Earthworm Economics

Last Monday evening, author Woody Tasch regaled a packed house at Ecotrust with jokes, musings and some pretty heavy insight into the future of our planet. If you weren’t there for his talk, the subject might surprise you: investment. As the chairman of the sustainably-minded Investor’s Circle, Tasch already has a history of treating investment a little differently from other venture capitalists. But now, with his new book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, and the creation of the Slow Money Alliance, he’s really digging in to shake up the way we invest.

Gone, he clearly says, is the age of quick returns and big money – it was a “once-in-a-lifetime-of-a-planet experiment in wealth creation,” and it didn’t work out all too well. This old model viewed local businesses and economies as too small to matter and focused on abstracted investments in global enterprises. When you can’t see the results of your investments, it isn’t hard to externalize the hard costs of pollution, labor abuse, and outsourced industry. He writes:

“As it circulates around the globe with ever accelerating speed, money is sucking the oxygen out of the air, the fertility out of the soil and culture out of local communities.”

To compare economics and agriculture, Tasch drew a parallel between standard investing practice and N-P-K chemical fertilizer. Inputs are pumped onto a field for artificial, ultra-high yields; seed money is thrown at corporations for quick profits that are similarly short-lived. The point of this approach is speed and efficiency. And its result is extraction and degradation.

Slow money, then, would work like compost and earthworms – slow-acting, but nutrient-rich and focused on intentional investment in an ecosystem and a community. Rather than select between different-risk portfolios, investors would make small investments (or in certain cases, a new sort of charitable grant) in local farms or food entrepreneurs that they believe in. These small, sustainable businesses already exist, but the key is to connect them with capital to reach their potential.

Because money would circulate locally within regions, there would be an incentive to re-internalize many of the harsh costs of old businesses. You may be able to ignore their industrial practices of agribusiness halfway across the country, but it would be a lot more difficult to live with pollution that you funded in your own community.  In place of old modes, investment would mean long-term support for local economies – the return is a livable, healthy home. Just look to the model that CSA’s or co-ops suggest: individuals intentionally directing their money into the support of their community.

At this juncture, the only obstacle is that this has never before been done on such a scale, leaving Tasch and his partners the daunting task of setting up effective models. Tasch admits that the point is not to dismantle large corporations, or even big organics (they both may do that on their own), but rather to re-balance the economy and siphon more support into the .01% of companies that are out there doing the right thing. From what he said on Monday, it’s clear that he sees the role of the Slow Money Alliance as “priming the pump” – essentially, proving the merit of these ideas so that locally-based organizations can take on the work themselves. If the last few months have hinted at anything, it’s that our old investment practices can’t continue without extracting everything from the environment and our society. By beginning to invest locally, we may start acting less like parasites and more like earthworms.

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If you weren’t able to make it out to hear Tasch in person, Planet Money recently produced a segment for NPR’s All Things Considered on Slow Money and the potential of investing in local agriculture.

Tasch was also featured by the Global Oneness Project, which posted the video of his interview online:

You can also read an excerpt of his new book here on the website for Ode Magazine.

And, of course, you can purchase his book locally from Powell’s Books.

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