Anderson's dependency on propane, which they still use for their stove and hot water.

Water Heater ($2,000) Let's start with water. Their heat pump already gets them part of the way there—the Andersons opted for a small add-on module that preheats water before it enters the boiler, but to go 100%, they need to transition to electric.

In fact, since they no longer need a boiler to heat their radiators, they can downsize to a 50 gallon electric water heater. With installation fees, this ends up costing the Anderson's $2,000.

The Oven (1,0004,000)Aftergettinganenergyefficientelectricovenforjustover1,000—4,000) After getting an energy-efficient electric oven for just over 1,000, the Andersons have officially cut out their direct consumption of fossil fuels. They feel pretty good about it.

Well, there is one thing left—the grill. For an avid grillmaster like Mr. Anderson, this is probably the single most controversial item on the list. How is he to make his delicious burgers without his beloved propane grill?2 Tough luck man. You can either shell out another $1,000—3,000 or abandon the grill altogether.

Thus, we have gotten through all the changes essential to electrification. Depending on how old their other large appliances are, the Andersons might consider getting a more efficient model. According to the EPA, average annual energy for these appliances are (in decreasing order):

  • The Dryer (769 kWh/year)
  • The Fridge (596 kWh/year)
  • The Washing Machine (590 kWh/year)
  • The Dishwasher (206 kWh/year)

The most efficient modern models are, in most cases, radically better:

Replacing the entire set with the best new models, all in all, would not put the Andersons back more than $5,000, thereby completing the transformation.3

Total Costs ($233,000—260,000)

Let's tally up the costs in order of decreasing costs:

  • $90,000 (Cars)
  • $45,000—60,000 (Insulation)
  • $50,000 (Geothermal)
  • $20,000—25,000 (Solar Roof)
  • $20,000 (Batteries)
  • $5,000 (Lawn)
  • $3,000—12,000 (Appliances)

For a total of 233,000260,000,aboutaquarterofthehomesvalue.Fortherestoftheseries,wewillworkwith233,000—260,000, about a quarter of the home's value. For the rest of the series, we will work with 250,000 as the baseline.

Amortizement ($900—1,900/month)

With a 30 year amortizement period, 50,000downpayment,andthestandard3.250,000 down payment, and the standard 3.2% APR for home mortgages, the green mortgage, on its own, would [add]( 110,000 in interest at a monthly price of 900.Ashorter15yearmortgageataninterestrateof2.43900. A shorter 15-year mortgage at an interest rate of 2.43% would add only 40,000 in interest fees for a total of about 1,300amonth.Finally,a10yearmortgageat2.381,300 a month. Finally, a 10-year mortgage at 2.38% APR would cost 25,000 in interest at almost $1,900 a month.

Property Tax and Insurance ($500/month)

If you add $250,000 in renovations to your house, your home value will increase, and, with it, the amount you spend on property taxes. How much will depend entirely on where you live—annual property taxes range from the permils (0.1%) to almost 3%.

Again, our example concerns a lower upper class family, so we assume they live in a county that takes towards the higher end—let's say 2%. We add 5,000totheannualcost(abitover5,000 to the annual cost (a bit over 400 a month).

Lastly, the Andersons, responsible home owners as they are, need to insure the new goods. An increase in home value of 250,000meanssomethinglike[a250,000 means something like [a 75 increase in monthly payments]( or $900 a year. That said, some of these improvements, such as better insulation, might decrease premiums.


With a longer duration 30-year mortgage, the Andersons are looking at a price tag of aboout 1,400amonth.Withtheshorter10yearmortage,thisjumpsupto1,400 a month. With the shorter 10-year mortage, this jumps up to 2,400 a month. (With $500/month persisting even after the mortgages are paid off).

But really, this is not the right way to make this calculation, because in most cases the Anderson's almost immediately save on their monthly bills. So in the next chapter, we'll factor in these savings to compute the actual "effective" monthly cost.

3. The Financial Payback

In the last instalment in this series, we determined that a complete electric overhaul—solar roof, batteries, electric vehicles, geothermal, better insulation, etc.—will cost the average lower upper-class family (the "Andersons") between 200250,000upfront.Afteramortizement,propertytaxes,andinsurance,theyrelookingatamonthlyfeeof200-250,000 up front. After amortizement, property taxes, and insurance, they're looking at a monthly fee of 1,400 (30-year mortgage) to $2,400 (10-year mortgage).

But really that figure is misleading: almost all of the changes included in the green mortgage immediately lower the Andersons' monthly utility bills. What really matters is the net change in monthly costs. In this installment we'll compute how much the Andersons save and, in turn, the effective monthly cost of their green mortgage.


Most of these calculations depend wholly on how much the Andersons were paying for electricity, gas, oil, and propane before electrification.

Let's fix these prices beforehand. For consistency, we assume we're somewhere in the NY metropolitan area.

🌞 The Roof (+$300/month)

If we assume panels with 15% efficiency (including conversion losses), then 4.25 kWh/m^2/day of Solar Irradiance (see image below) times 75 square meters of panels yields more than 17,000 kWh a year, almost 1,500 kWh a month.

Compared to the roughly 20¢/kWh standard electricity rate we fixed above, the Andersons are saving $300 a month. Not bad.

If we compare this to the $20-25,000 price tag, a solar roof will pay itself off in only five to seven years.

categorical imperative

🚗 The Cars (+$100-200/month)

New York drivers cover, on average about 12,000 miles a year.

With 360 miles of range on an 82 kWh battery, the Long Range Model 3 gets 4.4 miles per kWh. With 259 miles on a 65 kWh battery, the Chevy Bolt gets 4 miles per kWh. If the Anderson's two drivers split their miles evenly between them and their vehicles, they will need about 5,700 kWh/year for transportation. That's a little under 480 kWh/month or about 100$/month.

If their two previous cars are had an average fuel economy of 33 miles per gallon (the average from a decade ago), they would have been consuming around 730 gallons of gas a year—almost $200 a month.

So all other things being equal, the Anderson's have cut their monthly transportation energy costs in half. This is probably still conservative. For one, we've ignored the fact that EVs usually charge at night when electricity is cheaper. In balance, the Anderson's occasionally have to splurge on a supercharger (at 0.28¢/kWh, only about 20per"tank").WevealsoignoredgenerousEVsubsidiesandtheoccasionalfreechargingstation.Next,maintenancecosts:EVmaintenancecostsabout[3¢permile,internalcombustionvehiclesabout6¢permile]( per "tank"). We've also ignored generous EV subsidies and the occasional free charging station. Next, maintenance costs: EV maintenance costs about [3¢ per mile, internal combustion vehicles about 6¢ per mile]( This saves the Andersons an additional 60 a month.

Putting it all together, the Anderson's are saving somewhere in the range of $100-200.

🔋 The Battery (+$0-120/month)

The main financial benefits of the battery are secondary to those of the solar roof. It allows you to access free electricity outside sunny hours. We have effectively already priced this into the solar roof.

There is a second, more direct benefit: managing grid outages. Here, I had a hard time finding good figures for the frequency and duration of suburban blackout events. It's easy to find this information on a per-state basis, but this gives an inaccurate picture since it conflates cities (with infrequent, shorter duration blackouts) and suburbs/rural areas (where blackouts are more frequent and longer-lasting). Based on my own childhood in NY exurbia, I'd estimate the Andersons lose power 1-5 days a year.

To deal with these outages, many families resort to generators, which can tally up to substantial expense. Let's look at an example: this 20 kW system consumes 3.5 gallons per hour of liquid propane or 84 gallons a day. Neglecting the upfront costs, the Anderson's are saving 2901,400ayearduringblackouts,290—1,400 a year during blackouts, 24—120 a month.1 The battery ( $20,000) pays for itself after 70 days of power outs.

Of course, the Anderson's did not need to buy a generator and could have braved the outage in the dark (so we'll set a lower limit to the savings of $0).

🧦 Insulation (+$30-80/month)

This is probably the hardest to measure accurately since it varies so much from home to home. Still, using of $5,000 for the upper-end models, we estimate that the Andersons save between 15% and 20% on heating and cooling from better insulation.

The 10,000 hours. Considering that about half of that bill goes to heating and cooling and that the Anderson's live in a larger, older house, let's assume that their heating and cooling cost somewhere in the range of $200-400 per month before electrification.

So better insulation is saving the Anderson's are saving 3080amonth.Consideringthatinsulationcost30-80 a month. Considering that insulation cost 45-60,000, this investment will take 50 to 170 years to pay for itself. That sounds bad until you realize that these prices neglect fossil fuel's external costs. It does suggest that we might more effectively redirect government subsidies from solar roofs (which are already a good investment on their own) to insulation.

🌡 Heating and Cooling (+$60-180/month)

Fortunately for me, someone has already done this calculation. EnergyStar's reference for climate zone 4-5. Using the figures from above, that's an additional $60-180 a month.

In other words, the $50,000 investment pays for itself in some 25 to 70 years. At the lower end, that's an okay investment. At the higher end, not so much. That is, as long as you neglect the quality of life improvements associated to geothermal. Speaking from experience, geothermal is a much more pleasant and responsive heating and cooling solution than radiators and window-mounted AC units. These less quantifiable benefits are sure to save off a few years.

🍃 Lawn (+$0-450/month)

Many upperclass families hire regular landscaping services—once a week for 100200atime,alandscapingcrewwillcometowreckhavoconyourlocalecosystem.Thisracksupquickly,andyouresoonspending100-200 a time, a landscaping crew will come to wreck havoc on your local ecosystem. This racks up quickly, and you're soon spending 400-900 a month to keep your lawn perfectly sterile and your neighbors perfectly ticked off at the non-stop drone of the air-quality-annihilating leaf blowers.

The alternatives to the lawn are not just aesthetically more appealing but cheaper to maintain and much better for local biodiversity. Whereas a lawn requires a weekly trio of lawn-mower, weed-whacker, and leaf-blower, the meadow requires only a biweekly visit by a weed-whacker to trim a small area and remove the clippings, and maybe a biannual spot treatment of invasives.2 You'll easily save half in landscaping costs, and you will save it immediately.

Unfortunately, this is probably one of the harder ones to convince people, so I'm removing the lower cap.

🍳 Appliances (+$30-50/month)

First, our replacements for formerly propane-powered appliances:

  • Water Heater: I believe this is already factored into the geothermal-related savings above.
  • The Range (180-360 gallons propane → 180-1,200 kWh / year3): Savings of 40-50% or $5-20 a month. (I'm ignoring the grill which only gets used a few times per year anyway).

Next, the gains we get from switching to more energy efficient appliances:

  • The Dryer: 769 → 125 kWh/year (-84%)
  • The Fridge: 596 → 186 kWh/year (-69%)
  • The Washing Machine: 590 →120 kWh/year (-80.%)
  • The Dishwasher: 206 →196 kWh/year (-4.9%)

For a total savings of 1,530 kWh/year or 25 per month. At the lower investment amount (\3,000), it pays for itself in a decade.

Summary of Financial Payback

Let's tally up the monthly savings in decreasing order:

  • $300 (Solar Roof)
  • $100-200 (Cars)
  • $60-180 (Geothermal)
  • $30-80 (Insulation)
  • $30-50 (Appliances)
  • $0-450 (Lawn)
  • $0-120 (Batteries)

In total, the Andersons are saving $500-1,400 a month.

Let's pull up the costs we calculated in the previous chapter.

  • $900-1,900 (Green Mortgage, 30 year — 10 year)
  • $500 (Property tax & insurance)

So we come to the striking conclusion that a more sustainable, electrified home almost entirely pays for itself. In the best case, it pays for itself in full4. In the worst case, you're spending 800amonthoverthirtyyearsor800 a month over thirty years or 1,800 a month over ten—saving 20 to 40% off of the sticker price. Not bad for a home that's more pleasant to live in, look at (well, alright, maybe this will have to wait for the solar roof), and share a planet with.

4. The Environmental Costs

In the past chapters of this series, we've seen that the green mortgage makes resounding financial sense. But we've failed to address the more pressing question: does the green mortgage make environmental sense—is it actually green?

The answer, we'll see, is that it depends. It depends on how much of the Andersons' electricity consumption they can fulfill with their roof. It depends on the source of electricity in their grid. It depends on how old the appliances and vehicles the Andersons are replacing, their efficiency ratings, the efficiency ratings of their replacements, and the embedded emissions contained in manufacturing and transporting these goods. Because it depends on so much, the final answer is that it's complicated.

But that's no reason not to try to give an answer.

Note: For the sake of sanity, I'll focus exclusively on emissions costs (in terms of median 2000-square-foot NY house incurs an average of $400 in utility costs per month). This means I'll neglect important non-emissions improvements (for example, delawning has an important role in promoting biodiversity and decreasing fresh water consumption) as well as hidden costs (for example, mining lithium, cobalt, etc. are fresh-water-intensive, toxic-chemical-releasing, and human-rights-abuses-accompanying—a topic for another day). Safe to say, there are no perfect decisions1.

🌞 The Roof (Dandelion Energy (an admittedly biased party in favor of geothermal) estimates that a typical 2,500 square foot home in the greater NY area saves around 50% on their average heating and cooling costs)

First, let's calculate the lifecycle emissions involved in manufacturing, installing, and decommissioning a solar roof. At far too much about sustainable landscaping for photovoltaics (in a range of 30-220 g/kWh; 1-3 kW for electric), the Andersons' 1 gallon of propane per hour (see last chapter) solar roof costs them CO2-100-year-equivalents.

If we asssume that their grid was sourcing its electricity from coal at -1.4 ton CO2e/month (cf. natural gas at 500 g CO2e/kWh; 40 g CO2e/kWh), the Andersons are saving source.

Subtracting the embedded costs, the Andersons are saving 1500 kWh/month.

🚗 The Cars (-60 kg CO2e/month)

A favorite claim of the anti-EV lobby is that switching to EVs doesn't matter if your electricity comes from fossil fuels. This is wrong. First, power plants tend to burn more efficiently than car-scale combustion engines. You need less fuel (thus also emissions) for the same miles (see below). Second, switching to an EV makes it easier to decarbonize in the future when your utility does make the switch to clean energy. New infrastructure rarely saturates immediately.

Still, we'd be amiss to ignore the emissions associated to our EVs. Unfortunately, every tangible good in the modern world has a carbon price tag.

First, let us compute the the emissions associated with the old vehicles that are being replaced before they would normally have expired. If the Andersons sold these cars second-hand, we could ignore these costs—they'd be passed down to the purchaser. But if the vehicles are scrapped, then we have to transfer these embedded costs to the new electric vehicles.

Pasted image 20211016091556.png

(1 kg CO2e/kWh)

At an expected lifetime of source (1.5 ton CO2e/month, pg. 27) and a manufacturing cost of 1.4 ton CO2e/month (see graph), a lower medium segment internal combustion vehicle (ICV) costs 590 kg CO2e/month to make. An equivalent EV, at a more expensive manufacturing cost of source meanwhile costs 320000 km to make.

If the Anderson's previous cars had source of their lifetime remaining and they scrapped both of their 25 g CO2e/km previous cars, they would transfer 8 tons CO2e to the replacement vehicles. That's effectively a 40 g CO2e/km increase in emissions per km. Comparing the more than 13 tons CO2e costs for fuel and electricity in the gasoline-powered ICV to the 25% for fuel in a grid-mix-powered EV, the early decomission is well worth it.

We see that the other favorite anti-EV argument—that EVs are so much more environmentally costly to manufacture that it's not worth it—is bunk. Even if the previous vehicles had been brand new, it would still be worth it to scrap the cars and take on electric vehicles. This would add only 2 per vehicle. The EV is still three to four times less emitting.

Let's put it altogether. At an average of 4 tons CO2e, the Andersons are now emitting only 6 g CO2e/km/car compared to their previous emissions of 235 g CO2e/km, for a savings of 30g CO2e/km.

And, really, that's probably conservative. Rather than scrap old cars, the Andersons could sell these second-hand. So long as their mileage beat the mileage of the purchaser's previous vehicle, this would be an improvement on its own.

To leave you with a nugget of practical advice: if you're buying a new car, you should be buying electric. I'll grant you a little slack if you're going second-hand (as long as it significantly improves on your previous vehicle's mileage), but really we have no time to dawdle when we need to get to decarbonize by 2050. Especially when car lifetimes are now regularly above 15 years. Stop your pathetic complaining about "oh what if I need to make a long trip somewhere" and suck it up. You can afford to spend an hour every 300 kilometers to charge—it's probably even good for your physical health, road-trip sanity, and safety on the road.

🔋 The Battery (24 g CO2e/km)

I couldn't find any figures specifically for the Tesla Powerwall, but 1600 km /month/car estimates 240 kg CO2e/month as the lifetime emissions for a Lithium-ion Nickel Manganese Cobalt battery (the most common chemistry out there). With 830 kg CO2e/month of capacity, this amounts to 590 kg CO2e/month of total emissions. Across a -103 kg CO2e/month lifetime, this amortizes to this paper.

The most important emissions "savings" for batteries are really already factored into the solar roof (just as the financial savings in the previous chapter).

Less significant are the savings accrued during power outages (as compared to using a generator). With 72.9 kg CO2e/kWh and a generator that uses 28 kWh the Anderson's would have been consuming 2.0 tons CO2e. At 10 year (17 kg CO2e/month), this comes out to 3 blackout days/year.

(I'm skipping the manufacturing/maintenance/decommissioning costs for the generator. If you're interested, you can use the 10 to 15% rate for car fuel to non-fuel emissions as an upper limit.)

In total, then, the battery costs 84 gallons propane/day.

Of course, if your model family was hardy enough to survive without a generator, there would be no emissions on this front. (You can incorporate this by setting 252 gallons liquid propane/year to zero.)

🧦 Insulation (-5.72 kg CO2e/gallon of liquid propane)

In the last chapter, we estimated that the Andersons could save source on heating and cooling from better insulation. To see how much this saves, we first have to estimate the Andersons' total heating and cooling related emissions.

Assume that the Andersons were consuming 120 kg CO2e/month (-103 kg CO2e/month). At num_blackout_days (66 kg CO2e/month), their heating-related emissions total 15%.

Meanwhile, suppose they were using 900 gallons of electricity for air conditioning (source)2. With grid-sourced electricity emitting 10. kg CO2e/gallon heating oil (reminder: this is the figure for dirtier coal-sourced electricity), this would have meant annual cooling-related emissions of source.

Altogether, their heating and cooling emissions would have totaled 9 tons CO2e/year before the green mortgage. The 2750 kWh/year insulation-related reduction in fuel use would mean savings of source.

As mentioned, this is a living document—I'll come back to factor in the embedded costs of the glass of the windows, insulation materials, and installation at a later date.

🌡 Heating and Cooling (-1 kg CO2e/kWh)

Moving to geothermal means we get rid of the remaining 85% of the fossil-fuel-related emissions (2.8 tons CO2e/year) for heating.

But, in turn, we've increased our heating-and-cooling-related electricity consumption to a total of 1. ton CO2e/month3, or (at 15%), 150 kg CO2e/month.

Altogether, this yields a net improvement of 310 kg CO2e/month. At first glance, it may appear that geothermal isn't quite as green as first promised. We're reducing our heating and cooling related emissions by only 640 kg CO2e/month. But, just as with the vehicles, this neglects the fact that heat pumps make future decarbonization easier. With carbon neutral electricity generation, heat pump heating and cooling also becomes carbon neutral.

Just as with insulation, I'll come back to compute the embedded emissions of the geothermal system at a later date.

🍃 Lawn (-8300 kWh/year)

Before the green mortgage, we assume the Andersons had a landscaping crew come 1 kg CO2e/kWh. Traditionally, the core of any landscaping crew is

a rideable mower, a leaf blower, and weed whacker ("trimmer") that'll spend anywhere up to four hours.

Assuming a 690 kg CO2e/month and a mower covering 310 kg CO2e/month, the mower would consume 31%. Let's say the visit is here at a time. A two-stroke trimmer lasts about 42 kg CO2e/month for a total consumption of 2x/month. Let's assume a comparable rate for the leaf blower of 2 acre lawn (I'm still looking out for better figures for how long a leaf blower can last on one tank). All in all, the crew is consuming some 2 acres/gallon gas or (at 1 gallon gas/visit) some2 hours.

That's not nothing, but so far, it is the smallest savings we've encountered. Really, we're not doing this intervention justice. For one, non-CO2 emissions are orders of magnitudes higher for lawn equipment than other gas-consuming products like vehicles. According to one consumer tester, Edmunds, a two-stroke leaf blower emitted about the same amount of non-methane hydrocarbons in a half hour as a F-150 Raptor over a 3,000 mile journey (3 hours/gallon), not to mention carbon monoxide emissions, particulate matter, etc. The above calculation also neglects potent non-CO2 GHGs like NOxs. Then, there's the sound component—the fact that leaf blowers are an acoustic scourge unlike any the world has ever seen before. And the fact that lawns are biodiversity-wise little more than deserts yet more water-hungry than rain forests. Removing your lawn also likely means storing more carbon in your soil.

So just stop landscaping. Stop it now.

🍳 Appliances (0.7 gallons/visit)

First, our replacements for formerly propane-powered appliances. Let me copy over the results from the previous chapter…

First the savings from switching to fully electric appliances

And the savings from adopting more efficient appliances.

Previously, these appliances had cost 596 kWh/year. Now, consumption has decreased to 186 kWh/year for a total effiency-improvement related savings of 590 kWh/year or 120 kWh/year.

Combining with the improvements from the range, this saves us 206 kWh/year.

Just as the vehicles, we should factor in the age of the original products and their embedded emissions. I'll come back to this soon.

Summary of Financial Payback

Let's tally up the savings:

In total, the Andersons are saving 310 kg CO2e/month.

Absolute measurements are hardly ever as informative as relative measurements. We're ultimately interested in how much they've relatively decreased their emissions—how close we are to the target. If we consider that their current emissions now total 590 kg CO2e/month, then we find that the green mortgage has decreased the Andersons' home-related emissions by 210 kg CO2e/month.

Remaining emissions:

But that's only the start. As the grid begins to decarbonize, the relative savings will continue to decrease (for whatever fraction of the Anderson's electricity needs they can't meet with their solar+battery alone). But you don't have to take my word for it, try for yourself, and see what happens as we decrease the grid's carbon intensivity to 60 kg CO2e/month.

The green mortgage is only part of the solution: the Andersons will also have to change their habits around eating, vacationing, and general consumption. Climate change is many problems. Moreover, the particular version that we've looked at in this article won't translate immediately to the inhabitants and owners of apartment buildings and rental homes. There's always more to do.

But it should leave you with a sense of how important your decisions around your living space are. It's less your minor everyday decisions than your major once-a-decade decisions. Really, that should be a relief. Fewer decisions means being "sustainable" doesn't have to be completely all encompassing and willpower-exhausting.

But you do have to make the right decisions. Get solar ASAP—or buy electricity rights from a solar wholesaler (which should be substantially cheaper). Get rid of the lawn. Get an electric car the next time you go shopping (no, not a hybrid—quit dawdling). Better yet, don't get a car. Upgrade your windows and insulation if you have more money available, and transition to an electric heat pump. Buy the most efficient appliances (these will save you money in the long run). No to generators. Maybe to a battery.

Do all this, and you're well on your way.



  1. I will not refrain from the occasional value judgment. 2 3 4

  2. Think of this as the environmental corollary to Kant's Pasted image 20211031092838.png. 2 3 4

  3. I don't know where the cutoff between acceptable and ridiculous is or should be, but it's probably well below this arbitrary number. 2 3 4

  4. What I meant to say, is "this especially means you, Bill". If you're preaching about the climate crisis, you need to set the right example. It pisses me off beyond comprehension that you can maintain this hypocrisy, because no amount of carbon offsetting is going to make up for the visceral reaction this induces. Do you wonder why people distrust you? This is why. /end-rant 2

Post Rhetoric

The Future of Argumentative Writing

I've published an update to this post here.

A few years ago, I first read the excellent essay by Bret Victor, "What can a technologist do about climate change?." For its treatment of climate change alone, I can't recommend the essay enough—there's enough food for thought to keep you satiated for a few months. But, then, near the end, Victor sneaks in a little section titled "Model-driven debate" that has has kept me thinking for years.

Screen Shot 2021-10-19 at 7.15.10 PM.png

If you haven't read it yet, bump it up to number one on your reading list.

He begins with the example of Alan Blinder's "Cash for Clunkers" proposal. The federal government would offer car owners a rebate to exchange old, inefficient vehicles for newer ones. Proponents claimed it would cause massive emissions reductions. Meanwhile, critics claimed there were more cost-effective ways to reduce emissions. Who's right?

Of course, it's both and neither—the answer depends entirely on the parameters of the program. As Victor writes:

"Many claims made during the debate offered no numbers to back them up. Claims with numbers rarely provided context to interpret those numbers. And never were readers shown the calculations behind any numbers. Readers had to make up their minds on the basis of hand-waving, rhetoric, bombast."

Victor asks us to imagine a better world: what if the author had proposed a model rather than mere words? Then, we, the readers, could make up our own minds. Instead of bombast, we get an informed debate about the underlying assumptions and resulting tradeoffs.

Let's look at an example (a slight modification of Victor's original example1):

Say we allocate 3.0 billion](budget=[0..10;0.1]&margin-right=1ch) for the following program: Car-owners who trade in an old car that gets less than [17 MPG](old_MPG_limit=[5..30]), and purchase a new car that gets better than [24 MPG](new_MPG_limit=[5..50]), will receive a [3,500 rebate.

We estimate that this will get 828,571 old cars off the road. It will save 1,068 million gallons of gas (or 68 hours worth of U.S. gas consumption.) It will avoid 9.97 million tons CO2e, or 0.14% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The abatement cost is 301](dollars_per_ton_CO2e&margin-right=0.5ch) per ton CO2e of federal spending, although it’s [-\20 per ton CO2e on balance if you account for the money saved by consumers buying less gas.

Try sliding clicking and dragging the items in green to update their values. You'll see the items in blue change as a result. To see how these outputs are computed, click on one of the blue items, and you'll see the calculation in the appendix to this article.

When I first saw this example, I had the kind of feeling that I imagine people in the '80s must have had when they first saw wheels on a suitcase, that of dockworkers when they first encountered shipping containers in the 60s, or of late 15th century Europeans when they first read the results of movable type. A combination of "oh that's so obvious!" with the shame of your civilization not having come up with the idea earlier and something akin to disgust at how we used to do things (or are still doing them).

Victor's vision is what journalism and argumentative writing should look like. Next to this better system, hand-waving opinion pieces border on offensive.

Unfortunately, his vision has gotten almost no attention since its conception. Victor provided a small library, Tangle, to implement models like these, but not much has happened with it in the last half decade. That's understandable—the library requires prior experience with web development, which makes it unapproachable for most people, but it also offers no direct integration with any major JavaScript (JS) framework, which does not encourage actual web developers to use it.

In its place, we've seen success with somewhat similar projects like Observable. Observable helps you write JS notebooks that are highly interactive and relatively easy to embed in other websites. But the experience is not seamless: you still need familiarity with JS. Of course, we've had Jupyter notebooks and R Markdown for a while. Unfortunately all of these notebook-based models remain somewhat clunky and cumbersome. None of them offer a really fluent and easy inline input option like Tangle.

In this post, I'd like to look at a middleground—a (almost) no-code way to create interactive documents, which offers a much easier writing experience at the cost of sacrificing some of the customizability of Tangle or Observable/Python/R notebooks. Let's call it interactive Markdown.

Now, I'm not the first. Shortly after Victor published Tangle, there was an explosion in Markdown related integrations: dynamic Markdown, active Markdown fangle, and TangleDown are what I could find. I'm sure there are yet more.

Still, I think there's a good reason to reinvent this wheel. For one, I'm not happy about the syntax of any of these options (though least unhappy with that of active/dynamic Markdown). The problem is that none of them are backwards compatible with existing Markdown interpreters. I'm of the strong opinion that since there are so many Markdown extensions already, if you come up with a new, it had better be backwards compatible.

Second, all but fangle miss the ability to do inline calculations. Third, none is actively maintained. Fourth, all of them work by compiling .md to .html; I'd like an option to compile to .jsx from .mdx, which I think would generally make this much easier to adopt for other people. Five, none offer an elegant way to display supplementary calculations the way Victor's example did.

There's also a good "cultural" reason to reinvent this wheel. Thanks to note-taking tools like Notion, Roam, and Obsidian, Markdown is having a moment. More people are playing around with Markdown than ever before, so if ever there were a time to build on Markdown, it's now.

Without further do, let me present interactive Markdown.

An Example

Let's take a look at a very simple example (again from Victor):

When you eat 3 cookies, you consume 150 calories. That's 7.5% of your recommended daily calories.

Under the hood, this looks as follows:

When you eat [3 cookies](cookies=[0..100]), you consume **[150 calories](calories=50*cookies)**. That's [7.5%](daily_percent) of your recommended daily calories.  

Interactive Markdown is built around "fields". There are three in this example: [3 cookies](cookies=[0..100]), [150 calories](calories=50*cookies), and [7.5%](daily_percent).

If you're familiar with Markdown, then you'll recognize a field as a link. Like a link, every field is made up of two parts ([text representation](variable configuration)): a text representation of the element between square brackets [](the link text or alt text for a media element) and the variable configuration between round brackets ()(the link href or image src).

The reason for using the same syntax as a link is backwards compatibility. If there is no interactive Markdown interpreter, you only lose interactivity, not the reading experience.

There are three kinds of fields: input, output, and reference fields.

Input Fields

[3 cookies](cookies=[0..100]) is an input field. In the variable configuration, (cookies=[0..100]), we define a variable, cookies, that takes its value from a range of 0 to 100. In the text representation, [3 cookies], we give the default value, 3. The surrounding text is used as a template (for example, to specify units).2

There are two kinds of input field, range and select:

  • Range Input (my_var=[min..max;step]): By clicking on the range input and dragging left or right, the user can adjust its value between min and max in intervals of size step.
  • Select Input (my_var=[a,b,c]): By clicking on the select input, the user cycles through the options a, b, c

Output Fields

[150 calories](calories=50*cookies) is an output field. On the right, we define the variable calories as the product of 50 and our previously defined variable cookies.

Since the definition contains neither a range [min..max;step] nor select [a,b,c] input, an output field is not directly adjustable via user input. It is dynamically computed from the other variables in a document's scope.

Because of this, the value of 150 is really more like a fallback than a default. An interactive Markdown interpreter won't ever user this value. A standard Markdown interpreter will render it as 150 calories for the same experience just without the interactive part.

Reference Fields

Lastly, [7.5%](daily_percent) is a reference field. Unlike definition fields (i.e., input and output fields) references do not contain an equal sign = in their variable configuration. They display a variable that has already (or will be) defined elsewhere in the page.

For example, we might put the calculation for daily_percent in the appendix to avoid cluttering the body text for your reader:

Calculation for daily_percent

  • Daily recommended calories limit = 2,000 calories
  • Percent cookie calories per day = 7.5%

Behind the scenes, this is:

### Calculation for `daily_percent`  
- Daily recommended calories limit = [2,000 calories](daily_calories=[0..5000;50])  
- Percent cookie calories per day = [7.5%](daily_percent=calories/daily_calories)   

References are useful for separating long calculations from your story line. It also helps to remind readers what variable values are, so they don't have to scroll back and forth a hundred times.

Each variable should only have one definition field but can have arbitrarily many reference fields.

Note that reference fields act differently depending on whether they reference an input or output variable:

  • Input references let you update the original variable. To the reader, input references are indistinguishable from input definitions.
  • Output references link to the original output definition. So I recommend you define an output variable in the same place that you describe its calculation to readers.


For the time being, it will take some technical know-how to get interactive Markdown up and running for yourself. If you're interested, I've written a remark plugin that you can drop into an existing remark/rehype pipeline.

That's because interactive Markdown is still in its infancy. There are many features I'd like to get to that I haven't had the time for yet (e.g., automatic dimensions checking to make sure your calculations make sense, popover links to calculations, more math functions, support for distributions and other data types), not to mention tools to make working with interactive Markdown easier: an in-browser editor, a plugin for Obsidian support, etc.

If you're interested in all of this, make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to stay updated. And if you have any ideas, I'd love to hear from you. Check out the repository and raise an issue (or, even better, send a pull request).


A More Complicated Example

Let's look at the more complicated example from the beginning.

Here is the example again (thanks to reference fields, it's perfectly in sync with the first instance):

Say we allocate 3.0 billion](budget=[0..10;0.1]&margin-right=1ch) for the following program: Car-owners who trade in an old car that gets less than [17 MPG](old_MPG_limit=[5..30]), and purchase a new car that gets better than [24 MPG](new_MPG_limit=[5..50]), will receive a [3,500 rebate.

We estimate that this will get 828,571 old cars off the road. It will save 1,068 million gallons of gas (or 68 hours worth of U.S. gas consumption.) It will avoid 9.97 million tons CO2e, or 0.14% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The abatement cost is 301](dollars_per_ton_CO2e&margin-right=1ch) per ton CO2e of federal spending, although it’s [-20 per ton CO2e on balance if you account for the money saved by consumers buying less gas.

And here's what it actually looks like (the first example):

Say we allocate [$3.0 billion](budget=[0..10;0.1]&margin-right=1ch) for the following program: Car-owners who trade in an old car that gets less than [17 MPG](old_MPG_limit=[5..30]), and purchase a new car that gets better than [24 MPG](new_MPG_limit=[5..50]), will receive a [$3,500](rebate=[0..20000;100]&margin-right=1ch) rebate.  
We estimate that this will get [828,571 old cars](cars_traded&margin-right=1ch) off the road. It will save [1,068 million gallons](gallons_saved&margin-right=1ch) of gas (or [68 hours](hours_of_gas&margin-right=1ch&margin-right=1ch) worth of U.S. gas consumption). It will avoid [9.97 million tons](tons_CO2_saved&margin-right=1ch) CO2e, or [0.14](_percent_annual_emissions)% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  
The abatement cost is [$301](dollars_per_ton_CO2e&margin-right=1ch) per ton CO2e of federal spending, although it’s [-\$20](dollars_per_ton_CO2e_on_balance&margin-right=1ch) per ton CO2e on balance if you account for the money saved by consumers buying less gas.  

A few points to note:

  • The number in the text representation determines display precision. If you're familiar with format strings, 3.0 is converted to %.1f, 17 to %d, 3,500 to %'d3, etc..
    • You can also use format strings directly in the text representation, e.g., [%'d old cars](cars traded), but I don't recommend this because it won't be compatible with standard Markdown.
  • [0..10;0.1] specifies a range with a step-size equal to 0.1. By default, the step size is 1.
  • I haven't figured out spacing yet (hence &margin-right=1ch)

Cars Traded

Here you see one more trick in interactive Markdown: A link containing an inline code element of the kind [`variable_name`](variable_name) is a reference label. It gets a TKLabel class for easier formatting, and, eventually, will synchronously darken whenever you highlight any references to or dependencies of its variable.

Gallons Saved

This is where my example diverges from Victor's example. His calculation uses the distribution of mileage over current cars and cars being sold. I haven't yet added distributions to the interactive Markdown spec (though I plan to), so you'll have to accept a less precise version. Note that the comments come from Victor's original work.

Average Mileage of Old Vehicles

Assume that traded-in cars are chosen with equal probability from the pool of eligible cars. We use the harmonic average because we'll be calculating gallons consumed for constant miles, so we really want to be averaging gallons-per-mile.

Alright so I haven't even actually added support for more complicated formulas like this. But it is coming.

Average Mileage for Vehicles Currently Being Sold

Assume that new cars are purchased with equal probability from the pool of eligible cars. The distribution really should be sales-weighted. I'm sure the data is available, but I couldn't find it.

Average Gallons Saved per Car Replaced

Assume that everyone who is buying a new car now would have eventually bought a similar car when their current car got too old. So the fuel savings from the program should be calculated over the remaining lifetime of the old car. Ideally we'd like the joint distribution of MPGs and age of the current fleet, but I can't find that data. So we'll just use averages.

Total Gallons Saved

The importance of models may need to be underscored in this age of “big data” and “data mining”. Data, no matter how big, can only tell you what happened in the past. Unless you’re a historian, you actually care about the future — what will happen, what could happen, what would happen if you did this or that. Exploring these questions will always require models. Let’s get over “big data” — it’s time for “big modeling”.

Hours of Gas Saved

Tons of CO2 Saved

CO2 comprises 95% of a car's greenhouse gas effective emissions. The other 5% include methane, nitrous oxide, and hydroflourocarbons. To account for these other gases, we divide the amount of CO2 by 0.95 to get CO2e (“carbon dioxide equivalent”).1

Percent Annual Emissions

That last one should read something like 0.14% for default options but not all formatting options are available yet.

Dollars per Ton CO2e

Dollars per Ton CO2e on Balance



  1. The difference is that I haven't yet added the possibility of inputting a distribution. So the calculations for average MPG of old versus new cars is less precise than in Victor's case. (On the flip side, this coarser model is easier to modify for today's transportation fleet.) 2

  2. It's a little confusing that cookies shows up on both the leftand right-hand sides. On the right-hand side, it has a semantic purpose: defining the variable cookies. On the left-hand side it has a purely stylistic purpose (to inform the reader what units we're using).

  3. Note: %'d is actually nonstandard. It puts commas (or periods) in the thousands places (depending on your locale). Another useful nonstandard addition is + or - for optionally separating the amount and magnitude as in -$20.

40. Welcome the free lunch - Ask favors

What is offered for free or at bargain rates often comes with a psychological price tag—complicated feelings of obligation, compromises with quality, the insecurity those compromises bring, on and on. The powerful learn early to protect their most valuable resource: independence and the room to maneuver. — The 48 Laws of Power (40. Despise the free lunch)

In Greene's world, there are no acts of kindness without agendas—"what is offered for free is inevitably a trick." Generosity, then, is just another weapon in your Machiavellian arsenal. He recommends that power-seekers try out this trick ("strategic generosity") themselves:

By giving the appropriate gift, you put the recipient under obligation. Generosity softens people up—to be deceived.

The main weakness in Greene's argument is that strategic generosity works both ways; it softens both the giver and recipient.1 When one performs a favor for others, they become more likely to perform favors for the other in the future. This is what's known as the "Ben Franklin Effect". In the great statesman's own words:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged"

Observances of the Law

Observance 1

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin was elected clerk of the General Assembly of Philadelphia. The next year, Franklin put himself up for reelection, only to find unexpected opposition from one of the newer members. Franklin prevailed in the election but was worried about his chances the following year, so he resolved to win over the affections of his new opponent. Rather than grovel and demean himself, Franklin chose another course:

"Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death"

Interpretation 1

Franklin knew the feelings of obligation that accompany unanticipated gifts frequently cause the strategy to backfire. Rather than making the recipient more likely to do something for the giver in the future, the gift fosters resentment. No one likes spontaneous debts.

To get around this, Franklin's technique is to shift the initiative from the gift-giver to the recipient. The first advantage is that the gift-giver cannot have thought of the favor as part of an elaborate ploy to win control over you. The second advantage is that the recipient alleviates some of the feeling of obligation.

The typical explanation for this phenomenon comes from the psychological theory of "Cognitive Dissonance". We usually give gifts to people we like, so giving someone a gift who we do not like confuses us. One way to remedy the dissonance between action and feeling is to change the feeling—for the gift-giver to increase their liking of the recipient.

Accordingly, if an individual performs a favor for a person about whom he initially has neutral or negative feelings, he may come to like that person as a means of justifying his having performed the favor. [1]

Alternatively, the Franklin Effect might play on the theory of Self-Perception: if we have not yet formed an opinion about someone that would inform our behaviors towards them, then our behaviors towards that person end up informing our opinion of them [2].2 This is the fake-it-til-you-make-it of human relationships.

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. — William James

But even when the giver and receiver are already well-acquainted, a regular exchange of favors is healthy and worth pursuing. Just a trickle of obligation flowing both directions is a great way to keep the relationship alive.

Observance 2

When Odysseus arrived at Phaeacia, shipwrecked, seaweed-crusted, torn, and battered, his only recourse was to trust in the generosity of the island's inhabitants. He approached the princess of the island who had taken her bevy of maids to do some washing at the seashore. Rather understandably, the maids' first reaction was to flee—who knows what this ragged guy (whose only covering was an olive branch) might want? But the princess, Nausicaa, stayed—she was too well-versed in the rules of xenia (=hospitality) to refuse a stranger in need.

“Strangers and beggars come from Zeus: a small gift, then, is friendly.”

She directed her maids to wash and dress Odysseus, who, in the manner of the Hollywood makeover, became the perfect picture of regal majesty. She then advised him how best to approach her parents for support, and, heading that advice, Odysseus was soon off again.

Unfortunately, Odysseus had a knack for getting shipwrecked (read: Poseidon liked to shipwreck Odysseus). The Phaecian ship with all its treasures (a gift from the Phaecians) went under just as the crew were coming up to Ithaca, Odysseus's home. He washed up on shore again the ragged beggar.

This time Odysseus's benefactor was his old swineherd, Eumaeus, who no longer recognized the king after the 20 year separation. Despite taking his king for a pauper, Eumaeus liberally extended his shelter, food, and company to the forlorn traveler. Then, later, when he became aware of Odysseus's identity, Eumaeus risked his life to help Odysseus reclaim his throne.

Interpretation 2

The small favor Odysseus asked of Nausicaa—an article or two of clothing—spiraled out of control. He soon gained his ticket home with a fair share of treasure to boot. On the giving end, Nausicaa's small act of generosity grew into unrequited love. It's the Franklin effect in extreme: the favor-asking stranger becomes a love-receiving intimate.

Asking Eumaeus for some food and shelter, meanwhile, led directly to Odysseus reestablishing his throne. He rekindles a dormant relationship, which was indisipensable when, at a later date, he needed to slaughter the suitors who had been infringing upon his home.

Odysseus knew when to put his trust in others. At his lowest moments, he had nothing else left over, so he had to resort to Greene's dreaded free lunch. But Odysseus never let these gifts demean him, and, by taking the initiative, he managed always to maintain a modicum of control.

Keys to Power

To understand the true purpose of unmitigated acts of generosity, we turn to an illustrative example from 1 Projects/Rationalia/LW/Concepts/Game Theory: the Prisoner's Dilemma3. For the unfamiliar, here's the situation: You and and an accomplice have been caught by the police for some heinous crime, and you've been taken to separate cells for interrogation. If both you and your accomplice hold quiet, then you can get away with a minor charge and only one year of jail time (the cops don't have enough evidence to convict for the full charge). If both of you testify against each other, then it's a two-year sentence. But if you testify and your accomplice does not, then you walk free, while your accomplice is locked away for three years. Vice-versa, if you're quiet and your accomplice blabs, it's three years for you.

What do you do? Cooperate with the accomplice by staying quiet or defect by blabbing to the police?

All other things being equal, rationally, there's only one right answer: defection. That's because if your accomplice cooperates, it's better for you to defect (no time vs one year), and if your accomplice defects, it's better for you to defect (two years vs three years). So even though it leads to the worst result on average, you expect two rational beings to always defect.

But all other things are rarely equal: the real-world has more than enough mechanisms that make defection unlikely. For one, the mafia boss that both of you report to will be none to happy to hear you've snitched—do you take the year or give your life? Forcing cooperation is one of the main functions (yes, benefits) of central authorities like governments. Less formally, your reputation among the criminal element is sure to take a hit if you're identified as a snitch. Even gossip has a function.

Perhaps most importantly, your interactions with your accomplice don't end with the jail sentence. After he gets out of his three-year sentence, you'll have some explaining to do. We begin to see why the "iterated" Prisoner's Dilemma—one which is repeated between the same parties many times—has a qualitatively different outcome to the one-off version.

In 1980, Robert Axelrod organized the first of his famous4 Prisoner's Dilemma tournaments. He invited research teams from the world over to compete against one another in an iterated Prisoner's dilemma. The result was that the most successful strategy was perhaps the simplest: "Tit for tat." A player taking this strategy starts cooperatively, then copies their opponent's previous action. This means they benefit optimally from cooperative players while limiting losses against defectors.


Tit for tat, however, has one major flaw: "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." If you pair two tit-for-tatters against each other, and one of them accidentally defects, then the two will enter a "death spiral." In one turn, player one cooperates, and player two defects. In the next turn, player one defects and player two cooperates. Then, player one cooperates again, player two defects again, and so on.

In order to remedy this vulnerability, there are more lenient versions of Tit for Tat: either leaky Tit-for-Tat which will randomly throw in a cooperation after a defection, or Tit-for-two-Tats, which requires two defections before changing behaviors.

“I have something that I call my Golden Rule. It goes something like this: 'Do unto others twenty-five percent better than you expect them to do unto you.' … The twenty-five percent is for error.” ― Linus Pauling

Here, we begin to see the true meaning of the free lunch. An unrequited favor is simply preemptive cooperation. It starts a tit-for-tat cycle on the mutually beneficial cooperative side. This leaves both players with a higher payoff over the long run.

In this light, the Ancient Greek concept of xenia is but a formalized version of Tit for Tat: it guarantees the starting point for any relationship with a stranger to be cooperation. The Franklin effect, meanwhile, is but a clever trick (albeit positive one) to get the other person to start cooperating with a minimal downside if they refuse.

Real life is not nearly as zero-sum as Greene makes it out to be. Fortunately, the difficult societal challenges are closer to iterated Prisoner's Dilemmas than a one-off game of Chicken. With the right strategy of aggressive cooperation, everyone stands to win.

As long as you are sure that your relationship with the gift-giver is a long one, accept their gifts readily, and be quick to counter with a gift of your own. Also, keep the exchanges ambiguous—you want both parties to feel like they still owe the other party something. As soon as you quantify the kindnesses, and it becomes clear that one person is in favor-bestowing debt, the other player has a reason to start defecting. Otherwise, if you wish to establish a long-term relationship, begin by asking a favor or imparting one yourself. Set the precedent with kindness, and who knows how far the collaboration might go.



  1. I'm not even going to argue the other point about hidden agendas and kindness. It is true sometimes, but as a universal statement, this cynicism is so obviously absurd, it would waste my time to linger on.

  2. At the end of the day, most psychological theories like these are ad-hoc, nigh unverifiable, and bordering on Astrology, but at least it's entertaining and food for thought.

  3. Apologies to those of you are fed up with every popular science account of Game Theory always beginning with the Prisoner's Dilemma.

  4. Among the right crowd.

  5. A different take on this is the "spatialized Prisoner's dilemma". You don't necessarily "compete" against the same players but against a small, self-contained, highly mixing population of players. Then "Tit for tat" emerges as a kind of "pay-it-forward" strategy. You're nice to your neighbors so they will be nice to their neighbors who will be nice to you. Read: your accomplice's buddies will come beat you up if you tattle.

1. Stop following your heart

If you dive into the self-help canon, you will stumble across the advice to discover your talents. We are all born, the story goes, with a unique set of fixed strengths: intelligence, creativity, athleticism, musicality, even our personality—abstract qualities like neuroticism and extraversion—end up etched in stone. So too, our interests, whether we prefer art and music over science and math or vice-versa, become inherent to who we are.

The obvious conclusion of this thinking is that, in order to make the most out of our education and careers (to be "successful") we should match these pursuits to our own strengths, qualities, and interests. We should respect our learning styles, cultivate our talents, find our passions, and follow our hearts.

This is awful advice.

Not because this line of reasoning is flawed but because the underlying assumptions are fantasy. In all the cases that matter, you are more flexible and adaptable than you are fixed or predetermined. You are, fortunately, a growing, adapting, dynamic mess of a person.

That's not to say you are a blank slate. On the contrary, each of us is born with a palette of preferences, occupying a unique, amorphous region on the personality-intelligence spectrum. Whether these early tendencies are ultimately genetic or environment, you remain a being of the biological world, and that world sets some hard limits. But with the right strategies, your initial position need not limit you. The abilities and qualities that define you most are the abilities and qualities most open to development.

Take innate talent. Sure, you probably won't flourish in the NBA if you're 5'2", but disqualifiers of this extreme are rare in ordinary life. As for measurable versions of "intelligence" and "creativity," scores like IQ and various creativity quotients are largely a farce [1] that is propped up by a fraudulent psychometrics industry peddling self-perpetuating pseudoscience. In the knowledge and service economy what matters are skills and tools—skills anyone can develop and tools anyone can acquire.

The same for "personality." Even the standard-bearers of the psychological literature (the 5and 6-factor models, aka OCEAN and HEXACO) have rather unimpressive predictive power outside the confines of the academic questionnaire.1 Your personality is too high-dimensional and dynamic to reduce to a limited set of fixed constants. Derivative ideas like a "learning style" fare even worse.[2]

In their defense, personality measures can be a source of useful vocabulary and good old-fashioned fun. But personality measures decide hiring practices, the fun stops. Just as flexible skill trumps static talent, what decides your behavior is not an immutable core of personality but a learned set of habits. Once you understand how habits form and fade, you will understand that your behavior and its outcomes are yours to shape. No personality needed (though certainly appreciated).

Even grit, the shiny new kid on the self-help block turns out to be a poser. It is not so much about imperturbable grit and will-power but unthinking, habitual momentum. Will-power is for suckers. Experts cultivate laziness—a special kind of laziness. They engineer their surroundings to make focus easy and undesirable behavior impossible. They know that the agent is only as static as the environment forces them to be. Change the input; change the output.

But most of all, the follow-your-heart cult fails because their foundational pillar, passion, is not innate.

Passion, like intelligence, creativity, and personality, is not hard-wired. To reiterate, we do already display different preferences at birth—for such things as faces, toys, and crying nonstop. However, preferences do not a passion make. (What fraction of three year olds actually ends up becoming firemen?) The causal link is opposite the standard picture: it is rare to acquire a sustainable, lasting passion before practicing it in person. Only by sowing the seeds of effort may we reap the fruits of passion. Rather than a hedonistic pursuit of spurious passions, we should consult the more durable pursuit of meaning. Do not do the things you impatiently want to do. Do the things that matter.

To find sustainable meaning, pursue higher purpose, and create lasting passion is the mission of a lifetime, and it does not come naturally. One has to train this ability with the right set of heuristics, tools, and systems. There's enough to fill a book.

But the message fits a paragraph…

Do not follow but lead your heart. Start with subtle preference without the expectation of enamoration. Find what matters and what is meaningful, not your heart’s destiny. Fuel your progress with the unstoppability of habit, and equip yourself with the skills and tools you need to achieve your higher goals. Once you chart a course, you will discover that passion follows close behind.



  1. Just one example (a more thorough and up-to-date breakdown will come later): A review by Costa and McCrae (1986) claims that "Over the past decade, a series of longitudinal studies have demonstrated that personality traits are stable in adulthood: There are no age-related shifts in mean levels, and individuals maintain very similar rank ordering on traits after intervals of up to 30 years." In the very same article, they "back" this claim up with the results of eight longitudinal studies. They write: "Personality scales tend to show longterm retest correlations of from .30 to .80 over intervals of up to 30 years." Now, .30 to .80 sounds good until you realize that even an upper limit of .80 means the first test score explains only about 64% of the variance in later test scores. At the median retest correlation of .57, almost 70% of your personality is explained by something other than your continuity of existence. I don't know about you, but I prefer to see this glass as half-full. [3]

18. Use strategic isolation

As a temporary recluse. . . isolation can help you to gain perspective. Many a serious thinker has been produced in prisons, where we have nothing to do but think. . . . The danger is, however, that this kind of isolation will sire all kinds of strange and perverted ideas. You may gain perspective on the larger picture, but you lose a sense of your own smallness and limitations. . . Be careful to keep your way back into society open. — The 48 Laws of Power (18. Do not build fortresses to protect yourself: isolation is dangerous).

As ever, Greene is right: isolation can be either an indispensable tonic or lethal toxin; it all depends on the dosage. What escapes him is that in the information age, the value of regular and extended bouts of solitude has exponentially increased while the associated risks have nearly vanished. It is easier than ever to reconnect to the world after a long pause and more advantageous than ever to occasionally escape it.

Observance of the Law

In 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen read about the MITS Altair 8800 in the January issue of Popular Electronics. The Altair was soon to become the first commercially successful personal computer, and Gates and Allen, like many other geeks of their period, could see they were crossing the threshold of a new age. Soon hardware would become so affordable that software would enter the realm of consumer business.

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The two called up Ed Roberts, founder of MITS, to announce they had an interpretor for BASIC that ran on the Altair. Would he be willing to license it? Not only innovators in software but also in sales strategy, Gates and Allen were prototyping what would become known as "vaporware"—a fancy synonym for "lying". They had no interpretor nor even an Altair to test code on. Skeptical but indulging, Roberts arranged for future Microsoft to demo its code several weeks later at the MITS headquarters in Albuquerque. [1]

What followed was a binge of—well—Gatesian proportion. First, they needed to procure an Altair. They settled for emulating one on the PDP-10 in Harvard's Aiken lab. While Allen was busy writing an emulator (with only the Altair's instruction manual as reference), Gates was already storming away at the BASIC interpretor code, content to write on yellow legal pads until the emulator was ready.

Gates gave up studying for exams and even his obsession with poker. For eight weeks, Gates and Allen, along with Monte Davidoff (who they had hired to write the math module), spent day and night perfecting the code.

“He’d be in the middle of a line of code when he’d gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard,” Allen said. “After dozing an hour or two, he’d open his eyes, squint at the screen, blink twice, and resume precisely where he’d left off—a prodigious feat of concentration.” [2]

The miracle above all other miracles is that, at the end of this marathon, when Allen flew down to demo the interpretor in person, it worked. Their code had never seen the Altair in person, yet it did what it was supposed to. It is rumored that the demo gods have never again been so indulging.


Today's software developers tend to stick to one of the many agile methodologies: Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), etc. The overarching idea is that development should be iterative, incremental, and evolutionary. Shorter build sprints that clash more regularly with actual users exerts pressure on products to solve real-world needs rather than the whims of—let's admit it—not particularly representative software developers.

Agile development is anti-isolationism manifested as a software philosophy, and its popularity is worth celebrating: software today is, on the whole, vastly more user-friendly than it used to be. Even so, we should not altogether discount the value of the occasional creative binge in technology. Some types of products need to be more complete before they can be put out into the real world: a BASIC interpretor is one such example, others include product with sensitive usecases, such as in security and healthcare. Like a good wine, these products require a period of isolation to reach maturity. There is never just one answer to building great products.

Keys to Power

In technology occasionally, in science often, and in the arts usually, isolation is a wonderful stimulant of creativity.

Bill Gates still organizes a semiannual reading and thinking week. He retreats to an isolated cabin cut off from internet and restricts his input to only written material and outsourced meals. Clarity of thought requires time and distance.

"The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born. That is why many of the earthly miracles have had their genesis in humble surroundings." — Nikola Tesla

Tesla may have died a pauper, but, in posthumous compensation, few other technologists are remembered for such breadth of influence. That the electric vehicle company is named "Tesla" rather than "Edison" goes to show who really won that competition.

In physics, the year 1905 will forever be remembered as Einstein's annus mirabilis. He published four ground-breaking papers (each of which might have independently warranted a Nobel Prize): on the photoelectric effect (for which he actually got the prize), on Brownian motion (which paved the path to experimentally verifying the atomic theory of matter), on special relativity, and on his famous e=mc2e=mc^2 formula. All while Einstein was spending his working week at a patent office—in his words, the "worldly cloister" that "hatched [his] most beautiful ideas" [3].

Gregor Mendel conducted his pioneering work on genetics as a monk at an actual cloister: the Augustinian monastery of St. Thomas in what is now Brno, Czechia [4]. That said, it was not quite the secluded outpost you might imagine it to be; the monastery had been a center of learning in the area for centuries [5]. Nor was Mendel entirely without scientific connections. He published his work abroad and lectured before dozens of scientists, including the leading biologist Carl Nägeli. Still, one doubts1 whether Mendel could have had as much success in a more urbane setting. His breakthrough results demanded years of patience, and few other employments would have afforded him this luxury in such abundance. Mendel's major weakness seems to have been the externally imposed kind of isolation rather than the self-imposed kind. The scientific community ignored his results until decades later, well after his death. Who knows where we might be today if only Darwin and Mendel has cross-pollinated their ideas.

Moreover, we ought to retire into ourselves very often; for intercourse with those of dissimilar natures disturbs our settled calm, and rouses the passions anew, and aggravates any weakness in the mind that has not been thoroughly healed. Nevertheless the two things must be combined and resorted to alternately—solitude and the crowd. The one will make us long for men, the other for ourselves, and the one will relieve the other; solitude will cure our aversion to the throng, the throng our weariness of solitude." — De Tranquillitate Animi (Seneca)

The world of art, in particular, is filled with the stories of successful semi-isolationists. Impressionists like Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, and later post-impressionists like Gaugin, van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat—all routinely retreated to the countryside where they could capture landscapes unencumbered by academic expectations. They eventually had to return to major cities to display their own works and share inspiration 2, and it was by alternating city and country that art finally escaped the shackles of photorealism. Progress often means forgetting the old, and people do not readily forget when together.

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"I propose that if you want a simple step to a higher form of life, as distant from the animal as you can get, then you may have to denarrate, that is, shut down the television set, minimize time spent reading newspapers, ignore the blogs. Train your reasoning abilities to control your decisions; nudge System 1 (the heuristic or experiential system) out of the important ones. Train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical. This insulation from the toxicity of the world will have an additional benefit: it will improve your well-being."— The Black Swan (Nicholas Nassim Taleb)

As in the visual arts, so in music. Eric Satie, who might today be diagnosed a hoarder (among many other clinical labels), spent decades mostly holed up in a tiny falt in Arcueil, dressed in an invariable costume of grey velvet. He was in contact with other artists (see, for example, the ballet Parade jointly produced by Satie, Cocteau, and Picasso), but, all-in-all, he consummates the ideal of recluse. João Gilberto, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, none of these were quite as eccentric as Satie, but all demonstrate that moderate reclusiveness need not impede musical brilliance.

We come finally to the written word. The most famous literary recluse is likely J. D. Salinger, who lived most of his life at an unknown address in Cornish (the middle of nowhere, more or less). He granted one interview in 1953, felt betrayed by the interviewer, then built a fence around his property and rarely spoke to the press ever again [6]. His example is not particularly vindicating of isolationism since his output dwindled to nothing during his self-imposed exile. Still, there are plenty of literary recluses who managed to publish throughout the years of solitude: Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Pynchon, even Harper Lee ultimately wrote a sequel.

Isolation might not win you Greene's political variety of power. But it can be a worthy tool in pursuing the more productive varieities of power—technological, scientific, artistic. Our interconnected world makes it easier than ever to return to the world at large after a protracted absence. In principle, anyone has a chance on the activity feeds of Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, TikTok, HackerNews, etc. True, some of these platforms are less than conducive to long-form, thought-intensive content, but, at least, spending a decade as a hermit no longer means you have to spend the rest of your life meditating in the same cave.

Meanwhile, most of us have lost our attention spans to the surveillance algorithms. We're locked in cycles of endless consumption, thus unable to produce by ourselves. When you feel that pressure, take a page from the history books, and consider stepping away from the multitude.

As a very practical takeaway, start group brainstorms with a silent individual brainstormwithout already committing yourselves to any particular solution. When we argue our cases from the start, the net result tends to be a dilution rather than concentration of the best ideas.3 Otherwise, the initial anchor prevents you from covering new ground—you constantly cycle through the same ideas, unable to step outside.

In sum, whatever the concentration—a five minute pre-meeting meditation or five year prison sentence—isolation is invaluable if you just take the opportunity.

"Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe." — Tao te ching (42)


  1. That is: I, the author, doubt.

  2. For some, like van Gogh, the return was, unfortunately, posthumous.

  3. This is perhaps part of the reason that Jeff Bezos starts all meetings with a half hour of silent reading.