by Anna Soref
Most people don’t know or really understand how big the number a trillion is: that a trillion seconds is 32,800 years; that if you had earned a million dollars every day since Jesus was born, you still wouldn’t have a trillion dollars.
We live in a society largely governed by money and yet most of us don’t truly understand the numbers bandied about when discussing our country’s debt or defense budget. In many ways our relationship with money is akin to that of food: we all need both to survive, yet most of us don’t know much about either’s life cycle anymore.
Response to our food disconnection has prompted a return to small farms and movements like Community Supported Agriculture and the Slow Food movement. Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered (Chelsea Green, 2009), wants us to apply these same principles to our economy, which is misunderstood and broken, he says. Tasch finds solutions to our economic woes, not in the government, but in the ground we stand on.
What’s Up with Our Money?
In 1960, 3 million shares were exchanged daily on the New York Stock Exchange; today that number is 5 billion. “The flow of money is now going so fast that it has gotten detached from daily life or anything we really understand anymore,” notes Tasch. “Five billion shares—what does that even mean?”
Big number shock value aside, the issue is really about acceleration, according to Tasch. “The global population in 1960 was probably only about 2.5 billion and it’s now 7 billion people; during that time the rate of stock market exchanges went up like a thousand- or two thousandfold, so the rate of increase is disproportionate.”
Tasch acknowledges that some people might question whether such an increase in exchange is a problem, that some people embrace speeding up. “You just have to use your own judgment. There’s no economist out there who is going to tell you that it’s too many transactions, but that is where common sense or intuition will answer these questions,” Tasch says.
Alongside exponential growth of economic numbers, Americans’ obsession with acquiring more money and fear of losing it are also ballooning. Tasch attributes this to our reliance on consumerism.
“A central characteristic that’s different about today’s citizen is that people produce practically nothing that they consume; we are almost all purely consumers. If you look at your house, it’s filled with things that you couldn’t make if your life depended on it. You are completely dependent on your purchasing power for everything that you consume.
“So if you live in a world like that, where there’s no garden in the back and you don’t know how to repair a single thing in the house, then the normal reaction is, ‘I better have more money.’ There’s no such thing as too much money in that world because the only thing I have as a lifeline is money. That is what’s different about being alive today,” he says.
Thus, we want more money; we feel as though our lives depend upon it; and yet the numbers have become so staggeringly huge, they’re almost incomprehensible.
At many of his Slow Money talks Tasch asks the audience to do basic math problems to help them conceptualize a trillion. About half fail. “The scale is already so colossal that we have kind of checked out on day-to-day understanding,” he remarks. “We are living in a society where transactions and dollars are dictating our future. You can’t just totally check out. You have to understand numbers enough to get a sense that something is wrong so that you can take control again.”
The Journey to Write It Right
The impetus for putting pencil to paper and writing the book Slow Money was not fueled by a single instance. No romantic epiphany occurred, no ‘aha moment’ in the middle of the night. Rather, the book and movement evolved from decades of life experiences and Tasch’s work in the financial sector.
Prior to founding Slow Money, Tasch was chairman of Investors’ Circle, a network of angel investors, family offices, and social purpose funds and foundations that has, since 1992, invested $150 million in 230 early stage sustainability-promoting ventures and venture funds.
“I could go back and say Slow Money was the result of reading Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, being introduced to Slow Food, or working in mission-related investing and the foundation world; but there’s no one factor—simply a certain stubbornness around recognizing that things are just so broken,” he says.
For Tasch, things began to break in the 1960s.
“There was a vehement antiwar movement, people getting shot on college campuses,” he recalls. “There were the assassinations of both Kennedys and Martin Luther King. They were all a very big part of the fabric of American life for many years. If you weren’t alive then, it’s hard to imagine what that does to your consciousness, to have major political and cultural leaders shot. It gets your attention in a way that cannot merely be shaken off; it is not just a debate about ideology. There were broad cultural discussions about how broken things were or how inadequate institutions were, about government being broken—you can throw Watergate in there.”
Now we are here, 40 years later, and government is still broken, but even more so, according to Tasch.
Will the situation finally change? “Courtesy of climate change, maybe,” Tasch responds. “Climate change is such a big imponderable clamp on our consciousness. And then underneath that there’s Wall Street collapsing, Washington is dysfunctional—all of our systems are starting to hit limits. So we’ve gotten too big, too complicated, and the negative consequences are too great,” he laments.
From the Ground Up
Our culture’s disharmony with nature that has led to years of living unsustainably is literally at the root of our economic dysfunction, Tasch believes.
“After doing some mission-related and angel investing work, I wondered why are we not having more impact?” Tasch continues. “The best-intentioned people and foundations are trying to do things differently, but there’s just a transaction here and a transaction there and it’s really not yet adding up to systemic change. I had the feeling that we weren’t addressing the root cause.
“While working on the book I was trying to think of the cause, and I came around to this idea that the soil is somehow the ultimate metric. If we can’t take care of our soil, if we can’t grow our food without destroying soil fertility, what kind of civilization do we have? It’s like the ultimate artificial subsidy,” he says.
Not taking care of the soil means not taking care of the air and water, as well. If we can’t take care of those things so as not to destroy the fertility of the soil that took eons to create, then we are going down a dead-end road, Tasch warns.
Alongside soil fertility, Tasch points to soil erosion. “Every year we are losing between one half and one percent of the arable land on the planet due to soil erosion,” he says. “A half to one percent! That means we have somewhere between X years and Y years before we have lost it all.”
While these statistics are very frightening, Tasch stresses that we must look beyond our own reaction of fear for survival. He believes the negative social and cultural consequences to living in a world that is destroying the soil in order to exist are linked to many of today’s problems, such as political dysfunction, terrorism, and economic collapse and dysfunction.
“They are all interrelated,” he tells us. “I think that living in a time when life is taking subsidies from eons of history on the one hand and future generations on the other, just so that we can have an ‘economy that’s growing,’ has broad implications. So, to me, the soil is a very powerful metaphor.”
To explain our shortsighted economic structure, Tasch uses a plant analogy—GMOs. “We’ve created ways of making food that we don’t really understand fully, just as we have with our economy,” he says.
“We are changing the genetic nature of plants so that they will produce more but with significant long-term risk. That’s kind of what our economy is doing—you put debt in to create some growth, but long term you don’t have a fertile or healthy situation. We keep pushing out the day of reckoning; we sort of all know in the back of our minds that one day these unhealthy consequences are going to come home to roost.”
That the health of the planet’s soil is intrinsically linked to money is reflected in the Slow Money movement’s six principles; for example, Slow Money Principle I: We must bring money back down to earth.
“This means not merely bringing money back down to earth so that we can understand it, which it does mean, but it also denotes thinking about all of the impacts of what we are doing on soil fertility,” says Tasch. “And the good news is that it’s not an abstraction, because a growing number of food enterprises are doing just that. They are bringing money back down to earth and creating economic activity in a way that can preserve our soil fertility.”
Forget Solutions from Washington
When you discuss next steps or solutions with Tasch, government doesn’t make the short list. He believes that national politics is not the right tool for our century.
“The chances of real fixes coming from Washington or any election are so small that I think it’s somewhere in the realm of a national tragedy that so many billions of dollars are spent and so many zillions of hours are used tracking and arguing about politics,” Tasch remarks. “Our institutions have shown us that response to the changing realities on the planet is not a priority.
“In the twenty-first century we need something in addition to philanthropy and government,” he states. “Our challenge is to create a new kind of economy that is creating jobs but is also healing social and environmental wounds. Not an economy that says, ‘Go as fast as we can and then at some time in the future we will try and clean up what’s broken.’ That was OK before we knew about climate change, or at least you could still make the argument that it was.”
So Slow Money is a manifestation of that—a group of investors who are willing to make less money than they have historically been able to make by investing in smoke stacks in China, Tasch says. “We are willing to take some of our money out of that other system and put it to work in a way which seems destined to give us less financial return, but we feel the imperative to start having this discussion.”
Building a New Solution
Instead of looking to government for solutions, Tasch advocates proactive steps that build the type of alternative future we want to see. He admits that’s a pretty abstract thing but says that when you start talking about building one enterprise at a time, it quickly becomes concrete. “So Slow Money is not trying to get into a fight with Monsanto or influence the farm bill or anything like that. Some of our members are; but we are really just on the path of getting investment into small food enterprise,” Tasch explains.
One of the six Slow Money principles asks, What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live? This means researching where to put that money by collaborating with neighbors—going down the street to figure out where the good things are to invest in. “It would take time and energy, and it’s going to be ‘harder’ and you might earn less, but it’s going to be infinitely more rewarding,” predicts Tasch. “It’s like what’s more enjoyable: eating a meal made of vegetables from the store or from your own garden? It’s more work, but the experience is more rewarding.”
Tasch emphasizes that Slow Money is not a rigid philosophy. “We are not either-or. I’m not saying that we should all quit going to the store and grow all our own food. And it’s the same thing with money: we shouldn’t take all of our money out of the other system, but maybe we should take 50 percent out.”
Again, Community Supported Agriculture: “We have to work in radically smaller units. And in Slow Money we are talking about the most radical of all, which is a CSA,” says Tasch. “It allows you to directly connect to the things you are investing in and directly bypass all those big macro scary things that no one can control anymore.”
So far Slow Money has catalyzed $10 million of new investment in small food enterprises. “It’s small in comparison, but we’ve engaged thousands of people around the country in small enterprises and it’s beginning to feel like the start of something that’s getting important,” Tasch reports.
The second annual Slow Money conference last October in San Francisco hosted more than 100 speakers and 850 attendees, who ranged from complete non-investors to high-level angel investors. “It’s very high energy and we’re all focusing on small food entrepreneurs around the country. It’s incredibly inspiring when you see 30 small food entrepreneurs on the same stage within a couple of hours,” says Tasch.
Businesses included everything from a grain mill in Maine trying to resurrect local milling to a company growing indigenous varieties of rice and one making non-antibiotic treatments for treating organic dairy.
In addition to the book and website, local Slow Money chapters are opening across the nation. Chapter meetings encourage discussion, reflection and action, Tasch says.
For Tasch, part of building the Slow Money movement is accepting the unknowns but moving forward with the seemingly simple doctrine of slowing down. “If my son looked at me and asked, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ I’d say, ‘I dunno.’ But I do know that taking our foot off the accelerator and trying to slow down and get some control of what is going on is the path forward—even though any one thing we do is woefully inadequate.”
Tasch’s personal commitment to Slow Money is strong, even when his family questions his direction. “My son recently asked me why I was doing what I am when I still have such earning power in the conventional investment realm. I told him I am on a mission now; I am not in control of my own life. This job has captured me and I need to see it through. But I understand it’s just frustrating as hell to know he has a dad who could be getting rich but is doing this other thing.”
A pessimist at heart, Tasch credits his determination to improve the world to waking up on the right side of the bed each day. “I’m 99 percent pessimist and 1 percent optimist. But each day I wake up on the optimist side of the bed.
“I really believe, based on the experience I’ve had with Slow Money for the past three years, that there’s a difference between how much money you make and what kind of a reward you get,” Tasch concludes. “And sometimes doing a different kind of investing can be far more rewarding even if it generates less money.”
To find out more about Slow Money and sign the Slow Money Principles, visit www.slowmoney.org.
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