A few years ago, I got a call from New York Times reporter Ron Lieber, who writes for the Your Money column.
“My next column,” he told me, “is going to be called ‘Investing For The Truly Fed Up’. I can’t tell you how many folks I hear from who don’t want to invest in the military or sweatshops or tobacco or gambling or nuclear power, and now there’s a whole new wave of folks who are adding fossil fuel to the list. I came across Slow Money recently. Many of these same fed up folks are interested in organics. So, my question is: For those who want to avoid all those bad things, and who are interested in organics and local food, but who still need to make 7% on their retirement account, what does Slow Money have to offer?”
“Ron, I was right with you up until the 7%,” I replied. “If you really believe in avoiding that litany of things you listed, then you can’t end the sentence with, ‘But I need to make 7%.’ When it comes to certain things, you need to stop doing the numbers the 20th century way.”
I could include, here, a litany of financial statistics that fiduciaries use to analyze the risk and return of investments and another litany of social and environmental statistics that fiduciaries, following their fiduciary duty, generally feel compelled to exclude.
But this is not about numbers—doing these numbers vs. doing those numbers. This is about reaffirming the primacy of words over the claims on our attention made by numbers. Reaffirming the primacy of relationships over the claims of transactions. Reaffirming the primacy of nutrition over the claims of cheap calories. Reaffirming the primacy of places over the claims of markets. Reaffirming the primacy of generations and seasons over the claims of milliseconds and algorithms. Reaffirming the primacy of putting back in over the claims of taking out.
Words over numbers. Take the title of this book:
Literally, a word over a number. Look closely and you’ll see that they are almost reversed images of one another. Flip SOIL down, on its head, and it almost turns into 2017 (but the L makes a backwards 7). Not quite a figure/ground trompe l’oeil, but a curious visual serendipity, nonetheless. Vaguely Escheresque.
Graphic artist M.C. Escher gained considerable fame in the mid-twentieth century for his symmetrical designs and figure/ground images. His work is a kind of ultra-sophisticated visual primal scream, warning that we must not let the conventional way of seeing things have sovereign over our thoughts. Escher used elements of perspective, architecture, and symmetry to integrate the possible and the impossible; staircases that lead up and down at the same time, floors that are also ceilings, planes that seem three-dimensional, patterns that merge living things and geometric forms. He joined dualities in overarching unities. You can see, at the extremes, fish and fowl and day and night as being wholly separate, yet at the center Escher’s aesthetic holds them together, makes them one, suggesting an ethos of intimate connection and interdependence.
Figure meets ground meets biology meets geometry meets quantity meets quality meets here meets there meets technique meets enigma.
I was intrigued to discover the following passage from Escher’s 1953 lecture to Friends of the Stedelijk Museum in Alkmaar:
It may seem paradoxical to say that there are similarities between a poetical and a commercial mind, but it is a fact that both a poet and businessman are constantly dealing with problems that are directly related to people […] The business-like mind is sometimes described as being cold, sober, calculating, hard, but perhaps these are simply qualities that are necessary for dealing with people if one wants to achieve anything. One is always concerned with the mysterious, incalculable, dark, hidden aspects for which there is no easy formula, but which form essentially the same human element as that which inspires the poet.1
His conclusion about what is necessary in business leaves me with many questions, but we can all agree that computer algorithms and derivatives and ultra-fast trading are, particularly to the layperson (but, also unfortunately, too often to the highly-incentivized financial professional), “mysterious, incalculable, dark, hidden aspects for which there is no easy formula.” Business as figure, poetry as ground—it would seem that there is no duality that Escher could not fuse into an overarching unity.
And, so, I would like to offer for his posthumous consideration the following as a figure/ground stumper: Industrial food systems. Industrial food systems are a figure without a ground. CAFOs,2 GMOs,3 NPK,4 high fructose corn syrup, Roundup, mouthfeel texturants, Polysorbate 80, transfats, Yellow Dye Number Whatever, feedlots, manure lagoons, Cocoa Puffs, untold BTUs spent processing, distributing, refrigerating, and freezing food—these all are part of a figure that has no ground.
And a figure without a ground, like a house divided, cannot stand.