One Whole or Many Holes: Can Money Be Part of a Holistic System?

With the word holy, we are talking about something on a spiritual level with the same root as holistic. It means something universal, the whole shebang, or, to borrow from NPR: all things considered. Imagine if we had the capacity to consider all things in each act... we would be approaching holiness. Is His Holiness the Dalai Lama such a being? He might laugh at the notion. But it is one direction our humanity is going.

On the way to work, I stopped to buy a green smoothie and as I paid we noticed the word "LOVED" written beautifully in script across the face of a dollar bill. I read it aloud and we blushed. It is not such a stretch to imagine every transaction being an act of love: one lovingly provides the product or service and the other shows their loving appreciation for all that went into it. In fact this is already going on, only we are too shy or busy to notice... why not enjoy it! It is a matter of expanding awareness and noticing the beauty in all things.

All sciences, even economics, have begun to recognize the point where cold quantitative, mathematical analysis cannot succeed in understanding life. Brilliant as the analysis may be, it cannot penetrate beyond the level of the mechanics that imitate life. We get closer to life with reverence and an artistic sense for what is revealed through the wondrous beauty of nature, be it the geometry in a flower or the light in children's eyes. This is the foundation for all approaches to life that are called "holistic."

The fruits of Rudolf Steiner's holistic thinking are well-established: Waldorf Education considers the "whole" child, and bio-dynamic agriculture considers the whole farm as an organism. What is, perhaps, less well-known are the successful initiatives that are based on Steiner's holistic approach to money. Triodos Bank, based in Holland and the UK, won Fast Company's Community Bank of the year in 2009 and continues to provide leadership in new ways of economic thinking. RSF Social Finance, which financed Waldorf Schools initially, changed their name from the Rudolf Steiner Foundation, I expect, to emphasize social finance, a space which they continue to cultivate in multiple innovative ways, and clearly Steiner's holistic thinking remains the foundation of their work.

I spoke to the well-known author of Small Is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered, Fritz Schumacher, after a lecture in 1973 when I was starting out as a bio-dynamic farmer. He told me that his thinking is based on Steiner's work but as a good Catholic he felt he could not credit the source. He went on to say that he had been able to visit with the pope at that time and noticed he had many of Steiner's books in the papal library but told Schumacher that "the world was not yet ready for it." Interestingly, the Nazis also banned Steiner's books, but thankfully his work can now prosper in the light of day. The foundation of The Schumacher Center for a New Economics' work on local currencies clearly grew from this source. Susan Witt, the founder, was formerly a Waldorf teacher.

It is hard to say how it came about and hardly matters but holistic thinking about money is here to stay. If you listen to the introductory videos on Natural Investments and Centerpoint Advisors you will hear it immediately. The references to natural systems in relation to their financial advisory work are spoken in conscious ways that are direct and relaxed. Goldman Sachs' relatively tiny initiatives in social impact bonds is surprisingly holistic as well. Benjamin Franklin may have been the first to coin the phrase, "doing well by doing good," but it is now being spouted off in the most unlikely places. At a Private Equity International Responsible Investment Forum in NYC in 2011, some of the biggest, baddest firms in the world were on the stage bragging about how many millions they had saved by looking at their investments "holistically" and then implicating emergency efficiency strategies and recycling programs etc. Benjamin Franklin also realized "a penny saved is a penny earned".

3Sisters Sustainable Management, LLC is built on Steiner's foundational thinking as well. The Native American "three sisters" were corn, beans and squash, a picture of holistic symbiosis. When investing, the "three sisters" are cash, fixed income, and equities, which are woven together in symbiotic portfolio management! The deeper purpose is to help transform the money system through holistic funds like Scarab Funds. The polarization that exists between rich and poor stems from an old fashioned science which is a quantitative-only belief system. Money itself is not the 'root of all evil' but loving money in quantitative isolation is no better than addiction. Thinking of money as a tool for the good, with the whole beautiful world in mind, frees us from that addiction and allows for new solutions that can lead to sustained prosperity.