Money Matters

Money Matters: Putting the eco back into economics

Alastair Sawday


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“This wry little book will tell you where money comes from, what it means, what it’s doing to the planet and what we can do to make the financial system serve the real interests of humanity again.” The Ecologist


“Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilisation.” John Maynard Keynes, 1933

“Our deepest fear is not that we are powerless. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
Nelson Mandela, 1994

So what are we to make of it all? If you can sum up the various messages of this Little Book – and money covers the whole of human life, after all – they probably amount to the following:

1.  There is a fundamental moral problem about the way we use money: it isn’t immoral, but it is amoral – it values very unimportant things (McDonald franchises, foreign exchange, hedge funds) very highly, and very important things (families, communities, nurses) very low.

2.  Because of this, it tends to drive out what’s good in society, and what’s vital for our lives.  Big currencies drive out variety, diversity and creativity leaving just money behind.  And if you don’t believe me, look at Jersey.

3.  Money seems to be running out – at least for the vital things in life – because useless but lucrative investments where money breeds on money suck it all up, and we find that the money for reality gets whittled away.

In other words, the conclusion is the same as Ruskin’s: there is no wealth but life. But the danger is becoming clearer every year. People who want to produce books or grow barley or sell food now have to do so through the gaps, and with the crumbs that are the by-products of speculation, of the financial roundabout that booms above them and produces nothing real. Soon, it may be impossible.

It is a very practical problem, but it is also primarily a moral one – one that no amount of legislation can solve. People in every age have confused money with real value, and they probably always will – but we can teach people to beware of the confusion and point them towards its consequences?

But it’s important that we understand our own responsibility for it. The ‘original sin’ of interest may be laying waste the environment because it demands such high growth and high returns, but we are also implicated in it with our savings, our mortgages and our pensions.

Money is not as good a measuring system as it claims to be. It measures well what the financial system and the global traders believe is important, but extremely badly what is important to people in neighbourhoods – and, when it comes to the fundamentals of life, it is practically blind.

The profusion of identikit places from Aberdeen to Auckland, the machine solutions to human problems, are a direct result of this blindness at the heart of money.

What can be done about it? We can persuade the government to issue more money interest-free, rather than letting banks create it all. We can make sure, either by laws or taxes, that the full costs of enterprises are reflected in prices, that subsidies for unsustainable activities end and the polluters pay for their damage. We can find ways to make money circulate better in local communities without seeping out to middlemen and distant corporations. We can try and make sure that nobody gets paid –for the sake of argument – more than a hundred times more than anyone else. It doesn’t sound much, does it.

We should beware of catch-all solutions that are supposed to solve everything, whether they are land tax or monetary reform. There may be a place for a measure of both, but they will never change the world by themselves. The law of unintended consequences hangs heavy over single solutions, and especially over any idea that we ought to centralise the money supply so that only the government or their chosen representatives are allowed to create it.

Centralisation and monopoly has always tended towards tyranny and monoculture, and that is the problem with money as much as anything else.

If there is a single solution to the money problem it is to re-introduce diversity. Big currencies, big global systems tend towards monoculture – they drive out anything that’s different, whether they are other languages, other cultures or other species. An economy that is human and real is one with a diversity of measuring systems, and that means a diversity of different kinds of money – not neatly segregated by national boundaries, but overlapping.

That’s why I believe the future of the money is multiple currencies, to underpin different aspects of our lives. The US dollar circulates over most of the world – in fact a third of dollar bills in circulation are outside the USA – just as the euro is beginning to circulate in Britain. The cash registers at some European duty-free shops are able to accept 12 or more different currencies. But we need more: local currencies, green currencies, small business currencies, loyalty currencies, time currencies, city currencies, babysitting currencies – to give ordinary people and places that don’t quite fit the shiny new world of globalisation what they need to maintain life.

The future of money is that we can all create it, enough for what we need. Greed creates inflation, but a diversity of currencies will allow us to bypass those kind of problems, so we can use our human assets for life.

There are also things we can do as individuals to tackle the money system at its most corrupt, and they are all to do with making wealth, money, places and life real and human again:

Real, human wealth

We may not be able to turn money values on their heads, at least by ourselves. But we can buy and invest – not necessarily according to what is cheapest or the highest short-term returns – but according to what is most human. We can buy what is made locally, made by craftspeople, made by small producers, or invest in projects that will help people like that, not where the financial experts, the marketers or the markets urge us to invest. We can use our intuition, and inform ourselves about which global brands are owned by which global monster, and withdraw our support from companies that lay waste the earth and its inhabitants – and support those that make the world a better place. We have a small vote in the global marketplace – our buying power – and we should use it.

Real, human places

We do have some choice about what kind of places our high streets and towns become, and we can use our time and money accordingly. We can shun fast food and mega-malls where we can, and take our custom wherever we can to shops and restaurants that are owned locally, and where we know the staff and the managers. And where we do join in the world of fast food and modern machine systems, we can subvert them – by chatting to the poor de-humanised staff behind the counters. We can buy from small shops, buy locally-grown food, and where we use supermarkets, we can demand that they have the choice of fruit and vegetables at least from the same continent.

Real, human money

We may not be able to stop the dematerialisation of money, but then that isn’t really the point anyway. We can help the spread of diverse new kinds of money to underpin a diverse world. We can innovate with the points systems of big corporations, use them in ways that wasn’t intended – trading nectar points or donating them to charity. We can use local currencies where they are available, and where they are not, we can barter and give things away when it is least expected. We can join our local time bank, and join any local system that supports and funds local food or local production.

Real, human life

Again, we can’t stand up by ourselves against the weight of the system, but we can – just by working on our own lives – hold out against it, and maybe by example encourage others to do so as well. We can encourage simplicity and creativity. We can put our relationships and our creative lives a little higher in our priorities. We can give more, and sometimes maybe even accept more in return. We can do things for free, we can surprise people by our semi-independence from the financial world. We can find and celebrate the inner wealth in people that the market sidelines, and in ourselves.

These are all hard to do, for me as much as everybody else. And if we can do them, we may not bring the financial system to its knees – even if we wanted to. But we will probably feel considerably wealthier as a result.

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