localised systems – currency

I first heard of people just starting up their own currencies when I read about the Ithaca Hour in a newspaper a few years back. (official page link, Wikipedia link) Now it seems that Totnes in Devon is following similar lines, according to this article on BBC News.

A south Devon town has taken a step towards having its own currency after a month-long experiment.

Three hundred Totnes pounds were printed in March for circulation only in local outlets.

Eighteen shops joined Transition Town Totnes (TTT), a new group campaigning for a more self-sufficient community.

Marjana Kos, of TTT, said: “It’s keeping wealth here. It’s keeping local trade alive and supporting local businesses.”

Louise King, manager of the Riverford farm shop in Totnes, said: “We like our own products, so it just seems right to have our own currency.”

What I consistently find myself being surprised by is that people don’t just create bottom up systems of production and distribution for their own little crafty creations – food, art and so on – they are quite happy to take on such massively important systems as currencies and education.

20th century thinking would suggest that a tiny currency only accepted in a few stores in a single town is a bad, or at least fairly useless, idea. Evidently this is not the case, though, as many towns around the world are creating their own versions of these systems. Once again, the ease with which information about such systems can be shared between people keen on implementing them is paramount – step forward the internet. Take a bow, sir – good work.

What’s also interesting to me is that so many of these activities are not done in direct competition with the existing status quo. The Pound Sterling is still legal in Totnes, and they are doing nothing illegal in creating their own currency. The two systems work perfectly happily side by side, and any complications in configuring exchange rates are sorted out not by top-down decree from Westminster, but at the point of sale by those involved in the upkeep of the system – The administrators, directors, and end users are all the same person. And people don’t chose to use the Ithaca Hour because the US Dollar has failed; they chose to do so because the Hour has its own value quite independent of the Dollar – the warm, fuzzy, and personal value of supporting your local economy and of membership in a community. These things aren’t worth much in 20th century terms of monetary value, but it’s been shown time and time again that money really can’t buy you happiness.

It’s barely a step from bartering and exchanges of services, really, and these transactions are also very popular in the online world. I myself have designed and printed Tshirts for people in exchange for them writing me a css file or renting me an online domain. We could have worked out specific monetary values of these goods, but because the element of personal friendship already existed, it was easier to make the transition without resorting to currency – a middle man defined by a top-down institution from without.

And you know what? That kind of transaction, one which relies so much on human aspects of inter-personal relation, not only feels good, but it can actually be more efficient. And a look the music distribution industry will tell you what happens when a more efficient system comes along…

All this bartering and local systems with no hope of understaning or control from without: It’s frankly medieval, but it might well be positively medieval.

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