Articles By This Author
Buffett, Gates and the Story of Enough (Woody Tasch)
Vermont Commons - January 4, 2011
“When is enough enough?” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders asked during his filibuster against the Lame Duck tax bill in December. During the speech, he referred to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the world’s richest three people. (If you haven’t been paying attention, they’ve been pushed down to the number two and three spots by Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecom tycoon who is now worth $53.5 billion.)
The reference to Gates and Buffett in a speech about Enough was a result of their project called the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to give away more than half their wealth. And while this may not seem immediately relevant to life in the hills of Hardwick or the dales of Dorset, it raises important questions about the meaning of Enough, about ways in which we might, as a society, secede from the cult of He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins and, maybe, just maybe, about ways to put back into the soil—the soil of the restorative economy and the actual soil—what we take out.
Ask any earthworm. Here are a few data points from Earthworm Economics:
• There are some 1,000 billionaires on the planet, 400 of them American.
• In an acre of fertile soil, there are 50,000 to 2 million earthworms, none of them American. (Estimates range widely, conditions vary from hummock to swale, from Butterworks Farm to Lucky Penny Farm to Full Belly Farm. There is no Earthworm Department of the Census or Forbes list of the richest 400 earthworms.)
• 90 million acres of American cropland is devoted to corn. 75% of this goes to feed livestock and cars. Since 1776, a third of America’s topsoil has eroded.
The story of Enough is told in chapters of money, food and soil.
In the 20th century, our food and our money became fast. Our farms became factories. The erosion of our soil accelerated, as did the erosion of our sense of connection to one another and our sense of collective purpose. Our money zoomed around the planet with ever accelerating speed, increasingly complex and abstract. We raised children who thought that food came from supermarkets and investors who thought that investments came from computer screens. We filled our land with chemicals, our portfolios with zeros and our heads with financial speculation. (“What will be the stock price of McDonalds on the day of the 10 billionth person?”) We ignored the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—not the one caused by BP’s oil, but the one caused over decades by billions of tons of agricultural run-off coming down the Mississippi River. In the 20th century, the idea of Enough became as rare as an earthworm under an ethanol plant.
In the 21st century, can philanthropy, even radically generous philanthropy of The Giving Pledge kind, come to the rescue? Can it rekindle an abiding sense of Enough?
Yes and No.
Yes, because the idea of giving away more than 50% of your money helps us all look in the direction of putting back as much as we take out. The act has about it both an air of ageless morality and a sense of modern urgency. The Giving Pledge may or may not contain, but is consistent with, an implicit recognition that facing the global predicaments of climate change, financial volatility, social inequality and political inertia, neither economic growth based on consumerism nor philanthropy as usual will be sufficient.
No, because if we are going to build a restorative economy, an economy that values preservation and restoration as much as it values extraction and consumption, an economy that heals broken social and ecological relationships while it creates wealth and commercial opportunity (rather than relying on strategies of Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later), we are going to need billions and billions of dollars of investment capital. We are going to need investment capital and investors of an entirely new kind.
We need to move beyond philanthropy as usual. Perhaps even more urgently, however, we need to move beyond investing as usual.
This recognition has lead thousands of us to the Slow Money Principles, one of which states:
Paul Newman said: “We need to be more like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out.” Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us ask:
• What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our money within 50 miles of where live?
• What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits?
• What if there were 50% more organic matter in the soil 50 years from now?
Today, what if, following the leadership of the Giving Pledge and in honor of the New Year, we were to make a resolution, no, our own kind of pledge, to set about the task of moving beyond investing as usual?
I am ready to make the following Slow Money Pledge:
I hereby commit to investing 1% of my money in small food enterprises near where I live, in order to enhance soil fertility, expand access to fresh food and build a healthier local economy.
In recent years, as market demand for local and organic has grown, and as aversion to the excesses of derivatives, hedge funds and all manner of financial razzmatazz has begun to take root, a new family of financial products and services has begun to emerge. Slow Money, with its local and national networks, is just one catalyst in this movement, this process of incubation and financial innovation. There are many others, including community development financial institutions, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Kiva, Kickstarter and RSF Social Finance.
Investing in small food enterprises offers us particular opportunities to roll up our sleeves, to sink our hands into the soil. That’s one reason why over $4 million has been invested in 11 small food enterprises that participated in Slow Money’s national gathering at Shelburne Farms last June.
As this national process builds, let’s continue to explore ways to collaborate with friends and neighbors to put money to work more directly at the local level. Let’s be ready to imagine and calculate in new ways the financial, social and environmental returns that will arise from such investing.
Where to start? How about buying a farm and leasing it on concessionary terms to a young organic farmer? How about expanding a CSA? What if groups of us in communities around the country undertook one such investment per year?
If we are more ambitious, and have the financial capacity, we could look to the infrastructure for farmers markets and local food distribution; community kitchens and food incubators; composting and seed production; slow food restaurants; niche organic brands; biologically benign agricultural inputs; regional food processing facilities; and, other enterprises that repair the holes left in the social fabric and ecological web by industrialization and globalization.
Only a precious few of us have 50% of multi-billions to give away. But many, many precious millions of us have money sitting in financial institutions, where it is under the guidance of Mr. Invisible Hand and Mr. Smokestacks In China and Mr. Slightly Better Regulated But Still Giving More Bonuses Than Ever Wall Street.
And while 1% isn’t 50%, it is an important beginning, a beautiful beginning. It is our start down the road to the world that comes after “Enough is enough.”
Read the original article.
What’s In the Slow Money Sausage?
Green Fire Times - November 1, 2010
We all know that the infrastructure of local food systems has been decimated over the past few generations. A few thousand of us, coming together under the banner of Slow Money, have begun working together to generate new sources of capital for the repair and restoration of some of what has been lost.
It’s going to take billions of dollars. Venture capital isn’t enough because the vast majority of small food enterprises don’t have the kind of proprietary technologies or scalability that venture capitalists require. Philanthropy isn’t enough because we are talking about farms and processing plants and distribution businesses and restaurants and seed companies and niche organic brands—all of which need investment capital, not grants. Government programs aren’t enough, because if we are going to build durable solutions to the shortcomings of industrial agriculture, they are going to be built one company and one investor at a time, at the local level, succeeding on the strength of real relationships between people in the places where they live.
How is Slow Money going about it?
We are building national and regional networks of investors, entrepreneurs and farmers. We are developing new financial products and services that will connect investors to their local food systems, enabling small and large investors alike, to support small food enterprises in their regions.
And we are stirring up a new national conversation about the relationship between money and the soil. Money and the soil? Yes. It turns out that more folks than you’d think are ready for this conversation. “The innate value of this kind of investing is so obvious to me,” stated a woman in Ashland, OR during a Slow Money discussion, “that I don’t care how much money I make.” What she went on to explain is that the benefits to her and to her community—more organic farms, more organic food available locally, a more robust local economy—were so obvious to her that she didn’t need to wait for a group of experts to come around and put it into numbers.
This is simple stuff. And it is radical stuff. Radical in the truest sense of the word. In the root sense.
Bringing the cash crunch back down to earth.
Posted January 15, 2009 12:00 AM
It is good, it is appropriate that we use the left side of our brain to study markets and industry segments and capital flows, to measure risk and return, to mete out liquidity and diversification and various instruments designed to intermediate efficiently between producers, consumers, and the natural systems on which all life depends.
But it is even better, at this moment in history, to use the right side of our brain and our whole heart, and whatever portion of our spirit can be brought to the task, to take the first steps, new steps, imperfectly charted steps, toward the realm of slow money.
We need to steer money, in its primary applications, that is, in those functions toward which it is deployed in the making of money, toward life, toward enterprises that enhance the quality of life, that preserve and restore fertility, biodiversity, and the health of bioregions and communities and the households that live in them, and away from enterprises that degrade quality in the name of quantity. This use of money, of investment capital as an antidote to the disease of excessive quantification is, in the words of a veteran McKinsey consultant, “tricky.”
There is something of financial homeopathy in it. A drop of slow money under the tongue of the body economic: What will its effect be on the health of the whole system? We cannot know, but we can assert and affirm our hope, our intimation that its effect will be salutary.
“We need to stop thinking about money as lubrication for a machine that is everywhere and nowhere at no given moment, and to start thinking about money as irrigation for the field of our intentions, which are expressed right here, right now, where we live and where we work. We need to stop giving priority to the imperatives of money’s explosive self-propagation and start giving priority to the imperatives of social implosion and impending ecological collapse.
Much of what the social investment initiatives of recent years are aiming at can be more directly, more fundamentally understood as a problem of the speed of money. Screened portfolios and shareholder advocacy work to heal the wounds caused by globalization and industrialization and corporatization. As critical as these means of redress are, most of their benefits are achieved not by slowing the economic speedboat down, but rather by minimizing some of its impacts as it speeds through the harbor.
Environmental degradation, a throwaway consumer culture, cheapened food (rich in empty calories and chemical additives), media programmers who live by ratings, nightly news reports that cover daily fluctuations of market indices – these are inevitable byproducts of an economy whose decision making is driven first and foremost by the imperatives of financial markets, an economy in which money, unleashed through the power of technology and unfettered by either connection to place or the human face of exchange, has taken on a life of its own, a speed of its own.
Fast money does violence to the web of relations on which the health of communities and bioregions depends.
It is not enough to steer money in new directions. We must slow money down.
We are surrounded by the explosive creation of wealth that drives venture capital.
Since its IPO in August 2005, Google’s stock price has shot up from $95 to more than $600, representing an increase in market capitalization from $25 billion to more than $200 billion. Google is the prototypical venture capital deal, the epitome of a process that bets billions of dollars per year on a few thousand technology companies. It is a symbol of virtually limitless upside. A Google search weighs nothing, is silent, and has, to its user, no immediate ecological footprint or cost – an apparently perfect manifestation of the Invisible Hand at work. Although it is possible to imagine a fiduciary asking, “How many McDonald’s are too many? Can the world sustain 50,000 McDonald’s and a trillion hamburgers?” it is impossible to imagine a fiduciary ever asking, “Would a trillion Google searches a day be ‘too many’?” Google is a portal to the world of unlimited upside, the world of unlimited information and entertainment, the world of unlimited shareholder entitlement.
It is deeply disturbing to stand at the edges of such extreme wealth, such extreme speculation – even when successful – and peer into the expanses of such unrelenting poverty: poverty of abandoned building and abandoned village and field abandoned to mall, poverty of slum and ghetto, poverty of pollution, poverty of congestion and sprawl, poverty of cheapness and impermanence, poverty of gated community and security system, poverty as if ordained by an invisible hand, poverty of the devalued and the overvalued, poverty of entire populations who produce little but consume much, poverty of the near and the real overtaken by the distant and the virtual, poverty of empty calorie and long shelf life, poverty of plastic, poverty of divorce and displacement, poverty of erosion, poverty of proliferating portfolios, poverty of market mania, poverty of irrational exuberance, poverty of affluence.
Our ability to redress this poverty in the 21st century will depend on our ability to look beyond wealth creation of the venture capital kind, to look across the boundary of for-profit and nonprofit, to look past market indices, and to discover more integral, truer, more beautiful measures of progress and well-being.
With appropriate vision, we will come to see each transaction, each investment not only as a tiny moment of truth, but also as a small but critical opportunity to choose beauty over convenience, beauty over competitiveness, beauty over uniformity, beauty over control, beauty over making a killing, beauty over caveat emptor, beauty over commodification. Experiments in slow money are experiments in beauty and nonviolence.
Beauty was good enough for the title of E. F. Schumacher’s seminal work, and it should be good enough for us. He could have chosen Small Is Appropriate, or Small Is Good, or Small Is the Key to Health and Happiness. He chose the word beautiful; his attention focused on issues of scale, nonviolence, self-sufficiency and a “meta-economic” understanding of man’s place: “Divergent problems, as it were, force man to strain himself to a level above himself; they demand, and thus provoke the supply of, forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness, and truth into our lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites can be reconciled in the living situation.”
The unrelenting exercise of the calculus of economics has facilitated the slide toward one-dimensional management decision making, ugly commercial landscapes, horribly littered media spaces, and dumbed-down public discourse. We have noted, and debated with varying degrees of heat, the Death of God. Some have even noted what they have called the Death of Money, as currency shifted from gold to paper to bits of information. It is the Death of Beauty that concerns us here.
Products produced cheaply create ugly work lives and ugly households and ugly communities. Profits produced quickly cannot purchase patience and care. Patience is beautiful. Restraint and care are beautiful. Peace is beautiful. A small, diversified organic farm is beautiful.
There is nothing beautiful in the idea that we will only do no harm if we can, in so doing, make as much money as is generated in the doing of harm.
Pioneering companies like Stonyfield Farm seek to capture increasing amounts of Wal-Mart shelf space for organics and responsibly produced consumer goods. Pioneering venture funds like Greenmont Capital provide venture capital to organic food companies.
These important enterprises redirect capital away from destructive industrial activity and toward restorative economic activity. However, they do not influence directly the speed of money or redefine directly the role of investors in the evolution of capital markets.
Read the whole article here.