The Purpose of Capital: Elements of impact, financial flows, and natural being

Reviewed by Philo Alto, Asia Value Advisors

Today’s global economic progress is increasingly being overshadowed by worsening inequality, socio-economic and ideological fractures, and the dangers of climate change. In response, there has been a growing chorus among thought leaders and practitioners on how capital might be used to sustainably and inclusively advance economic progress. 

Questions abound. As Harvard professor Michael Sandel puts it, our societal values have become too ‘financialised’, which has turned us from market economies into market societies. Likewise, Anand Giridharadas in his book Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world laments the ability of the world’s elite to buy airtime in global public opinion on how capitalism remains the best system to tackle the same social ills that it has arguably created.

Jed Emerson’s eighth and latest book is a timely addition to the discourse, inviting readers to revisit our understanding of the purpose – or the ‘why’ – of capital. He does this by offering a historical lens through which to view two key and related premises in today’s narrow understanding of the uses and values of capital: first, the bifurcated notion of financial/economic as distinct from social/environmental value; and second, our compartmentalised understanding of financial markets as wholly distinct from, and inconsequential to, their impact on ourselves, the ecological communities and our planet.

Having read and learned from many of Emerson’s earlier books, I believe this is his most important book to date. In our daily lives and at work, we constantly seek the best ways to use our capital – not only financial, but also intellectual, social and physical (time and effort) – to maximise our ‘returns’ however we define them. But rarely do we give much thought to the purpose of capital and how it might align with, or run counter to, the ‘natural being’ or broader context of the world we live in. Emerson unpacks the topic by providing a historical perspective of our understanding of capital spanning centuries across philosophical, scientific and religious contexts.

In light of today’s uncertainties and the polarisation of views on the way forward, this book could not have been more timely. However, it’s not for everyone as it asks the reader to sit, absorb and reflect on Emerson’s narrative journey as inspired by the collective wisdom of the various historians, philosophers and spiritualists. It’s also not a handbook on how to invest with impact (which can be better learned from other books, including Emerson’s previous book The ImpactAssets Handbook for Investors: Generating social and environmental value through capital investing). For most of us, the market ‘reality’ as we have learned it in school or from experience is deeply embedded. It takes some degree of intellectual humility and patience to revisit this topic in order to better understand the purpose of capital as the freedom to mutually impact ourselves and the broader ecological world.

In an increasingly fast-paced world and where attention spans are shorter, Emerson’s latest work is an invitation to a more introspective and considered view of the purpose of capital beyond making money. RSVP not needed.

About the book
Published by: Blended Value Group Press
Price: $9 (Paperback) $19.78 (Hardback)
ISBN: 9781732453111
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