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Forging the Next Economy with Nature as Our Guide

It was maybe the 27th time I was asked about my impact investing fund’s concessionary returns that I’d had enough. Concessionary to what? I wondered. To the market, of course! everyone replied. That’s when I realized that everyone seemed to think that the Market — the very system that had generated inequality, displacement, resource degradation, and exploitation — was the one and only benchmark to use when evaluating investment performance.

But that didn’t work for me. The fund I had created, the Boston Impact Initiative Fund, was designed to repair the harm done by the Market. Our fund aims to close the racial wealth divide in Eastern Massachusetts by redistributing capital from where it has accumulated (predominantly white and mostly male Americans) to where it has been extracted from (predominantly communities of color, and particularly women of color). In the Market, resources accumulate in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Most financial growth is speculation and bears little relation to the real wealth of the planet. The communities from which wealth has been extracted can no longer produce the goods and services they need because their natural and human capital has been diminished. With the onset of COVID-19, the ever-widening gap in our global culture between the Haves and Have-Nots has become a yawning chasm absorbing a landslide of the world’s poor.

Deborah Frieze on Putting Inequality at the Center   Watch the Full Program

Why then should I be asked to defend my fund’s effort to reduce inequality against the benchmark of a system designed to generate it?

In the Market, resources accumulate in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

That one question cracked open an entirely new field of inquiry for me. If I were released from the Market’s definition of risk and return, where else might I turn for direction? Benchmarks serve as a point of reference; they orient us so we can make sense of the environment we’re in. Those of us who are willing to trailblaze a new path often have to look outside the limiting beliefs of our own sector for guidance. I wanted a new point of reference, a guide that knew something about what it takes to respond and adapt to systems change.

Fortunately, there’s one that has 3.8 billion years of experience under her belt. That guide is Nature herself.

Biomimicry

The term biomimicry was popularized by scientist Janine Benyus in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. It is the practice of taking inspiration from nature’s designs and processes to solve human problems. Its goal, according to the Biomimicry Institute, is to create products, processes and policies — new ways of living — that solve our greatest design challenges. If you want to design a strong but elastic fiber, study spider silk. If you want to manage building ventilation, study honeycomb. If you want to understand inclusive resource allocation in a community, study the way trees, fungi and soil interact in a forest.

With the onset of COVID-19, the ever-widening gap in our global culture between the Haves and Have-Nots has become a yawning chasm absorbing a landslide of the world’s poor.

Nature operates with principles rather than plans. These principles are expressed through her capacity to continuously adapt to changing conditions, no matter how unpredictable, widespread or complex. Learning and adapting to change is, in fact, the nature of life. By observing Nature’s principles in action and applying them to our ferocious design challenge of regenerating our economy, we may learn how to imagine another world.

My monthly column will explore what the natural world has to teach us about finance and the economy. We’ll consider how the oak tree distributes resources — and what that means for big financial institutions in our midst. We’ll examine the role of fungal networks — and challenge the way we value the essential but invisible workers our economy relies on to function. We’ll look at the thriving biodiversity of healthy soil — and consider the benefits distributed decision-making might have over centralized control.

Sallie Calhoun

Sallie Calhoun at Paicines Ranch in California

I am an investor, not a biologist. So to bring a biomimicry lens to the practice of investing, I’m calling in a friend. Throughout this column, you’ll hear from Sallie Calhoun, who will serve as our portal to Nature’s wisdom. Sallie is a rancher who owns and manages the Paicines Ranch on the central coast of California. She is an impact investor and founder of the No Regrets Initiative, which deploys various types of capital towards regenerating the agricultural soils of North America and the communities who steward them. Above all, Sallie is a mentor and a friend who continuously reminds me that no matter how dark the future may appear, we can still choose to engage in action and experimentation in a spirit of joy and delight.

Those of us who are willing to trailblaze a new path often have to look outside the limiting beliefs of our own sector for guidance. I wanted a new point of reference, a guide that knew something about what it takes to respond and adapt to systems change.

I invite you to join me in this inquiry: What if our economy worked more like Nature, regenerating the systems that power its growth? What if investing were designed to redistribute financial capital to where it was needed most? What if each and every one of us found our niche, contributing our gifts to the community around us?

Deborah Frieze is founder and president of the Boston Impact Initiative, an impact investing fund dedicated to closing the racial wealth divide in Eastern Massachusetts. She is co-author with Margaret Wheatley of Walk Out Walk On, an award-winning book about building healthy and resilient communities.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Magazine's Content Partners.

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