When disaster strikes, you can’t power your refrigerator with alternative energy mutual funds; you can’t fix your broken water filter with U.S. savings bonds; and you can’t eat your cash reserves.
Financial advisors recommend that to protect ourselves from diverse economic disturbances, we must balance portfolios and allocate assets across cash, bonds and stocks to hedge against varied risks. If you also include emergency cash on hand, real estate, precious metals, collectibles and foreign currencies, you’re well ahead of most investors.
But all these investments assume a stable financial system whose monied returns will eventually resolve any problem. The world around us, however, reveals different assumptions in the disturbing form of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, recessions, wars and a teeter-tottering fossil-fuel-based civilization. So consider short-term, medium-term, and community investments.
For Short-Term Emergencies
Natural and economic disturbances require emergency kits—extended food rations, rechargeable batteries, water filters, fire extinguishers, fuel reserves, back-up water, household tools, medical kit and an emergency plan. For these, many websites offer assistance such as www.survivalcenter.com, www.ready.gov, and www.areyouprepared.com. You won’t receive financial returns on these investments (ROI), but they will improve an important balance sheet: health, happiness and life.
For Medium-Term Disturbances
For extended disturbances (think Afghanistan’s semi-anarchy, Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation or America’s Hurricane Katrina) you can outfit your house with a rainwater storage tank, solar panels, composting toilets and a biodigestor. Or, invest in personal skills such as managing an organic garden, applying medicinal herbs, mending clothes and fixing roof leaks. A century back, people considered these skills basic, but today we rarely master them due to dependence on money and oil to provide for all our needs.
For Long-Term Community
Even gardening and mending will be of limited value if your family lives in isolation. I reside in Costa Rica, where we neighbors erect walls around our houses. We know many nearby residents, but don’t enjoy a respectable degree of trust, transparency, or interdependence. We socialize, but don’t share food, money, or an evacuation plan.
But humans have survived in tight-knit communities for millennia eating together, attending each others’ weddings and funerals, joining forces if attacked, suffering each others’ pains and joys. These interdependencies once yielded reassuring levels of security—financial, physical and spiritual. But our currency of exchange has devolved from labor, trust, reciprocity—and later gold and silver—into paper and online bank accounts. Modern society has lost many sure investment instruments, especially in the suburbs, which are marred by increasing rates of obesity, loneliness and fear.
Now, there’s a worldwide movement to recover these values. Across the globe people are forming intentional communities such as ecovillages. Such communities build on traditional village values and integrate them with alternative energies, green construction methods and modern social skills like consensus building, conflict resolution and team visioning.
While individuals and families should invest in short- and medium-term buffers to temporary disasters, a truly diversified portfolio is one that also invests in intentional communities. The Federation of Intentional Communities defines an intentional community as “a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. The people may live together on a piece of rural land, in a suburban home or in an urban neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or live in a cluster of dwellings.”
Many such communities already exist, though demand outstrips supply. To join, you invest by paying entrance fees and buying a living unit. You don’t just buy a building, though; you buy an extended family and added security. You also invest the time and effort necessary for that security to appreciate in value.
Investing in community has enjoyed proven returns for thousands of years, but only if we define ROI more holistically than Wall Street speculators.