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.)
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?