By G. Benjamin Bingham
To Rescue Our Planet, We Must Do More than Save One Starfish at a Time
The story behind the familiar Domini Funds’ logo is the one about the little girl throwing one starfish at a time back into the ocean. An adult tells her it is useless. Can’t she see that she will never save them all? Pulling at our heartstrings, the story describes her looking at the adult, then looking at the starfish in her hands and saying, as she throws it back in the water, “I am making a difference to this one.”
The tension in this story between adult and child is the tension between mind and heart. The adult represents the intellectual, materialistic consciousness of today: the mind that spins around data metrics and statistics like a gerbil in a cage trapped into doing nothing. The child represents the heart of genuine do-gooders, each with their particular issue and with the very real faces of people they help in front of them. That is usually the end of the story. The question is: does the story stop us from considering the big picture, leaving out the full possibility of the awakened human being whose heart and mind are working optimally in coherence—and in collaboration. We need the heart to respond like a child and we need the mind to think big picture like an adult, seeing what would really make a difference. Then we can act optimally, with a measurable, strategic, collaborative plan.
I’m not suggesting that one-off philanthropy is a waste of time or that it only serves the ego of the philanthropist (and I certainly mean no disrespect to the Domini Funds that certainly work on the big picture). It is just that doing good on a small scale may blind us to bolder solutions because it feels so good. Less genuine do-gooders may tend to be motivated like sugar addicts high on one feel-good moment after another. A volunteer in Haiti spoke of this tendency during an interview for NPR’s “The World” recently. He noted that some young Haitians are beginning to hurl abusive remarks to the white volunteers out of this sentiment.
It was striking to meet the inspired responders to the needs of Haiti at Sustainatopia in Miami this year. The starfish story was actually woven into one of the speeches. A leader of Sustainable Haiti, smiling and nodding his head, said, “Once you get to know Haiti you get hooked on it!” I felt the tension in myself: As an investment manager, can I work on the big picture and be in touch with the rich detail of humanity’s aching needs? Or can I choose one particular starfish at a time that changes things for many?
The contrasting “adult” approach was evident at the U.S. State Department’s recent Global Economy Impact Forum in Washington, where Secretary Clinton spoke brilliantly about the key role of entrepreneurial business solutions to social problems and her department’s new $50M fund with USAID. She was followed by Sir Richard Branson, who was not nearly as coherent but took the opportunity to express his disdain for the role of prisons as a business in the United States and the importance of privatizing and legalizing drugs and prostitution as part of a broad solution to current social ills with heavy costs. Clinton and Branson clearly favor the entrepreneurial approach to solving world problems; both are big picture thinkers, yet as “investors” neither is moving truly significant funds to support solutions on the ground.
The State Department’s forum on Impact Investing included 400 leaders from the US and abroad. The starfish story came up again oddly enough in that same short week, however in sharp contrast to the Haiti volunteers who understand that each individual (each “starfish”) is vitally important and cannot be discounted, the former CEO of Branson’s “Carbon War Room,” Jigar Shah, strongly advocated for big solutions. He described the War Room’s aim-high goal in gigatons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. “Until we have removed gigatons of carbon from the air we have failed to save the planet,” he said. And yet, their tracking of data is not going to move the needle alone. So Shah is now reinventing himself to engage directly in business to make global change happen. It seems to me we need to match those gigatons of carbon with many trillions invested in every kind of solution on our diverse and beautiful planet. Not just millions or billions!
The sad reality is that the best NGO’s and do-good investment managers of the world are competing for mere millions to solve problems while trillions are spent on war, espionage and extractive polluting industries. Until the world economy recognizes that profit is maximized by collaboration for the common good we will continue to feel overwhelmed and despondent about all the starfish on the beach, settling for the good feeling of saving one at a time. Until investors begin behaving like consumers focused on labeling transparency and start a movement, demanding full corporate cost/benefit analysis for all products and services sold, they will not even know the harm their investments are doing. Investors will support the common good when market prices reflect the real costs to society and the environment as well as the real benefits. Once prices reflect real costs and real benefits, there will be no need for labeling investment styles as socially responsible or impact investing. The economy will be coherent for heart and mind. That is when our planet will shine like a star. Imagine.
G. Benjamin Bingham is the Founder/CEO of 3Sisters Sustainable Management, LLC with 35 years focused on finding, fostering and funding impact investments for Good. He has a CFP and studied fine arts at Yale, BD farming at Emerson, Gestalt Psychology, Grantsmanship, and Spacial Dynamics.
Category: Sustainable Small-B