As an expectant father the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” has been running through my mind lately (not far behind is Bill Maher’s riposte “some of us in the village are busy, you know, doing things, in the village”), and I’ve been reveling in the closeness of family, friends and community. Some of these folks (thanks mom) have been suggesting the inverse: “it takes a child to raise a village.” Reciprocity and interdependency are fundamental features of living systems; nothing is an island unto itself. So why do economists think the economy is? Can we build reciprocity and interdependence between living systems and the economy? Nature’s ecosystem services (services such as breathable air, clean water, the foundation for the provision of food for people, etc) were valued in 1997 by Robert Costanza and colleagues at Portland State University at $44 trillion a year (2012 dollars), which is approximately twice the global GNP. Without these ecosystem services the financial economy has very little value, as life and the economy cannot continue without something so fundamental as breathable air! These estimates might be very low, and the stock of natural capital could easily be valued at 10 times this amount.
(Image: Joel Salatin’s bovine “salad bar” growing on land that was severely degraded before his restoration work began)
For a few hundred years we have taken for granted that we can use and sometimes abuse these ecosystem services and natural capital without paying any rent or doing any significant investment or maintenance support. Obviously that needs to change. Not as penance but for profit, not for that sole function but for several. For 15 years, here at Natural Investments we’ve been advocating for a change, using a new investment class that we call regenerative investing. This is an evolutionary area in the investment world,
where very little dollars, time or effort has been contributed, yet increasing our investments in this area is essential and will be profitable. To put a definition to it, regenerative investing is the contribution of financial resources, time, or labor into initiating, supporting, or enhancing the development of an integrated living system. A living system is any complex group of living beings, such as a grazing system, woodlot, or sustainable farm, including the people and financial resources that are a part of this natural system. In addition to enhancing living systems, part of the aim of regenerative investments is to align with the amazing fecundity of nature and build a human system around this fecundity that benefits people, profit and planet.
Joel Salatin, sustainable farmer extraordinaire, writes about his experiences with this richness of life in his 1998 book, You Can Farm:
“Much of our farm resembled those pictures (showing) the tragedy of American soil erosion. Many gullies measured 10 feet deep and one measured 14 feet. Most of the land had no black topsoil. In places the red clay and shale came right to the surface. We still have trouble putting in temporary electric fence stakes in some places because the soil is not deep enough to hold them up. Large shale dishes dotted the fields.
On one of these hillsides about 20 years ago, we were spreading some barn manure on a shaley part when all of a sudden the manure spreader advance chain broke. Nothing to do but shovel it out. Of course, we flung it as far as we could, but right in that spot we put on a liberal application. That spot has never received any special treatment since. Still, it grows five or six times the forage of the area adjacent to it, greens up earlier in the spring, stays green later in the fall and basically doesn’t resemble the surrounding ground at all. The soil is black and loamy, with abundant soil critters. It takes drought better and grows back much faster when mowed or grazed. Another interesting thing about this spot is that whenever we graze that two-or three-acre shaley paddock, that area gets eaten to the ground in the first 10 minutes, indicating increased palatability.”
We can pull several principles coming out of this, especially regarding the multi-functional benefit that regenerative investments generate. With life pulling at the reins, we receive positively reinforcing beneficial outcomes, with our small (but well-placed) investments paying off over many years. These are long-term investments that pay dividends to both the earth, and to our human systems and lives.
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