slow money

posted September 8, 2010

Here’s a note and some analysis from Kevin Skvorak of Regeneration CSA.  Thanks, Kevin!

hey greenhorns folks,

if you are thinking about slow money in the HV, here are some links to what has been going on, and some of my analysis.

Towards a Regenerative Economy – Thoughts about Slow Money from a radical farmer.

Kevin Skvorak, Regeneration CSA
August 31th 2010

I started my comments at the Hudson Valley potluck with the observation that Slow Money is a radical organization, and how grateful I was that a radical ‘capitalist’ movement that concerns itself with food and farming has come on the scene. As you can imagine this is exciting news for a radical farmer! And in case there is anyone that didn’t realize that you were affiliating with a radical organization in Slow Money, I think you all needed to know at some point ….

Being “Radical” of course is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, far from it!  It is a great word- Radical: from late Latin- radicalis, radix, radic- ‘root’;  “of or going to the root or origin”; fundamental, essential.

I think this describes the analysis and principles of Slow Money pretty well.

It is natural that farmers are radical, thinking about the roots of things as much as they do. I made a comment at the potluck about all of the radical farmers I have been inspired by, and been lucky enough to learn from in the organic movement.  I alluded to the origin of the organic food movement, created by radical farmers who saw clearly the roots of things, (the roots of the converging problems of climate change, peak oil, and ecological carrying capacity for instance) and devised a radical solution – farming organically.  I also made a comment about how frustrating it is to watch as this potentially transformative movement slips dangerously close to being dominated by the paradigm of commodification, speculation, centralized power and wealth, and corporate control etc. as it becomes just another purely “profit” driven industry, with all of the attending unsustainable and de-generative outcomes.

I said this as a warning i think, to remind us to keep our “eyes on the prize” as we untangle this conundrum of centralized, monetized wealth and power- with all it’s own inherently destructive “principles’ – and matters of true wealth; the wealth held in our local relationships, local ecologies, and our local communities.

This is the honest and radical understanding clearly embodied in the principles of Slow Money.  The radical understanding that business-as-usual is taking us all: wealthy, poor, and in between, down the same doomed path.  The radical understanding that strategies and actions that actually achieve regenerative and transformative results are the only ones that matter now.

As a permaculture designer, as well as a farmer, I (like many others in these fields) use the word “regenerative” a lot. Our farm is called Regeneration CSA.  We use the term regenerative because it best clarifies our goals; regenerating our natural and ecological systems while getting a yield for ourselves (humans).  A simple, radical idea, and the foundation of Permaculture Principles, and Permaculture Ethics. An idea that I hope also helps us keep our eyes on the prize of creating a truly “regenerative economy”, an economy that is the logical outcome of following the principles of Slow Money.

Regenerative-design, regenerative-agriculture, regenerative-economies… “regenerative” because it is already too late for “sustainable”.

Too late to “sustain” a vibrant, living gulf of mexico already suffering an enormous hypoxic dead zone long before the latest oil spill.  Too late to sustain a viable arctic ecology, that is already, it seems, beyond it’s tipping point.  Too late to sustain fertile agricultural soils worldwide, already depleted of natural fertility and utterly dependent on fossil sunlight and fertility (aka oil) to produce any food. Too late to sustain the crippling social inequality that is, in and of itself, a major driver of environmental destruction. It is just too, damn, late.

So, a regenerative society, and a regenerative economy must be our goals.  Anything less is just too little, and too late.

At the event I made a quip about being careful not to drive our Prius off the same precipice of catastrophe as all the Hummer drivers are hell bent on pushing us over, about being careful not to fall for false solutions to our “predicament” , not to believe (or most critically, continue to emulate) false “green capitalist” hype and recognize that such efficiencies are useful only insofar as they buy us some time to make the transformative changes necessary, and to also understand that all these wonderful gadgets of efficiency, filled with rare earth minerals like lithium, silicon, coltan and the like, have enormous ecological costs of their own, and are driving deadly wars and conflicts at this very moment.

All the economists and financial folks seem to understand that it is all smoke and mirrors at this point; debt as money, a demand for exponential growth from a system (the planet) at its limits, collateralized debt obligations, the Federal Reserve, peak oil, all pointing to an impending collapse on many levels.  (“The Tapeworm economy” as Catherine Austin Fitts says,  aka “The Suicide economy”, David Korten’s term for our current  insane path)

As Slow money radicals we know that the current globalized financial system is inherently de-generative. We see that it virtually demands, for the sake of economic “growth”, the extraction, depletion, and destruction of real wealth, (living rivers, mountains, forests, oceans, soils, and human cultures) piling these all up like so many dead pelts, scalps even, into symbolic fungible “assets”.

What do we feel after we recognize that under the current economic system for virtually every new dollar of debt, every speculative financial transaction, every hard-earned (or easily earned) dollar in our portfolio, the living systems of the planet are diminished?  That there is not “more” to go around, but less?      Vertigo and dread about sums it up I would say….

So, what are the real solutions? What does a “regenerative economy” look like?  How do we measure it? How do we actually create it? For every dollar created, how much carbon ought to be sequestered instead of burned? How much ecosystem resilience enhanced instead of diminished?  How much soil fertility must be built instead of depleted?  How much social and economic equality restored instead of further degraded?

These are the questions that I am most interested in talking about with others, as I think  we already have answers and directions for most of them. (as a regenerative farmer and permaculturalist in fact i know we have answers)  Perhaps we can start with a few of the Slow Money Principles:

“What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?”
Ok, imho this is what one might call a “step in the right direction”   50% more organic material in our existing depleted soils (running at 1 to1-1/2%)%) is a good start, but probably isn’t enough to have a real mitigating effect on climate warming if that is the goal. It is a start though.  In any case, how do we do it? How do we measure it?   And how do we market it?
Well, we do it by actually farming in a regenerative manner. Rodale has some perfectly useful methodology that can be adopted immediately. Wes Jackson at theLand Institute has been doing some promising work for yrs, and of course we have our own methodology at Regeneration CSA that we believe is imminently practical, fully scalable, and that is particularly well suited to regenerating and bringing back into production some of the compacted and depleted heavy clay soils that are typical of much of the Hudson Valley. (We are looking for a new home btw.)  And there are a lot of other folks doing this work as well.
And we measure it by using real measures of soil carbon and soil fertility, like Elaine Inghams work on the soil food web, and the Real Food folks work on brix testing and soil mineralization.
And we market it, well….I am not completely sure of this, but this is not something that farmers can do alone. We need the shapers of the marketplace, stakeholders with influence like those in Slow Money to get involved.  One way might be a new certification. Here is a letter I wrote to Ari and others at SM offering a proposal for just that.

Another Slow Money principle: “The 20th Century was the era of Buy Low/Sell High and Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later—what one venture capitalist called “the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.” The 21st Century will be the era of nurture capital, built around principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place and non-violence.”

Ok, what Woody might have said, but didn’t was not just the largest legal accumulation of “wealth”, but most importantly the largest centralization of wealth. This is key as well. The logic of dog-eat-dog, row-your-own-boat capitalism ( that too many even in Slow Money seem to accept as an inviolable law of nature instead of a cultural construct) would seem to be that personal accumulation is the key to freedom, happiness, security, and the like.  But as Slow Money radicals, who have read the work of authors like Bill Mckibben, (“Deep Economy” )  we know that personal accumulation is a “dead end” in a diminishing world.  We may all make some more dollars betting on the end of the world, (speculating on diminishing resources etc) but if that is what we continue to do with our dollars, we are absolutely guaranteeing that disastrous outcome.   So what is the point?  Are we really “enjoying the ride” as we slide faster and faster towards an ecological tipping point?  Really?

So, to get to the heart of this principle, some type of “redistribution” is central to the realization of Slow Money goals.  Horror upon horrors you might say!  If being a radical means “giving” my money away then forget about it!  Ok, but I don’t believe “giving” money away is going to help either.

What we need to do with this surplus symbolic “wealth” is to put it back into real wealth while we still have time.  Real wealth for our entire communities, because that is the only way we have real security and quality of life in the long run.  This real wealth is what some might call “soft returns”, but it the only return on investment that has any real value in the long run.

Personally,  I am afraid that Slow Money may be a dead end if people don’t prioritize the so-called “soft” returns, instead of the hard ones. As a SM investor you will not get back 5% 10% or 15% off of the top of local food production profits.   In fact, even if you get 0% return in dollars, you get all of the other returns that far outweigh the dollars in long term benefit.  This I think needs to be paramount in the discussions, not tertiary.  Otherwise Slow Money runs the risk of not only not being effective, but in fact being a problem as it provides the “feel good” avenue for further speculation and centralization of wealth in the local food economy, just at the time we need diversity the most.

Be careful what you wish for my Slow Money friends.

In any case, this is where we need to prioritize “philanthropy”  (which we should really call investing in true wealth).  As far as I am concerned the key strategic need right now in the Hudson Valley, and much of the NE United States, is true farmland (not just “open space”) protection and affordable farm access to new farmers.  To accomplish this we have been working for a while on a non-profit with a mission to specifically protect farmland and provide it to new farmers.  The Hudson Valley Community and Agricultural Land Trust.

There is not a better investment one can make than creating opportunities for new farmers.  And there are a lot of other needed areas of “investment” like this as well.  Educating ourselves about the strategic areas of (so-called) philanthropy, and where they are intersecting with regenerative food/farming goals could also be important work of Slow Money thinkers.

A lot of people pass the following Gaylord Nelson quote around:    “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent upon that environment with it’s underlying resource base. When the environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because it’s resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised, then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is just a subset within the ecological system.”

Not much more to say on that.

Best regards,
Kevin Skvorak

Regeneration CSA

Hudson Valley Community and Agricultural Land Trust