Purity, ambiguity, and the investment portfolio

This week I’ll begin with a parable from my favorite set of wise weirdos, the desert fathers, forerunners of Christian monasticism.

A brother said to Abba Poimen, “If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts, saying it was only done out of a desire for praise.” The old man said to him, “Even if it is out of a desire for praise, we must give the brother what he needs.” He told the following parable: “Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow, reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?” The brother replied, “The one who reaped the small, poor crop.” The old man said to him, “So it is with us. We sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.”

In the life that sought to be perfect in the love of God, neighbor, and self, the seeker had to give up the need to be beyond reproach and simply do the best he or she could. Early church scholar Roberta Bondi, an Episcopal priest, has written of this eccentric collection of early Christians whose baffling exodus into the Egyptian desert began in the fourth century. She says, “It must have been a great temptation to the early Christian monastic to try to codify the moral law for himself or herself in such a way that there would be no ambiguity left, that one could always know what to do without having to take responsibility for the suffering of others that might result from one’s moral action. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid having to use one’s own judgment then, just as there is no way now, once it is granted that the goal is love rather than fulfilling a legal code.” Virtuous actions could even be roadblocks on The Way if the actor’s motive was simply to feel pure or, worse, look down his Roman nose at his apparently less virtuous brother.

With all that said, I’d like to make a narrative- and logic-defying leap to John Tierney’s column in last Tuesday’s New York Times. In it, he approvingly reviews a new book by Stewart Brand, the compiler of the Whole Earth Catalog, which came out in 1968 and helped inspire the original Earth Day. In his new book, titled Whole Earth Discipline, Brand urges the environmentally minded to “question convenient fables” and offers up seven lessons, updating what he sees as myths to be discarded. Among them are several that immediately got my back up, including (as summarized by Tierney) “‘Let them eat organic’ is not a global option”; “Frankenfood, like Frankenstein, is fiction”; and “‘New Nukes’ is the new ‘No Nukes.’”

Heresy, right?

On Wednesday, Martin and I attended a conference at City Hall on the Slow Money movement in Austin. The keynote speaker was Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. Tasch, a venture capitalist, foundation treasurer, and entrepreneur, hopes to update nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of fiduciary responsibility to reflect the economic, social, and environmental realities of the twenty-first century, largely by devising ways to invest in local food economies. Although he is idealistic, Tasch offers some trenchant assessments of the nature of risk in conventional bottom-line investment strategies. The conference also featured several panel discussions with various local organic food entrepreneurs, expounding on the possibilities for investment opportunities based on local businesses. At one point, one of the panelists—who sells beautiful eggs and organic chicken feed—exclaimed to the audience: We can feed the world with organic principles, and we don’t need genetically engineered foods to do it, either! Raise your hand if you agree! And many in the standing-room audience raised their hands and cheered.

Orthodoxy, right?

One of the things I like about Tasch is his pragmatism, despite his utopian goals. As someone who has been lost in the fog of literature, religion, and family for many years, I was glad to hear his analysis of the market as neither good nor bad, but simply an elemental force that, like water or fire, can work for good or ill. He doesn’t believe that any single scheme (even his own) will save the world, but rather calls for an economic polyculture that includes various ways of and goals for investing, not just the usual American emphasis on maximum monetary return on investment without regard for the consequences.

A question from the audience arose: I want to invest in strictly local businesses. How do I find the ones that won’t sell out to national or international companies later? How do I stay pure? His response: you can’t. And why would you? Some companies will, and some won’t. The market has its seasons and needs multiple species of business in order to flourish in times of plenty and times of drought. There is no one “right” way to participate that is beyond reproach. If your goal is to invest in your community with a moderate rate of return, you can’t worry too much about purity. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Tasch admonished, hearkening back to the high-minded pragmatism of Voltaire.

As a recovering perfectionist and helpless idealist, I find this to be good news: that the ideal of purity in the world of investment—and elsewhere—can work against good and genuine change. To be honest, I have no idea whether organics are the only way, whether genetically modified crops are required in the global battle against hunger; whether the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks. Nor do I have a very clear idea of how I’ve arrived at a conception of purity that rejects these possibilities. I have always found John Tierney—the New York Times reporter—to be a lively and reliable source of information. In my local food community, I’ve found a fount of practical wisdom about the world in which small, independent producers must run three times as fast over rougher regulatory terrain than larger (and largest) producers to keep their place in the economic culture, even as it becomes clear that a flourishing economic ecosystem requires the presence of small farmers. How do I choose between these divergent views, when I find each of their expounders to be trustworthy guides?

American culture currently encourages, even celebrates, the immediate rejection of ideas that aren’t genetically identical to the ones commonly held. In this harsh monoculture, I find relief in the generosity of the desert fathers. Do the best you can, even if you don’t always meet your own—or your peers’—standards. Question those standards regularly to see why you have them, especially when they become shining purity badges that encourage you to condemn others. As soon as you condemn your fellow traveler, you’ve wandered off the road. Remember that there’s no way to produce any kind of crop without getting dirty.

What we’re reading
the Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
Martin: Janna Levin, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

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