Lessons in sharing and local currencies

Local currency: Ithaca Hours

Kevin likes to say that I was sick that day in kindergarten when we learned about sharing. Unflattering, but true. When we got married, I proposed having separate residences. (Vetoed.) I stopped lending out my books when I realized that no one else had mastered the art of reading a paperback without creasing the spine. (Isn’t that what opposable thumbs are for?) If I have a choice about sharing personal space or possessions, I generally don’t.

For the first time, I’m starting to feel kind of bad about my refusal to share. From an environmental standpoint, it’s acutely wasteful. Even if I got rid of everything I didn’t use, I still don’t use everything all the time. Not even close. Cat carrier: used twice a year. Camera: used maybe five minutes  a week. Clay tools: used once a week. Tall black highwayman boots (equally suitable for striding through deep puddles and impromptu swashbuckling): worn ten times a year. Because I don’t share, my own things sit around being useless most of the time, and other people go and buy their own versions, which also sit around being useless most of the time.

The point is, how many units in my complex have printers, power tools, food processors, bikes, whatever that are only used every now and then? Probably most of them. And how much money and landfill space could we save if we had a culture in which 1) people felt comfortable lending to and borrowing from others in their community for most of their needs; and 2) people took good care of whatever they borrowed and always returned everything?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I’m not sure how much further I would take it. Call me cynical, but I’m just not sure human nature is either that trusting or that worthy of trust. The communal tools at even my respectful and fairly tidy pottery studio are trashed. (Also, I think of how much contact with my neighbors that kind of system would involve and realize that I am utterly unsuited to life in a commune. No, thank you.)

What Comes After Money? I recently came across a more plausible and regulated form of community sharing based on local currency in the book What Comes After Money. Here’s the gist of it. A community prints its own complementary currency (yep — totally legal as long as it doesn’t try to look like the country’s currency) and sets a value. Ithaca Hours are worth one hour of work, or about $10 US dollars; Berkshares can be used dollar for dollar. Users can then spend the local currency at any participating merchant or amongst individuals in the community. The only catch is that the money needs to be spent within a limited area. Every time you spend local currency, you’re investing straight back into your community.

One of my favorite things about local currency is the way it makes better use of the skills and resources within the community. So many people are unemployed, yet have skills that other people in their community can use. Ithaca Hours are especially appealing because work is measured by length of time versus perceived value of the job. As a writing tutor, I often felt that the kids who most needed tutoring were the least able to afford weekly $50 one-on-one sessions. I wasn’t altruistic enough to volunteer my time, but I’d be happy to accept Ithaca Hours that I could then use towards fresh, homegrown veggies, pottery lessons, or a blog redesign (or just a design). Who cares what the market value is as long as you trade equal amounts of work and get what you need?

Idealistic, but Ithaca Hours have been in use for over twenty years now. I’ve been wondering how hard it would be to try it out on a small scale, say within a complex or an office. A larger community would offer a bigger pool of skills and workers but create more logistical issues with taxes, getting the word out, and convincing people to participate.

It’s becoming clear that our global capitalist economy is not pro-community, pro-equality, pro-sustainability, or pro-quality-of-everyday-life. The real question: what are better alternatives, and how do we get out?

What are your thoughts on local currency and our economic woes? Do you think a stronger and more cohesive community would also be a greener one?

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24 responses to this post.

  1. I like the idea of a local currency, I just would have to be able to offer up some services to earn some! it is such an interesting idea though. Localization is the key, it is the key.

    Reply

    • Hi Sherry,
      I bet someone near you would love to have freshly baked bread, homemade jam, or advice setting up a vegetable garden. :-) Part of the awesomeness about local currencies is that the things we’re good at, regardless of whether we think they’re worth ‘real’ money or not, can be traded within the community.

      Reply

  2. Posted by seitei on 08/14/2011 at 11:54

    i really like this post. I hope it attracts much attention, comments, and useful ideas. I look forward to seeing more localized currencies in the future. Now, where can I get a copy of that book?

    Reply

  3. SQUEE! This is great. Actually, this is the kind of life Ayn Rand envisioned when she talks about laissez-faire capitalism. But most people don’t realize this, and instead just focus on the capitalist part versus the skills part – which is what Rand valued. In Atlas Shrugged, many of the businessmen, the “movers and shakers” took a year (or a few months or something) off away from the real world and hung out in Galt’s Gulch.

    Although their currency was gold, they provided services for each other at whatever price their services were marked at. Paying someone was an acknowledgement of their talents and skills. How much value they were giving you, and each individual determined their own value. It was great! The key was NEVER to chase money. Only those who did – like James Taggert – found a great deal of misery. James thought the other millionaires like his sister Dagny and Francisco, did what they did because it made them wealthy. That wasn’t the case at all.

    So I love this idea of taking it local, and creating a way to utilize people’s skills. If someone is good at something – pay them to do it for you! Instead of trying to look at what they’re currently doing to see if they’re worth hiring (ie: the recent discrimination against unemployed persons for open positions).

    I loved this post!

    Reply

    • Hi Tatiana,
      Thanks for your enthusiasm! I was a big proponent of The Fountainhead when I first read it in high school. Since then, I’ve begun to think that individuality has to be paired with some idea of community to curb selfish or short-sighted impulses. It would be a good start for communities to recognize the value of individuality and draw on it as a resource.

      I have not read Atlas Shrugged. I think the size is somewhat daunting (and I’ve also heard that people who enjoyed The Fountainhead tend to hate it, and vice versa). Maybe some day.

      Reply

      • It’s weird to me that people who enjoyed FH would dislike AS! Admittedly, The Fountainhead is better written. Though, I read Atlas Shrugged because it’s the culmination of Rand’s philosophy, and since I wanted to learn more about her, I read this book. As well as her non-fiction pieces. The Foutainhead revolutionized me internally, while AS helped shape my perception of the outside world (for the most part).

        When Ayn talks about individuality and rational self-interest, primarily she’s speaking about not subjugating the ego for the group identity. A LOT of spirituality books (and bloggers) talk about the necessity of selfishness and how to put yourself first. Rand’s ideas are not dissimilar from the ideology that being selfish is paramount to our existence here on earth. She also has a great non-fiction book called The Virtues of Selfishness. So, when I see the word “Selfish” I think of this meaning, not how other people interpret it. This is also what I think of when I talk about individualism. Having a self-sufficient ego, and knowing your own philosophy.

        I think it’s imperative that individuals come together to form a common philosophy so that they can work toward progress, but I don’t think that individualism and “community” are at odds with each other. People can not come together because a lot of people have conflicting philosophies and refuse (or are unable) to reach common ground. So it’s not an issue of “selfishness” (as other people define it) or issues of individualism (as other people define it), but an issue of communication and understanding.

        Reply

  4. I’m just like you, Jennifer – not too keen on sharing. I don’t like it when things get dinged. Someone once spilled a big cup of tea on my copy of Healing with Whole Foods. Although they offered to pay for a new one, I didn’t accept. But I was disgruntled living with that damaged book. A little area where I need to apply my own advice.

    This is an interesting idea. I live in a small community and we do make active use of each others services. But we still use standard currency. I have my doubts that people would want to share at the same rate. But who knows!

    Reply

    • Hi Sandra,
      I know how you feel. I still feel slightly resentful about the books I lent out that came back to me with broken spines and ragged corners. I’m probably too attached to the physicality of my books, and I definitely need to reread your posts on loving others. (Not a strong point of mine.)

      I wonder if bartering would be a better option for a small community like yours? There’s someone in my neighborhood with a beautiful fig tree laden with almost-ripe figs. I’m tempted to leave a note asking if they would be willing to trade some figs, which are normally too expensive for me to buy, for fresh baguettes or hand made pottery.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Emily on 08/14/2011 at 20:42

    Great post. I wish every American would read this; we’re generally a greedy and selfish culture. It has always frustrated me that every one has to own their own stuff, even when it is infrequently used. Think of every suburban household that has its own lawnmower, ladder, snowblower, shovel, rake, etc, etc. And god forbid if you ask most people to borrow something. They may hand it over begrudgingly, but you know they’re thinking “Why don’t you just buy your own instead of using me for my stuff.” I do understand, however, that the more something is shared amongst people, the more likely it will be lost or broken. I acquired 3 spray nozzles for communal watering use at the Community Garden. Less than a year later, they are all now broken because of folks dropping them over and over.

    I don’t have much to give away or share, but I hope to be thought of as a generous person. I also think its ironic that the kindest, most generous people I know that the poorest people I know. I think this is because they know from experience how meaningful it is to be lent or given something.

    My community has ‘downtown dollars’, which is special money that can be used at any business on Main Street. This is the town’s attempt to encourage shopping downtown, rather than at Wal-Mart. I cannot earn downtown dollars nor can they be used for services, but I’ve been given downtown $ as gifts.

    Reply

    • Hi Emily,
      Downtown dollars sound like a good start, but not being able to earn them makes them kind of a one way street. I wonder if you could persuade your town’s city council to expand the program into a local currency? I doubt Walmart would want to or be able to participate!

      I don’t know how we would get around the fact that people just don’t tend to treat communal property as well as personal property. I guess I would need to know first if this is a human constant, or (more likely) if there are cultures that have succeeded in taking good care of things they own jointly. I’m thinking consciousness plays a role here, too.

      Reply

  6. Posted by cindy on 08/15/2011 at 09:28

    What a great post! You & I are really alike when it comes to views on space & possessions..& this is a very good idea for inyegrating us introverts into the community!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Cindy! I love it when you stop by my blog. It’s funny how all of us seem so extroverted online, yet many of us are deeply introverted in real life. I admit that one of the things I like about local currency is being able to get involved in the community without necessarily having to have close relationships with the people I interact with. :-) It’s somehow less intimidating than straight out bartering.

      Reply

  7. I love this article. I love reading all your articles, but this one I found especially good and something I want to ponder. I’ve put it up on my facebook and twitter in hopes that more will read! (@HeyThereScout in twitter!)

    Reply

    • Thanks, Kelly! Glad you enjoyed the article. I have no desire for a wildly popular blog, but sometimes I do wish I could get ideas out to more people. Thanks for your support! I’m checking out your blog for the first time.

      Reply

  8. It seems to be that with sharing, the golden rule should involve offering to pay for or replacle it if you cause significant damage, and that a a certain acceptable level of wear and tear is accepted. I really like the idea of sharing my things and borrowing things from, say, my neighbors on the block. I’m considering actually approaching them to implement a little system. But it’s so easy to put things like that off.

    As for the local currency, I think that’s an idea that will be especially useful once the impending collapse occurs. That doesn’t sound very positive or upbeat, does it. Sorry.

    Reply

    • Hi Steph,
      No worries, I’m not exactly optimistic about the future of our economy or our planet either. I think realism is appropriate, and it’s becoming clear that we’re heading toward some very interesting times. I really hope it won’t take full out collapse to make us change our ways, but it’s a definite possibility.

      I think it would be so awesome if you approached your neighbors. I don’t think I have that kind of courage yet. (Also, some of my neighbors are ultra conservative people who don’t believe in recycling, so it might be a tough sell. But that could just be an excuse.)

      Reply

  9. I have an idea about how to share items without as much risk that they will be returned in bad shape: combine sharing with the local currency! Ask people to put a deposit on the item when they borrow it; hand back the deposit in full if the item is in the same shape when returned, or pocket some of the local currency if it’s not. I’m not saying this will eliminate all wear-and-tear, but it’s an incentive.

    Reply

    • Great idea, Andrea! It’s too bad we all live in such different areas, otherwise we could definitely experiment with local currencies and borrowing to see what works. :-) I’m sure there are like-minded people in the area around me; they’re just hard to find without, you know, actually talking to people I don’t know. This introversion thing is hard to reconcile with activism.

      Reply

  10. I fear I’m not great at sharing either. I think it comes from being the youngest in my family. In my experience “sharing” meant that everybody else got their share plus part of my share, while I got the dregs that nobody else wanted.

    Still, I share (ha ha) your longing for a community that can function more efficiently. There’s a group here in Denver that runs a community market and they’ve started a local currency called “Denver Dough”. http://www.denverhaho.org/index.html

    I love the concept, but in reality it’s turned out to be not so useful for me. I guess it just seemed like a way to acquire a bunch of crap that I don’t need or food that I’m allergic to and therefore can’t eat!

    Reply

  11. Hi EcoCatLady,
    I’m the younger of two kids and (according to my sister, at least) the spoiled one. I had some hand-me-downs, but mostly, I didn’t have to share anything with anyone. Apparently I’m still not very good at it!

    It’s too bad Denver Dough hasn’t turned out to be useful for you. What would make it a better program for you?

    Reply

  12. Well, for me I think it’s primarily that the things I’m willing to spend money on (regardless of the currency) are very limited and very specific. The Denver Dough can only be spent at this one particular market. And while I totally love the idea, and love the spirit of the market, I’ve only been able to find a few things there that I might possibly have any use for. I guess I’m just a bad consumer!

    Reply

  13. great idea…wish you much success on getting it going on a micro level!

    Reply

  14. I have not yet read the comments, but a few years ago I watched with anxious excitement as an online website called BorrowMe was born. I envisioned an online database listing those unused food processors, carpet stain removers, 10 x 10 tents – this was to be my contribution, and other useful goodies being available for communal lending. I feel connected with my local community and am less upset than you appear to be by wear and tear on goods. This seemed like a good idea.

    Sadly, while the site exists, there are all of 20 people in my state, and no one in my immediate area. I’d have to drive to a neighboring state to borrow a carpet cleaning machine. No one in my state seems to want to borrow my 10 x 10 canopy.

    So, community buy-in: Way important.

    Reply

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