Salmon return. Boomerangs return. Hindus return. When things work out, investments return. Letters with insufficient postage return. So do infections, mosquitos, prodigal sons, wandering eyes, sideways glances, the hands of a clock, circular reasons, not-quite-infinite seasons, pendulums, memories, criminals to the scenes of their crimes, and stories to where they left off. Prior to the advent of Colony Collapse Disorder, bees returned. Heroes, real and mythic, return: Odysseus, Columbus, General Douglas MacArthur. Too many winks, verdicts, and tennis serves have been returned over the course of human history to be counted. The same goes for sweaters after Christmas. And, as long as there have been neighbors, economists, democratic entanglements, and governments, there have been many happy returns, diminishing returns, election returns, and tax returns.
Through it all, however, through all these physical, spiritual, emotional, postal, historical, mythical, electoral, recreational, and commercial goings and comings, there is one thing, in our infinite, industrial wisdom and pioneering spirit, that we haven’t returned.
Lulled into frenzied complacency by internal combustion and industrialization, we’ve taken carbon from the earth and put it into the atmosphere, treating an elegant, billions-of-years-in-the-making system of solar energy, cellular biology, photosynthesis, and carbon cycling as if it were a one-way street. The end result? An economy of tailpipes, smokestacks, superstores, turbo-charged financial markets, and petrochemical-doused industrial agriculture.
And the Mother of All End Results, climate change.
And the Sisters of All End Results, distrust and befuddlement.
Paul Newman, Sir Albert Howard, and armies of soil critters to the rescue.
Even in the era of venture capital Moonshots and billion-dollar Mars-shots, returning is as important as venturing forth. Coming back down to earth. Returning to “the ignorance which our growth requires.” Returning to humility and civility.
It wasn’t just a cute turn of phrase when Thomas Jefferson said, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.” Or when FDR said, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Or when Paul Newman said, “In life, we should be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.” Or when the founder of the Earthworm School of Fiduciary Responsibility and Peaceable Finance conjures up the Thoreauvian Fiduciary Activist.
But, not to worry, you won’t find the words Thoreauvian, fiduciary, or activism on a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing. Or in any Presidential proclamations. Or in an investment prospectus. For that matter, you may never see them again in a discussion of Slow Money or something called SOIL—Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally. Because they are awfully complicated terms for something as simple as making 0% loans to local farmers and food entrepreneurs.