I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Anyone coming to Earthaven to live — whether as a guest, an intern, a work-exchanger, or long term resident — must pay certain monthly fees. Some of those fees (for me, $45 included nominal membership, facility fee, and car fee) are payable in dollars, while others are payable in local currency called “leaps.” Each leap is worth an hour of work and is roughly equivalent to $10.
Most of us newer folks owed 16 leaps per month. I had a sheet on the wall where I recorded the work I did for the community. Occasionally, I worked for a private person and was paid in paper leaps. Both types of leaps were acceptable for fulfilling the 16 leap requirement. Falling short meant having to work more hours next month. This was my fate in the early months, when I quickly fell behind because I didn’t understand the system. Later, I usually banked extra leaps for the next month, and when I left, I cashed out with 12 leaps in my wallet. I’ll likely keep one as a souvenir, and spend or gift the rest when I visit EH again.
Apart from paying part of one’s fees to Earthaven, there is not a whole lot one can do with the leaps. Occasionally, someone will offer a service like a massage payable partly in leaps. And established members often pay newbies in leaps to work for them. Based on my conversation with one of the people at EH who helps run the system, the leaps undergird the community labor system. They are not a full-fledged alternative currency, and play a minor role in the overall economy of Earthaven. There is hope of extending this role in the years ahead. Because EH does not have a commitment to redeem all the leaps it issues, many end up languishing in people’s shoe boxes rather than circulating and doing work for the community.
How does one know what sort of work qualifies? I learned as I went. At first, the only job I knew of was clearing pathways of weeds and poison ivy. Then I began to do some clean up work at the Council Hall since I spent a fair amount of time there, and was quickly offered a leap-worthy position a couple of times a week. I drove one of the elder members shopping, made airport runs, did kid-sitting. When cold weather came, I signed up to feed the voracious Taylor stove one, then two days a week. I love playing with fire. Helping with archives and taking minutes for one of the committees added up, as did my work with the Council Hall replastering crew. Once I got the hang of it and understood what was leapable, it was a breeze. Plus I liked the feeling that I was contributing to the community every week. I began to reflect on what skills I might have that would be of use to the community and to make a list of skills I’d like to cultivate in the future in order to become a real player in the local economy.
Ho hum, you say? This is where it gets good. I’d been using leaps for 5 months when I ducked out of EH to visit family for Christmas. After getting over my astonishment tinged with consternation each time I saw unlimited hot water gush out of a wall, my brain looked for something else to do. I began wondering. What IS money? And what role can local currencies optimally play in small communities?
I wasn’t completely clueless when it came to alternative currencies. I had worked through a couple of interesting and disturbing books by Margrit Kennedy and Bernard Lietaer, but in the end, I had concluded that local currencies are a novelty and accomplish very little for all the volunteer work they entail. If they ever did get somewhere, they would be shut down by the PTB overnight. Besides, none of the explanations of what money is and how it’s created made sense. So I gave up.
Using leaps piqued my interest afresh. And having hands-on experience opened a new window of understanding. I delved into Graeber’s Debt, and Tom Greco’s New Money for Healthy Communities. I scouted the internet for others like me trying to figure things out from another angle (not the one taught in econ textbooks). Let me share a few insights.
Money is an ingenious human invention that allows us to exchange disparate goods and services with ease, asynchronously. Not only the proverbial apples for oranges, but also chickens for copper wiring, shoes for massages, and houses for train rides.
Here are folks offering bicycles, books, muffins and shoes. Without money, they’d be stuck with barter (which almost nobody ever did, points out Graeber). Instead, insert trusted IOUs.
And now the exchanges can proceed immediately. When the person who sold muffins finds the person offering copper wiring, she’ll have the IOUs all ready to pay with. The IOUs — which can range from printed pieces of paper, to metal tokens, to marks in a ledger — make the magic happen.
Whee! Then how do we create these trusted IOUs?! And do I really mean to say that “we” — any of us — can do it? Yup, that’s what I have discovered. I will describe how in a soonish post.
Money has been shaped over the course of this civilization into a vicious economic weapon. It’s a sword that cuts most of us off from access to most of the wealth of the world. So why don’t we transform this stupendous cutlass into ploughshares and pruning hooks? Becoming local money creators is the place to start. Creating money is one of the most empowering things an escapee from the prison of Babylon can do. Must do, on the way to freedom.
Doing alternative currencies enables us to deeply understand the true nature of money. Only then can we create local economies where money is used for the common good.