Seeking solutions through social enterprise

Positive Energy Building

Chicago architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill designed not only a zero waste, but an energy generating building, suggesting that how we live in relation to our world's resources can be transformed through design, investment and choices. Photo: Smith and Gill.

For more than thirty years prior to 2007, Americans consistently identified nuclear war as their biggest fear. However, since then, North Americans have increasingly singled out the degradation of our environment as their biggest worry. It’s a sad irony that the threat from our foreign enemies has been displaced by fear of our own destructive powers. Much of this concern is valid; our communal future is at risk less from a single, cataclysmic event than from the steady ruining of our environment. How we face this challenge, and how we steward our earth will surely be our most consequential legacy.

The prospects of technology rescuing us from this path are strong; the forces of the free market kick into overdrive when resources become scarce and dear. High-priced oil will drive more energy innovation and conservation than the shame of a spoiled earth. We could wait for technology to rescue us— playing a cosmic game of chicken—or we can act now to heal and preserve our planet. At Rudolf Steiner Foundation Social Finance (RSF) we’ve chosen to be proactive through finance.

Money talks

Finance can play a pivotal role in promoting ecological stewardship.

The forces that push us to save or spend our global natural capital are the same levers that hold sway over our personal capital. We have squandered our long-term assets for our short-term needs and wants because we place too little economic value on the future. The personal crisis of not saving enough for retirement is being repeated on a global scale with our communal resource nest egg. We have failed to consider the full costs of our actions, because we have failed to acknowledge that our economic decisions have implications far beyond the buyer and the seller.

A larger context than money alone

Traditional economics teaches that rational people will over-consume resources (like fresh air, water, and top soil), but to squander our air and water collectively is the height of irrationality. Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer, recognized this paradox when he said,

If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.

Our greatest potential to preserve and restore our planet comes from the acknowledgment that we are all inextricably connected to one another and passengers on the same “spaceship earth.” Or as Chief Seattle said,

All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

With limited funds, RSF strives to be strategic about its lending to promote ecological stewardship. We seek out opportunities that have high impact and a high chance of scaling or replication. We’re focused on the most pressing problems rather than the most popular, and we put particular emphasis on solutions that include education as part of their deliverables. We gravitate towards projects that make sense in the long term and can also be made affordable in the short term with our financing.

At RSF our lending focus is informed by some startling statistics:

  • 70% of water usage in the U.S. supports agriculture. RSF is actively looking to lend money to companies and organizations that promote water conservation. Opportunities abound in smart sprinklers, grey water recycling, and xeriscaping.
  • Buildings use almost half of all energy in the US. Systems that reduce the need for heating and cooling or convert waste heat into productive use (mimicking our natural environment as a whole) are of particular interest.
  • Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Reducing methane, or capturing it and converting it into energy, is a viable solution when combined with appropriate financing.
  • Our oceans are over-fished and fertilizer runoff is causing “dead zones”. We are exploring alternatives to conventional fertilizers as well as prudent aquaculture to preserve our fisheries and promote healthy fish populations.

Zero waste profits

And everywhere we are looking to support efforts to reduce waste because these projects are usually the most financially viable as well. Domestic food waste is estimated at 30% while traffic alone wastes thirty million gallons of gasoline annually. Only 28% of glass and less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled. The opportunities for social enterprise in this arena are especially promising.

It is tempting to see the condition of our environment as hopeless, but this would discount the great strides we have made for the human race. By nearly every measure of development—improvement in lifespan and literacy, reduction in infant mortality and disease—we’ve made tremendous progress. The key, therefore, is to pay equivalent attention to our surroundings and recognize, as Rudolf Steiner wrote,

…that our entire earth which we inhabit as whole humanity is a kind of great living being, and that we ourselves are included as part of its greater organism.

Working towards this awareness and practice through social finance is what RSF is all about.

–Ted Levinson, Transition Voice

Cross posted from the RSF Quarterly

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