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Can We Slow Our Money Down?
By Johann Klaassen

 slow money

Forty years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”  Leopold quickly suggests planting a garden as a solution for the first of these, and then spends several thousand words explaining how it is that “if one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak”, he can avoid the second of these.  But the speed with which he dismisses the issue of breakfast has always bothered me: If a grocery store really constitutes a “spiritual danger”, why would we think that planting a garden could be enough to help us avoid it? And how exactly could billions of people feed themselves from their own gardens?

Last week, more than 450 people from 34 US states and 6 foreign countries convened in Santa Fe for the “Inaugural National Gathering” of the Slow Money Alliance.  Woody Tasch – formerly the chairman of the Investor’s Circle, treasurer of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, and founding chairman of the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance – founded the Slow Money Alliance with the intention of finding ways to “slow money down” by encouraging investment in local food systems.

Looking back at the multiple bubble-and-bust cycles of the last ten years, it seems that part of the problem has been the speed with which money moves around the world.  Capital seeks places and projects in which it can grow as quickly as possible, with little concern for any other consequences.  Some of the speakers in the conference’s plenary panels on “Food”, “Soil”, and “The Northern New Mexico Food System” made it abundantly clear that modern industrial agriculture is an integral part of that capital system.  This makes agriculture into little more than a form of mining – extracting valuable biomass from the soil, leaving little of value behind, requiring heavy doses of fertilizer to produce anything at all.  And while it makes food stunningly abundant and astonishingly cheap, it also makes it less nutritious and potentially more dangerous.

As a counterpoint to that gloom, though, other speakers made it clear that smaller, locally-oriented food businesses – organic farms, small producer co-ops, and regional distribution networks, for example – can help to foster building healthier, more productive soils, as well as healthy local economies.  Drawing inspiration from the Slow Food movement, these speakers made the case that there is an appropriate velocity and scale for food, slower and smaller than industrial agriculture can manage. 

And the ultimate point of this conference was to introduce the same ideas to our financial systems, as well.  According to Woody’s welcome letter to conference attendees, the Slow Money Alliance makes it their mission: 

  • To support small food enterprises that preserve and restore soil fertility, appropriate-scale organic farming, and local food communities;
  • To catalyze increases in foundation grant-making and mission-related investing in support of sustainable agriculture and local economies; and
  • To incubate socially responsible investment strategies that integrate principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place, cultural and biological diversity, and non-violence.

Naturally, the conference left me with more questions than answers.  For example, I still need to think about what speed and size might be “appropriate” for our food-related investments, about the nature and extent of a “real” bio-region, and about how small investors can participate in this new “nurture capital” movement.  But I think that this conference has inspired a large group of people to think about these questions with me, and perhaps together we can create a longer, better response to Leopold’s spiritual danger of supposing that “breakfast comes from the grocery”.

Johann A. Klaassen, PhD
VP, Managed Account Solutions

Posted: September 22, 2009