Ecological Stewardship

RSF Makes a New Loan to Eureka Recycling

February 19, 2014

RSF Social Finance (RSF) is pleased to announce a new loan to Eureka Recycling, a non-profit recycler specializing in zero-waste. RSF financing will be used to purchase new recycling equipment which will help the company transform its operations, reducing operating costs and improving service to its clients.

Truck Side AngleBased in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Eureka Recycling provides curbside recycling services to the Twin Cities of Saint Paul/Minneapolis and the metro area. Eureka Recycling is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the United States and is a leader in demonstrating the best waste reduction and recycling practices not only for the Twin Cities metro area, but for the nation.

Eureka Recycling puts into practice a model of resource management rather than waste management, a model that assumes waste is preventable, not inevitable. As a mission-driven non-profit organization, Eureka Recycling looks beyond the bottom line to provide the best practices for recycling and consider the optimum balance of cost, personal convenience, and environmental benefit.

“We are not like many traditional non-profit environmental organizations because we have a large operation in which we manifest our mission each day,” says Tim Brownell, CEO of Eureka Recycling. “We believe that it is most powerful to advocate from a place in which we have rolled-up our sleeves to do the work and know that what we are of others is doable and will get the job done.”

marcela 001All of Eureka Recycling’s efforts are designed to help individuals, organizations, and communities understand the significance of zero-waste and to achieve their own zero-waste goals. This includes activities beyond recycling such as encouraging reuse through the Twin Cities Free Market, a web-based program that connects community members to share durable goods that might otherwise end up in the landfill; composting services for restaurants, grocery stores, and other food businesses; and education and advocacy programs to promote community responsibility for waste-reduction.

“Eureka is much more than a recycling company,” says Mike Gabriel, lending manager at RSF. “This organization has deep roots in the community. And, with the breadth of services they provide, they’re really helping to build a vibrant and resilient local economy in the St. Paul area.”

The support and financing from RSF will also allow Eureka Recycling to launch their ‘Zero-Waste Lab,’ an education tool, feedback loop, and measurement device for governments, corporations, and communities.  “Now that zero-waste efforts are becoming more mainstream, there are many claims regarding policies, collection and processing designs, and packaging changes that are supposed to reduce or eliminate the growing waste stream,” explains Bryan Ukena, Business Development Director at Eureka Recycling. “Eureka’s Zero Waste Lab will actually help to distinguish those that are just talk from those that show true results.”

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About Eureka Recycling

Based in Saint Paul, Eureka Recycling is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the United States and the only organization in Minnesota that specializes in zero-waste. Eureka Recycling provides curbside recycling services to Saint Paul’s homes and apartments with a mission to demonstrate that waste is preventable, not inevitable. In addition, Eureka Recycling is a leader in waste reduction education, programs, and advocacy.

Small Grain, Big Change

November 19, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

by Jillian McCoy

In 1993, Caryl Levine and Ken Lee decided they wanted to start a business together. They took a market research trip to China and while visiting rural farmers, they found their calling. Caryl and Ken were introduced to the culture of rice and some of the issues connected to it: an astounding loss of rice biodiversity, the plight of farmers at the base of the pyramid, and unsustainable agriculture practices. “The most unique rice widely available in US supermarkets at that time was Basmati. It was shocking to learn that thousands of varieties were going extinct because there was no market,” says Levine. “When we started to think about the larger economic and environmental impacts, we knew we had a great opportunity in front of us.”

These economic and environmental impacts are of no small measure. Nearly half the world’s population relies on rice as its dietary staple and about 75% of that supply is generated by small-scale, irrigated production—simply put, small farmers. This type of production consumes up to one-third of the Earth’s annual freshwater supply, depletes soils, and after cattle, is the second leading cause of man-made methane production (a major contributor to climate change).

Two years after that trip, Levine and Lee co-founded Lotus Foods, Inc. with a mission to support sustainable global agriculture by promoting production of traditional heirloom rice varieties, some of which may otherwise have become extinct, while enabling small family rice farmers to earn an honorable living. Lotus Foods works with in-country partners to source rice from Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Italy, and Madagascar, and distributes it in natural food and specialty grocery stores in the US and Canada.

When Lotus Foods was founded, distributing fair-trade heirloom rice varieties from farmers in developing countries to North American consumers was new ground. “We were totally winging it,” says Levine. “We had to take a crash-course on rice, farming, and the whole industry.”

In addition, Levine and Lee faced a challenging supply chain. On one side, they were working with farmers to improve quality assurance (for US markets), and helping to educate them on the long-term impacts of sustainable practices versus the short-term economic rewards touted by conventional distributors. On the other side—distributors, retailers, and consumers—needed education on the value of diverse rice varieties and fair-trade pricing. But their passion for their mission was always there, and, slowly but surely, the company gained traction.

Group shot

Ken and Caryl with farmers from the Ramnagar Project in the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand, who are growing traditional basmati rice organically using System of Intensification methods

In 2005, Lotus Foods developed a game-changing partnership. They were contacted by staff at Cornell University who were involved in promoting research and awareness about a sustainable rice-growing methodology called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The SRI methodology uses significantly less water than the conventional flooding methods used to grow rice, and results in higher yields and the need for fewer inputs (seed, synthetic fertilizer and pesticide, and often labor). Furthermore, whereas the water-logged soil of conventional rice paddies is ideal for methane production, SRI fields with drier soils and healthier plants are not.

SRI improves global food security, empowers poor households, conserves water resources, and promotes human and environmental health. Today, SRI is enabling some of the world’s most marginalized farmers to double their yields (or more) using 50% less water, 80-90% less seed, and no agrochemicals. Over 2.5 million farmers in 50 countries have recorded successful adoption.

Despite this success, SRI has experienced some resistance. “True of any great development, it always meets initial skepticism,” says Lee. “This approach is the exact opposite of input-driven agribusiness. It’s very farmer friendly and you don’t have to buy any inputs like seeds or fertilizers.”

As for resistance from the scientific community, “Farmers know best how to make this work on their land. It’s a methodology not a technology,” says Lee. “Researchers are challenging this because they can’t replicate it in their labs. As long as farmers are seeing it work in their fields, I don’t really care what the dissenters are saying.  And consumers and the food industry have been very supportive of our efforts to create market incentives for SRI farmers.”

Lotus Foods now helps their current farmers transition to SRI growing methods, and partners with existing communities of SRI farmers to bring their rice to market. Sustainability and economic empowerment remain at the heart of their efforts. “New farmers must produce enough for themselves and their community before exporting even becomes a possibility,” says Lee.

As farmers flourish, so does Lotus Foods. In recent years, the company made significant investment in rebranding their line, building their management team, and solidifying their commitment to SRI. Despite some losses during the recession, the company is now poised for growth and has been profitable for the past two quarters.

Lotus Foods recently developed a new partnership with Whole Foods which is now distributing a new value-added product line. The company is continuing to develop new products and distributes via other major retailers like Safeway and Costco. In January 2013, RSF financed a line of credit to support this growth.

Working with RSF was a natural fit for Lotus Foods. “We’ve always valued working with a mission-aligned financial partner,” says Lee. “A financing relationship is one of the most important for any business owner.”

As the company grows, Levine and Lee are still focused on what inspired them in the first place: social and environmental impact. When it comes to the company’s success, they aren’t concerned with growth simply for the sake of profit. “What we really want is to expand the market for our product, so that more farmers have an opportunity to grow this way,” says Lee. “Global warming, water resources, food sovereignty, poverty alleviation—major issues worldwide—these can all be positively affected just by changing how rice is grown.”

Jillian McCoy is Senior Associate of Communications at RSF Social Finance

We Make the Road by Walking – Part II

August 26, 2013

Kenny AusubelThis essay was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly.

Click here for Part I

By Kenny Ausubel

Climate change compounded by the concentration of wealth (and subsequent distribution of poverty) is pushing natural and humans systems to a perfect storm of tipping points. Nature does not favor centralization because one shock can crash the whole system all at once.

One key is to build resilience from the ground up through a radical decentralization of our infrastructure, energy and food systems. It means a greater devolution of political power to local and regional levels. It means democratizing wealth and access to capital and it’s do-able based largely on what we already know.

Using off-the-shelf clean technologies, we can radically increase energy conservation and rapidly ramp up distributed renewable energy. We know how to feed the world using ecological agriculture that sequesters carbon, restores natural capital, and builds local economies. We have a good idea how to begin to restore ecosystems on a large scale—fairly quickly in some cases. We’re rapidly learning how to deploy biomimicry to emulate nature’s designs and recipes with green chemistry, cradle-to-cradle industry, living buildings, and smart growth. We can conserve and use water wisely. We’re reinventing finance as well as governance, instituting rights for nature and revoking corporate constitutional rights.

In this Age of Nature, we’re looking to nature as mentor and model, rather than physical resource.

The vanguard of the banking industry, including the Bank of England, is studying ecological networks and disease patterns to understand how nature avoids cataclysmic systemic shocks. One conclusion is simple: Too big to fail means too big. Break up the big banks, as the conservative Chicago School of Economics originally proposed.

A 2012 study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation compared the performance of 17 values-based banks against 29 banks considered too big to fail. The study showed the values-based banks outperformed traditional mainstream banks in return on assets, growth in loans and deposits, and capital strength. The smaller banks delivered better returns. The report concludes their success is precisely their values, and they’re smaller.

Twenty states are now studying how to create a state public bank based on the Bank of North Dakota, a major success story. This publicly owned bank receives all state revenues and promotes local commerce and industry, makes student loans, and supports new farmers. It was largely unaffected by the banking crisis.

Business also appears to be reaching a tipping point. Two thirds of companies are turning to sustainability for a competitive edge and higher profits. For the first time in 2010, investment in renewables exceeded that in fossil fuels. According to McKinsey & Company, solar energy will come back strong after 2015, driven by the rapid spread of distributed energy with miniature community power stations and home solar. Google has capitalized two solar residential funds of $365 million apiece.

The hardest thing to change in a system is the paradigm, yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Emergence in an emergency. Breakdowns to breakthroughs.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system — one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power. It demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal —and acutely sensitive to natural limits.”

In this Time of No Time, what we don’t have is time. Can we dodge the point of no return by ramping up the emergent shadow civilization fast enough?

In this Time of No Time, what we need to get past the wall of mirrors is a strong heart. Andy Lipkis of TreePeople sees it this way: “I believe every single one of us has a scanner on board that’s operating in our body that nature must have installed. It’s our heart, and it’s asking the question, ‘Where am I needed? How can I help?’

“When something hits your frequency, my frequency, it converts to adrenaline, a biochemical response. It might be a drip. It might be a shot. When we’re given a shot of adrenaline, like when we see a car accident, it gives us the power to go help lift a car off the injured person. It looks like a miracle, but it’s nature’s gift to us. When the ecosystem is hurting, we get the drip. We’re hardwired for this. The love that’s there can sustain us. It’s what really feeds us.

“I’ve come to believe nature has adapted us to be its healers. It has raised us from being infants that were helpless to brilliant, powerful, compassionate beings. We’ve got to take care of the mom, Earth, because she has given us everything to raise us to this point — not so we can kill ourselves.

“Where am I needed? How can I help? Your heart will answer. You’re big enough. We can do this.”

At no time have we ever before faced what we face today. Can we muster the healing forces fast enough? Can we convert what lives in our hearts and conversations into new social forms—live out the renewal that nature and the Earth are calling for?

We make the road by walking. It’s an honor to walk this road with you.

Kenny Ausubel is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Bioneers, along with his business partner and wife Nina Simons. He is an award-winning social entrepreneur, filmmaker, radio producer, and author. His recent book, Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature, won the Grand Gold Nautilus prize for Ecology/Environment. He co-founded Seeds of Change in 1989. He was a central advisor to and appears in Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature documentary The 11th Hour.

We Make the Road by Walking – Part I

August 22, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly.

Kenny Ausubel

By Kenny Ausubel

In this moment of radical environmental and social disruption, the world is experiencing the dawn of a necessary and revolutionary transformation to becoming an ecologically literate and socially just civilization. The existential gauntlet is to make the shift fast enough to outrun global cataclysm. The next five to six years will be the once-in-a-civilization window to change course. We can move from breakdown to breakthrough.

The Mayan people call this the “Time of No Time.” From here on, we’re on Earth time. Mother Earth is shaking to her core. It’s a time of madness, disconnection, and hyper-individualism. It’s also a time when new energies are coming into the world—when people are growing a new skin. The Mayan vision says we in the West will find safe harbor only if we can journey past a wall of mirrors. The mirrors will drive us mad, unless we have a strong heart. Some mirrors delude us with infinite reflections of our vanity and shadows. Others paralyze us with our terror and rage, feeding an empire that manufactures  fear and benefits from resignation. But the empire has no roots and it’s toppling all around us. In this time, everyone is called to take a stand. Everyone is called to be a leader.

To get beyond the wall of mirrors, the final challenge is to pass through a tiny door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be very humble. Then we must burrow down into the Earth, where indigenous consciousness lives. On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we’ll be able to see our true reflection.

We’re re-imagining a civilization in the Age of Nature that honors the web of life, each other and future generations. It’s a revolution from the heart of nature. For decades, brilliant scientific and social innovators such as the bioneers have been in the shadows patiently creating the systems for how we will live on Earth for the long haul. For the most part, the solutions are present, or we know what directions to head in. It’s not that we need more solutions—we need to rapidly spread and scale, where possible, what we’ve already got. We need to mobilize in a way historically done in times of war. It’s emergence in an emergency.

In 2012, two highly problematic rude awakenings are pointing to the need to open the floodgates of transformation and they are not unrelated.

The first is the onset of conspicuous climate disruption. As Bill McKibben points out, scientists have underestimated the speed and scale of early climate disruption, at a rise of just 0.8 degrees Celsius. Even if we stopped pumping carbon right now, the temperature will rise by another 0.8 degrees Celsius. But we’re not stopping—we’re putting record amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. At this rate, in 16 years, the planet could become uninhabitable. Meanwhile the major oil corporations hold reserves five times higher than the amounts of carbon we can burn to keep below the hopefully “safe” threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of warming. They’re planning to burn it all. As McKibben warns, rapid transformative change is the only way through—picture the civil rights movement in fast forward. The key is stopping the fossil fuel oligarchs before they poach the planet.

The second indicator of the need for transformation is the reality of the greatest extremes of wealth ever seen in human civilization. While the following may seem judgmental, I use it to make my point. As the International Forum on Globalization observes in its report Outing the Oligarchy, “Today’s single biggest threat to our global climate commons is the group of billionaires who profit most from its pollution and, in turn, push government policies that promote more fossil fuels… Cooperative global action to address the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced is being held hostage by a handful of profiteers who wield decisive power over our governments.” Globalization has triggered a tectonic shift of financial wealth and political power upward to a group of multi-billionaires. According to Jeffrey Winters, the author of Oligarchy, wealth in the U.S. today is “two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave-and-farmer society.” But we know this is not the way. As Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, more equal societies are better for everyone, including the wealthy.

Jeremy Grantham, the far-seeing Chairman of the $100 billion GMO Capital fund, asserts that global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future, and advocates very large immediate investments in renewables and smart grids. He says humanity’s vexed relationship with the planet is the great economic story of our time. He concludes that, “If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash – Peak Everything Else.” That’s the nub – Boom and Doom –the final throes of an oligarchic economic system bedeviled by its original sin of unlimited growth on a finite planet.

Click here for Part II.

Kenny Ausubel is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Bioneers, along with his business partner and wife Nina Simons. He is an award-winning social entrepreneur, filmmaker, radio producer, and author. His recent book, Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature, won the Grand Gold Nautilus prize for Ecology/Environment. He co-founded Seeds of Change in 1989. He was a central advisor to and appears in Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature documentary The 11th Hour.

Drivers of Change: Part II

August 8, 2013

Sandy Wiggins is a renowned sustainability leader. Here, he shares how green building became a worldwide movement.

Read Part I

What was the tipping point in which green building became a “hot” industry? When did it become affordable enough for mainstream buy-in?

The tipping point came in early in 2006.  Suddenly, green building seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  In particular, I noticed architectural firms that had never taken an interest were starting to actively seek out green building projects to gain experience.  I was also doing a lot of public speaking, and I would always ask the audience to which I was speaking to raise their hands if they had heard of LEED.  Almost overnight, the response to that question went from maybe ten percent of each audience to well north of fifty percent.

It is true that a decade ago there were few manufacturers who were interested in providing green products and that the products that were available commanded a cost premium.  That’s completely changed.  There isn’t a single building material manufacturer that hasn’t changed its product offerings to meet the green demand, which of course has brought down prices.  It’s also true that there was a dearth of integrative design expertise in the design community, which has led many beginners to spend a lot of unnecessary money on their projects.  That’s changed more slowly because it requires a paradigm shift by the design community, but it is catching up to the materials industry.  However, asking about when green building became affordable to the mainstream may not be the right question.  A better question might be, “When did the mainstream begin to realize that building green makes better economic sense than business-as-usual?”

What has happened over the course of the past decade is that general awareness about the long-term and externalized costs of not building green have become widely understood and, for various reasons, that has motivated owners and developers to take the plunge even when there might be a first cost premium.  Consumer demand has also factored heavily into that shift, as has the growing body of data that documents the real performance and health benefits for human beings that occupy green buildings.  I would say that, because of all of these factors, by the end of 2007 the cost conversation largely disappeared as the principle decision-making criteria about whether to build green.

Has green building had any effect on healing the broader economy? If not yet, is there potential?

I would say yes.  The building industry is enormous and touches every other industry and every individual.  Because of that, green building has become part of the parlance of almost everyone in the developed world.  It has raised awareness globally about environmental sustainability and that awareness has bled over into the many other conversations in many other industries.  Businesses, of course, are populated by people, and that awareness also then affects how those people act in other areas of their life.  It was my own growth in awareness through green building that led me to see communities and local economies as critical domains for implementing change and the financial industry as the “pig in the pipe.”

Are there any lessons learned that could be applicable to other environmental/sustainability movements?

I believe there are opportunities for movement building that can be discerned through examination of those key drivers that catalyzed and accelerated green building.   The most important of these is meaning.  There is no more powerful force on earth than a person with a sense of purpose.  If we can find ways to elicit people’s most deeply held values (they tend to be the same for most of us by the way), connect those values to the global issues facing the human family and then empower them to act on those values in their daily lives, movements happen.  The fundamental increment for change is the individual human decision.

During his three-decade career Sandy Wiggins in the real estate industry, Sandy Wiggins has led the development and construction of projects totaling over one billion dollars. He is Past Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, Founding Chair of the Green Building Certification Institute, and co-author of LEED for Neighborhood Development. He serves as a Senior Advisor to RSF Social Finance and is a Director of RSF’s Social Investment Fund.

Drivers of Change: Part I

July 31, 2013

Sandy Wiggins is a renowned sustainability leader. Here, he shares how green building became a worldwide movement. 

How did you come to work in this field—why green building?

I would say it actually chose me. I needed to make a living and through a series of what seemed at the time random events I stumbled into a career building things.  I quickly discovered that I was good at it and enjoyed the challenges it presented.  It was also creative and financially rewarding, so I followed that course for the next 18 years, allowing one challenge to lead me to the next and soaking up success.  Then I woke up one day and realized that I was living a mercenary life and that all of the joy and meaning had gone out of it.

In 1995, shortly after this realization, I was having lunch with a friend who was also the architect for a project I was developing.  He handed me a tiny article he had run across on the environmental impact of buildings.  I was dumbfounded.  I had never before that moment considered that the decisions I was making every day as a businessperson were having such a direct impact on the world.

That was when green building chose me.  Understanding those impacts became an itch that I couldn’t stop scratching.  As my understanding of the magnitude of the suffering inflicted by the building industry grew, I felt compelled to do something about it; with knowledge comes culpability.  And I found that my experience and success in the industry opened both doors and ears so that I could act on that impulse.

What were the key drivers that moved the green building movement along?

As with most movements, there wasn’t a plan. But, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this in order to understand the drivers that might be replicated in support of other sweeping changes.

From its outset, the green building community was inclusive and operated on consensus.  Everybody was welcomed into the tent to join in the conversation about what it meant to build green and how to go about it.  That’s messy, but it generated broad industry buy-in early on in the movement’s development.

Another early driver was the brilliant distillation of the impacts of the built environment into clear, concise, and memorable data points.  The elevator pitch that never fails to open people’s eyes is: In the U.S., building accounts for 40% of all raw material consumption, 40% of all of the waste in our landfills, and buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy consumption and carbon production.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), of course, has been a major driver.  Establishing a system that measured the “greenness” of a building and also rewarded the building’s owner completely changed the game.  It created a common language, where none existed before, for what it meant to be green.  It also became a brand that drove market awareness and competition.

Addressing the economics of building green coupled with broad education about those economics slowly changed the way that people in the industry talked about cost.  It enlarged the field of view and brought capital projects and operations people together, often for the first time, so that operational costs and Life Cycle Assessment crept into decision-making that had formerly been made solely on a first-cost basis.

As a third party verification system, LEED also made the adoption of public policy possible, which turbo-boosted the growth of green building.  The US GSA started this trend, which was quickly picked up by hundreds of other national, state and local agencies.

Another driver was the publication of a series of seminal studies that linked green building strategies to improved human health and performance.  The first of these studies, published by Heschong Mahone in 1999, linked student performance to daylighting in green schools.  This was quickly followed by studies linking green building strategies to the performance of office workers, increases in retail activity, reductions in absenteeism, reductions in nosocomial disease, and improved public health.  All of these phenomena could easily be translated into economic as well as quality of life benefits and became powerful motivators for change.

The most powerful driver, however, is one that is least talked about.  From 2005 through 2007, I spent much of my time traveling across the country speaking to and meeting with business people from every sector of the industry.  It was during this period that I realized that the engine driving this sweeping change wasn’t the buildings or their impacts, it was the people.  Everywhere I went I met architects, engineers, developers, bankers, manufacturers, and builders whose lives had changed as a result of their engagement with green building.  Like me, most of these people had reached a point in their lives and careers where they had lost their sense of purpose and joy.  Green building was waking them up, connecting them with a larger purpose and each other, and infusing their lives with meaning.

Read Part II

Sandy Wiggins During his three-decade career in the real estate industry, Sandy Wiggins has led the development and construction of projects totaling over one billion dollars. He is Past Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, Founding Chair of the Green Building Certification Institute, and co-author of LEED for Neighborhood Development. He serves as a Senior Advisor to RSF Social Finance and is a Director of RSF’s Social Investment Fund.

This was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly

An End to the Age of Entitlement: Land Ownership, Use, and Community Reconsidered

July 26, 2013

This is the first post in a three-part series by John Bloom challenging the modern economic approach to land. Here, Bloom proposes a new approach that views land as resource rather than commodity and focuses on stewardship rather than consumption.

Ask the question: What is my purpose in this lifetime? What resounds is a picture of culture and consciousness at work in forming me. That each of us has the privilege of asking him or herself such a question reveals an important aspect of what it means to be human. However, when I look about me in the world, I realize all this inquiry is meaningless without paying particular attention to the earth we all stand on and cohabit. While each of us wrestles, if we choose, with the question of purpose, we rarely ask the deeper questions about the meaning of land, our connection to it, and the reality that it is our shared commons—even though we have been conditioned not to think of it this way in Western culture.

Modern economics has parsed land in a way quite destructive and unimaginable to many indigenous cultures—certainly to America’s first peoples. This market-centered methodology is founded upon a materialistic worldview that values things, commodities, and quantification above all else. Ownership of land and its attendant control has become an end in itself that has been used to justify some extraordinary means including rendering the land infertile in the pursuit of profit from it, or distorting its value by using it as a kind of root cellar for capital and generator of appreciated development value. This may seem harsh judgment, but both conditions have rendered much productive land unusable and inaccessible, either through industrial farming or overdevelopment. Both are anathema to anything like a regenerative economy. Superfund sites and real estate speculation are more a commons of economic distress in the sense that we all share the costs of their consequences. The long-standing imperative to own and control land as property has its parallel in the competitive drive for control of markets and economic life in general. This age of entitlement must to come to an end along with its destructive practices. From the perspective of the land, we are all commoners, even if we would prefer not to think of it this way.

As a counter imagination, wise stewardship of the land and natural resources upon which humanity depends might render a more mutual and compassionate interdependent community—a true commonwealth. Farmers working with high integrity sustainable practices understand this. Their ultimate purpose is building soil fertility. Land trusts are founded on the principle of protecting and stewarding land on behalf of the commons. Neither the farmer nor the land trustees treat the land as a commodity. To do so would be an abrogation of their missions and the high purpose of their service. And thankfully there are many private landowners who operate in solidarity with these principles—but not currently enough to rescue the earth from commercial abuse.

I am proposing here to recast the question of land ownership in light of two other critically important but less attended to elements, namely, use and community. Imagine these three—ownership, use, and community—as the primary elements of the human relationship to land, and, from a different perspective, the aspects of consciousness and praxis that the land is calling forth from us. Each of these elements has its particular qualities, practices, and ethic, and yet they are inseparable. Use and community are often subsumed within our concept of ownership, a situation that no longer serves the economic future in which ecological limits and the diminished capacity of land (and all natural resources) to support human needs are becoming painfully evident.

Change will require a new consciousness, one that transcends conventional polarity and dualistic thinking that are the hallmarks of the bicameral mind. Instead we will need to cultivate what was called in ancient Greece and Buddhist practice the middle way, a path that recognizes the both-and, holds the extremes of the polarity and that which mediates them. This requires a certainly flexibility of mind, and I would say feeling. In this threefold picture, each of the three elements are of equal importance and serve as tension holder and balance to the others. Collectively they are a unified system; each with its unique character completes the others. Like the three primary colors from which all other colors emerge, ownership, use, and community are the primary elements of a whole relational system. While this may seem a highly theoretical approach, my hope here is demonstrate quite the opposite—it is both directly practical, a bearer of collaboration rather than competition, and a possible tool for healing our centuries long violent relationship with the earth and each other. This last hope may seem arrogant and overreaching, and it is with all humility that I propose it. But I do not know how else to frame a counter imagination to the dominant paradigm of land ownership.

Continue to read Part II

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

Financing Ecological Stewardship

July 17, 2013

This letter was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly

Don Shaffer - DefaultDear Friends,

This issue [of the RSF Quarterly] is focused on Ecological Stewardship, a topic of great urgency in the midst of what one could call “climate chaos.” We are working very hard to find and fund those social entrepreneurs who have demonstrated success in solving ecological challenges and are supporting a restorative economy. Their work is needed now more than ever, and we would like your help in identifying and directing such enterprises to us.

As Kenny Ausubel, co-founder of Bioneers, says in his sobering and hopeful guest essay, these are critical times for action by those who care for the earth and our place in it: “Everyone is called to be a leader, to be a healer. Inquire within.”  This last call speaks to the personal transformation each of us will need to engage in if we are to shift whole economic and environmental systems in time to keep the earth inhabitable. On a personal note, the annual Bioneers conferences in the 1990s were an important influence on my life and how I imagined transforming the world.

In the area of Ecological Stewardship, we would like to make more loans to help mitigate climate change, reverse the depletion of natural resources, and support biodiversity. We are particularly interested in green building, resource recovery, and the restoration and conservation of water and water systems. Current examples of RSF borrowers working in these areas include EcoScraps, New Leaf Paper, and RecycleForce (featured in this issue as one leader building the next economy).

In the abundant beauty of Northern California, it is hard to keep present the very real challenges facing farmers in drought conditions, or manufacturers who depend on depleted supply chains. We need your help in connecting with proven innovators who need loan capital to catalyze their capacity to solve these and other ecological problems we face.

We also continue to expand our portfolio in our focus areas of Food & Agriculture, and Education & the Arts. Our investors remain excited about the innovative work we are doing here, all of which is dependent upon a healthy environment and thriving earth systems. I am reminded of E.B. White’s famous quote: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” We have much to do to assure that our world remains a healthy place to be enjoyed by all.

All my best,


Click here to download this issue of the RSF Quarterly

If you have ideas for social enterprises we should be working with, let us know!

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance.

A Healthy Stream of Capital

April 25, 2013

by Tammy Childers

Originally published in the Spring 2013 RSF Quarterly.

RSF’s purpose is “to transform the way the world works with money,” but what exactly does that mean? In pondering this question, I recalled time spent outdoors exploring a particular creek. I realized there was a metaphor in the story of that creek for a transformed financial system.

Last summer, with my family, I visited Filigreen Farm, a diverse Demeter certified Biodynamic fruit farm in Mendocino County. One morning, my mother-in-law, Joellen, and I set out to tromp through the creek that bisects the farm. This creek, the Anderson Creek, is a major tributary feeding into the Navarro River and to the Pacific Ocean twenty miles away.

In the year that had passed since my last visit, the creek had changed. The water was deeper in some places, but there were also more sandbars. Standing up to our knees in cool, clear and slow moving water we marveled at dark pools of circling fry, audible frogs, and lush vegetation. We lingered in shallow water searching for captivating treasures.

By the time the sun was directly over our heads, we were ready to head back to the cool shade of the house, but with willows, shrubs, and grasses crowding the creek banks and islands, we could see no obvious path to the farm on the other side.

When we finally emerged, we ran into Stephanie Tebbutt, one of Filigreen’s managers. We thanked our host, and Joellen commented on what great fun she had in the creek. This creek, Joellen said, struck her as particularly beautiful; she had not seen a stream as clear as this one since she was a child on her family’s farm in Nebraska.

When Stephanie and her husband Chris, both landscape designers, first came to Anderson Valley in 1982, “the stream looked nothing like its present self: curving, clear, and about twenty feet further back from its former location,” Stephanie said. “It looked like others up and down the Anderson Valley: straight, denuded of vegetation. The landowner at that time had bulldozed the creek each autumn to straighten it, clearing any vegetation brave enough to rear its head along the way. What little survived was grazed down by the cattle.” The practice had eroded the farm land, sending topsoil down to the sea, creating a steep cut bank, and facilitating spring flooding.

Lush landscape and Filigreen Fram

Lush landscape and Filigreen Fram

Together the Tebbutts set out to stabilize the creek bank. Bringing the natural rhythm and energy back to the water would be the key to the riparian restoration. “Water is not meant to flow in a straight line,” Stephanie said. “There are unintentional consequences to forcing water in that way: flooding, bank erosion, and a wider, shallower summer creek bed with higher water temperatures unsuitable for nurturing new life.”

They began by planting willows and cottonwoods along the banks, and over a period of 18 years, experimented with an array of engineering techniques to stabilize what was considered one of the worst erosion problems in the county. Many of those early efforts failed, but eventually, Chris came up with a system to build jetties, or “nick points” to slow the creek in flood. The jetties were planted in fast-growing riparian trees and formed the basis for what would eventually become the flowform structure that enabled meander to return to the creek. Now the water would hit a berm, follow the curve, hit another berm, and follow the curve, depositing silt and topsoil from upstream at the back of the jetties, and scouring out deep pools in front, effectively changing the flow of the water back to that of a healthy creek.

In time, silt and soil built up along the banks and native weeds and woody plants moved in to capitalize on the new territory, thus providing habitat for the life we witnessed. Now this half-mile stretch of Anderson Creek is monitored by county and state agencies for its remarkable come-back.

As Stephanie explained this, I exclaimed “That’s what RSF is trying to do with money! We are trying to change the flow of capital so that it flows to the businesses and organizations that are creating a deep, positive social impact.”

With our current financial system, if we speak of the flow of water as the flow of capital, we could say the flow has been interrupted; it has been bulldozed and channeled straight. As a result, the flow is muddy and opaque and the wealth is removed from its origins and deposited far downstream.  When bad news hits, businesses lacking deep roots in the community are wiped out in a flash flood. As aggradation, or the displacement of sediments caused by repeat floods, alters geography resulting in shallow and dispersed water flow, a financial crisis erodes capital from communities and displaces it to far off investors resulting in less capital for local initiatives.

A healthy financial system can be seen as a healthy stream with its meander restored by the actions of the social finance community. Through direct lending, investing, and giving, RSF can contribute to restoring the natural flow of capital to businesses and organizations that encourage a healthy economy, environment, and people.

With a transformed financial system, we will directly invest in businesses and organizations with deep social impacts that encourage and support their communities. There will be diversity among these businesses and they will add value to their community by investing in people and practices that are good for society and the planet. The flow of capital will be patient and will settle into areas suitable for sparking new opportunities that, in turn, contribute back to the greater flow. More people will have access to and benefit from this flow, increasing the diversity of businesses and organizations. When bad news hits, it will not be a tragedy because our businesses and organizations will have established deep, healthy, community-based roots.

Now I ask you to ponder: What does it mean to you to transform the way the world works with money? How would that world be different than it is today? What needs to happen to make that change? And what can you do to contribute to it?

Tammy Childers is Loan Servicing Manager at RSF Social Finance.

Between Land and Money: An Economic Consideration Part II

February 21, 2013

This is the second post in a series by John Bloom on money (global) and land-based (local) economic systems. While we are largely accustomed to the former, this historical analysis makes the argument for a new kind of economy, one which raises the profile of land-based systems to benefit and balance the global economy as we know it.

In my last post, I described the development of Paterson Great Falls into the first industrial park under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton’s economic vision became essentially the American version of economic life. Consistent with the pattern of the wider Industrial Revolution beginning in England, his approach created the conditions that drew labor from the countryside to urban industry while diminishing the agrarian foundation that had sustained the American colonists. But, there was another imagination articulated and fought for by Thomas Jefferson as Hamilton was carrying the day. That vision was less sympathetic to the manufacturing and money economy than it was to the deep value of agriculture as the primary driver for American economic life. Jefferson’s view was grounded in an ever-expanding land base that could support regional economic subsistence and produce plant-based products such as tobacco and cotton for foreign markets, especially Europe. Jefferson, a farmer himself, reaped economic benefit from agriculture aided by slave labor, and also celebrated the pedagogical value of tillage for the development of character. He understood that a good farmer is also a land steward; soil fertility and economic productivity are entwined.

Jefferson saw the expansion of the American land base as essential for more farming and agricultural product growth, access to markets, and ever-wider distribution—thus the Louisiana Purchase and the implementation of the doctrine of manifest destiny. This “destiny” was used to justify the merciless destruction of the Native American peoples, and their way of life that was reverently open land based. When the US government granted significant land tracts to soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary war in lieu of pay (the government had no money), that land had to be parceled into ownership, measured, fenced, and priced—anathema to the ethos of land as shared commons. Those fences enclosed land and brought an end to the dynamic, reciprocal flow between man and nature that had long marked the economic life of Native America.

Both Hamilton and Jefferson knew the need for natural resources of all kinds would increase continually to support economic and national development. From their place in time, both could see no limits to the kind of economic growth they were imagining. And both contributed to what would become the industrialization of everything, including agriculture. The value of a human being would be measured by his or her capacity to produce economically; land itself became a store of value as well as a source of production. Land and labor were commoditized in a way that was material to all economic matters. In essence, with the emergence of property rights granted to individuals and corporations by the government, the mutuality of “ownership” in common gave way to the self-interest described so ably by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, first published 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Nothing in Adam Smith’s text would have predicted the level of greed and manipulation that have pervaded our current financial system. Smith assumed a standard of morality in the economic sphere that was guided by the dominant religious principles of his time. But much has changed in the human psyche since then. Wealth has become a game of never enough, of winners and losers. Greed is not a modern invention, it is one of the seven deadly sins; neither is manipulation of the market for private benefit. But the scale and affects of recent events indicate an extreme disconnect between money and land to the extent that land itself accrued economic value as a store-place for money. Land is a treasury unto itself measured in ever-rising prices, which, in turn, present insurmountable barriers to access, especially for farmers.

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

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