On September 15, 2011, Free Money Day will provide an opportunity for us to re-engage with money, as well as some realistic alternatives to the current dominant economic system.
Perhaps only a generation ago, money was largely understood as the route to freedom, but for me (and it seems for many members of my generation) it feels a lot more like a ball and chain. In the past 25 years alone, the world has experienced 87 monetary crashes. While it is important to acknowledge a degree of instability is to be expected within all systems, our current economic system requires more than stability … it requires growth. This puts us in the difficult position of relying on an unsustainable system for our own sustenance.
Fortunately, alternatives are gaining momentum and – in contrast to the legitimate stress many people experience in relation to money matters – these seem to have the potential to move us in directions of openness, possibility, and real prosperity.
Alternatives are all around us
Ideas about generating complements to existing economic systems have been around since the start of the 20th century; and of course living off the land has been a way of life for most people throughout most of history. But now the globalization of our economic system, coupled with the globalization of communication, has made possible what many see as a worldwide movement in the direction of alternative economies.
‘Economies’ is intentionally pluralized here as few who are part of this movement advocate the development of a singular mega-system; this is a movement of multiplicity. As in the natural world, decentralized systems and diverse networks are crucial for sustainability. With diverse, localized, fluid, and creative approaches to prosperity, the likelihood of ‘crashes’ of the scale we are currently experiencing may be significantly reduced – one of the many potential benefits of this kind of major economic transformation.
Perhaps showcasing a few existing initiatives will serve to provide a clearer idea of the alternatives that are being proposed, and – perhaps more importantly – the benefits they can foster. Examples include:
While ‘economies’ are often thought of strictly in terms of financial activity, the Community Economies Collective aims to diversify the notion. Attending to ‘hidden and alternative’ economic practices such as volunteer work, household labour, food production, and the arts can enrich communities in ways that are sustainable.
Central to this project is the practice of identifying and mobilizing existing community assets in order to strengthen them, rather than focusing economic and development efforts in the area of needs alone. Whereas capitalist and growth-oriented notions of economic development often strip communities of assets that are not included in their measures, a community economy approach aims to cultivate assets – which exist in all communities – thus contributing to more equitable and sustainable development practices.
Instead of all members of a neighbourhood owning their own lawnmower, tools, car, vegetable garden (you get the idea), Janelle Orsi (a sharing lawyer) suggests we could all save money, time, and stress by sharing a lot of these items. Beyond sharing ‘stuff’, she also advocates sharing jobs, childcare, and rides. Aside from what it saves us, Orsi – as part of the larger sharing movement – insists doing so can also enrich our lives by building community and facilitating sustainable living. Her book, ‘The Sharing Solution’, provides recommendations, guidelines, and even templates for agreements and contracts in order to develop sharing arrangements with ease.
Sharing can take place on every level, described as ‘the four degrees of sharing’. The first degree is something most of us probably do anyway: it is informal sharing like carpooling and having potluck dinners. It requires cooperation and very little planning. The second and third degrees gradually increase in both commitment and reliability (including things such as sharing yard space, and community-wide tool-lending libraries), leading to the fourth degree of sharing. This level of sharing takes place on the level of infrastructure and involves more planning and even restructuring at the community level. It can include such sharing possibilities as carpool parking lots, city-wide bike-share programs, and community garden plots.
The ultimate outcomes of sharing economies are thriving communities in which the needs of more people are met, with less of a cost to the natural world and less reliance on our current fragile economic system.
According to Rachel Botsman (co-author of ‘What’s mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption’), collaborative consumption is the idea and practice that provides alternatives not only to what we consume, but to how we consume. It is a movement that aims to connect people in order to reduce the amount of ‘stuff’ we accumulate, and to ensure ‘stuff’ reaches those who could use it – and then pass it on – rather than sitting around unused (thus leveraging under-used items and space).
Collaborative consumption largely involves swapping things without any money changing hands at all, but it can also involve renting. It is not necessarily about avoiding the money system altogether, but rather about ensuring people can access the things they need or want without having to purchase or own them, which requires a system of mass production. It can take place on the ground with local clothing swaps, for example, but it also takes place via internet technology. When people organize, the need for more stuff is drastically reduced as we can each simply know where to go to find someone who doesn’t want (but has) something we want (but don’t have).
Rather than all of us individually punching the clock daily so we can earn money to buy items that have been manufactured to sit in each of our individual homes, collaborative consumptions stretches the lifecycle of products and reduces waste while at the same time reducing the number of hours we need to work and the amount of money we need to earn – giving us more time and energy to do the things that really matter to us. Collaborative consumption is not about doing without – it is about doing more with what we already have.
JAK Members Bank
This is a member-owned, interest-free banking system based in Skovde, Sweden. No member can own more than one share, all banking activity takes place outside of the capital market, and loans are financed only by members’ savings. The result? A bank that is invulnerable to market turbulence, savings that are not subject to unpredictable interest hikes, and a debt-free economic model. While this may sound too good to be true, it can perhaps more effectively be argued that our current growth-oriented system is too good to be true.
JAK Members Bank is one example of an institutionalized cooperative approach to economic sustainability. Others include landshare co-ops, co-operative housing, and consumer cooperatives. The keys to JAK Members Banking and other institutionalized cooperatives include: democratic non-hierarchical ownership, accessibility, and sustainability.
Free Money Day
This is all really exciting stuff – and real stuff – that’s happening right now! But how do we get people buzzing about it? How do we ‘free’ money from the big expectations we have accorded to this construct, and ‘free’ ourselves from its shackles? How can we remind ourselves that the real value lies in what is exchanged via money (goods, services, time, experiences) – not in the money itself. With increasing and legitimate overwhelm and despair at the current state of affairs, how do we tap into this energy in order realize there are alternatives? How do we start the very conversations that get initiatives like these off the ground and into our communities?
Free Money Day has precisely this intention. On September 15th in various locations worldwide, people will be giving out money to strangers – two coins at a time – and asking people to pass one of them on to someone else. The idea is simple: experience the freedom of letting money go, both literally and figuratively. The ultimate aim is to inspire the kind of dialogue that leads to the types of exciting economic alternatives highlighted above. By recognizing the limits of a growth-oriented economy and the possibilities that come with post-growth economies, we can perhaps all become mobilized to connect with existing alternatives, or even instigate some of our own.
To find out more about Free Money Day, please visit www.freemoneyday.org. You can subscribe to receive updates, read more about the event, find out where there will be one close to you so you can participate, or sign up to host one in your community.