Sunday, April 4, 2010

Two Paradigm Shifters

I love it when the way I formerly saw the world is upended; when certain beliefs or tenets are challenged and blown sky high.

Everyone knows, for example, that there are only two socio-political models worth talking about now that communism has passed into the dustbin of history: American style world domination capitalism and Eurosocialism. Right?

Well, if Mohammad Yunus has anything to say about it, a third wealth creation/distribution system has begun to rise based on the idea of social business. Rather than seeking to amass the greatest possible profit for shareholders, the social business seeks to achieve benefits for all, to make the world a better place. Turning a profit in Yunus's world is still acceptable, but not at the expense of people or the planet. After recouping their initial inverstment, ownership plows all future profits back into the company. A good example of this was his founding of Grameen-Danone or, more locally and on a smaller scale, The Granola Project, started by some folks in Providence.

Yunus's ideas about social business rose out of his work with microlending in Bangladesh. Unable to exist solely as an academic grappling with theory while so many of his country people languished in poverty, he started the Grameen Bank which operated under the radical assumption that you could loan small amounts of money to poor people, risk free. The "normal" banks thought he was nuts. His belief was that people had certain untapped skills that were waiting to be put to use — the only thing they lacked was adequate capital to lift them out of their endless cycle of subsistence living.

His Grameen Bank infiltrated the countryside, making small loans primarily to women who would then put the money to use buying raw materials to create goods to sell, or buy livestock or farmland to raise animals or grow fruit and vegetables for market. Bank officers, moving from village to village on bicycle, would collect tiny loan repayments on a regular schedule.

Which brings us, of course, to mycelium — the mass of branching, threadlike underground filaments of a mushroom. Paul Stamets, the author of Mycelium Running, calls it nature's neurological network. He claims that these "interlacing mosaics.... are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind." (You can watch a Stamets talk here on TED.)

During a visit to Vashon Island, Washington in 2003 to talk to the local residents about the high concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury accumulating in the environment, blown over from the Tacoma Asarco smelter, he proposed remediating the soil with mushrooms. He quickly realized, however, that there was no manual available for mycoremediation (using mushrooms to absorb toxic chemicals and heavy metals from the soil and convert them into biomass.) Stamets wrote Mycelium Running as a reference for "local communities (to) begin the process of healing their habitats."

Stamets's book looks at the ability of the mycelium to act as a mycrofiltration system, or as mycopesticides, or as the founder species of forests and gardens.  By inoculating burlap sacks filled with wood chips with spores and then planting forests over them, he teaches us that we can begin "mycorestoration" of our own habitats.

So what does the Grameen bank and the concept of social business have to do with that?

On the surface perhaps not too much.  Not if we keep everything in their neat little boxes. But what microlending and mycroremediation both have in common is a desire for healing — one for mitigating ecological destruction, the other for financial and social disease.

Both Stamets and Yunus are farmers at heart. They understand that normal people can do things for themselves, and that by setting in place optimal conditions for growth and availing them the resources (technical or monetary) and education, most people will choose to live in greener places with clean water and air.

Imagine that.

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