Local Currencies Grow During Economic Recession

BerkshareThe gentle mountain slopes of New England isolate the Berkshires, creating a peaceful remoteness in this southern Massachusetts region. 

As a result, independent thinkers have thrived here. Herman Melville penned Moby Dick; Norman Rockwell etched paintings of American life; W. E. B. Dubois authored his first calls for emancipation.  

Today, the Berkshires is giving rise to a new wave of free thinking. The region's alternative to the U.S. dollar, Berkshares, is among the most successful of the country's local currencies. 

Since the currency's launch two years ago, five local banks have printed more than 2 million paper notes. About 185,000 are currently in circulation, according to Susan Witt, a Berkshare co-founder. 

The Berkshires is not alone. More communities are creating their own "complementary" currencies during the current economic crisis in an effort to keep wealth in their region. 

Witt is now fielding calls from around the world, she said, especially from the United States and United Kingdom.  

"In the last four years, there has been a renewed interest in local economy, local production," said Witt, executive director of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a Massachusetts-based think tank focused on local production. "It just skyrocketed with the collapse of the global economy."  

Complementary forms of currency are nothing new, and they frequently appear when mainstream financial systems are in distress. Examples include Greenbacks during the American Civil War, and the British Bradbury "Treasury Notes" and German Kriegsgeld during the First World War.  

Alternative currencies, in theory, encourage consumers to make purchases within their communities rather than elsewhere in the country or abroad. "Buying local" circulates wealth in the region, reduces unnecessary imports, and helps avoid higher unemployment levels, supporters say.  

At least 4,000 complementary currencies are now estimated to be in circulation worldwide, compared with fewer than 100 in 1990, according to Bernard Lietaer, a co-founder of the Euro and now a local currency proponent. 

The currencies take on various forms. Many function similar to the traditional currency but are distributed at a discounted rate to encourage participation, such as the Berkshares or the cimarrón in Venezuela. Others are designed so that each paper note reflects the per hour labor required to create the product, such as Ithaca Hours in New York or Community Oriented Mutual Economy in Hong Kong.  

In Switzerland, the WIR (the German word for "we") functions as a mutual credit system. When a buyer makes a purchase from a WIR participant, the seller receives credit in a WIR account. The credit can then be spent by purchasing something from another participant.  

Economists have monitored the WIR since it began in 1934. "Whenever the economy goes up, the turnover in WIR decreases.... When business people cannot sell goods in Swiss Francs, then they go onto the WIR," said Margrit Kennedy, a German-based consultant on complementary currencies. "At the present moment, people are much more open to these types of ideas." 

Pilot projects similar to the WIR are now under way in Belgium, France, and Germany, Kennedy said. 

In order for alternative currencies to succeed, organizations, institutes, or individuals need to be committed to the currencies' additional demands. Not only must the currency be counted separately, but businesses must be convinced to accept the currency and know where they can, in turn, spend it.  

In Canada, the Toronto Dollar circulated about $90,000 worth of paper currency last year, less than in years past. Organizers are now attempting to shift to an electronic version to simplify its management. "The labor involved in tracking notes and doing all the accounting involved is too onerous for a volunteer community organization," said David Walsh, the Dollar's co-founder.  

Robert Costanza, an ecological economics professor at the University of Vermont, said local currencies support "buy local" programs, but he has not found any currency that has had a significant impact on a region's overall economy. "There are several examples of currencies that survive. They keep going," Costanza said. "But the question is, at what scale?"  

Costanza helped launch Burlington Bread, an alternative currency in Burlington, Vermont, ten years ago. His goal was for the bread "slices" to eventually represent at least 20 percent of the local economy. But the currency fizzled out by 2006 when the city of Burlington and other municipal institutions denied requests to help, saying the currency was too risky.

"It's a critical mass problem," Costanza said. "Until you get to critical mass, it's a boutique thing.... It functions more like a gift certificate." 

Witt said the currencies offer more than financial support. In the Berkshires, residents had become so accustomed to online purchases that they were neglecting neighborhood stores.  

"You don't just go online and use the Berkshare. You go down to Main Street stores, have a conversation with a shopkeeper, hear what it's like to do business in the community," Witt said. "It's a conversation. It's the building of citizenship. We're out of that habit. But when we re-establish the habits, we like it." 

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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