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Woody Tasch: Recognizing the Value of Small Ideas

In our search for answers to the great questions of our day, we would be well served to listen less to economists and more to philosophers, poets, ecologists, entrepreneurs, and farmers.

To see what might lie beyond the Era of Economics, we must look above the top line and below the bottom line. I mean this almost literally. Above the top line is the region of the “meta,” what E. F. Schumacher called meta-economics. Below the bottom line is the territory of the “sub,” as in subterranean, not in the sense of journeying to the center of the earth or anything that science fictional, but something equally fantastic and preposterously too non-commodifiably invisible to the modern and postmodern mind: the rich, symbiotically phenomenal, mysteriously fertile life of the soil.

“A very good idea” would be a civilization that did not strip its topsoil, turn it into cheap food and highly processed food products of questionable nutritional value, and put its faith in markets at the expense of places.

Civilization is a big idea. So is the idea that as soil goes, so goes civilization. So is the idea that as money goes, so goes the soil.

We don’t need any more big ideas. We need small ideas. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful because they lead to a large number of beautiful, small actions, the kind alluded to by Wendell Berry: “Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be solved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints.” …

We have slipped during the past half century, as if pulled by the gravitational or centripetal forces of population growth, technological innovation, consumerism, and markets, into a food system that treats the soil as if it were nothing more than a medium for holding plant roots so that they can be force-fed a chemical diet.

We have become dependent on technology and synthetic inputs, subsidized by what was, until very recently, cheap oil, which facilitated not only the production of nitrogen fertilizer, but also the management of large-scale, mechanized farms and the energy-intensive system of processing and long-range transportation necessary to bring agricultural products to distant markets. Agriculture accounts for more than 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—all the more shocking when one realizes that recent science indicates that fertile soil is a potent carbon sink, holding the potential to play a significant role in remediating global warming. …

No, no one ever sat down and designed such a system. Yet it is precisely such a technology-heavy, extractive, intermediation laden food system that we now need to remediate and reform.

This is the system that has evolved in the wake of global capital markets and the investors who use them, much as industrial farmers use their land—as a medium into which to pour capital in order to harvest maximum yield.

In August 2007, at the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Gala for the Rocky Mountain Institute, eminent panelists tried to answer questions posed by moderator Thomas Friedman: “If this is a win-win-win, if these new technologies and design solutions are so elegant and so profitable and so clean, what is holding them back? Where is the resistance to these innovations coming from?” Unexpectedly, since this was not a finance conference, the group discussion zeroed in on CEO compensation, short-term financial incentives, and the structure of capital markets.

Inventor Dean Kamen opined from the dais: “Venture capitalists have great enthusiasm but short attention spans. We are stuck in a nineteenth-century way of thinking that leads to large-scale, centralized production and power generation. We don’t have the mind-set to really invest for the long-term in small-scale solutions that would improve life for billions of people.”

Such questions and observations lead to the premise for a new kind of financial intermediation, going by the improbable name of “slow money.”

That premise is this: The problems we face with respect to soil fertility, biodiversity, food quality, and local economies are not primarily problems of technology. They are problems of finance. In a financial system organized to optimize the efficient use of capital, we should not be surprised to end up with cheapened food, millions of acres of GMO corn, billions of food miles, dying Main Streets, kids who think food comes from supermarkets, and obesity epidemics side by side with persistent hunger.

Speed is a big part of the problem. We are extracting generations worth of vitality from our land and our communities. We are acting as if the biological and the agrarian can be indefinitely subjugated to the technological and the industrial without significant consequence. We are, as the colloquial saying puts it, beginning to believe our own bullshit.

Originally published in Sustainable Industries Magazine [1].

Woody Tasch is the author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered [2].