We can’t all be Noam Chomsky or Ayn Rand or Wendell Berry or Bingo Pajama,¹ but that doesn’t mean each and every one of us can’t get the hint. We need a new story. Maybe even a new myth. We need to rediscover imagination.
Imagination that enables us to reckon our whereabouts in a world that is heating up and speeding up. Imagination that enables us to find our way past shallow punditry, tribal vitriol, global this and cyber that, past the hyper and the ultra and the mega. Imagination that leads us back to one another, to the places where we live, and to the land—not just the land of “this land is your land, this land is my land,” but also the soil itself, upon which all life depends.
My own journey in this direction has been catalyzed over the past decade by interactions with thousands of folks in Slow Money meetings, large and small, in dozens of communities.² It felt to me, at the outset, that we would do well to listen more to farmers and poets and less to CEOs and economists. Now, I’m ready to double down.
I’ll see your tweets, your big data, your Dow Jones Industrial Average, your political outrage of the day, and raise you thousands of csas,³ millions of organic beets, and a healthy dose of literary imagination, or, more specifically, some Thomas Mann, or, more specifically than that, some Hans Castorp, the protagonist in Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, which evoked Europe on the eve of the First World War. Surrounded by questions of civilization and decay, disease and health, Castorp has the epiphany of all epiphanies. Lost and exhausted in an Alpine snowstorm, it comes:
For the sake of goodness and love, man shall
let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts.4
Castorp found himself in a fictional blizzard; today, we are lost in a blizzard of the virtual and the fake.
Try this: Where Castorp says death, substitute terrorism or Twitter or, even… Twinkies.
For the sake of goodness and love, man shall
let terrorism have no sovereignty over his thoughts.
For the sake of goodness and love, man shall
let Twitter have no sovereignty over his thoughts.
For the sake of goodness and love, man shall
let Twinkies have no sovereignty over his thoughts.
Summon it and see that the rancor and uncertainty of the day, which seem so unprecedented, are subject to broad arcs of history:
|Agricultural Revolution||10,000 years ago|
|Ancient Greece||2,500 years ago|
|Europe Colonizes New World||500 years ago|
|American Revolution and the Invisible Hand5||250 years ago|
|Industrial Revolution||150 years ago|
|Tech Revolution and Population Explosion||50 years ago|
|400 ppm Carbon in the Atmosphere||1 year ago|
|22,000 Dow Jones Industrial Average||2017|
Summon it and see that, all the technological wizardry and wealth creation not- withstanding, we are exempt from neither the laws of gravity nor the wisdom of mythology. The ancient Greeks gave us Icarus and Pandora’s Box and we are still acting these myths out. We invented cars to get horse poop off city streets and now we’ve got carbon in the atmosphere. We deployed nuclear weapons as a deterrent and now we face proliferation and terrorism. We developed antibiotics and now we’re dealing with antibiotic-resistant superbugs. We’re empowered by Twitter and Facebook but we’re losing the integrity of our elections. We’re chasing the dream of terraforming Mars, but we can’t figure out how to stem soil erosion in Iowa, rebuild Baltimore, or save Aleppo.
Ok. I can’t circle around this topic without citing Einstein:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
(Unfortunately, a skeptic might suggest that the frequency with which such quotes appear in e-mail signatures indicates a certain deficit of collective imagination.)
Summon it and see that governmental, institutional, and economic levers have become too big and too complicated and too clogged with globalized money to do what needs to be done down here on the ground.
It took one of the greatest acts of collective imagination in history to give birth to the United States of America. Thinking big was what that moment in history required and the result was a new nation and a new democracy. In today’s world of global, instantaneous everything and climate change, it will take a new kind of collective imagination to reaffirm the value of the small, the slow, and the local, nurturing a new generation of healthy communities, healthy bioregions, healthy watersheds, healthy foodsheds, and healthy… moneysheds.
Of course, poetic flourishes and references to arcs of history are unexpected in a discussion about food and finance. Perhaps even a little off-putting. But here are a few things that are even more off-putting:
- Hundreds of grams of unaccounted for plutonium in Kazakhstan
- 720 milligrams of salt in an 8-ounce soup can
- Drone regulations that don’t have a prayer
- Counting on the stock market for an outcome that’s fair
I also find brow beating, ideological zeal, righteous indignation, climate change denial, falling water levels in the Colorado River, and the rise of the lowest common denominator not just off-putting, but scary.
So, in response to all of the above, and as inevitably as Left Hand Creek wends its way to St. Vrain Creek on the way to the South Platte, and the letter “J” finds its way between a first name and a last, I now ask:
Can we summon the collective imagination
to bring some of our money back down to earth?
Which leaves unanswered another question, for those who read Part One: Who is Georgescu-Roegen?
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen occupies an important place in the history of economic thought. He was one of the first 20th century economists to posit that economics is ultimately subordinate to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or, put another way, that the earth’s carrying capacity and ecological limits ultimately trump economics. This belief is still considered heretical, or largely irrelevant, by most economists.
Now, before you are deterred from further reading by discussions of economic history, let me reassure you that what we are up to, here, is as earnestly pragmatic as it is irreverently poetic.
What is more pragmatic than increasing the availability of local food? What is more poetic than a beautiful farm-to-table dinner? This is a way for us to put in place a few neighborly pieces of a puzzle that is vexing at the level of economic theory, systems thinking, national policy, or corporate strategy.
There is nothing vexing about a small, diversified, organic farm.
Here’s what Georgescu-Roegen said in 1966 in Analytical Economics—and note that he was very much a quantitative econometrician, whose work is studded with impenetrable formulas: “For better or worse, we have not yet discovered one single problem of understanding that the Greek philosophers did not formulate.”
I’m not suggesting that we have to go all the way back to the ancient Greeks to look for solutions to the loss of jobs in the Rust Belt, the rise of ISIS, or the shelf-life of Twinkies. I am suggesting that the arcs of history impel us to reevaluate the roles of technology and finance. Priorities in the 20th century—making global markets stronger, growing cities, industrializing agriculture, computerizing everything, and speeding everything up—need to be revisited in the 21st century. The blur of explosive growth makes it easy to forget that economic progress is not synonymous with health. It is easy to forget even relatively recent arcs of history.
Take, for instance, the arc of history that connects the counterculture of the sixties and seventies to the political dysfunction of today.
In the sixties, we had millions of angry young peaceniks. Today, we have millions of angry displaced factory workers. Hippies rejected the establishment then. Angry voters reject the elite today. It is sobering to think that all the progress of the past 50 years—voting rights, women’s rights, gay rights, landing on the moon, biotechnology, smart phones, the first black President, add to this list what you like—delivered us from the hippies only to drop us at the doorstep of today’s angry factory workers, with the structural ills of the economy getting worse, all the while.
An increase in the portion of our national budget spent on the military—from 10% in 1960 to 16% today (representing 54% of total discretionary spending and 37% of total world military expenditures)—is a structural ill. An increase in the percentage of corporate profits generated from the financial sector—from 7% in 1960 to around 30% today—accompanying a decrease in the percentage of corporate profits generated from manufacturing—from 50% in 1960 to 25% today—is a structural ill. A decrease in the amount of each American consumer’s food dollar that goes to the farmer—from 40 cents in 1900 to 7 cents today—is a structural ill. An increase in health care expenditures—from 5% of GDP in 1960 to 18% in 2016—is a structural ill (particularly in light of our ranking 26th globally in infant mortality and our trajectory towards a third of Americans having diabetes by 2050).
To begin moving in a new direction, we are going to need more than the protests of hippies and the quarrels of angry voters. We’re going to need some good old Thoreauvian fiduciary activism.
ENTER: The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Remember the movie Ghostbusters? The Ghostbusters were trying to empty their heads of all thoughts, because, courtesy of an evil spell, whatever they thought of next would appear, intent on wreaking havoc. Dan Aykroyd’s character, Dr. Ray Stantz, couldn’t help himself. Suddenly, a twenty-story-tall, puffy, angry, white, manufactured-food-product monster was lumbering menacingly down a New York City artery and Stantz could do nothing but ruefully confess, with goofy resignation, what had just popped into his head: “It’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”
Which makes me think, at this particular moment, “It’s the Thoreauvian Fiduciary Activist.” Not marching down the street in a movie, destroying buildings as he goes, but gently sneaking into our hearts and minds, reaching out to us, stirring a affection and humility, inviting us to join a conversation that has been going on since the first shekel purchased the first bushel of wheat, and, much later, the first nail was banged into the floor joists of Thoreau’s cabin beside Walden Pond.
After the Wall Street occupiers have left Zuccotti Park and the Water Protectors are gone from Standing Rock, after universities and church endowments have divested from fossil fuel, after all the pink-hatted marchers have gone home and the filibusterers have lost steam, after all the high fructose corn syrup has been removed from all the junk food and the last Twinkie has been sequestered in a basement vault at the Museum of Twentieth Century Mouthfeel,6 Shelf-life, and Cheap Calories, it falls to each of us to get in touch with our inner Thoreauvian fiduciary activist.
Henry David Thoreau lived 200 years ago, but his influence continues, inspiring the likes of Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben, to name an illustrious few.
Thoreau’s Walden set the bar of thinking and doing so poetically high and yet so pragmatically down to earth that it just may be that no one will ever again get over it or under it quite as eloquently and profoundly:
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
We are still figuring out, today, the relationship between means and ends, between economy and culture. The dissonance between how we make money and whether it is possible to give back enough to redress the ills inherent in the way we made that money is, still, the crux of the matter.
The modern economy has created 2,043 billionaires with a combined net worth of almost $8 trillion (up 18% in 2016); the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population owns more than everyone else combined; almost three billion people around the world have come to own smart phones in a little more than a decade; 86,000 private foundations in the U.S. have over $700 billion in assets; and yet this very same momentum of wealth creation and consumerism prevents us from responding adequately to the most fundamental crises of our time.
Thoreau’s wildly prescient words in Civil Disobedience still ring true for anyone concerned about how, despite best intentions, our money finds its way to distant activities in which we do not believe:
I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance […]
I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, cooperate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless […]
It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.
Where Thoreau refers to law, I hear markets. (Reread the preceding paragraph making that substitution.)
So, I believe that the most conscientious thing I can do is bring some of my money closer to home, shortening the distance between me and that which my money supports, lessening my complicity in distant ills and increasing my connection to things that I can support directly.
In times of war, we’ve always had conscientious objectors. In times of economic and political befuddlement, can we encourage a corps of conscientious investors? It’s a bit risky bringing up conscientious objecting, here, as it suggests that only peaceniks should mobilize to invest in local food systems. I’m taking the risk of that confusion because there is something in the concept of conscientious investing that is worth reflecting upon.
Objecting and protesting are, of course, cornerstones of democracy. Perhaps we need to rethink investing in a similar light. We tend to see investing as something to be done in private, looking inward, all about personal gain. We tend not to see it as a way of protesting or supporting, but, rather, purely as a numbers game. What if we looked at investing the same way we look at protesting? As a cornerstone of democracy? As a way for us to take a stand? As a way for us to connect with others around shared concerns, looking outward, focusing on societal health?
Now, I’m not talking about turning the entire conventional idea of investing on its head. (Kind of like turning the word soil on its head… but I get ahead of myself. More on that later.) Or, should we say, I am talking about turning the idea of investing on its head—but only for a few minutes a day, so that blood can flow in a different direction.
“We need economists and climatologists and marine biologists and hydrologists and politicians and geologists and industrialists and environmentalists all at the same table,” said a speaker at a recent renewable energy conference. “We need to think in terms of whole systems. We need multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary solutions.”
While she spoke, I thought of conference upon conference, report upon report, scientific study upon economic model, flow chart upon org chart, yards of elaborate graphic facilitations taped up on workshop walls, feedback loop upon feedback loop, certification upon certification, corporate disclosure upon corporate disclosure, policy upon policy, regulation upon regulation.
And then I thought about making a loan to a local organic farmer.
If we summon enough of it, can we see beyond multisyllabic economic and agricultural and technical jargon: sustainable, restorative, regenerative… wait… isn’t it just healthy that we’re after? As in, a healthy economy? As in, Agriculture for a Healthy America? Or is it Americans for Healthy Agriculture? AHA. AHA!
I’ve always been struck by one of Thoreau’s more convoluted sentences, “How can he remember well his ignorance, which his growth requires, who has so often to use his knowledge?”
How can we reckon well our whereabouts, which AHA! moments require, who have so often to use our financial knowledge?