America: Too Big To Flail?
If correctly identifying your problems is the first step to solving them, I'm afraid we'll all be peeling tar balls off our heels before we get a handle on the BP blowout.
"Please stop calling it a leak!" Bill KcKibben pleaded at the Slow Money conference in Shelburne, Vermont last month. A leak, after all, suggests a kind of dribble. A spill sounds like something you might mop up with a towel.
"We've punched a hole in the bottom of the ocean," McKibben added. "Is a knife wound a ‘blood leak?'"
We're hitting some fundamental limits, he added, citing the ‘thousand year' storms that seem to come every four or five years now, and the fact that we're facing the hottest year on record, so far (and that was before the heat wave that hit the whole Eastern seaboard this past week).
Yes, we need to plug that hole in the ocean floor before the entire Gulf becomes one gigantic dead zone. But there's an onshore contaminant threatening our future, too, and it's called fast money.
Fast money spews from the wells of Wall Street and spatters the globe from Beijing to Bangalore to Bentonville. It creates land-based dead zones filled with underwater mortgages and sinking businesses. Fast money "does violence to the web of relations on which the health of communities and bioregions depend," according to Slow Money founder Woody Tasch.
Tasch shares Bill McKibben's fervent belief that you can't have a truly sound economy unless you practice sound ecology. The subtitle of Tasch's book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, says it all: investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered.
But don't expect Tasch to declare war on Wall Street. In a statement to the six hundred or so farmers, philanthropists, investors, eco-preneurs and real food rabble rousers (like me) who came to historic Shelburne Farms for Slow Money's second annual conference, Tasch explained why he's not going to pick that fight-or any fight, for that matter:
All of us here, today, recognize that we live in an economy and culture that is addicted to oil. We know that our system of industrial agriculture is, in Joan Gussow's words, "floating on a sea of oil." We recognize the irony that the Gulf oil spill is occurring in what is already a dead zone due to agricultural run-off carried down the Mississippi River.We recognize, too, the temptation to become Tea-Party-like in our anger and frustration. It is tempting to wage war against BP or Goldman Sachs or McDonalds or Monsanto. But waging such wars makes about as much sense as trying to inject Slow Money into the gusher of fast money, hoping it will somehow "top kill" it...
...let's remember that you can launch a war, but you cannot launch peace. You can launch money into an investment portfolio, but you cannot launch peace of mind. You can launch chemicals into the soil, but you cannot launch fertility. Peace, health and fertility can only be found through what Wendell Berry calls "millions of small acts of care and restraint."
Peace. Health. Fertility. Too bad our current notions of how to keep America secure and prosperous have brought us just the opposite: war, disease, barren seas and soil.
And how do you sell the virtues of "small acts of care and restraint" to a nation that prides itself on living large and thinking big?
Except that we really don't think big, anymore, when we think at all. We have a shockingly defeatist, "can't do" attitude when it comes to tackling our current crises. Hence the mindset that we can't afford a moratorium on deepwater drilling because it will cost even more jobs than BP's disastrous deepwater drilling has already destroyed. We need the oil and the jobs, come hell or high, oily water. As Tasch wrote in his book:
It is not surprising that we find ourselves, today, captive to markets that are themselves captive to the enormous momentum of the economic growth that they have made possible.What is surprising, however, is the degree of our reticence, our impotence, our unwillingness-in the face of the collision course between unlimited economic growth and the limits of culture and the biosphere to absorb our accelerating levels of extraction, consumption, and pollution-to dare to imagine another way.
The Slow Money conference showcased the socially responsible investors, sustainable agriculture proponents, and ecologically savvy entrepreneurs who have not only dared to imagine another way, but are actively pursuing it.
No, I'm not going to claim that all our problems will be solved by backing the manufacture of such locavore luxuries as organic kale chips and granola bars, or artisanal grass-fed sausage sticks, or (my personal favorite) a chia-based beverage that was delicious in a viscous way.
But I was impressed and inspired by the presentations from a variety of innovators: Midwestern Bio Ag, Terra Green Biologics, and Marrone Bio Innovations, who've found environmentally safe ways to boost soil fertility and control pests; City Fresh Foods, Peoples' Community Market, and Home Town Farms, who are improving their communities' access to fresh, healthy food; and Farmland LP and the Carrot Project, dedicated to fostering the growth of sustainably farmed land. And as a dedicated DIYer, I was delighted to learn about a totally non-toxic but super durable varnish from Vermont Natural Coatings that is made from whey, a by-product of the local cheese industry.
Together, these trail blazers, among others, made a compelling case that nurturing the kinds of small, regionally based businesses that they exemplify could not only create jobs and revitalize our economy, but also address what Bill McKibben called our "social deficit...the ecological and psychic wounds that we've inflicted on ourselves."
As McKibben noted, anything that's "too big to fail" is, by definition, too big, period. That goes not only for our financial system, but every other system we rely on, including our food and energy systems.
How many more fast money blowouts can we afford? Slow Money, on the other hand, is about growing things, not blowing things up, whether it's in pursuit of the coal beneath a mountaintop or the oil at the bottom of the sea.
McKibben ended his keynote by saying that we need to "take very drastic action, now." Is it time to put a cap on capitalism? You can help bring our economy back down to earth literally, now, by signing on to the Slow Money Soil Trust.
© 2010 Eating Liberally