Engaging the Two Global Economies: Sustainability’s Shadowy Edges

This article is adapted from a section of our book-in-progress, The Resilient Investor, that describes our Global Sustainable Economy investment strategy; this is one of our three strategies; the other two are Close to Home (local investing) and Evolutionary (directly fostering personal and systemic change). Within the three strategies, we consider three asset types that we all invest in and with: financial assets (money), tangible assets (house/land, regional habitat and food systems, enduring goods such as solar panels), and personal assets (relationships, professional skills, personal growth).

As exciting as it may be to expand your notions of investing to include the full range of assets and strategies we’ve outlined, the fact is that much of the resilient investor’s focus remains in the familiar realm of engaging with the global economy.  That’s where most of us both build our financial assets—via salary and investment gains—and purchase many of our tangible assets: our transportation (whether personal or public; on airplanes or bikes), our nifty gadgets (from frypans to smartphones), our clothes. . . the list really does go on and on.  And, while being conscious of over-consumption, we do enjoy the fruits of this consumer product cornucopia, many of which enrich our lives and empower our work and social engagement in profound ways.  So the goal of this investment strategy is to work with the existing system in as effective a way as possible, even as we keep raising the bar toward more responsible corporate citizenship, including increasing focus on environmental ethics and social justice.

There’s lots of room for making personal choices that reflect your own particular areas of interest as you allocate your assets in this strategy.  Some of you may be adamant about reshaping the corporate structures and/or priorities that underlie today’s global economy.  Or, you might diligently consider the climate, habitat, or social impact of your purchasing decisions.  Others will want to focus on investing in particular green sectors (renewable energy, natural foods, local businesses, etc.), or will prioritize building a career that deeply reflects one’s values.  While a full-on global economy warrior may do all of this, most of us are more likely to pick a few fronts on which to add our two cents to the direction of the global economy.

Here’s the rub: even as we think we’re participating in the “sustainable global economy,” much of our economic activity is still taking place within the existing “extractive” economy, with all of the social and environmental exploitation issues that led us to decide not to outline a strategy that centers on it. Buy your shoes at a local shoe store, not a chain: the shoes still came from somewhere, and you might not like the backstory. That smartphone you rely on is filled with the spoils of remote mining activity and oppressive working conditions.

Yes, our Sustainable Global Economy strategy coexists uneasily with the business-as-usual global economy, and herein is one of the trickiest realms for the resilient investor to navigate.  Every time we buy gas for our car, take a plane flight for work or vacation, or make many of our routine purchases, we’re straddling the line between our ideals and the world as it is today.  Some would say that the choices before us are obviously and necessarily black-and-white; many others see nothing but shades of grey.  Suffice to say there are lots of opportunities for concerted honesty and self-reflection as we stay conscious of the ways that we have a foot in each of the two global economies.

Here, this strategy becomes personal. As we make purchasing decisions about products “out there” in the global economy—and more fundamental choices about lifestyle priorities (e.g., choosing to live within bikeable distance of stores or work)—we’re deciding what’s important to us, which involves an internal check-in, inquiry, and alignment.  Perhaps the most significant personal-level engagement we have with the global economy is our career choice; to what degree are you able to make a living while also gaining inner satisfaction with the results of this huge investment of your time and attention?

Engaging with this strategy is fundamental to our desire to make a living while contributing to the creation of a prosperous world. Many citizens are eagerly looking for strategies—both political and economic—to preserve the middle class and evolve capitalism into something less exploitive.  This strategy requires persistence and patience, for the global economy won’t reform itself overnight. These sorts of changes occur incrementally and over considerable time, and need an engaged populace. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do, right now.

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Michael Kramer

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