Speaking at Guilford

Yesterday I spent the afternoon and evening at Guilford College in Greensboro as part of a speaker series on sustainability.  I had to change it up a fair bit-on the fly-but this is largely what I said:

I have to begin by saying that when I was asked to speak at Guilford College I was delighted for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, my daughter Kaitlin goes to school here, and I tend to visit with her for any excuse.  Secondly, I came here to see Bill Clinton, and I came here to see Van Jones, and had my daughter told me Majora Carter was coming I would have been here for that too.  Guilford is known for its speakers.  So I was honored.  And pleased.

But when I learned that I was part of a speaker’s series sponsored by BB+T that was to address “The moral foundations of capitalism,” I hit a wall.

I thought, that’s simple.

I will just drive to Guilford, get up on stage and say, “Regarding the moral foundations of capitalism:  there aren’t any.”

And then I would take questions.  And it would be a short speech and a delightful evening.

But I realized that was a cop out, so I went to work on it.

It’s hard for me to think about this without going back to John Locke and his thinking about the social contract.  Nowadays North Carolina suffers from a neo-conservative group called the John Locke Foundation.  They are a bunch of right winged anti-government nutjobs who love the Tea Party, hate taxes, and basically give John Locke a bad name.

That’s all just semantics.  People refer to John Locke as the father of liberalism, and by now he is the champion of the conservatives.

If we wipe the chalk board clean we realize that John Locke was grappling with the moral foundations of capitalism.  Back in seventeenth century England there was an “enclosure” movement.  Individuals would cut into the commonly held land, put up fences, and go to work on “improving” that land for their own gain.

A farmer fences off a chunk of land clears it of rocks and trees, sows hay, and successfully raises some cows.  He or she then takes those cows to market where they are rewarded for their work and it strikes everyone as a moral proposition.  They invested their work and their capital and they are entitled to their return.  John Locke delved deeply into this.

We still see that in agriculture today.  Take a vacant lot in town.  Someone comes along, puts up a fence, picks up the trash, provides irrigation, rebuilds the fertility of the soil, and starts an urban garden.  What do we do?  We buy their produce-maybe even pay a premium for it, and we all accept their profit as a “moral” proposition.

The problem, of course, is that “capitalism” has moved way beyond that.  Today the work of capital can hardly be connected to the work of a grower.  And it is very easy for profits to be immoral. Capital travels around the planet at the speed of light in fiendishly complex financial instruments that not even BB+T can understand.  Today we are completely disconnected.

What I thought I would attempt tonight is to look at capital through the eyes of Piedmont Biofuels, where I work, and through the eyes of Guilford College.

There’s natural capital.  That’s the woods and the birds and the trees and the clean air that sustains us.  One way to measure your happiness is by the amount of natural capital in your life.  I think Guilford would get high marks for this, since the lion’s share of their campus is still wooded.  You folks are surrounded by historic and ancient trees that are hard at work providing you with ecological services that greatly enhance your life.  You take classes in the woods.  And apparently you sneak off into the woods to party as well.

At Piedmont Biofuels we came in the name of natural capital.  We set out to lead the grassroots sustainability movement in North Carolina and we have gone  a long way toward achieving that goal.

When you think of the importance of natural capital you might want to consider Biosphere II.  That’s the enclosed eco-system people built in Arizona that was to grow its own food, clean its own water, and provide all of the ecological services human require to sustain life.  Eleven people went in.  And they didn’t make it.  With all of our expertise and engineering we are incapable of designing a space that will sustain human life for eleven people.  Yet the planet provides us with enough ecological services to sustain billions of us every day.  Natural capital is important.

There’s human capital.  We make biodiesel fuel out of waste fats, oils and greases.  We collect the used cooking oil from Guilford’s cafeteria, and convert it into the fuel that I used to get here tonight.  To do that takes a lot of smart and hard working people.  Our project is high on human capital.  We are filled with young, brilliant passionate people who are working on a different way of being.

And I would suggest that Guilford College is no different.  You are the best and the brightest this country has to offer, and I would say that when you are hanging out at Guilford you are high on human capital.

While Piedmont has done well on the human capital front, working with people takes us into a moral space. Many of our people have contributed to our efforts for a long time.  And I do need to say this.  We let people go.  Most of the people who have left Piedmont Biofuels have been laid off.  Our industry is ever changing.  Sometimes we need to layoff welders to hire PhDs.  And sometimes we need to layoff the people we love in order to function at a higher level.

If you are the person losing your job, Piedmont is an immoral proposition.  I think it would be fair to call us “brutal.”

But when you are still in the boat that is our project, it would be fair to think of layoffs as “saving jobs.”

I think that in this case, “moral” vs. “immoral” depends on which side of the desk you are sitting.

There’s social capital. That’s your friends and family.  It’s your network.  Your social capital can determine whether or not you can successfully bum a ride.  I think of that as whether or not people know your name.  As a maker of biodiesel we are a new industry in our small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina, and as such we are good for economic development. Lots of people know our names. It could be that because our work is greasy and dirty we all wear uniforms with out names embroidered on the shirt.  But really it is just that a lot of people know our project as something that might lead North Carolina into a low carbon future, and support the work we are doing.

There’s “built” capital.  That’s your house.  Or in our case, that’s our chemical plant.  We have a designed and built a big fixed asset that is capable of making a whole bunch of fuel.  We are a community scale biodiesel operation.  You could argue that we are long on built capital.

I should note that Piedmont Biofuels was once financed by BB+T.  Which means I am deeply grateful to them. We borrowed a bunch of money from them.  And we paid it all back.  I’d say it was a “happy” relationship.  And I would say there was nothing “moral” about it.

Today on campus I saw a poster with my picture on it that read: “Moral Choices and the Bottom Line.”

As a guy who has yet to make any money in biofuels, I’m not sure I am a good choice to address the bottom line.

Those are my thoughts about capital.  I wrote a talk about it, but when I arrived on campus today they said they didn’t really care about that, but would rather hear of about local economy, and Small is Possible, and biodiesel.

Here’s an advertisement:  We run free tours of our plant every Sunday afternoon at 1:00.  We are one hour away.  Come and join us.

Small is Possible is a book I wrote about life in Pittsboro from the point of view of various enterprises I have been involved in.  It has chapter headings like “Feeding Ourselves.” And “Fueling Ourselves.”  And “Financing Ourselves.”  And it is an exploration of what resilience might look like in a local economy.

I know a lot more about that than I do about morality, and I would be happy to take questions about anything…

At which point we proceeded to spend about an hour talking about biodiesel, and Chatham County, and ethanol, and what a sustainable future might look like.

It was a great crowd.  About 160 people.  But intimate.  Fantastic questions.  We spilled out of the auditorium to a reception in the library where people asked about tours and internships and membership and I signed some books.

It was a wonderful evening.  Even if I had to adlib most of my remarks…

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3 Responses to Speaking at Guilford

  1. Jessalyn says:

    Very nice.

    Assessing capital above and beyond traditional parameters provides an important perspective. The idea that our human and social capital are important, that they carry a power that is perhaps equally or more important than physical or financial capital in creating change is an idea that is not necessarily taught across all campuses.

    Glad to know the students at Guilford are getting their money’s worth.

  2. Reading Energy Blog is basically like taking a correspondence course at the Piedmont School of Business. Looking forward to having you come speak at at UMD!

    Frankie Abralind
    Candidate for MBA, Class of 2012
    Robert H. Smith School of Business

  3. Ambit Energy says:

    Did you hear about the microbiology breakthrough creating diesel fuel from microbes, CO2 and water? This could be the next big thing. Does this mean an end to traditional biofuels?

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