Data vs. Drama – A Cautionary Tale

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

FACTFULNESS: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By Hans Rosling
Hardcover: 352 pp. Flatiron Books

The conundrum about this book is that it really should be read by those folks who never read books. You know who I’m talking about. The late Hans Rosling, who died in 2017 after an impressive career in education and public health, urges us to let the data tell the story, rather than imposing a narrative based on our “dramatic instincts.” He highlights ten ways that our instinctual bias and craving for drama, similar to our craving for sugar and lethargy, undermine our wellbeing.

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Get Your Microplastics Out of My Beer!

The community I call home, Duluth, MN, happens to be perched on a steep hillside that runs down to the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. There’s hardly a place in town where you can’t turn around and see the lake stretching out across the horizon. With such an expansive geographical feature nearby, it’s not surprising that people who live here share a special affinity for the lake, borne out in the names of local businesses (Lake Superior Brewing Company, Lake Superior Garden Center), local colleges (Lake Superior College), and the plethora of Lake Superior tattoos that adorn the bodies of many young locals.

Because Duluth people love Lake Superior with such fervor, we were outraged when we read about a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One that found eight of nine tap water samples taken from all five Great Lakes, including our beloved Lake Superior, contained plastics. It was especially alarming for the significant population of beer lovers in our community to learn that scientists also found micro-plastics in all of the 12 brands of beer brewed with water drawn from the Great Lakes.

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Can You Future-Proof Your Life?

Many people are motivated by the desire to be as prepared as possible for an uncertain future, but they recognize that this is no easy task. We encourage you to take a big picture view of the world and consider the many ways that the future could unfold. You’ll want to envision where you would like to be going in both the near-term and in years to come, and to keep abreast of the wide and growing range of investment choices available to you. By thinking in this broad, creative way, resilient investing gives you the tools to design a personalized plan. This will show you where you’re currently investing your time and money, highlight areas that you might be over or under emphasizing, and provide the guidance you’ll need to move forward in your chosen directions.

As you put your plan into action, you’ll notice a newfound sense of calm, one that rests on the knowledge that you’ve taken measured steps to future-proof your life and are ready to ride out the inevitable storms and surprises that come your way. You can’t eliminate risk, but you can dial down your stress levels and have more peace of mind by knowing that you’re prepared. Having a comprehensive and diverse set of investments will provide genuine benefits when one or another market you’ve invested in has a downturn (whether it be a sudden drop in the Dow, a dry spell that decreases yields in your garden or regional food network, or an unexpected health challenge). While it is always painful to suffer a hit in one area, investments in other Zones will likely be doing better and help carry you through.

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Your Money: Smart Strategy and Positive Impact

“I want my money to have a positive impact in the world but my dad (uncle, mom, broker) said that was a stupid idea. Is it?”

That depends. If what you mean by “a positive impact in the world” is that your broker simply screens out investments in certain companies or industries, well, sorry, yes, that on its own might be a bad idea. That approach could damage a portfolio.

If you’re serious about getting your money to make a real difference for people and the planet by investing in all kinds of good things with smarter financial analyses and strategies, yes, we believe this is a really good idea.

“Ok, but how can I do all that?”

Natural Investments maintains stringent and thoroughly researched investment due diligence standards and procedures. No system is perfect, but we have developed a strong process over the last few decades of work. Here are some of the pillars of our investment strategy:

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Trendline Not Headlines

The Long View Provides a Better Outlook

There is no question that the political world is wildly turbulent these days. If you are like me, you may often fall prey to the depressing news coming out of Washington, D.C. Every day it seems like some environmental regulation is being rolled back, the government is oppressing a new group, or that we are on the brink of a budgetary crisis. All of this is before we even talk about global warming. So what is a progressive investor to do?

I was recently reminded of a line that President Bill Clinton likes to use, which is to look at “trendline not headlines.” In today’s world, there couldn’t be better advice. In the age of clickbait headlines, social media frenzy, and scary sound bite news, this can be hard to keep in mind—but the trendline does tell a more accurate story.

So let’s take a dive into some trend lines and see what is actually happening.

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Resilience and Disaster Mitigation

Recent catastrophes provide an opportunity to practice a future-planning mindset.

It’s obvious that significant Earth changes are occurring these days—in the past month alone, we’ve seen several major earthquakes, ravaging fires, devastating hurricanes, and torrential flooding. When we wrote The Resilient Investor a few years ago, we anticipated future volatility and uncertainty due to climate change and other factors, but we didn’t know how immediately prescient our insights would be. The September trifecta of superstorms in the Atlantic provided a stark reminder that as resilient investors, we must incorporate disaster mitigation, in addition to disaster preparation, into our financial analysis and planning—for there are few places in the world that will be truly “safe” from the impacts of climate change.

To this end, our top priority must be a bold adjustment in how we produce and consume energy. The good news is that businesses and local governments had already begun to take steps in this direction before our current, climate-change-denying Administration took power. In fact, despite a near-total absence of leadership by the federal government, Americans are on target to meet he 2025 CO2 reduction targets set by the Paris agreement (1800 million tons of CO2); by the end of 2016, we were halfway there. Carbon-based utility generation is down 25% already, ten coal plants are closing, and many states are setting aggressive renewable energy goals.

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States, Businesses Filling the Leadership Void on Climate

Both stock and bond markets finished the quarter with solid gains. Large company stocks in the U.S. were up 3.1%, while smaller companies gained 2.5%. Foreign stocks were in the black as well, up 6.1%. Bonds advanced 1.4%, even as the Fed raised interest rates.

Federal Reserve officials forged ahead with another interest rate hike in June, the third in six months, and maintained their outlook for one more hike this year. The Fed announcement struck a careful balance between showing resolve to continue increasing interest rates toward more historically normal levels, and acknowledging concern over unexpectedly low inflation this year. While we may think of inflation as a bad thing, the Fed sees benefits in it—in the right measure.

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Conscious Leadership Isn’t Just About the Do-ing

In June I participated in the inaugural Conscious Company Global Leaders Forum, a gathering of about 200 business executives who are interested in evolving themselves as a conscious leaders. They share a goal of bringing deeper awareness to bear inside companies to change how business is done, and to create positive, meaningful ripple effects in the bigger world.

As you might guess, some of the attendees were from recognizable companies like Google, Patagonia, Clif Bar, GoPro, and Seventh Generation. Economic innovators like Kat Taylor from Beneficial State Bank, and mission-oriented CEO Vincent Siciliano with New Resource Bank were there. Game changing leaders from BALLE, Bioneers, Social Ventures Network, Oxfam, B Lab, and American Sustainable Business Council attended as well, along with many chapter heads and members of the Conscious Capitalism national network, NEXUS, and Village Capital.

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Project Drawdown gathers climate solutions

I struggle with climate change. It’s so hard to come to grips with the enormity and complexity of this global challenge, and even harder to know what to do. It turns out that Project Drawdown  is just the thing I was looking for, to help me find some focus and optimism when the challenge is so immense.

Project Drawdown founder Paul Hawken, a well-known environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author, has had his own struggles with climate change. As far back as 2001, he started looking for the best approaches for addressing this central issue of our times. While he found high-minded strategies geared toward action by governments and multinational corporations, what he was after didn’t exist: a compilation of real world solutions that speak to us all.

In 2013, Paul began to assemble a coalition of more than two hundred scientists, researchers, fellows, writers, economists, financial analysts, architects, companies, agencies, NGOs, activists, and other experts. It’s an impressive team, and they’ve produced a book and website that highlights eighty of the most viable ways to “draw down” carbon from the atmosphere. By pursuing a wide array of strategies, we can not only slow the increases, but also begin to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide and other disruptive chemicals enough to stabilize the climate.

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Microcredit in Action: Panama

In January I had the privilege of visiting with one of the micro-credit lenders that Natural Investments clients help to fund. We had a trip planned to Panama, so I decided to take the opportunity to meet with PROCAJA, the on-the-ground lending agency that chooses recipients for small loans funded through Envest Microfinance which some of our clients are invested in.

I met the PROCAJA team in the small town of Ocu. The people at the branch were very gracious as they got us up to speed on how they are structured and the types of clients they serve. As with most Envest-funded programs, loans are generally under $1000 and are targeted to individuals who are starting or growing a small business.

Also in keeping with other micro-credit programs, they’re very successful in getting these loans repaid. Unlike many banks, they use a very hands-on approach. In addition to the standard visit with the person requesting the loan, to assess their current business and their plans, the recipients needs to get neighbors to vouch for them; this creates a natural community of support and accountability. After the loan is made, regular follow up visits track how things are going and identify ways to improve. All this ongoing support, including financial training if needed, leads to the failure rate being much lower then at most banks, which often provide no follow up or support.

After this overview at the branch of office we went to visit four people who are currently using microcredit loans to build nancial stability.

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