Slow Money: Rethinking Local Commerce
[Editor’s note: While at first glance this may appear to be specific to the southern Berkshires of Massachusetts, I believe the principles are quite universal, and the writing is beautiful. I’ve been an admirer both of Schumacher, whom I discovered in the 1970s, and the society that carries out his work, for quite some time. In fact, the E. F. Schumacher Society and the BerkSahres project are mentioned in my latest book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green
“Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are
the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
–Jane Jacobs from “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
One of the features of BerkShares, the local currency circulating in the
Southern Berkshire region of Massachusetts, is that it fosters this wealth
of sidewalk contacts (www.berkshares.org).
Use of BerkShares, a paper currency, requires face to face economic
exchange. The citizen/buyer must meet the merchant/owner and enter into
conversation about the item purchased. In the course of these multiple
transactions an understanding begins to grow of the nature of the business,
how it fits in the streetscape of the town, the working conditions of its
employees, availability of locally made goods, the impact of new
regulations, the necessity to respond to the changing tastes of consumers,
the hurdles to prosperity, the many roles the merchant plays in the
community as volunteer ambulance squad member, school board official,
community theater player.
When purchasing directly from a producer with BerkShares the information
shared may be even more deeply sourced in the local landscape. You may
learn how to detect the first signs of a blighted maple tree plaguing the
maple syrup industry, or learn how heavy spring rains kept bees from
pollinating the apples blossoms, resulting in fewer apples to market.
BerkShares are a “slow money” to borrow a term coined by Woody Tasch. It
takes more time to process a transaction, time for graciousness, time for
building connection with community of place.
“Inconvenient,” some will say. Yes, when compared to the hastiness and
anonymity of an internet purchase. But rich with information needed for
conducting public life. A democracy only thrives when its citizens are
informed and engaged by public issues.
Slow money is not sleepy money but awake to the flow of economic life
pulsing through a region, shaping its future, providing warning signs and
creating options for public policy and private initiative. Perhaps the
greatest task of concerned citizens in the twenty-first century is to
reclaim responsibility for the consequences of our economic
transactions–personally, institutionally, and in public spending. Slow
money is the start of this process.
The function of money is to serve as an abstraction for real economic
exchange. This is both its flaw and its almost mystical power.
If we did not have the tool of money, we would be we left with direct
barter, limited to what we could trade at a particular place and
time–carrots for cordwood. Without the carrots I could not acquire the
cordwood. Money stands for a value created at a different time, stored, and
used to exchange for goods needed in the present time. Money allows values
to be collected together and applied to an entirely new type of venture in
the future. This accumulation allows the entrepreneur to organize human
initiative and raw materials and create some before-unrealized product for
healing the sick, producing energy, transporting goods. Quite wonderful.
However this tendency in money to abstract actual exchange can rapidly
escalate unchecked, so that ultimately money begets money through sheer
movement of capital. The living consequences of the working of capital–the
conditions of laborers, the processes used in manufacturing, the effect on
eco-systems to obtain raw materials, the fossil fuels used in transportation
of goods to consumers, the pockets of accumulation–all tend to be obscured.
Our private discussion and public debate accordingly narrows to cost of
goods and return on investment–shaping personal habits of consumption and
public policy that drive a global economic system unimpeded by
environmental, social, or cultural concerns.
Slow money again makes us conscious of the impact of our economic
transactions–not just as purchasers, but as tax-payers, investors, and
Last December BerkShares, Inc. took out a full page ad in a local paper
listing the seventy-one non-profit organizations that would accept year-end
donations in BerkShares. These ranged from the volunteer fire department,
to arts groups, to social service agencies, to the plethora of environmental
organizations in the Berkshires. By accepting BerkShares, these groups were
committing to re-circulate the BerkShares back in the community by
purchasing needed goods and services locally.
A woman in the area, known for her generous support of many different
initiatives, called to ask exactly how would someone make a donation in
BerkShares. We explained that you would walk or drive to the project’s
office, call staff together, look them directly in the eyes, tell them what
important work they were doing for the community, explain that you wished to
thank them for this good work, and hand them an envelope with a big stack of
BerkShares. To calculate the tax value of your gift, you would use the
BerkShares exchange rate with federal dollars–10 BerkShares equals $9.50.
Such direct acknowledgement of good work exponentially increases the value
of the gift by inspiring staff. Slower, yes. It would take more time to
deliver the BerkShares in person than to simply write a check.
Inconvenient, yes. In the short run that is, or so it seems.
I recall the wonderful scene in “The Little Prince” by Antoine de
Saint-Exupéry in which the prince encounters a salesman extolling the
benefits of a pill to quench thirst. The salesman explains that by not
having to collect water for drinking, people will have more time to do other
things. The prince responds by saying that if he had more time there is
nothing he would rather do then locate a well from which to draw water to
quench his thirst.
As residents of the Southern Berkshires shift to trade in slow money, they
are at the same time re-imagining their local economy. It is fair to say
that everyone in the Southern Berkshires knows what BerkShares are-that they
are in fact a currency that can be spent only in the region. And it is fair
to say that at least fifty percent of the people in the Southern Berkshires
have already engaged in long conversations about BerkShares in coffee shops
and other “sidewalk contacts.” BerkShares have ignited a community
discussion about local businesses and their problems, about local trade and
the reasons for it, about the economic role of non-profits, about local
currencies in general and their importance, about the role of local banks,
about establishing import-replacement business, about economic sovereignty,
about changing deeply engrained financial habits, and about a sustainable
These small/slow exchanges are balancing the abstract tendency of money by
reconnecting financial transactions with the people, culture, and landscape
of a particular place, while at the same time building the community wealth
which is the foundation for a newly imagined economic system.
As the year comes to a close, consider the staff members of your favorite
organizations and take time to acknowledge their good work.
Like other non profits, the E. F. Schumacher Society welcomes financial
support of its programs. Your tax-deductible donations in BerkShares or
federal dollars may be delivered or mailed to:
E. F. Schumacher Society
140 Jug End Road
Great Barrington, MA 01230
Or made online by credit card at:
Best wishes for the New Year,
Susan Witt, Sarah Hearn, Stefan Apse, and Kate Poole
Staff of the E. F. Schumacher Society
Board of Directors: Gar Alperovitz, Jessica Brackman, Neva Goodwin,
Hildegarde Hannum, Eric Harris-Braun, Dan Levinson, Constance Packard, Will
Raap, Gus Speth, Joseph Stanislaw, and Stewart Wallis.