Jeff Garson, co-founder of The Decency Foundation, recently released a book that outlines the values-based approach and philosophy that guides the Foundation’s work. Garson discusses how he uses radical decency to improve the lives around him, and how he applies it to the Foundation’s current venture, Nu.Ag.
Give us a short summary of your new book, Radical Decency: A Values-Based Approach to a Better Life and World.
We lived in a values-based world. Unfortunately, the values that dominate, while not inherently bad, are way overstated. I summarize these values as compete & win, dominate, and control. Because of these values, we compete for the best possible school, so we can get the best job, so we can make the most money. A compete-to-win dominated life!
The unfortunate thing is that whether it’s in the way we treat each other in intimate relationships, or business, or politics, these values inflict so much pain. In fact, our single-minded pursuit of winning is the theme that unites so many of the indecencies that litter our lives and the world in which we live.
So, if we’re going to create better lives and a better world, we have to think about an alternative set of values, which I call decency and break down into: Respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness and justice.
We have to learn these values and, importantly, practice them at all times and in every situation. Otherwise, the mainstream’s compete to win values will overwhelm the smaller islands of decency we seek to create.
You’ve been writing about radical decency on your blog for over a decade. How does it feel to now have this book?
The idea of a book started rather innocently; I ran into someone who was a book agent who suggested I write the book. At that point, I thought, “Well, I’ve written about five years worth of blogs. I’ll just compile them into a book. It’ll be easy!”
It turned out to be a lot more difficult than that, but also turned into this wonderful project with a life of its own. It really helped me organize my thinking and to go in-depth about decency in each area of living.
It also allowed me to think through where I think we as a society and have to go in the future. The culture’s problematic values have been around for a long time, but… if we can ever learn to practice decency’s values day-by-day, in every area of life, we will live better lives.
What are you most focused on improving with this philosophy?
If we’re going to create a better world, we have to have a strategic focus.
A long time ago, I realized that business is probably the best leverage point if we’re going to make significant change. They fund everything! So, if businesses shift to a radically decent model, everyone funded by business would become motivated to do the same thing.
Then I met Jon McConaughy – about ten years ago – and discovered he had recently left Wall Street to become a farmer. I found out that he shared my values-based perspective. Over the last ten years, while I was writing about radical decency, he was beginning to live it. Together, we decided to focus on small farms and their business model.
How is radical decency tied to your not-for-profit organization, The Decency Foundation, and its current focus, Nu.Ag?
Farming is our test case for bringing decency’s values to business. If we want decency in agriculture, we need to shift back to small-scale farming and bring our values-based perspective to all aspects of farming.
We want to work with small business farmers that say, “Yes, we need to make money, but we’re equally committed to good environmental practices, treatment of animals, and so on.”
We are determined to combine the two in a sustained, very focused way through Nu.Ag.
Jon has figured out a way to revitalize small farming economically by bringing processing on site. And we lend small farms the money to make the shift to on-farm processing possible.
Can you clarify what you mean by processing, and how it affects small farms?
Centralized processing and central distribution hubs have eroded small business farmers for the past 50 years. In fact, if you consider NJ Dairy Farmers as an example, we have seen a decline from around 300 dairy farms during the 1980s to around 36 in 2021.
However, the economies of processing have changed thanks to technological advances in equipment. A dairy processing facility many years ago might have cost $750,000 to $1,000,000. Today, that same equipment a fraction of that and is simple to operate without specialization.
In short, the farmer can now afford to bring the processing back onto the farm and capture more of the revenue generated at retail. The reduction or elimination of trucking & processing costs alone can turn a farmer’s balance sheet from disaster to success.
Elaborate on how Nu.Ag helps small farms.
Nu.Ag combines that concept -- on-site processing -- with loans to help facilitate it. At the same time, we employ a metric (“Nu”) that measures how decent the farms are. This includes being decent to the land, animals, employees, community, and themselves. The farms work with us to steadily improve their Nu metric, and we help provide them with the tools and technology to become a more environmentally friendly and decent businesses.
Our hope is that this will become a model that is replicable beyond farming; that it will be of interest to other businesses as well.
How would you encourage anyone reading your book to begin living a more radically decent life?
I think we have to focus on the here and now. Again, it’s decency to yourself, others and the world. We need to be equally decent and present with our self – and with the people we interact – and with the environments in which we live.
If we successfully work on projects that operationalize radical decency in business; everything else will be a continuation of that. Our work there will, hopefully, cascade out.
To me, the more we can weave radical decency into our lives, the better it will be for both for ourselves and the world.