Professor Jem Bendell

Notes from a strategist & educator on social & organisational change, now focused on #DeepAdaptation

Currency innovations for communities responding to climate emergency

Posted by matslats on November 7, 2019

A guest blog by Matthew Slater, Founder of Community Forge and General Assistant with the Deep Adaptation Forum.

handshakeAs Professor Jem Bendell and I discussed recently on this blog, localisation is an essential element of attempts at adapting to climate change. Reasons include how working at the local level is often easier than at the national level, local initiatives are often more appropriate than initiatives determined at a higher level, and a plethora of local initiatives creates diversity, which means the larger system can become more resilient.

One of the things we don’t often hear about being localised is finance. In the context of relocalising things like food, health, education, infrastructure, governance, localising finance is an obvious complement. That can involve giving local authorities more control over taxation, monetary policy, government debt, investment in infrastructure and the risk management that goes with all that.

It is possible to do all of this with national money, such as the pound, dollar or euro, but not is not optimal because national money is created and made available with somebody else’s intentions and for their profit. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, money is not simply a neutral form of ‘value’, like a lump of metal, that we use to trade. Money is designed to serve the same powerful political and economic interests who have imposed global capitalism on us. This becomes apparent when one comes to understand that in most modern economies, 97% of money is our debt to commercial banks (mortgages, business loans and government borrowing). The quantity, the price and the availability of that money is determined by their commercial interests. This global money has built-in biases which make it very difficult to use it to finance relocalisation, because it determines, through pricing and other mechanisms that, for instance, Chinese manufacturing with all its pollution and poor labour conditions, is ‘more efficient’, while local sourcing, which might entail a more circular economy, local jobs, more responsible waste management, more resilient supply chains, less transportation costs, is ‘unaffordable’.

So in the spirit of imagining ‘deep’ change, let us envisage how an economy with more local financial sovereignty might be different.

First of all, in contrast to global money which is issued (lent) to the least risky most profitable enterprises, local money would more likely be issued to finance local businesses. The choice of which businesses to finance and whether to use equity or debt would be an important political power which, devolved to the local level would enable appropriate decisions about risk. For example if a coastal town wanted to raise its sea defenses, instead of going to the bank and borrowing at commercial rates and paying back twice the amount from taxes, they might prefer other options like spreading the cost amongst the most low lying property owners, creating a financial instrument tied to the property insurance, or factoring in the cost of rehousing those people in later decades. On the other hand a new bakery might be widely expected to succeed unless badly mismanaged, so perhaps a local share issuance would be a good way to share risks and rewards within face-to-face relationships without anonymous intermediaries.

A local currency gives citizens and businesses a way to create credit amongst themselves, i.e. credit that is only acceptable in town. This credit can be used to settle debts incurred through local trade without recourse to borrowing from banks. Flexible amounts of ‘Money’ can be created this way to facilitate trade beneficial to all, as much as creditors are prepared to bare the risk of their neighbour debtors going broke or dying. A thriving local currency which can buy lots of local goods and services, would find itself being accepted in neighbouring communities.

Turning away from the global market would change the mood, attitudes and behaviours of producers and consumers. This could be viewed both positively and negatively. If consumers have less choice and producers would have less competition, this could be seen as correcting one of the injustices of globalisation – but the differences would be more profound than that. Localisation would bind producers and consumers more closely to one another, which would hopefully translate into better relationships and better customer service.

On the macro-scale, locally issued money would create a kind of diversity we are not used to, which provides resilience to national monetary policy made by banks for banks. The next banking crash is feared by some to bring down the whole global economy – a single system which ultimately depends on the dollar, the Federal Reserve, and US domestic policy. While there is no good reason why feckless speculation by hedge funds and others should obstruct the essential and stable process of growing grain, or baking bread and consuming it, because both ‘real’ and ‘speculative’ economies occupy the same marketplace and use the same money, they interfere with each other. We have a financial system which is super-efficient at channelling profits into stagnant money lakes of the tax havens, but a single spanner thrown in the works stops production! If spanners were anticipated and if the long term was seen as important, we would choose a more diverse, less efficient money system in which policy failures were contained, affecting only those markets who voted for those policies.

What would it mean to live in an economy not optimised for efficiency? To offer a very simplistic example: what if, instead of three clicks to summon a product to your doorstep in fifteen minutes, your purchase took more time and effort? Would the extra time be wasted? You might meet the producer, give somebody a lift on the way, talk to them, get some sunlight, exercise your eyes, gain knowledge which can be shared with others, learn something about your locality etc etc. Plus the Deliveroo and Amazon warehouse worker would be freed up to do other things. The increased effort you put into the purchase is dissipated over all the economy like ‘waste’ heat, except it needn’t be seen it as waste. It is greasing relationships, building trust, spreading information, improving mood increasing social and physical health, all of which is more valuable than the difference in price, if you want to measure it that way. The ‘slack’ in the system and the slowness also means the system can better absorb shocks. These ideas are explored more by Helena Norberg Hodge in the Economics of Happiness.

In saying the above I’m not proposing that the economy should slow down so that we can all have a nicer life, indeed that might not be the case. I believe, in spite of the GDP that the real global economy has been slowing down since 2008, and will continue to do so; it would be better for us if our policies and behaviours reflected the reality that global growth is over.

Prof Bendell and I have been fascinated by money for many years, and so we are proposing two monetary innovations for adaptation-oriented policy-makers. Both ideas could help local communities develop local economic resilience in the face of initial phases of climate chaos

  1. The first idea is for local governments, which over the last decade have borne the brunt of the austerity resulting from the 2008 financial crisis. Some local governments have fallen into debt equivalent to many years of tax receipts and are paying significant proportions of their income in interest. With falling budgets and sometimes increased responsibilities, local government has been reduced to deciding which services to cut, and how to supplement taxes through property speculation. Our proposal is that instead of borrowing from commercial lenders at commercial rates of interest, local governments should cut out the middlemen and borrow from taxpayers directly. If they could entice citizens to prepay their taxes both lenders and borrowers would have better rates of interest. The prepaid taxes would be used twice – immediately spent by the local government, while at the same time, taxpayers could pay or receive payments with other taxpayers using taxes paid, but not yet due. In addition to financing local government this would create a government owned payment system and source of liquidity which would survive a catastrophic bank failure. Such an initiative could help develop resilience in the face of increased risks from climate disruption. Read more about Local Future Tax Credits here.
  2. The second idea is a blueprint for an informal ‘solidarity’ money system. One of the problems with mainstream money is that it functions as a medium of exchange and a store of value at the same time. When there is a shortage of money, because people are saving it all, that slows down business, even though businesses only need it for a short time between buying and selling. The practice of reciprocal trade, or business barter, allows businesses to work in groups to buy and sell from each other without money. Commercial systems are widespread in USA and elsewhere, but punitive taxation and competitive dynamics prevent the networks from becoming economically significant, but the mechanism is slowly being recognised as potentially transformative. Portugal has just made allowance for them in law, and in UK there are new socially progressive systems in Birmingham and another supported by the Welsh parliament. Each these clubs struggles to make swapping commercially viable, which is really hard until or unless they become large. Why my protocol, these groups would be able to federate to increase their effectiveness and to try to align their incentives towards cooperation. I published a white paper on this called the Credit Commons and a London-based group called Open Credit Network is working to create and connect these groups to create a moneyless economy at scale.

I know that these innovations are just shallow techo-fixes without deeper changes in the sociopolitical fabric. Their value at the moment is to show that another economy is possible, and bold policy-makers and citizen advocacy is very much required to manifest such ideas in the face of globalised neoliberal economics.

To discuss this, please join the Community Action group on the Professions Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum.


If you liked these ideas, did you know about the other work that Jem Bendell and Matthew Slater have done on the topic of money in the last decade?

The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.

2 Responses to “Currency innovations for communities responding to climate emergency”

  1. fergus reilly said

    Local exchange trading system has been operating in places around the world for decades – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_exchange_trading_system

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