This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Serious Fun: Ingenious Improvisations on Money, Food, Waste, Water, and More:
Work like you don’t need the money;
dance like nobody’s watching;
love like you’ve never been hurt.
When I was 20 years old, I went to France on a French government scholarship to study art history at an institute of medieval studies in the small provincial town of Poitiers. Shortly after I arrived, I was given the unexpected opportunity to be a live-in nanny with a family, caring for the children in exchange for room and board. It was the perfect situation for me: a charming room in an attic that looked onto a cobble-stoned street, and around the corner a Romanesque church. I adored all five children, and the parents treated me as more of a guest than a nanny.
They also offered me an additional stipend for teaching English to the two oldest boys. I had more than I needed for the year and, deciding that my scholarship was superfluous, I offered it back to the institute so that some needier student than I could benefit from it.
Well! Such a kerfuffle that caused! The faculty had no idea what to do with me, and after many heated discussions behind closed doors, I was begged to please keep my scholarship. If I did not, I was told, the money would be sent back to the government to pay for bombs. Feeling very foolish, I had no choice but to accept as graciously as I could. So I went shopping. I had noticed a gorgeous quilted coat in the outdoor market with a fur-lined hood . . .
I can laugh now, recalling the naive and idealistic girl I was then, but in fact I might be inclined to do the same thing today. Why not share my good fortune with others when I find myself with a surplus? That makes a lot more sense to me than runaway global capitalism, or a banking system so complicated nobody can understand it. And who can comprehend the fact that while some people are billionaires, others squat on our sidewalks begging for spare change?
Since I am totally baffled by what goes on in the economy, it is probably presumptuous of me to write about money. On the other hand, it may take just such an innocent—like the child who asked why the emperor wore no clothes—to ask a few deliberately naive questions, such as:
- What is money, really?
- What do banks do?
- Does the money system serve us, and if not, who does it serve?
- Are there creative alternatives to the money system?
- What might they be?
Why, for example, it is that even as our economy is derived from what the natural world produces, and we humans take from it everything we need to survive, do we give so little back in exchange? That does not seem to make any sense. How can we not realize that without the natural world we wouldn’t exist? Some obvious connection seems to have gone missing—the exchange part—and something self-evident seems to have gotten misconstrued—the value part.
The Ecology of the Economy
Braden R. Allenby1, former research vice-president for Technology and Environment at AT&T, has observed the similarity of economics and ecosystems, in that each takes in materials and turns them into products. But, he points out, that while Nature’s transformations are cyclic, our economies’ transformations are linear.
In a natural ecosystem—a forest, for example—every plant and animal, weather system, and soil provides value for everything else in the forest. An ecosystem is a shared enterprise in which all organisms benefit, from the tiniest mite in the ground to the air, earth, and water around it. Nothing is wasted, and no organism consumes more than it needs.
Leaves and needles drop to the ground, providing humus that feeds the roots and fungal web in the earth, which maintain the lives of everything growing. Insects and animals are dependent on these plants and, in return, drop their poop and used-up skeletons to add to the soil in which the plants grow. The forest breathes out oxygen, which is breathed in by all creatures—including ourselves—and the web of tree roots filter the water that falls to Earth and feeds the streams that provide life for all of us.
It is a perfect feedback loop that keeps every part of the forest in dynamic balance and interdependent with every other part, growing and decaying and providing food and breath for one another. Any organism that grows out of its proper proportion with everything else destroys this balance, and disaster ensues. We know about this: in the human body we call it “cancer.” Whyever would we imagine it to be good way to organize our economy?
I once saw a graphic example of where one-way consumption can lead, when a billygoat I knew got into the feed bin and ate a whole sack of grain. It fermented in his belly, which swelled alarmingly, and before we could help him his stomach had burst, and he keeled over and died.
The History of Money
So, the first question is: What is money, really?
The dictionary defines money as: "a medium that can be exchanged for goods and services and is used as a measure of their value on the market."
Historians of money know that people were bartering as early as 9000 B.C., using livestock as a medium of exchange. In fact, the word “cattle” comes from a root word meaning “property.” If I have a valuable pig, which you need, and you know how to make boots, which I need, I’ll give you my pig and you make me a pair of boots, and we’ll be even. Or, once people settled and grew crops, they exchanged produce: If I grow barley for you, and you grow rutabagas for me, we can make an even exchange and everyone benefits.
However, the person who has a pig does not always need boots, and the person who grows barley may not care for rutabagas, so tokens of value—some precious, scarce item to stand for the goods and services people needed—came into vogue. By 1200 B.C. in China, these were cowrie shells and metal spearheads and knives. Eventually, the metal tools were broken into bits and pieces, such as coins, which were used to represent the metal objects.
By 500 B.C., people were using precious metals—bronze and gold and silver pieces shaped, interestingly enough, like cowrie shells—as their medium of exchange; and by about 100 B.C. in China, squares of leather from the hides of white deer were what represented value. These were perhaps the first "banknotes."
I have heard tell that early in human history, in the area we now call Denmark, taxes were levied, and those who did not obey “paid through the nose,” that is, they had their noses cut off! Ever wonder where that phrase came from?
Tribal and indigenous peoples practiced potlatches, or community gift-giving, as their way of distributing wealth. These served to bond people to each other as well as to provide the goods that everybody needed, and variations of the potlatch have been practiced all over the globe for millennia.
Hunting and gathering would take place during the warm months, and the goods would be stockpiled until a bounty had been procured. Then in the winter, great ceremonial feasts and giveaways would be held. The community would gather, feast, and celebrate with dancing and singing and theater. Everyone was expected to rival each other in generosity, to the benefit of all. It was barter on the grand scale, on the sacred scale, and played an essential role in the cohesion and mutual support of the members of a community.
In Polynesian society, the person chosen as “chief” was the one who was able to control and distribute surplus food, and among Trobriand Islanders, the exchange system was based upon “balanced reciprocity” in which certain items were ceremonially exchanged on a regular basis.
The gold standard was introduced in England in the 1800s, in which paper currency was backed by a storehouse of gold, and banknotes were printed to represent the amount of gold held in store. Rather than trade directly with this gold, people would be given pieces of paper that represented the gold, and they would exchange these paper bills with each other for the goods and services they needed. Their relationship with each other and with the storehouses of gold—banks—was based upon trust.
Now, even the paper certificates—the banknotes we carry in our wallets—have been replaced by credit cards, which are backed by little more than thin air and our belief that they are worth something.
Our second question, then, is: “Where does money come from?”
The answer, to my astonishment, is that money is simply printed out, like money for a Monopoly game. Nothing of value stands behind it. The idea that money has value is something we have all bought into, allowing our lives and our culture to be defined by it. Accepting this, we accept such notions as:
- there is not enough to go around;
- some of us will have it and some of us will not have it;
- the poor will always be among us; in order not to be one of those poor, we’ve got to compete with each other for what there is.
Lynne Twist, founder of The Soul of Money Institute, calls this a mind-set of scarcity, in which we find ourselves afraid and competitive rather than trusting and cooperative with each other. The Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith has put it bluntly, saying, “The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled.”
How could it be that I did not know?
The History of Debt
Did you think that the Federal Reserve System was a governmental agency? I did. While the supervisory body, the Federal Reserve Board is, in fact, an independent federal government agency, the Federal Reserve System is a privately operated corporation owned since 1913 by 12 select top banks across the country that print out money—our money, to be exact—and lend it back to us with interest. How much money is printed out, and under what circumstances, is not entirely clear to me, but the effect is that some of us tend to get the short end of the stick. Often, the result is that we then have to borrow money to get by, having to pay interest on money that, as far as I can see, was our own to start with. Or am I missing something here?
Naturally, in order not to be among those left out, those who are clever at the game of accumulation take more than others. This cannot help but create a mind-set of scarcity in many people. It reminds me of the game of Musical Chairs, in which one chair—and one player—are removed after each round, causing everyone to try and grab one of the remaining seats when the music stops. Do you remember being nervous as you circled past those chairs?
I wasn’t so surprised to learn, therefore, that the Koran has an injunction against the charging of interest. Jesus objected as well. And Shakespeare wrote a play about it. But we’re still doing it, and that seems to be how bankers make their millions—on our debt. The way it works is that we owe the banks, with interest, more than they have lent us. It goes by many names and schemes that nobody (except perhaps the bankers themselves) seems to understand. We hear about derivatives, credit default swaps, subprime mortgage-based securities, stimulus cash, gamed accounting, carry trades, TBTF bailouts, TARPS, TALFS, shell-game BLS reports . . I have no idea what those words mean, and I wonder who does. Do you?
This scares the wits out of most of us, as well it should, because we don’t have a clue what’s going on. But the secret bottom-line that nobody is copping to is this fact: If we were all to pay up our debts tomorrow, the whole economic system would collapse in a day.
Gross Domestic Product and Consumerism
Until I started researching this subject, I had never asked myself exactly what either the words “Gross Domestic Product” or “Consumerism” meant. I suppose this was partly because the words "gross" and "consumer" reminded me of that greedy goat who ate a whole sack of grain until he exploded all over the place.
Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, refers to the market value of all the goods and services produced by labor and property in the United States, including what is produced abroad that we also consume. "Consumer" refers to us, the ones who gobble up those goods and services—the "gross" products.
I’m not sure why this makes me uneasy, but it does. To live in an economy that aspires to little more than making a profit from “stuff” for people to “consume,” then defines me as a consumer of that stuff, feels demeaning to me. I recall something the ethnographer—and former logger—Wade Davis3 said about the difference in character between a child raised to believe that a local mountain was a protective spirit versus the child raised to believe that the local mountain was an inert piece of rock ready to be mined. For one, the world is sacred; for the other, the world is a commodity.
My own life is about a lot more than just consumption, however much I may love good food and beautiful things. I will not be defined as a “consumer of goods and services produced by labor and property” in an invisible marketplace I cannot walk through.
I remember the outdoor marketplace in France, the one by the Romanesque church where I spent my scholarship money on that beautiful fur-hooded coat. The word itself evokes for me that sea of canvas-covered stalls piled high with aromatic cheeses, pâtés, and sausages. Pyramids of artichokes, bright red tomatoes, and carrots vied with hand-knit sweaters and warm winter clothes at neighboring stalls. Strolling through with my string bag, coins jingling in my pocket, I would stop to chat with the lady at the sheep's cheese stall, then my favorite butcher, who sold sausages and rillettes, a rough type of pâté, a few stalls down. He always greeted me by name, and would offer me a snippet of his rillettes before I bought some. I’d meet up with a classmate, and we’d sit in the café eating onion soup with melted cheese and gossiping about school, while the bells of Notre Dame La Grande rang out the half-hours right above us. I looked forward to market days; they were a high point of my week. I miss them every time I walk into a local supermarket here with its array of packaged foods, although our local farmers’ markets these days are not doing a bad job of becoming our own village markets.
What Is Business?
Business has been defined as “providing goods and services that people and the earth need.” What about all those businesses proliferating now that provide goods and services that people and the earth do not need? What about those businesses devoted to convincing us, by every means available, that we do need them?
How do we maintain a straight head amid all this compelling but useless information?
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's fairy tale The Little Prince, I love what the Little Prince had to say to the businessman trying to sell him pills that would quench his thirst fast, and save him the 53 minutes a week it took to take daily drinks of water. After considering the offer, Le Petit Prince politely replied:
“No, thank you. If I have an extra fifty-three minutes, then I think I will just walk more slowly to the fountain each day.”
All of us find ourselves in The Little Prince’s dilemma, although it is not so clear how to say, “No, thank you.” This is because the marketplace is not so easy to discern. It is nowhere to be found, hard to comprehend, and this abstraction we call “money” is little more than a digital press of a key that can be sent around the globe in seconds, whizzing through cyberspace at warp speeds that nobody can follow, making and breaking lives as it goes. People are forced out of their homes and can lose their jobs in seconds; children go hungry because food is unaffordable, while grain rots in storehouses because of vagaries in the market.
Some people are growing rich on this, then richer, while the rest are held in thrall, trying to figure out what just happened. It is as if we have all been duped by a grand Ponzi scheme that has taken over what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial agreement between people that enables us all to live and thrive. The agreement part has been left out; I know I have never agreed to this. What else has been left out of the economy?
What the Economy Leaves Out
It’s pretty obvious: the earth itself is left out. So is the work of mothers and fathers and grandparents who care for and raise the next generation of children. The compassionate attention of every person who freely offers love and caregiving and time to others is left out. The makers of beauty tend to be left out. Without our artists and neighbors and family and friends who freely give what they have to offer, civilized society would simply fall apart. What our economy leaves out is Soul.
I am one of those people who has worked without a paycheck for most of my adult life, as mother and grandmother, artist and healer. I am fortunate to be provided for by a husband who values what I give to our family and community, but not everyone who voluntarily provides comfort and care is that fortunate. We, the parents and grandparents, the artists and good friends and neighbors, provide the lubrication of society that defines us as human. But you will not find our work represented on Wall Street. In the modern economy we are mostly invisible, and our work is not considered to have economic value.
In 1983, I decided to try and make us visible because I could no longer bear the reality of children going hungry in my own community. I dreamed up The Daily Bread Project, a simple Robin Hood kind of operation, in which volunteers from the community would pick up surplus food from food businesses and bring it to food kitchens that fed the hungry for free. Anybody was welcome to be a food runner, as long as they had a way to get from point A to point B with a load of food, and as long as they were willing to not get paid for doing so. Money would not be involved in any aspect of the project, and we would make a point of that to anybody who asked. No budget, no grants. This was about the innate generosity of ordinary people.
“Impossible!” I was told. People would not work without being paid; the liability was prohibitive; it wouldn’t last . . .
I did it anyway, by this time as committed to showing that it could be done as I was committed to feeding the hungry. I felt it had to be possible for a group of caring people to get together and, without a complex organization, run food around town, reduce waste, meet each other across economic lines, create a model of sharing, raise consciousness, and have a good time in the process. Not to mention that the businesses would receive a tax deduction.
It worked, of course. Daily Bread is now in its 27th year and moves hundreds of pounds of food every month to free-food programs. It still runs smoothly without a budget. Each volunteer is asked to commit to about one hour per week. Many people wish to do more, though, and have created literacy programs, poetry-writing groups, theater productions, and gardens, after they have gotten to know the people they were bringing food to, have fallen in love with them and wished to do more.
The infrastructure has remained simple all these years, and we are in our fourth generation of volunteer coordinators. Daily Bread has inspired organizations like it all around the country, and the unsolicited donations that come in from time to time—from people so charmed that we work with no money that they are inspired to give us some—are given out to other maverick startups.
There is something about generosity, I keep discovering, that inspires generosity in return. It is the hidden benefit (like hidden costs) in much human interaction. It implies relationship, true interest, and at least two people. I imagine it was the spirit of satisfying give-and-take that maintained potlatches as effective mutually beneficial distribution systems for so many millennia. There is great wisdom in recognizing that true wealth is not only in receiving but also in being able to give benefit to others. My brother, who is a farmer in Vermont and makes maple syrup from his trees each year to give away as gifts, says, “It is a gift to be able to give it.” Giving is so basic to human psychology that I wonder how our economy ever replaced it with competition?
Martín Prechtel, the multigifted artist and author of The Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, suggests what he calls “love drive-bys.” You leave a flower on someone’s doorstep; you hand a stranger a poem. Then you move on. Or the woman living in a balconied high-rise who plucks leaves off her potted geranium plant and after writing inspirational words on them—HOPE or HAVE COURAGE TODAY—tosses them into the wind to land somewhere in the street below. Or the man who drops dollar bills into the bushes on his daily walks. The people who receive them may never know where these little gifts have come from, but most likely they will never forget the moment they received it, and chances are they will be moved to do something nice for somebody else.
I give myself the gift of time every month or so—just two or three days—to go to a simple retreat house in the forest about an hour’s drive from home. There I rest and meditate and walk silently in the woods, having no contact with the outside world. The Retreat is run by a spiritual order that welcomes anyone who sincerely desires to be in meditative silence for awhile—for free. An initial visit to the head teacher to assure him that you are sincere in your desire to rest and be contemplative is the only passport you need for this generous gift of time and space.
Retreatants may not bring work with them, nor electronic devices, and are asked not to leave the property once they arrive. Otherwise, we are on our own. The idea is to settle deeply into the silence. After one retreat, I was so grateful for this beautiful place that I broke down as I was leaving and wept in the caretaker’s arms. After awhile she said, “Oh, but you are paying for it. Didn’t you know? Every hour you sit in contemplation, you are helping to raise the vibrations of the world, and that is what our work is all about.”
I think about that everyday. We receive the gifts of the world in order to raise the vibrations of the world. Of course. Treated with generosity, we find it natural and easy to be our finest selves, and we return the favor with our best graciousness and power. At Lynne Twist puns, “What you appreciate, appreciates!”
In Buddhist teachings, the Eightfold Path includes the precept of Right Livelihood, which means that the work we do to make a living in the world must be ethical, legal, and create peace among all beings. In today’s job market, this is not always easy to come by, especially since so much of what needs doing in the world is the "invisible" work. As a result, having a job to make a living often has little to do with working at what you love to do.
Artists often speak of their “day jobs” to support themselves while staying up all night to write or compose. If they are lucky, these jobs are not soul numbing, but often they are. Some live from hand to mouth—or use food stamps, or the local dumpster—in order to practice their real work without constraints, but this is hard to do when you have responsibilities to others, such as children to support.
Shanti Devi was one woman I knew who took matters into her own hands when the world gave her nothing. She wandered into Kalianpur village in Northern India one day during the year I lived there with my family, begging for food. I was assisting my good friend Dr. Sharan Borwanker, who ran a successful clinic in town but who gave one day per week to work in the surrounding villages to help the women and children of the Ganges plains. Neither of us, of course, was paid by anybody for our work in the villages.
The girl looked to be about 16 years old, pregnant, hungry, and lost. We took her in hand, found her a place to stay and decided that by caring for her we could demonstrate healthy modes of maternity and childcare to the rest of the lower-caste women in the village. Best of all we found her a husband, a young fellow who had recently lost his wife and who worked as a day laborer on a nearby construction project. She would be fed, cared for, and the baby would have a father.
After the baby was born we fitted Shanti Devi with a uterine loop, explaining that it would protect her from another pregnancy until she was ready for a new baby. We hired her to do little jobs for us while her husband was at work, paid her modestly, and taught her about saving money. Each week she would bring us, as her "bank," the few rupees she had saved, and we lavished her with praise, congratulating ourselves as well for our ingenious social experiment.
Then she began appearing more frequently, and with larger sums of money. Soon she was making considerably more than we were! What was going on here? Well, she was smart. Taking our teachings seriously she had put two and two together: a place to stay, contraceptives, and two doctor ladies who made a big fuss every time she brought them her savings. So she set herself up in business, servicing the men working on the construction gang during lunch hour in her empty hut. Oops. ("Business is providing goods and services that people and the earth need . . . ")
Not exactly right livelihood, but certainly ingenious. Sharan was appalled, but I laughed over it for days. So what is right livelihood, especially in this day and age when an estimated 80 percent of the new generation is educated to do rote jobs that provide little choice about the quality of their lives?
As I write, it is winter and I am curled up by a warm woodstove in a cabin at the Inverness Valley Inn7 on the Point Reyes Peninsula in Northern California. The inn was recently bought by Alden and Leslie Adkins, formerly of New York City, where Alden was a securities attorney and Leslie was an environmental scientist. Three years ago, they left the city and their high-end lifestyle and moved their family to the country to try their hand at creating a self-sustaining green resort. Their idea was to create a vacation place for families that would also demonstrate a more sustainable way of living. They installed solar panels, started a little farm with chickens and goats and sheep, cut swales for conserving water during the rainy season, and recycled their guests’ kitchen scraps to the chickens, returning the favor in the form of fresh eggs for breakfast. Neither of them had ever done anything like this before.
Alden says: “As an attorney, I knew everything there was to know about the stock exchange, but I had stopped learning. I was rich, but bored out of my mind.” Now this family lives on one-tenth of what they did in the city, has scaled their lifestyle way back, and work hard on the place. The four of them do it all: cleaning and laundry, clerking, recycling, and herding the farm’s sheep, lamas, and goats around the property to graze as living lawn mowers.
The life has its challenges, but they love it and feel all the healthier for it. They live close to the land, meet interesting people from all over the world, and get lots of exercise. Leslie once clocked her back-and-forth peregrinations on a pedometer as she did her regular chores for one day and discovered that by evening she had walked seven miles!
The inn is already self-supporting. It will soon produce much of the family’s food, grown on what used to be the tennis court, and as Leslie put it, “help them live low on the food chain.” They find that living closer to the rhythms of the natural world produces a sense of rightness in their daily lives. Doing their work as a family has taught them more about themselves and each other than they had learned all the time they lived in the city. They find their experiment in right livelihood is actually an experiment in deep satisfaction, even with all its risks and challenges. Their commitment to teaching sustainable living to all the folks who make their way to this little out-of-the-way watershed by the sea is what deeply satisfies them. And it provides me, of course, with the perfect place to write in the winter when almost nobody else is around.
Not all of us can or wish to move to the country, so if we are committed to the urban life, how do we find right livelihood and support ourselves in the ever more expensive cities? Depending upon how low we are on the employment scale, there are a variety of creative solutions, especially among people who love what they do—artists or caregivers, for example—who choose to scale down their incomes even farther in order to live even more simply.
One friend has lowered her earnings deliberately so as to have more time and to no longer pay income tax, and another, an exceptionally creative artist and teacher, makes a game of frugality, a word that comes from a root word meaning “fruitful,” or making a lot out of not much. She and her friends shop in each other’s closets; they have potluck dinners from which everyone goes home with deliberate leftovers that they call “planovers”; they share memberships at Costco and recycle books and DVDs and magazines among each other. As artists, they treat each other’s throwaways as art materials, from yogurt containers to used toothbrushes.
Another couple, both musicians, share a subscription to the symphony, taking turns in going to concerts, then reporting back in detail after the show. Telling all about it in bed, they say, can be amazingly sexy!
I am told that obsolete technology is available on Craigslist for a pittance, and, of course, we all know about passing on our outgrown baby paraphernalia. In fact, it seems to me that frugality requires that we live creatively, so those of us with too much stuff miss out on the opportunity to improvise.
It is the young people who know about improvisation best, as they create ingenious patchwork lives as free-lancers to keep body and soul together. I recently spent an evening with about dozen of them, wanting to know what their hearts’ desires were and how they make ends meet. Their stories were inspiring. They reassured me that our next generation of visionary folks had their priorities straight, and that they had the courage to live out their convictions in new and brilliant ways.
Abram Katz and Sarah Minarik are musicians who teach kids in inner-city schools to compose and perform their own music. They lead double lives, babysitting and doing tech jobs to get by. Britt Karhoff is a professional dancer who, when her company is not performing, works as a waitress and mows people’s lawns for money. Caitlin Sislin and Zelig Golden both have left successful law careers, which they did not enjoy, to work in the public sector: Caitlin focuses on the legal rights of indigenous women, and Zelig, along with Julie Wolk, promotes wilderness training as spiritual practice. At this point, they are all dependent upon grants for their funding. K. Ruby Blume teaches classes about urban homesteading skills, working out of her house and living inexpensively by practicing what she preaches. Leah Lamb, who claims to be obsessed with garbage, is using her extensive experience in media to research trash in China, and to address the issue of the swirling gyre of trash in the oceans.
Each of these young people told me that their ideal job description simply did not exist in today’s market, but that they were committed to doing the work that sustained them—heart, mind, and spirit, as well as their bodies. When possible, they trained for day jobs that had some relation to their passion, so that at least they were within hailing distance of what they loved. Britt, for example, is learning massage techniques so that “at least I’ll be involved with the body when I’m not dancing.” Kait Singley, an herbalist and gardener who used to sell hats to get by, now creates medicinal gardens for people, preparing her teas and tinctures after she gets home. Some, like Katrina Zabalney, go back to graduate school to learn how to organize inspirational events, “to make it all happen,” she said. “I want help bridge the realms, creating events that bring the community together in new ways.”
Each of these people recognizes that we are part of what Joanna Macy,9 the Buddhist scholar and teacher, has called "The Great Turning," and each is willing to make sacrifices to play his or her role. They recognize that the old paradigm no longer functions and that as the economy does not support them, they have to support themselves—and each other. So they are creating the new models by scaling down their lifestyles, finding their communities, sharing housing, using bicycles and public transit, having deep faith that what they are doing is necessary and right, and that, somehow, the Universe will provide.
More than one person told a story of quitting or losing a job they had clung to for security even though they hated it, and the very next day had been offered work doing something they loved. “It’s all about waking up,” is how Zelig put it. “There’s no point in fighting the old paradigm; we’ve got to create the new one.”
I am so moved watching them bravely redefine for themselves what they consider meaningful work and by their belief that they will probably be creating the forms that survive after our economy has hit bottom, which it is bound to do. As one of an older generation who has been able to follow my heart’s desire because I had a husband willing to support me, I consider myself blessed and take it as a mandate to hire these young people to do what they do best. So one edits my website; another creates magic in my garden; one has baked our bread; and yet another, who is an actress, records my stories.
Melissa Prager, who works with the nonprofit Center for Safe Energy, which fosters citizen exchanges between Russia and America, reports that it is cheaper to sublet your apartment and travel than it is to stay at home. You do not pay utility bills, your auto insurance, if you own a car, can be registered under "nonoperational status," and off you go into the wild blue yonder!
In order to live, these young people are learning how to support each other with barter and sharing, communal living and mutual healing, growing food, and learning to trust and be trusted by one another. These courageous 20- and 30-somethings who refuse to enter the high-speed corporate world but insist upon living their dreams are our future. I expect, also, that they may turn out to be our salvation. May they thrive!
Woody Tasch is the man who coined the term "Slow Money." Slowing money down is about keeping money circulating locally, the way water might cycle in a natural system. It is about making economic decisions based upon our common welfare and the welfare of the environment, asking basic questions about value and true wealth. What really nourishes us, separately and collectively? What is truly valuable, rather than just cost effective and efficient?
Slowing money down gives us time to consider those questions, getting to know the people around us in our communities and the ways in which we relate to them. We have time to make face-to-face transactions, time to get to know each other, time to be our best gracious selves. Time, even, to have fun. As Jane Jacobs puts it in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth and public life may grow.”
It has been found, for example, that when we shop in a locally owned business rather than the franchise down the street, for every dollar we spend about 70 cents circulates locally several times before going out of state. When we shop in a chain store, only 40 cents sticks around before shooting out to some corporate coffers elsewhere. It takes a village to raise a child, it is said; we might add that it takes a village to have a healthy economy. As the economist Catherine Austin Fitts13 reminds us, “We can vote at the store.”
Caroline Casey, the astrologer/activist, has pointed out that money words like "circulation," "cash flow," and "currency" are really water words. So too are "liquidity," "trickle-down economics," "frozen assets," "liquid assets," and "drowning in red ink." Money, like water, ebbs and flows. When the flow is healthy, it does what water does: it soaks the ground deeply, spreading into nooks and crevices, roots and fungal webs, nourishing the whole local web of life before finding its ways to the local streams and joining the rush to the sea. So how can we keep our money circulating in our own ground, where it can nourish ourselves and our neighbors before it runs off and disappears out of sight?
As a popular movie of the same name suggested, one way to do it is to "pay it forward." For example, you are waiting to pay your toll on the bridge, when the toll-taker tells you that the car ahead of you has already paid for you, so of course you do the same for the car behind you. Who knows where that chain of forward-payers ends? For the rest of the day, you grin for no reason. Most likely the other drivers do, too.
A local café serves a free Sunday brunch to everyone willing to pay for the people at the next table, and in Philadelphia, one restaurant makes Sunday brunch literally free for any young person who brings in an elder for a meal.
One fellow has taken the idea of Slow Money literally—has stopped it, in fact—by making origami sculptures out of dollar bills to festoon the renovated garbage truck in which he lives.
I have learned about the experiment of equal-value time-sharing from my young friends. One young woman pays for doctor visits by babysitting his child—straight across, hour for hour. They both consider their time equally valuable. In fact, Kait Singley organized that gathering of her peers for me to interview, in exchange for a dance session in my studio. We were both completely satisfied. Computer help may be exchanged for darning socks; garden advice for supper one night. I recently exchanged an herbal tea mixture I had made for colds and flu for all the prunings from a neighbor’s lemon verbena plant. We both felt that we’d made a good deal.
In her student days in Berkeley, Gailmarie Kimmel did a weekly Daily Bread run on her bicycle, moving bagels around town, which is how we first met. Her commitment to community activism has followed her to Fort Collins, Colorado, where she has founded the nonprofit organization Buy Local.14 Its purpose is to reimagine the local economy by fostering independent businesses close to home, keeping hometowns—in this case, Fort Collins—unique. She wants to encourage an economy that is unique to each bioregion and community, expressing its particular flavor and taking advantage of who and what is already there. She starts with the model of a natural ecosystem in which relationship between organisms is taken for granted and every plant and animal contributes to the whole, each species living a healthy life in the context of each other. In her model of community, nothing and nobody is left out, because then everybody and everything would be the poorer for it. And, as she says with a grin, daily life would not be nearly as interesting.
As I write, in early 2010, local currencies are springing up everywhere that complement, not replace, the national economy. One such currency is BerkShares, in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, which starts with the premise that if there is work that needs doing, and people who are skilled and willing to do that work, skills and goods can be traded directly without the exchange of money. It assumes that the most sustainable economy is one in which the goods and services consumed in a region are produced in the region.
Berkshares also prints up its own currency and collaborates with local banks, businesses, and nonprofits in an alternative economy. Right now, five banks and more than 360 businesses in the area accept their currency, and they are working on expanding their operation to local manufacturers, and to include checking accounts and loans, as well.
In Madison, Wisconsin, the Dane Buy Local organization, whose motto is “Friendly Faces, Neighborhood Places,” is also a coalition of one-of-a-kind businesses, local organizations, and individuals who are committed to keeping their economy as close to home as possible. They claim that by supporting local independent business, they are keeping tax dollars in town and providing jobs. Like traditional marketplaces, they are unique and friendly places where shopkeepers and customers get to know each other over time. My friend Rick Brooks, who is on their board, claims that there are more than 400 members now, and the number is growing.
Recently, following my sister’s death and the necessity of finding my mother full-time care, I found myself dismantling two households. It was an exhausting, emotional experience, to be sure, but also eye-opening. To begin with, I was finding things I am sure neither my mother nor my sister would have wished me to find, and secondly, I was wading through an unbelievable accumulation of stuff. Every closet and drawer and shelf was packed with clothes and shoes and the litter of decades of enthusiasms, none of which had probably been used in years.
Needless to say, when I had completed both heart-wrenching tasks, I went back home and took stock of my own accumulations and secret embarrassments. And there were plenty of both. I started with our bookshelves, sending several hundred books back into circulation. The local library was delighted to get them for fund-raising book sales, and at home the bookshelves began to breathe. Next, I started on closets, then dresser drawers, then papers. I must have recycled a hundred pounds of manuscript drafts alone, not to mention piles of clothes and everything else that came to light in my search.
I was so exhilarated tossing things into huge bags that my husband demanded he look over the piles to make sure I wasn’t getting rid of his favorite sweater. I suggested he go through his closets, too. Pants that had not fit in years, old ties from the days he wore ties, and the contents of file drawers and desk drawers got taken away. It was demented fun, and all the while I was thanking the gods that our children would not have to do this for us.
In fact, I found the process so liberating, I used my next birthday as an excuse for a personal potlatch, telling friends not to bring presents, but to do me the favor of receiving them. For a week, I had a great time deciding which of my no-longer-used treasures would be perfect for which person, then I wrapped them up. It was my favorite birthday in years.
All our possessions, all our talents are potentially items for exchange. What is finished for me may well be a new enthusiasm for you, as Wendy Oser proposes twice a year in her Wild Women’s Schmata Exchange, where women clean out their closets and swap clothes. Thinking in terms of value rather than market cost, and uninhibited by the need for money, we can all end up rich.
A few years ago, I noticed an ad on a bulletin board suggesting a house swap. The reason given was that the wife was pregnant with their fourth child, and the family lived in a two-bedroom house on a lovely street, with wonderful neighbors, and they could use more space. Was there anyone out there, they wanted to know, who lived in a house too large for them? For example, your own children were grown and gone and you might be interested in moving to their smaller, less expensive house in exchange for your larger, more expensive house. The cost difference, they said, would be negotiated and paid for, and it would all be legally signed and sealed.
That certainly described Herb and me, rattling around in the ramshackle house in which we had raised our three children, and I was intrigued. My mother and my sister were both ill at the time, however, and I already had too much on my plate to consider a complicated move. But it was such an original idea. I wonder if they ever found their match?
I read about another family who sold their home, bought another half the size, and gave the difference to a hunger project in Ghana. Their lives changed radically after that. As the teenage daughter put it: “We set out to make a small difference in the world, but we were the ones transformed in the process.”
As wonderful as big swaps are, they do not have to be so momentous; they can be as simple as neighbors taking turns cooking extra servings of a meal and bringing over supper. Childcare exchanges are commonplace in our town, and on our street we water each others’ plants and feed each others’ cats when someone goes on vacation. We swap garden tools and ladders, lend each other books and movies, bring over soup when someone gets sick, and know each others’ health problems. In our neighborhood, kids’ birthday parties take place at the local park, and everyone is welcome. We know the personalities of each others’ pets, and most of the children feel comfortable knocking on our doors. It seems so obvious, to live like this. It is called “community,” but it might also be called “a cost-effective lifestyle.”
Worth and Wealth
While I was carrying out the painful jobs of cleaning out my sister’s household, then my mother’s, I learned two important things: first, you cannot take anything with you when you die—not one thing; and second, your personal treasures are probably not worth all that much to most other people. It was agony for me to watch the way my mother and sister’s stuff was pawed over during the estate sales, and I was glad neither of them were there to witness it.
I recently read a study carried out by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, on the relationship between income level and happiness. Bok draws attention to the fact that, although the consumption rate has climbed in the United States during the past half-century, people have not become happier as a result: someone called us a nation of “joyless lottery winners.” He also wondered why it is that since rising incomes seem not to have made people happier in the past 50 years, we keep working long hours and risking the destruction of our environment just so that we can keep doubling and redoubling our GDP?
In the foreword to Ervin Laszlo’s new book, WorldShift 2012, well-known spiritual thinker and medical doctor Deepak Chopra addresses this question head on. He writes:
Without a doubt the outmoded world of materialism is leading to
greater unhappiness, through pollution, overpopulation, lack of
nourishing food and water and the loss of natural habitats; a sizeable
percentage of the world’s population already experience these
deficits. Timely change through a shift in consciousness can bring
about a new model of happiness based on the principles of higher
consciousness…To the extent that we look outward for happiness,
the final result will be boredom, stagnation and bitter disappointment.
So what is happiness, and what is real wealth, and what has real worth? Clearly, it is not having a big pot of money in the bank. President Theodore Roosevelt once said that real wealth was that which benefited the whole community. This description makes sense to me. It is children cherished and fed; it is old people warm in the winter, as Brendan Behan used to say. It is a healthy natural world around us, and enough to eat and the pleasures of eating it together. It is water we can drink and swim in, and work that is meaningful, and love, and getting along with each other even when we don’t love each other so much. It is dreaming up new things and creating beauty and having bright ideas and laughing a lot.
Among hunter-gatherers like the Penan people in Borneo, wealth is explicitly understood as consisting of the relative strength of relations among people because everyone in the tribe is dependent upon everyone else for survival. If the group splits because people are not getting along, then everyone starves, so solidarity is the priority in their culture.
Wealth and worth and value is, more than anything, this precious opportunity we have each been given to be alive in the world right this minute. We’re here NOW. Our life won’t last forever. There's not a moment to waste.
The insurance industry makes a profound mistake when, in its own terminology, it refers to our miraculous, unpredictable, beautiful, and terrible world as an “attractive nuisance.” We know better. We understand that this is our chance to be in human bodies and to experience "the whole enchilada" of the world in all its vagaries and wonders. We live off the land, and we must recognize that fact, even if we live in a concrete high-rise in a great city. Being alive is our chance to learn and explore, make mistakes and rejoice, be surprised and be grateful. Value comes from living well; wealth derives from the opportunity to do so, and from spending the treasure of time with generosity and deep joy.
Money? What’s that?
The moon is a lustrous coin in the bank of the night,
Savings of sleep to spend prodigiously
On dreams.—Rafael Jesus Gonzalez
Causes Carolyn North Supports
Daily Bread Project, which I founded in 1982 - see...