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Buffett, Gates and The Story of Enough

3p Contributor | Monday January 10th, 2011 | 0 Comments

Bill Gates Amuses Warren Buffet

By Woody Tasch

“When is enough enough?”  Bernie Sanders asked during his filibuster against the Lame Duck tax bill in December.  During the speech, he referred to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the world’s richest three people.  (If you haven’t been paying attention, they’ve been pushed down to the number two and three spots by Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecom tycoon who is now worth $53.5 billion.)

The reference to Gates and Buffett in a speech about Enough was a result of their project called the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to give away more than half their wealth.  And while this may not seem immediately relevant to life in the hills of Hardwick or the dales of Dorset, it raises important questions about the meaning of Enough, about ways in which we might, as a society, secede from the cult of He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins and, maybe, just maybe, about ways to put back into the soil—the soil of the restorative economy and the actual soil—what we take out.

Ask any earthworm.  Here are a few data points from Earthworm Economics:

  • There are some 1,000 billionaires on the planet, 400 of them American.
  • In an acre of fertile soil, there are 50,000 to 2 million earthworms, none of them American.  (Estimates range widely, conditions vary from hummock to swale, from Butterworks Farm to Lucky Penny Farm to Full Belly Farm.  There is no Earthworm Department of the Census or Forbes list of the richest 400 earthworms.)
  • 90 million acres of American cropland is devoted to corn.  75% of this goes to feed livestock and cars.  Since 1776, a third of America’s topsoil has eroded.

The story of Enough is told in chapters of money, food and soil.

In the 20th century, our food and our money became fast.  Our farms became factories.  The erosion of our soil accelerated, as did the erosion of our sense of connection to one another and our sense of collective purpose.  Our money zoomed around the planet with ever accelerating speed, increasingly complex and abstract.  We raised children who thought that food came from supermarkets and investors who thought that investments came from computer screens.  We filled our land with chemicals, our portfolios with zeros and our heads with financial speculation. (“What will be the stock price of McDonalds on the day of the 10 billionth person?”) We ignored the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—not the one caused by BP’s oil, but the one caused over decades by billions of tons of agricultural run-off coming down the Mississippi River.  In the 20th century, the idea of Enough became as rare as an earthworm under an ethanol plant.

In the 21st century, can philanthropy, even radically generous philanthropy of The Giving Pledge kind, come to the rescue?  Can it rekindle an abiding sense of Enough?

Yes and No.

Yes, because the idea of giving away more than 50% of your money helps us all look in the direction of putting back as much as we take out.  The act has about it both an air of ageless morality and a sense of modern urgency.  The Giving Pledge may or may not contain, but is consistent with, an implicit recognition that facing the global predicaments of climate change, financial volatility, social inequality and political inertia, neither economic growth based on consumerism nor philanthropy as usual will be sufficient.

No, because if we are going to build a restorative economy, an economy that values preservation and restoration as much as it values extraction and consumption, an economy that heals broken social and ecological relationships while it creates wealth and commercial opportunity (rather than relying on strategies of Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later), we are going to need billions and billions of dollars of investment capital.  We are going to need investment capital and investors of an entirely new kind.

We need to move beyond philanthropy as usual.  Perhaps even more urgently, however, we need to move beyond investing as usual.

This recognition has lead thousands of us to the Slow Money Principles, one of which states:

Paul Newman said:  “We need to be more like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”  Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us ask:

  • What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our money within 50 miles of where live?

  • What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits?

  • What if there were 50% more organic matter in the soil 50 years from now?

Today, what if, following the leadership of the Giving Pledge and in honor of the New Year, we were to make a resolution, no, our own kind of pledge, to set about the task of moving beyond investing as usual?

I am ready to make the following Slow Money Pledge:

I hereby commit to investing 1% of my money in small food enterprises near where I live, in order to enhance soil fertility, expand access to fresh food and build a healthier local economy.

In recent years, as market demand for local and organic has grown, and as aversion to the excesses of derivatives, hedge funds and all manner of financial razzmatazz has begun to take root, a new family of financial products and services has begun to emerge.  Slow Money, with its local and national networks, is just one catalyst in this movement, this process of incubation and financial innovation.  There are many others, including community development financial institutions, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Kiva, Kickstarter and RSF Social Finance.

Investing in small food enterprises offers us particular opportunities to roll up our sleeves, to sink our hands into the soil.  That’s one reason why over $4 million has been invested in 12 small food enterprises that participated in Slow Money’s national gathering at Shelburne Farms last June.

As this national process builds, let’s continue to explore ways to collaborate with friends and neighbors to put money to work more directly at the local level.  Let’s be ready to imagine and calculate in new ways the financial, social and environmental returns that will arise from such investing.

Where to start?  How about buying a farm and leasing it on concessionary terms to a young organic farmer?  How about expanding a CSA?  What if groups of us in communities around the country undertook one such investment per year?

If we are more ambitious, and have the financial capacity, we could look to the infrastructure for farmers markets and local food distribution; community kitchens and food incubators; composting and seed production; slow food restaurants; niche organic brands; biologically benign agricultural inputs; regional food processing facilities; and, other enterprises that repair the holes left in the social fabric and ecological web by industrialization and globalization.

Only a precious few of us have 50% of multi-billions to give away.  But many, many precious millions of us have money sitting in financial institutions, where it is under the guidance of Mr. Invisible Hand and Mr. Smokestacks In China and Mr. Slightly Better Regulated But Still Giving More Bonuses Than Ever Wall Street.

And while 1% isn’t 50%, it is an important beginning, a beautiful beginning.  It is our start down the road to the world that comes after “Enough is enough.”

Woody Tasch is the founder of Slow Money, an NGO that is catalyzing the flow of investment capital to local food systems.  He is Chairman Emeritus of Investors’ Circle and author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. A version of this article was originally published by Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence news journal.

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