In Soil We Trust

Last weekend we gathered in Granville for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association 33rd annual conference.  Delightful place, beautiful people, nurturing event. We met new friends, we learned new things, we started new conversations, but the ideas have long been around, expounded, admired, grappled with.  Their time has come, we like to say.  Although we still struggle, as a society, in adapting in meaningful ways to the ecological imperative that inspire both OEFFA’s work and Slow Money’s vision, sustainable agriculture is among the most reliable sources of gratification and hope, among the strongest bulwarks against despoliation and despair.  Something to be invested in …

Catalyzing investments in the local food systems, creating and expanding a nurture capital industry, investing as if food, farms and fertility mattered is easier to say (approve of, congratulate, exhort, etc.) than to do.    Not only it takes time and money, like with many other things that are also easier said than done.  But time and money, the building blocks of finance, are both at the center of the transformative action.  Slow, first, Money, second.  Slow Money.  Woody’s choice from his book for his keynote speech seems quite apt in this regard.

<<… Money that is too fast creates an environment in which, when questioned by the press about the outcome of the credit crisis, former treasury secretary Robert Rubin can only respond, “no one knows.”

There is an appropriate velocity for water set by geology, soils, vegetation, and ecological relationships in a given landscape.  There is an appropriate velocity for money that corresponds to long-term needs of communities rooted in particular places and to the necessity of preserving ecological capital.  There is an appropriate velocity for information, set by the assimilative capacity of the mind and by the collective learning rate of communities and entire societies.  Having exceeded the speed limits, we are vulnerable to ecological degradation, economic arrangements that are unjust and unsustainable, and, in the face of great and complex problems, to befuddlement that comes with information overload (David Orr, as cited in Our Land, Our Selves, edited by Peter Forbes (San Francisco Trust for Public Land, 1999).

As long as money accelerates around the planet, divorced from where we live, our befuddlement will continue.  As long as the way we invest is divorced from how we live and how we consume, our befuddlement will worsen.  As long as they way we invest uproots companies, putting them in the hands of a broad, shallow pool of absentee shareholders whose primary goal is the endless growth of their financial capital, our befuddlement at the depletion of our social and natural capital will only deepen.>>

Slow is therefore the imperative, rather than an adjective.  Yet it is relative, rather than absolute.  We need Slow Money fast, as someone once quipped, is not only easier said than done, but it also misses the point.  Appropriate velocity and carrying capacity, quantitative growth and qualitative development are all required for social relationships to take root, expand and prosper.  They build over life cycles, not quarters or fiscal years.

Relationships have of course been a central and recurrent theme of our three days in Granville.  From the value chains pioneered in Athens and across central Appalachia, to the conviviality way reasserted by CSAs, food coops and investment clubs.  Relationships are more difficult than transactions, for sure, but they also are the cure against the “cold evil” of  “totalitarian technologies”, to quote from Andrew Kimbrell’s equally important remarks, which refuse to acknowledge how “the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of ecology” (an economist-friendly formulation of the ecological imperative … maybe they’ll get it).

Relationships are built on trust.  A particularly insidious and self-destructive trait of the unjust and unsustainable economic arrangements evoked in both keynote speeches is the disruption of this crucial component of social interaction.  The repeated betrayal of public trust is just one of the many shared features of the food and financial crises, but it may speak more about the state of our democracy rather than specific dynamics of either industry or system.  It is in the intimacy of face-to-face exchanges, however, that trust is directly and most vividly experienced, fostered or broken.  This is particularly true with money and investments.

Which outcomes and relationships can we expect from the endless growth of financial capital or GDP, the endless quest for the highest risk-adjusted return – all of it at a ‘safe’ distance, of course, and framed by economic imperatives like utility maximization (whatever that is) and opportunity cost?(*)  Is it possible to bridge the gap between money and beauty, money and fairness, money and truth?  We believe it is.  Sustainable agriculture (organic & beyond) is the bedrock of the sustainability transition and is learning how to do it.  Why don’t you join us?  In soil we trust.

(*) Update March 4, 2012:

Last Thursday night, while driving home from a great Slow Money NEO meeting in Cleveland  (thanks so much Erich for hosting us and Jan for facilitating it!), I listened to a riveting 2011 lecture by Raj Patel: Feeding 10 Billion.  Following many insights on the often misconstrued “Green Revolution”, Raj briefly touches again on the principle of opportunity cost.  In particular, he uses it to challenge mainstream assumptions of our agricultural policy experts.  Previously, in his latest book (The Value of Nothing), he made the fundamental observation that “there is no single opportunity cost.”  This is particularly noteworthy for our Slow Money work, as the mantra “money has a time value” is just a financial offspring of the same foundational idea of modern economics. Money has a time value, has it not?  We will certainly have the opportunity to learn more about such cornerstone of our financial architecture.  In the meantime, please find the time to enjoy the lecture!

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