Matthew Slater is co-founder of Community Forge (http://communityforge.net/), and has been building LETS and Timebanking software systems for five years. In this article he explores how ecovillages might benefit from improved economic cooperation.
To many ecovillagers, self sufficiency is an obvious principle – but what do we really mean by that? Would not a truly self sufficient being be able to subsist indefinitely in the vacuum of space? Do we mean that communities should not sell their labour into capitalist slavery? Or that they should not source their food from the global market? Or what?
I suggest that self sufficiency is really about retaining control over what we put in our bodies, and control over who our labour empowers. If so, the ‘self’ in question is not the the being located behind my eyes, but the expanded self which shares my concerns. This self encompasses the whole ecovillage network and possibly other networks with similar values. The larger we are, the greater diversity of resources and the greater efficiencies of scale we can leverage. And by ‘sufficient’, I propose that we meet as many needs as possible from within this expanded self. On the economic policy level, it means producing the stuff we need ourselves, sometimes by specialising and distributing; on the monetary level, that means routing money within the network.
Money is especially problematic. Since it is scarce by design, it is much easier to spend than to earn. And money has a cost, called interest, that burdens many ecovillagers who pay mortgages. Interest adds up surprisingly quickly – over a 30 year mortgage term the borrower might repay 300% of the loan. You should explore all other options before entering into such penetrative relationships with such institutions. Sell shares, befriend the dying, partner with landowners, but know that banks now rule the world because, for hundreds of years, they have been manipulating the economy and extracting value created by working people, for themselves.
I hope you will forgive my critique of conventional economics – I am not a formal initiate into these mysteries!
Conventional economics presumes – evidence notwithstanding – that humans are selfish, lonely creatures struggling for a role and status in a vast, competitive society. This ‘Homo Economicus’ endures hateful toil in order to aggregate the largest pile of assets for himself before his wretched life ends. This creature, devoid of trust and relationships, only feels secure with a massive pension pot to finance his/her ailing years, lest he/she die without dignity: cold, hungry, smelly, and utterly alone. This creature needs globalized money with commodity value, that can accrue interest over time. He/she needs a strong government and a economy that grows forever.
But I have seen that Homo Ecovillagus is a very different creature. She/he actually enjoys productive work and cooperation and regards helping people as its own reward. If she/he needs a money system at all, it is the need for a more social currency, the like of which has been written out of conventional ‘his’-tory. Money that measures real things with real value is more likely to reward real work. Money with negative interest is for spending rather than saving. Money with no inherent value cannot be abused by speculators. Money which is under local control can be adapted to promote local values.
Many of you already know this kind of money. It is what the Time Banks and the LETS and the business barter systems have been doing for years. The technical term is a mutual credit system; it is just a list of IOUs between members that eventually cancel each other out. Members of these systems are assumed produce as much as they consume – not to accumulate, and so no money is needed within the system. It is also possible to join such systems together into a single network where many more products and services are available. This means that ecovillages can specialise and scale up production and know that they have a ready market. And in this market, there is always enough money because any producer can have access to free credit.
But we should never forget that money is a second-level reality; money helps to measure and channel value creation, so our money is only useful insofar as value creation is actually taking place! Issuing money may enable value to flow, but it does not itself create value.
Ecovillages need to collaborate more deliberately to exchange their products and services, and to invest in light manufacturing and cottage industry. When I visited an Israeli kibbutz in 1993, I helped with collecting and hatching eggs, irrigating fields, and plastic injection moulding. If we want the benefits of technology and civilization, we either have the choice to enter the ‘slave’ marketplace and try to out-compete others in a ‘zero-sum’ game, or we must somehow build our own economy from the ground up.
Unless we are actually wanting a return to a pre-industrial society, we need to be prepared to engage with machinery, and not limit ourselves to basket weaving. I believe we should start building a new economic system now, before the old collapses. With so much unemployment and debt-deterring would-be students, are we making the most of the spare capacity of our young people?
It seems to me that that the most immediate areas to concentrate on are food and energy, followed by construction. I’m not alone in thinking this, and a great deal of work has already been done, with many solutions prototyped and working within the movement already. Who of my readers is not excited by the Global Village Construction Set or 3D printing? Experts and affordable solutions abound. We need to move beyond prototyping and start relying on these solutions. Why wouldn’t every community be self sufficient in vegetables, eggs and milk within one year?
Yet awareness and engagement with these basic economic flows is limited. In a quick poll that I did in a workshop asking about the economic inputs and outputs, aromatherapy was mentioned before medicine, education, and construction.
Imagine if one ecovillage in Spain invested in an olive press and supplied cold pressed olive oil 10 litre containers to the whole network. They could afford to bring in a peripatetic solar heating expert. His village could spend the credit he earns on labour for building a fish farm, and those labourers could then afford to attend the annual conference, where lots of olive oil would be consumed! And, of course, I’m not only dreaming of an exchange network; what we produce, we can still sell to outsiders for money.
But isn’t it illegal to give each other things without giving the government a share? This is a critical question, and remains a grey area in the legal system. In my opinion, if our gifts to one another are taxed, then the free market is a joke and we are mere property of high class criminals. If we are not using their fraudulent money, why should we pay taxes in their money?
This exact sticking point was a major contributor to the American revolutionary war, according to Benjamin Franklin. If taxes are about governance and wealth redistribution, then they can just as easily be paid with our own credit and spent back into our own economic network. Then the credit created by us and backed by our good names cannot be used to finance wars or bail out banks! But these questions are not for now. In the current climate virtual currencies are rising to prominence and trust in legal-tender currencies are crumbling to dust. When we are challenged on such issues, the landscape that emerges will be very different.
In Spring of 2014, I will tour ecovillages in Spain, creating economic profiles of each village and putting them online.
I’ll be asking questions such as:-
How does your village get money?
How does your village spend money?
What does your village produce?
What does your village need?
What are you buying and selling in local markets?
What entrepreneurial opportunities exist?
What transport links exist between you and neighbouring ecovillages?
The answers will be made visible, with your permission, to all ecovillages. You will be able to see what goods and services are needed by ecovillages and make entrepreneurial decisions. Later we can install an accounting system to make it easier for villages to extend credit to one another.
So I’m angling for invitations to visit villages, (especially in Spain and Portugal), so I can use real information to design and start to populate an online marketplace! I also offer web support and insights into money and complementary currency systems. I need internet and help with transport between villages. To welcome me in Spring / Summer 2014, write to [email protected]