Eco-conscious, yes. Sustainable? Hardly.

COLORADO SPRINGS- Johann of First Affirmative Financial Network, asked me to relate my experience at the now notorious PPJPC meet-up to discuss Economic Sustainability. Though Tony wasn’t able to attend, he’s initiated a debate here: is there such a thing as “economic sustainability?” Since I was there, perhaps I could elucidate, because I believe I heard the answer.

I was quite impressed by the questions brought to the event by the audience, who proved to be no shrinking violets. The interests ranged from some who wanted to indict the Fed, to those who questioned economic growth as being sustainable. The housing market for example is predicated on real estate increasing in value. Must it? Should it? Can it? Successful investing is inherently about your investment growing, otherwise you are losing money. Can investment be done without growth? When posed this question, our intrepid investment-biz guest braved an answer: “I don’t know.”

I supposed as much, hence my initial skepticism about the subject of the talk. But I expected to hear about options, not to hear my foregone conclusion foreclosed. What then does FAFN, our fellow sustainability boosters, have to offer? It turns out it is the usual green investing. Working Assets was so 90s, “sustainability” is the eco catch-phrase of the new millennium. It’s still about the 3Es, as Johann told us they say in the greening biz, or the 3Ps: people, planet and profit.

Johann’s employer’s concrete claim to “sustainability” was a novel certification of a green office remodel. No small task, although the pitch from Johann is that it requires a surprisingly small expenditure. So, small task. And FAFN is all about giving recognition for setting a good example. Here’s how this works in their business model: Chiefly their portfolio is comprised of only green stocks, plus stocks you might want to encourage to be green. General Motors is decidedly not green, but you could recommend them as an incentive for GM to show some eco-thinking. That’s an actual example from our discussion. I’m hoping if Monsanto issued a press release that they would be recycling their break-room Dixie cups, our sustainability cheerleaders wouldn’t jump tp award the bold step with a buy recommendation.

I came to the PPJC meeting with an even more hardcore question. How can someone who makes a living from the interest earned on money, consider themselves sustainable? Our guest’s response was “there certainly are plenty of us around.” But is that an answer? Economically sustainable, yes. Environmentally? Hardly. I believe that is the crux of what Tony raises as a paradox.

Charging interest for the loan of money has presented an age-old moral dilemma. The function of money was to facilitate barter, as one good or service was exchanged for another. Religious thinkers have most often concluded that a person should not profiteer from the exchange of money itself, adding as they have, no value to the equation. Jesus was certainly against it. Although Johann interpreted “go forth and multiply” to mean you should multiply your money.

Whether it’s moral or not, how can money lending be environmentally sustainable? If you are producing no good or rendering no labor, what should you be taking out of the system for your consumption? Can a negative-contribution be sustainable?

When I first moved to UCLA, and saw the mass of wealth built around the west side of Los Angeles, the opulence seemed to me built on an intangible cloud of finance. I wondered what kind of bank vacuum lay behind the scene, sucking from the natural and human resources of the world to sustain the decadence beyond imagination of LA’s suburbs, foothills and ridge-tops. I concluded something then. The arbitrary financial arrangements, probably no more legitimate than royal lineage, or less usurious than a loan shark, were the only grip the owners had on the victims of their exploitation. Short of militarized enforcement, it would become tenuous at best, and certainly will not be sustainable, economic or otherwise.

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