Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Beauty Economy

I recently was alerted to a new group in town calling itself "Slow Money." I was interested, at first, by their philosophy, and the people behind it--a San Francisco restauranteur, the founder of Terra Chips, etc. gave it legitimacy in my mind.

The economy, they say, has gotten too big. Too complicated. Too fast, and out of scale with humans. The antidote, in their view, is to slow it down, turning towards the old way of life which involved knowing your neighbor and buying your corn or peaches from the family farm down the road.

All well and good I suppose--and in many ways an understandable backlash against the economic mess we're in right now. I love farmer's markets. And living on the California coast, we have access to wonderful fruits and vegetables. One of my favorite local farms on the coast is run by an Italian family that has been in the Half Moon Bay area for generations. They don't spray most of their crops, but they do use some chemical fertilizers, and therefore don't qualify for the vaunted title of organic. But they farm with love, something you can see in every potato and head of broccoli. Visiting their stand off Hwy. One is a treat.

What I didn't like about this Slow Money group, or their philosophy, is the implication that the economy must be reshaped in some whole new image in order to be beneficial, or in their words, "beautiful."

As they put it:

"We must bring money back down to earth. ... We must bring our money home. We must put money back into local economies and carbon back into the soil. ... there is something beautiful about a diversified organic farm. There is something beautiful about a CSA. There is something beautiful about Terra Madre. There is nothing beautiful about bovine growth hormone or Red Dye #4 or high fructose corn syrup. We must invest as if beauty mattered."

For me, this was when the alarm bells began to ring.

Some of what we humans do is beautiful, by the definition above. Some of it just isn't. Doctors perform ugly surgery and save lives. Teachers slog away in depressing classrooms. Some people sell things that have no real social value -- gadgets that break way too soon, sites that hawk stupid pet videos, search technology for the above sites, storage to ensure that all of the videos are kept online, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. None of this is particularly pretty. Would I suggest that we make any of that go away? Definitely not! In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I wouldn't make bovine growth hormones or red dyes go away. I would try to keep them out of my personal food supply, and I would expect and be rewarded as to find that many others will feel the same, until the company that has introduced them realizes that they're fighting a losing battle, and slowly takes them off the market. (This is in fact what is happening in both these cases.)

And this, my friends, is the messy wonderful world we call the money economy. I don't particularly like the word "capitalism" because to me it is a very limiting terms. Nowadays, many of the most exciting innovations are running on little to no capital. In fact, when you're in the midst of a place like Silicon Valley that seems to be where we are heading. And that, to me, is a beautiful thing.


Tiffany von Emmel said...

There is a "messy wonderful" nature of value, especially among entrepreneurs. I think that understanding the art and qualitative science of it can enable us to scale the "beautiful thing".

To speak to the messy fertile nature of economy, I think you would appreciate this post and video of entrepreneurs in Dreamfish exploring what is value creation.

Sunshine, thanks for your *valuable* post ;-)

Sunshine said...

Thanks for the comment, Tiffany! I appreciate it, and I think what you're doing with Dreamfish is really interesting as well.