Currencies Grow in Popularity
Judith D. Schwartz Sunday,
Dec. 14, 2008
Illustration by Darren McCollester / Getty
Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders' Meeting
to home, "Ithaca Hours," with a livable hourly wage as the standard,
were launched during the 1991 recession to sustain the economy
in Ithaca, N.Y., and stem the loss of jobs. Hours, which are
legal and taxable, circulate within the community, moving from
local shop to local artisan and back, rather than leaking out
into the larger monetary system. The logo on the Hour reads
"In Ithaca We Trust."
(or "complementary") currencies range from quaint to robust,
simple to high tech. There are Greens from the Lettuce Patch
Bank at the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural northeastern
Missouri. In western Massachusetts one finds fine-artist-designed
BerkShares, which are convertible to U.S. dollars. More than
$2 million in BerkShares have been issued through the 12 branches
of five local banks, according to Susan Witt, executive director
of the E.F. Schumacher Society, the nonprofit behind the currency.
And in South Africa, proprietary software keeps track of Community
Exchange System (CES) Talents; one ambitious plan is to make
Khayelitsha, a vast, desolate township of perhaps 1 million
inhabitants near Cape Town, a self-sustaining community.
alternative currency is generally used in conjunction with conventional
money; one may use local currency at the farmers' market and regular
greenbacks at the supermarket. "It doesn't try in any way to replace
cash," says Christoph Hensch, a Swiss national and former banker
living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Rather, it offers a way "for
people to share and redeem value they have in the community."
He says the currencies are most useful in geographical areas or
social sectors where money doesn't flow sufficiently, citing,
for example, New Zealand's Golden Bay, which is so remote that
it sometimes nearly functions as its own economy.
of alternative currencies say they are a means of empowerment
for those languishing on the margins of fiscal life, granting
economic agency to people like the elderly, the disabled or the
underemployed, who have little opportunity to earn money. For
example, in some systems one can "bank" Time Dollars for tasks
like child care and changing motor oil. It's not whether you're
employed or what financial assets you have that matter, says Les
Squires, a consultant on social-networking software who has been
working with groups developing alternative currencies. Each person
has "value" that is "exchangeable" on the basis of time spent
or a given task.