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Reinventing Money, Restoring the Earth, Reweaving the Web of Life

by Carol Brouillet

My favorite T-shirt says "WARNING! (And beneath the warning is a dollar bill) --

        Before history was written, a gift economy existed. The gifts of Nature were abundant; the relationship between people, the Earth, the animals and plants were sacred.

        Western civilization has systematically disrupted and destroyed sustainable, indigenous cultures. Scientists are rushing to collect genetic materials, blood, tissues, from the world's endangered people. They fail to recognize traditional wisdom, except in areas like medicine and agriculture where native knowledge has direct lucrative applications. A double tragedy is occurring now; indigenous people are losing their lives and land, and the world is losing the carriers of ancient wisdom, those who have lived in harmony with the Earth.

        Money or wampum held a special meaning to people living within a gift economy. Feathers, stones, shells which were worked to become objects of beauty held a karmic quality, a promise, a consolation, a message far beyond their material features -- weight, size or utility. Exchanges promoted relationships and bonds between individuals, families, communities, and distant cultures.

        Dollars function in a very different way. In theory, money is supposed to activate the production of goods and services; to simplify exchanges and the settlement of debts, to provide a means of storing values or savings. Money has one other major function -- it is a tool of empire.

        The film Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladahk chronicles in detail Helena Norberge-Hodge's observations of a nonmonetized culture, rich in Buddhist spiritual traditions, with an intricate system of family and social ties, disrupted by modern forces. In a place where ninety percent of the land was evenly distributed amongst families, where people lived ecologically and sustainably off the land, where almost everyone knew how to build a house and meet all of their basic needs -- a road to India, tourism, and the monetized economy has been disastrous for the culture.. Apparently the weak link in the cultural fabric are the young men who are seduced by the toys of Western Civilization and abandon their traditions in search of the quick buck and the "surface glamour of the modern world." Where money intrudes, greed is kindled and the gift economy languishes.

        In Debt Virus Dr. Jaikaran writes: "The most pernicious of all viruses is the one that confiscates the wealth of the productive elements of society and transfers it to the hands of a nonproductive few." The monetary system, based upon debt, functions to transfer land, money and wealth from the many to the few.

        In the past, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome fell when a small percentage of the population controlled nearly all of the wealth. Today 358 people are worth the combined income of 45% of the planet's population -- 2.5 billion people. The rich have never been richer nor the poor poorer. Greed and fear are manifested in our dominant institutions, bloated military budgets, the growth of the prison and "security" industries, the glorification of warriors. What cannot be controlled by force, is controlled by money.

        The origins of modern banking can be traced back to the days when goldsmiths began giving out receipts for gold that they safeguarded. They soon realized that the receipts were more useful for business transactions than heavy amounts of gold. Some enterprising goldsmith figured out that large amounts of gold weren't even necessary to insure the utility of receipts; the goldsmith began loaning gold and receipts at interest, hence the birth of the fractional reserve system and "debt money."

        When money is created by the banks and loaned to governments or business at interest, it is mathematically impossible to pay back all the money with interest. Not all debts can be repaid; foreclosures occur. Wealth is continually transferred from the poor to the rich.

        Bankers, like magicians, do not like to reveal their secrets. Able to create money out of thin air; they have learned that belief of belief is the key to their success. When people begin to doubt the purchasing power of money, banks fail; a currency collapses.

        In 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, the ruling elite decided to establish the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to smooth the way for their domination of the world economy. Working hand in hand with elites in other countries throughout the world, the "Bretton Woods Institutions" have forcibly resettled more than ten million of the poorest people on the planet, many of them indigenous minorities. This means taking away their land, destroying their production systems, weakening their community structures, dispersing kin, cultural identity, traditional authority and potential mutual help. Anthropologist Thayer Scudder insists that "resettlement is about the worst thing you can do to people, next to killing them." The World Bank's projects, particularly in the Earth's forests, mineral deposits, and rivers, are the most destructive on the planet. Its support of repressive regimes has exacerbated human rights violations.

        Money has flowed from the poor countries to the rich industrialized nations. The Structural Adjustment Programs forced upon nations by the World Bank and the IMF have meant shifting food production from domestic needs to export crops, devaluing the local currency to encourage exports, cutting social spending on health and education, reducing wages, privatizing national industries, selling off their natural resources, and removing tariff protections for local industries. Hunger, unemployment, hardship and inequality are the direct and calculated results of World Bank policies.

        The U.S. dollar is the de facto world currency. I.M.F. and World Bank loans are in dollars and must be repaid with interest in dollars. For Argentina to trade with Chile, it needs dollars. Like a casino, dollars are chasing more dollars with 95% of the foreign exchange transactions consisting of sheer speculation. Less than 5% has to do with exchanging real goods or production and that amount is dominated by the largest 500 multinational corporations.

        According to Margrit Kennedy, author of Interest and Inflation Free Money:

We are living in World War III already, an economic war. It is a non-declared war: A war of usurious interest rates, ruinous prices, and distorted exchange conditions. Remote controlled interest rates and terms of trade have killed millions of people on a plundered planet. They are killed by hunger, sickness, unemployment and criminality... Every day the Third World pays us 300 million dollars in interest.
        Interest payments used to be called "usury" and were condemned by many of the world's religions. Only when the Catholic Church suddenly discovered that it had become the largest landowner in Europe, did it figure out a way to get around that spiritual taboo.

        The Queen of England might notice the two million dollars a day that she receives in interest and the child who is sold into sexual slavery to pay off her parents debts might realize the dire straits of her family's circumstances. Both represent the extremes of the current monetary system. However, for most of us living in industrialized nations, the cost of money is hidden, included in the price of goods and services we buy. On the average it is about fifty percent of the cost of the necessities of life. If interest rates were abolished with a more equitable monetary system, most people would be twice as rich or be able to work half as much as they currently do, to maintain the same standard of living.

        The world has become divided into the "haves" and the "have nots." While 80% must pay more than they receive in interest, 20% enjoy an "unearned" income from the wealth that they have inherited or accumulated. But money never works, people work. Under our competitive economy, for every winner, there is a loser.

        However there would be no marketplace if it weren't for the gifts of Nature. The invisible economy, the priceless work that goes on within every human household, voluntary work which creates and sustains communities, which gives life meaning; the time spent on building human relationships which weaves the social fabric, this is of primary importance. From the feminist perspective, the smallest part of the real economy has to do with money and that part is utterly dependent upon the world's ecosystems, the unpaid work of over half of the planet's population, the communities built upon cooperation, respect and faith in the inherent value and goodness of life.

        The family existed before money did. The village grew out of interdependent relationships between families. As societies grew more complex, hierarchies developed and the "public family" or the state created institutions which took over many of the functions once met within the household, such as educating children and caring for the sick. In urban environments, many basic living skills have been lost, and people are more dependent than ever on the state or a monetized economy to meet their basic needs.

        In Finland and the U.S. there have been significant "back to the village" and "back to the land" movements to regain an individual sense of competence, to rebuild community, and to reduce dependency upon the global economy. The most radical thing we can do is to exercise our power within the household, where we have the most power, to live by our values, and not by values condoned by the imperatives of a competitive destructive system.

        We can choose to spend time with our children, to grow our food or support the local organic farmer, to ride a bicycle instead of taking the car, to not purchase products from industries that exploit people and cause environmental destruction. What we do with our time, our resources, our money, our energy is a reflection of our deepest values, whether we are conscious of them or not.

        The power of non-violent civil disobedience is enormous. Remember Gandhi, homespun cloth, and salt; and how those simple non-violent personal acts helped to defeat the British Empire. The militarized global economy cannot continue, if we simply withdraw our support for it in millions of quiet acts of rebellion.

        The largest growing movement in the U.S. today is voluntary simplicity (closely followed by involuntary simplicity.) Generosity, compassion, cooperation and love are the most powerful, invisible forces which simply cannot be quenched by frightened, power-hungry institutions fighting to maintain their credibility and some control over the system. The system is dependent upon massive propaganda, the censorship of vital information and ideas. In other words, these monstrous institutions are doomed.

        Near Findhorn, Scotland, some people were walking across a newly plowed field. As they turned to observe the sunrise, the light caught the dewdrops on the fragile spider webs on the moist dark earth. Only at that moment did they realize that the entire field was covered by one enormous vastly intricate network of spider's webs. Our own efforts, I believe, are invisible, too; only when the light of love shines clearly can we see how deeply connected we are to all people throughout the world, every liberation struggle, all people of faith, all people who strive to ease the world's suffering and to nurture those around them.

        We must remember history, and realize how each of us has a role to play at this extraordinary moment in time.

        In the film, Who's Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics, Marilyn unravels the history and mysteries of our global system. The IMF and the World Bank were created to maintain certain power relations and exercise control over the world's resources. The U.N. System of National Accounts was based upon a pamphlet entitled "How to Pay for the War." That system imposed upon every country that joins the U.N. enables the global elite to finance their militaries, to engage in conflicts with other nations, and to build internal security forces to control their own populations who might not agree with the expropriation of their country's resources.

        This system believes that the unpaid work of women, who are bearing children, raising them, feeding them, carrying for the sick and aged, maintaining a home or garden, is of little or no importance. Nor does the system recognize the value of forests or the natural world unless they can be chopped down and sold or monetized in some way. Monetary transactions are measured, are deemed of the greatest importance, no matter how devastating their effects are on the environment. The arms industry is the most lucrative of all industries. It is in the economic interest of the major powers that there is always a war going on somewhere. This pathological system does not recognize the value of life, peace, or the Earth, itself. It does not see anything of unquantifiable value; it only sees that which it measures -- money.

        The measures used in economics are more indicative of the rape of the Earth, the amount of exploitation occurring within a country, and how effectively the world's parasites are at expropriating the labor of others and the natural world. If economic indicators were aligned with universal values, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness; they would ignore the marketplace and concern themselves with the health and well-being of the environment, the health and well being of every person, and how well basic human needs -- food, water, shelter, clothing, education are being met.

        It would take three or four Earths to pay off all the world's debts. It's not really a question of "if the global monetary system is or is not going to collapse," but "when." We have a rare opportunity to replace a system which depends upon greed and scarcity to a system which nurtures generosity and abundance.

        Its time to change the rules of the global money game. Some of the groundwork has already been laid; we need to build upon it. The best way to predict the future is to create it. By creating opportunities for people to shift their energy, resources and time from a destructive global economy to a healthy, meaningful, nurturing economy; we could ease the transition dramatically.

        In 1890 Silvio Gesell formulated a theory of money as revolutionary as the notion that it is the Earth that circles the sun, rather than the other way around -- despite appearances. Gesell suggested securing the money flow by making money a governmental service subject to a use fee. Instead of paying interest to those who have more money than they need, people would pay a small fee if they kept money out of circulation. The fee would serve as an income to the government and reduce the amount of taxes needed to carry out public tasks.

        Gesell's ideas were tested by the mayor of Woergl, Austria in July 1932 when economic conditions were deplorable. The mayor proposed to substitute a local currency for the national currency. They were called work certificates and on the first of every month the holder had to affix a 1 percent stamp of the face value of the certificate. The "taxes" went into the community chest, to provide a relief fund for the invalids or elderly who were unable to work. Because of the stamp tax, taxes were paid quickly; accounts were settled without the usual delays, even the bank became eager to loan out the money, as fast as it received it.

        The mayor was then able to embark upon his Public Works Program, "to alleviate want, give work and bread" which exceeded his highest hopes. The conditions of the streets of Woergl had been a standing joke of the surrounding country. In less than four months sewers and improvements were completed. Later, other streets were paved and streets outside of Woergl repaired.. Prosperity blossomed.

        A meeting of 200 Austrian mayors decided unanimously to follow the Woergl example in their impoverished communities. Then the private Austrian National Bank protested against the shattering of its money making monopoly. After a legal fight, the Austrian Supreme Court sided with the bank.

        In 1933 advocates of "Stamp Scrip," abounded. There were three or four hundred scrips in circulation in the United States, Canada and Mexico. A top economist urged Roosevelt to encourage local currencies. However F.D.R opted for "The New Deal" which flooded the nation with Federal Reserve Notes, put an end to the currency experiments, and effectively centralized power.

        The concentration of wealth and power that exists today is the world's biggest problem. Aung Sung Suu Kyi wrote: "It is not power that corrupts, but fear -- fear of losing power and fear of the scourge of those who wield it."

        The only cure for fear is faith -- faith in oneself, faith in humanity, and faith in the meaning and purpose of life. Kahil Gibran wrote:

And there are those who have little and give it all. These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty... see first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth it is life that gives unto life -- while you who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.
        We need non-violent tools to help redistribute wealth and power, restoring the Earth in the process.

        We need to reinvent money democratically at the grassroots level, along with a communications network. Then when the local community is active and aware enough to control local government -- local government could issue its own currency. Ideally monetary reform encourages land reform, a shift in priorities, recognition of our interdependence with the natural world, nurturing healthy relationships between people locally and throughout the world.

        The notion of the sacredness of private property was imposed with the advent of military conquest, dividing the spoils of war amongst the conquerors. The village "commons" were gradually enclosed or lost over the centuries with the increasing criminalization of poverty. In California, 1% of the population owns over 2/3 of the land. A United Nations Study of 83 countries showed that less than 5% of the rural landholders control three -- fourths of the land. Susan George, in her book, How the Other Half Dies, says:

The most pressing cause of abject poverty... is that a mere 2.5% of landowners with more than 100 hectares control nearly three-quarters of all land in the world-with the top .23% controlling over half.
        Community land trusts are one solution. Taxes need to be shifted from encouraging the exploitation and destruction of the world's natural resources, including its people to encouraging a healthy stewardship and ecologically sustainable existence. There is much good work to be done -- to restore the land, as well as to transform cities, towns, and schools to healthy, thriving, places of activity; and there is a global unemployment crisis. Monetary reform is but one vital step towards changing the foundation of the system.

        There are already hundreds of alternative or complementary currencies. There are over 130 electronic alternative currency systems in operation in England. In France a local currency was introduced three years ago, and now there are three hundred in existence.

        The most successful local currency in the United States "Ithaca Hours" was started by Paul Glover, with almost no capital, in Ithaca, New York. Paul sells a "Hometown Money Book and Starter Kit" for $25. As the economic crisis worsens, more and more places are likely to develop their own systems. The idea needs to be seeded; historical examples and successful regional debt-free alternative currencies need to be heralded as the wave of the future. The E.F. Schumacher Society just held a conference last June on local currencies and building sustainable communities; they are creating a newsletter to link all the budding local currency efforts.

        My dream is to create a new global currency, an ethical currency consciously designed to encourage generosity and abundance, build community, restore the Earth, and meet basic human needs. This currency would depend upon the networking of a vibrant, local, national, and international local currency movement and the creation of a chaordic organization, which has no head, and works by cooperative, independent agreement.

        We could call it Gaia Futures, in recognition of life-giving nature of the planet and the design of the currency to restore and nurture life. Gaia Futures would be backed by renewable energy and products which are environmentally sound and support basic human needs or restore the environment (as opposed to backing a currency with gold or silver, which encourage mining, or other major commodities which harm people and the environment).

        Gaia Futures would have a demurrage feature, a negative interest rate, which would be used to maintain the system and fund renewable energy projects, ecological projects, and projects designed to meet the most pressing human and environmental needs, encouraging right livelihood by making it economically possible for people to live and work in harmony with their deepest beliefs. Grants or interest-free revolving loans could provide the seed money for local endeavors, as well as facilitate the transference of excess wealth to distant areas, in sister communities, or impoverished areas where the need is great. Building the infrastructure for an equitable, just, healthy world would become economically viable. By creating the various components of the currency, people and places would be creating real wealth -- healthy people, healthy relationships, and a healthy world.

        True security lies in the well being of every member of society and the integrity of the natural world. Eliminating the need for military force, and prisons, encouraging peace, justice, truth and beauty would be the goals of Gaia Futures. Generosity, charity, faith, love, hope, cooperation, solidarity, creativity, self esteem, community, compassion should be part of our lives and the cornerstones of the organizations we create. Let us promote appropriate technologies that benefit our communities and eliminate the need for the cancerous nuclear and oil industries.

        Schumacher wrote:

        Production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life... In the simple question of how we treat the land, next to people our most precious resource, our entire way of life is involved, and before our policies with regard to the land will really be changed, there will have to be a great deal of philosophical, not to say, religious change.

        Perhaps we cannot raise the winds. But each of us can put up the sail; so that when the wind comes we can catch it.

        In a perfect world, money would become obsolete, and the gift economy would flourish. One's time would be honored as the greatest gift of all -- the essence of one's brief precious life.

Permission is granted to print this article in whole or in part. Carol Brouillet, cbrouillet@igc.apc.org

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