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Slow Money: Bringing Money Down to Earth

Interview with Woody Tasch, founder and president of Slow Money, a nonprofit that connects investors to local economies.

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Brooke: How else can people encourage Slow Money and local food systems?

Woody: Well, to start with the obvious, get a CSA [community supported agriculture] membership. CSAs are such a beautiful and relatively simple thing that it’s easy to overlook how radical they are and how fundamental they are to creating a cultural and economic shift. There are maybe 100,000 people in the U.S. who belong to CSAs right now. But in the city of Copenhagen alone, there are about 15,000 members, so there’s a huge opportunity to expand CSAs in the United States.

csa_food.jpg

CSA delivery of red potatoes, carrots, parsley, snow peas, mesclun, and green onions.

Photo by Justin Henry.

Shopping at farmers' markets is a similar activity and also extremely important because you’re buying directly from farmers. Something that’s common to CSAs and farmers' markets is that we’re dis-intermediating. We’re getting rid of many layers of intermediation between producers and consumers—or, in the case of Slow Money, between the businesses and the investor.

Brooke: You’ve hosted Slow Money institutes in various local communities. What are you learning from those?

Woody: We did two at the end of 2008 and three in the first part of this year. It’s funny. The local food movement is very strong in many places around the United States. The Slow Money message seems to be resonating very strongly with a lot of people, pointing them in the direction they already wanted to go and just giving them a little extra energy on their journey.

Ultimately, the success of this is going to depend on regional action, not on some new national intermediary. So that’s why we’re organized as a nonprofit. Our job is to catalyze all of these local regions to do what they want to do and just to help them do it faster, basically—because we’re already a decade or two behind, at least, in terms of the environmental and social issues we’re trying to solve.

Brooke: Do you worry about the danger of money concentrating in areas that are already affluent—building on itself, but only in certain areas?

Woody: Yes. Slow Food faces the same challenge, getting pigeonholed around foodie groups or white tablecloth restaurants. It’s really nice for all these small, boutique, organic farms to serve people who can afford to buy this stuff, but it’s not going to solve the big problems.

I look at all of that as a transition problem. We’re going from an era when none of the true, long-term costs of food production were integrated into the system. If we’re going to make the transition to a real food system that produces healthy food in a way that is less harmful—I’m talking about harm to the environment as well as harm to the people who eat the food—then, there’s going to be a transition, and the transition is going to be uneven. None of us is smart enough to invent the whole system all at one time. The fact that early adopters may tend to be more affluent does not bother me. We have to start moving, and if that’s where we start, that’s where we start.

But the ultimate objective is very obvious. Improving food access for all, improving childhood nutrition, improving preventative health care—these are all part of the same set of issues—and preserving life on the planet while we are feeding current populations. That’s really what this is all about. Just to produce cheap commodity food in order to feed the mouths that are currently here is not a terribly satisfying thing if it’s being done at the expense of future generations.

Brooke: If this movement becomes the catalyst that you hope for, how could our economic and food systems be different, within the decade?

Woody: The wild optimists among us are saying that there’s going to be an enormous swing back towards small-scale, organic agriculture and that there will be millions of new farmers in the United States during the next decade. Some people say many millions.

We’re at the end of the pendulum right now, which still seems like it’s swinging in the direction of consolidation and mega-farms and all the rest. But it’s certainly clear that there is a ferment of activity in many regions of the country around appropriate scale, organic, local food production.

I don’t think you have to be wildly optimistic to expect that that’s going to increase significantly over the next decade. I would expect there to be many, many times more CSAs and CSA members in the United States, maybe 10 or 20 times as many over the next decade. I think having a million members of CSAs in the United States is not at all bombastic, and with a little luck and a little work, we can do that during the next decade.

President Bush Sr., when he was refusing to be part of the Kyoto Protocol, said that the American way of life is not negotiable. I think this is the decade when that attitude will mature, and people will realize that focusing on local, smaller, healthier ways of doing business is not a crunchy granola thing and it’s not a naïve thing. It’s about surviving, it’s a pragmatic thing—it’s what we must do in order to adjust to the new realities of life on the planet.

Exactly what that looks like economically at the end of the next decade, I’m not sure. I could imagine there being a new stock exchange, an entirely new stock exchange—not replacing the NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange, but as a complement that would be a place where thousands of slow, small, local, mission-driven companies are traded and invested in by investors who share their values. Some kind of systemic, structural change will emerge in the stock market that will be a place for this growing group of entrepreneurs and investors to work together.

I also think there will be a new generation of foundations that are organized as investors rather than grant makers. Instead of foundations investing the old-fashioned way so that they can make as much money as possible and then use the income to give grants to nonprofits, this new kind of foundation will use the entire asset base, all of the assets of the foundation, as investment tools to support for-profit social entrepreneurs that are building the restorative economy.

Because the task at hand is to build a new, restorative economy, we’re going to need massive amounts of investment capital, and one of the places that will come from is this new generation of foundations.


Brooke Jarvis

Brooke Jarvis conducted this interview for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's Web editor.

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