The world is staring down a double-barreled disaster. Economic and environmental crises are threatening to blast apart our way of life, if not life itself. President-elect Obama campaigned on the idea of tying America's economic recovery to its environmental salvation, an idea Portland's own Spencer Beebe has been preaching for two decades. With a deep green pedigree and a belief that the environment and economy are tightly intertwined, Beebe founded Ecotrust, a collection of Northwest-focused sustainability projects, in 1991 and promptly began proving conservation can be profitable. Seven years later he partnered with community lender ShoreBank Corp. to open ShoreBank Pacific, an eco-minded bank bent on funding environmentally responsible enterprises in the Pacific Northwest—lending money to everything from bamboo hardwood companies to Hot Lips Pizza. WW sat down with this local visionary to talk about banking, politics and saving the world.
WW: Explain how economics and the environment are connected.
Spencer Beebe: The global economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the global environment. We breathe air. We drink water. We grow food. Without those basic things we have no life, we have no development, economic or otherwise. And there is economic opportunity in doing a better job producing healthy food, restoring forests, creating new sources of what [author and New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman calls "abundant, reliable, cheap, clean electrons."
Is Obama proposing environmental policy that is radical enough?
No. We've got to make far more radical, systemic changes. But anyone who thinks this is going to be led by government is kidding themselves and hasn't looked very carefully at history.
Where will the solutions come from?
When people shift their way of thinking, things can change pretty fast. This is stuff that changes because human beings decide we can't live like this and expect life to go on the way it has.
How is ShoreBank Pacific faring in the midst of the global financial crisis?
ShoreBank Pacific has 10 consecutive quarters of growing profits, without investing in subprime loans [or] selling derivatives. Instead of losing money and getting bailed out, they're having people invest in the business. That's not to say this crisis doesn't affect them. The price of interbank lending is going up. The cost of deposit insurance will go up from $25,000 to $100,000 a year.
ShoreBank Pacific is a small bank. Could its responsible-lending concept work on a massive, global scale?
There's no reason why not. ShoreBank [Corp.] is a $2.5 billion institution. That $2.5 billion is a day's rent at Citibank, but it's still a substantial institution. You obviously can't grow as fast if you're selling real stuff instead of derivatives, but in the end those turned out to be worth nothing at all.
Ecotrust and ShoreBank Pacific both work at a very local level. Is localization key to solving our problems?
I think so. We've been through a long period of globalization, which increases access to information technology and capital, and that's kind of an unstoppable force. But the other side is that everything becomes placeless. There's room for enormous advance with the combination of information technology and environmental technology that will allow people to communicate ideas around the world, find resources around the world, but still live closer to home, walk to work.
So do you have a lot of faith in technology to solve our problems?
No, not by itself. Technology is a trap. There was a perfect relationship between a cow and a pasture. The cow gets fed; the pasture gets fertilized. So we invent ways to separate the cow from the pasture. Now we have a feedlot that's creating pollution and a pasture that needs fertilizing—two new problems that the inventiveness of capitalism will figure out how to make money solving, which will then create more problems.
What's the least ecologically friendly thing you do on a regular basis?
I eat meat, define home too broadly and fly the bioregion from San Francisco to Anchorage in gas-guzzling jets and small airplanes. I wish I had feathers.
Visit ecotrust.org for more info.