Have you ever wondered where the term ‘piggy bank’ came from? Like me, some of you probably saved your spare coins in them when children. I didn’t give it a second thought until I stumbled across an actual living piggy bank in Bali. Midway through a cycling tour, we had stopped in a traditional village, and invited into a family compound. It was the kind where multiple generations all live in small houses next to each other, with a temple at the front, and some animals at the back. That is where I saw pig sty with a half dozen pigs. “The older women here don’t like putting money in a bank, so they buy a pig and feed it as their way to save,” my guide told me. A sensible store of value, I thought, especially with interest rates so low at the time. After the trip, I looked up the origin of the term piggy bank. Some historians guessed the name came from jars being made of a clay that was sometimes called ‘pygg’ in Germany and England, and that was the theory on Wikipedia at the time (it was 2015). But I had seen in the Indonesian national museum a piggy bank that was around 400 years older than when the word pygg was being used in Europe for a type of clay. Maybe I am a bit strange, but the piggy bank origin story had me. I dug deeper to discover that the earliest known pig-shaped money containers date to the 12th century in Indonesia.[i]
It made sense. Wild boar are known to have been domesticated into pigs as soon as people started to live in agrarian societies. Since then, in many societies around the world it has been normal for each family to have at least one pig, which would be given all leftovers. It’s the food equivalent of loose change. The pigs could then be eaten for feasts or if there was a problem with food availability. Thus, the connotation of pigs as a means for saving wealth is world-wide phenomenon. It is a useful reminder that “There is no wealth but LIFE!” as John Ruskin famously summarised in the book that Gandhi said inspired his economics.[ii]
Although the pygg clay story is now debunked[iii] and removed from Wikipedia, if you search the words ‘pygg piggy bank’ within Google you will find tens of thousands of pages where financial magazines and museums tell the fake history. It is a story which avoids us noticing that saving is ultimately about real wealth, not abstractions like currency. It is a story which adds to the culture of human separation from nature.
The severing of human connection with our environment is widely discussed within environmental philosophy and in activist communities. Less discussed is the role of money and monetary systems in embedding that delusion of separation into our culture, and amplifying it to truly ecocidal levels. The delusional stories of wealth contained within our money, banking and financial systems, provided the basis to promote additional stories that deepened and widened the delusion of separation. Just think of why the advertising industry exists in the way it does, and how it influences us from as early as any of us can recall. Any critique of how humanity got into the current mess that does not include a deep analysis of money and capitalism will form a new episode in the ongoing delusion. Such critiques will be favoured by the establishment, because if you aren’t challenging the money power, you aren’t threatening them at all. They will also be favoured by many middle classes, who find it easier to rationalise the global predicament without looking at their own economic privilege. And so, books will be sold, and people told, that it was all a mistake of the mind, or an inevitable over-exuberance of some kind, and the delusion and destruction will continue.
When tourism collapsed during the Covid pandemic, many Balinese people returned to their home villages and took up agriculture again. Despite tourism being a massive part of the economy, their society was very resilient, because so many families had small agricultural plots and farm animals and could produce some of their own food when the cash stopped flowing. I saw some pigs being eaten. Despite the re-booming of tourism, many of the local people are taking food security more seriously. I can’t imagine how people in more ‘advanced’ economies would respond to such a devastation of their incomes as the Balinese experienced. Some analyses suggest we won’t have that long to find out.
Taken from draft of “Breaking Together” out by June 2023. To receive notification of obtaining a free epub, subscribe to this blog.
[i] Supratikno Rahardjo. “Tradisi Menabung dalam Masyarakat Majapahit: Telaah Pendahuluan terhadap Celengan di Trowulan”. In Monumen: Karya Persembahan Untuk Prof. Dr. R. Soekmono. Depok: Fakultas Sastra Universitas Indonesia, 1990. pp. 203-217.
[ii] People who are into monetary history will know that this is not the only etymological connection between finance and real wealth. The word capital comes from the lending of capita (heads) of cattle, because people charged interest when they lent out cattle, as they expected them to breed so that there would be more of them that you could seek a share of.
[iii] https://www.bbc.com/storyworks/chinese-new-year/piggy-bank-origins The great piggy bank mystery | Chinese New Year | BBC StoryWorks
The photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Majapahit,_Piggy_Bank.jpg#mw-jump-to-license
2 thoughts on “No wealth but life – pig style”
I’ve been meaning to send this: https://theothereconomy.com/fr/modules/la-monnaie/#La-masse-monetaire-n’a-cesse-d’augmenter It’s the best French equivalent to Money and Society that I’ve found. The module on Money highlights very well the difference between creating money and everyday savings from an accounting point of view and therefore why money creation doesn’t depend on reserves. Worth the Google translation. At this stage, I haven’t seen anything on the charging of interest which creates inequality Cheers mateIan
[…] No wealth but life – pig styleJem Bendell (of Deep Adaptation fame) arrives by a circuitous route at the idea that climate justice cannot not be anti-capitalist. The journey involves piggy banks, and the collapse of tourism in Bali during the pandemic.from Debra K R. […]