[permaculture] The Earth Bank

Michael Pilarski friendsofthetrees at yahoo.com
Sat Feb 20 12:50:11 EST 2010

Hello Andrew,

I have been doing research into how to run local economic systems and here is some writings and a list of books and resources at the end.  Perhaps some of this will be helpful to you, or other members of the permaculture network.

Michael Pilarski


By Michael Pilarski,  2/6/2010 version

Lately I have been studying local economic systems, historical, contemporary and evolving. What would be useful in the US at this point and into the immediate future? How do communities cope with the declining formal economy? 

Here are a few thoughts, some findings and resources.  I invite further dialog on the topic. 

Here are six types of economies.

1) Export/import economy. Buying and selling products from outside the area; working for outside employers; growing crops for export out of the area, etc. The formal economy with reported income, salaries and profits.  

2) Local economy. Providing, growing, exchanging and using local goods and services. Some is formal economy and some is informal economy.

3) Household economy. Raising children, growing your own food, building your own house, making and repairing objects, taking care of your own/family needs.  Some people have large personal economies, and others have small ones. [In some systems, my category of household economy is included in the informal sector.]

4) Informal economy. Barter, volunteerism, gifts, non-monetary exchange. 

5) Black market economy. Drugs, alcohol, weapons and sex are major components of the black market, but it can also include illegal trade in currencies and goods. Under the table. Not formally declared, mostly uses currency and is generally imported goods. Different definitions also include parts of what I would call the informal economy. 

6) Nature’s economy. This is the sum total of natural resources and nature’s processes. Rain, sun, soils, photosynthesis, atmosphere, oceans, forests, wetlands. All those things that make human life possible. This part of the economy has been, and is being, systematically degraded. Time for a change. 

All six of these economies exist in every community to one degree or another. 

Localization means that the local economy expands and becomes a more important part of the overall economy.  In a downturn economy people are forced to increase their personal economy and informal economy because they will have less money to spend on products or services by others. 

Thus I expect the latter three of the human economies to expand as the (export/import) formal economy contracts. 

As long as the current financial system is working it makes sense to focus on increasing the circulation of dollars in the local economy.  One of our permaculture principles is to keep energy in the system as long as possible and run it through as many interactions as possible before it exits the system.  How many times can a dollar exchange hands before it exits the local economy? 

Alternative currency and exchange systems are being experimented with in many places at this time and we also have lots of historical models to examine. A local currency and/or barter network can help an area have a thriving local economy even during downturns in the formal economy.

Where are the current best resource books, websites, thinkers which catalog these models of alternative currencies?  Thomas A. Greco, Jr. is one writer I recommend. Every region should have an economics study group which looks through the models to help design an appropriate version for their local situation.  

Mutual Credit Clearing Exchanges - best thing since sliced bread. 

I have been on the search for the holy grail of how do we run local economies when the dollar has gone bust. Thomas H. Greco, Jr’s. newest book (2009) has got the best ideas I have seen.  In particular his description of mutual credit clearing exchanges. Anyone seriously interested in this should read his book “The End of Money and the Future of Civilization. Here are a few of my interpretations of how it might work.

A local currency is set up.  The local currency is entered into circulation by producers.  The currency is based on local production and services.  It can be spent at the participating producers or local businesses and individuals who will accept it. This money can circulate in the local economy and enables buying and selling even when dollars are scarce. 
“As a member of a mutual credit clearing exchange, a business can have an interest-free line of credit, it will be able to acquire the things it needs without the use of cash, and (because it accepts payment in the form of exchange credit) will be a preferred source of supply for others who are members of the exchange.” Greco. 

People who use the exchange have to balance their accounts. The more they sell the more they can spend. Productivity and resources are what is valued in this system. You don’t actually have to exchange money tokens or actual goods. It is basically like a checking account. 

“In allocating lines of credit, it is important to allocate the greatest share of credit to “trusted issuers: - i.e. those that are well established, financially sound, and whose products and services are in greatest demand within the local region.

This is the key to maintaining a rapid circulation of credits through the system, avoiding defaults, and preventing the excessive accumulation of credits in the hands of businesses that cannot easily spend them.  In brief, the businesses that you wish to have accept community credits in payment are the ones that should be issuing them in the first place.  By beginning with ‘trusted issuers’ the value and usefulness of the community credits is quickly demonstrated beyond any doubt.  As the process gains credibility and general acceptance in the community, more businesses and individuals will want to join the credit clearing exchange; as each member develops a trading history they too can earn an overdraft privilege commensurate with their volume of sales within the system.” Greco

Greco points out that the current economic crisis is prompting lots of experimentation with new economic systems worldwide.  

Greco is one of those people who is reporting on these emerging new economic experiments.  We can benefit from their research.  

The need for local economic systems is becoming more and more acute as unemployment grows. Official unemployment is 10% but it is most certainly closer to 20% and going up.  Some of these people are still getting government payments, but less and less of them are.  These people are ready for a local economy since the formal economy won’t let them in. 

 How many people in the US are currently getting a government check? 
The total government workforce in the US (federal, state, county, city, etc) is about 20% of employment. What if the governments went bankrupt and laid off  half of their payroll? A lot of those people would be ready for a local economy.  

How many people receive government checks for social security, veterans, welfare, disabled, etc?  Another 20%?  What if the governments went bankrupt and stopped sending checks?  A lot of those people would be ready for a local economy.  

What if the economy was in such a shambles that exporters have a hard time selling products and local stores have a hard time obtaining goods?  What if tourism fell through the floor?  More people ready for a local economy.  

We don’t know what scenario is going to happen with the US and world economy.
1) We climb out of the recession soon and the good old days return. Business as usual. 
2. Long term recession. 
3. Long term depression. 
4. Wide-scale collapse, soon. 
The best thing is to implement strategies that will be useful no matter which of the scenarios happens. 


Barter is usually an exchange of goods between individuals. Money doesn’t exchange hands, goods (or services) do. Ideally, both individuals feel like they got a good deal.  
Barter has always been an important economic activity after fiat currencies fail. Today there are sophisticated barter systems serving businesses via the internet.  

Barter takes many forms.  Single barters such as two farmers trading manure for gravel.  A beautitian trades a hairdo for a basket.  

Barter events take place at various scales.  Small flea markets based on barter. Big, regional barter fairs with 10,000 people.  Argentina has one of the biggest barter movements in recent history.  When the Argentine currency collapsed in 2001 there were a few barter fairs. One year after currency collapse there were 3,000 barter fairs in the county.  These gradually withered away as the economy improved, but recently there has been a new upsurge of participants, partly because of the economy and partly because people like the cultural experience of face to face exchange.  

Here is a statement about the cultural aspect of economic exchange by Stacy Mitchell. “This brings me to a theory I have about the growth of farmers markets. The conventional explanation is that people are rediscovering local food. That's certainly true. But I think people are as hungry for the community experience as they are for the fresh broccoli. Several years ago, a group of sociologists from the University of California-Davis followed people around as they shopped in a supermarket. They found that your chances of having a conversation with another shopper are about 1 in 10. They then tracked people at farmers markets and found that your odds of having a conversation in this setting are nearly 70 percent.” A New Deal for Local Economies. Author:  Stacy Mitchell.

In the event of a further economic downturn, I would recommend that towns, cities, and localities have a weekly or monthly barter fair., along with a larger, regional fall barter fair to celebrate and exchange the fall harvest.  

I am interested in how a strong local economy would allow for full employment and increase natural resources and productive capacity.  

For instance, how many people would it take to stop or reduce erosion on all the local watersheds?  This has the economic benefits of stopping/minimizing flood damages as well as obtaining greater productivity from the floodplains and areas of land treated. 

How many people would it take to bring local forests back up to a higher degree of productivity by thinning forests, doing forest care, tree planting, etc. This has short-term and long-term payback.

How many people would it take to do wetland restoration work?  This can have paybacks of reduced floods, cleaner waters, more irrigation water, and evening out seasonal streamflows. 

How many people would it take to do grassland restoration?  This has paybacks in greater forage production for wildlife and livestock, reduced erosion and improved soils.  

How many people would it take to plant and maintain windbreaks, shelterbelts and hedgerows where they would save on heating/cooling bills, shelter livestock with increased weight gains, reduce drifting snow on roadways, etc?

These types of ecological restoration work create new resources, conserve current resources and perform many useful functions for society as a whole.  Any sensible business manager knows you can’t run your productive assets into the ground.  That is what we have been doing with our natural resources.  Society needs to invest in increasing our natural resource base.  How can this be accomodated in new economic systems? I contend that in a thriving local economy a portion of the production could go to help support the people who do the natural resource restoration work.  This is a form of internal taxation. This can include things like housing, food, locally-produced materials and services.  Some of the work can be done by volunteers.  Some can be done by landowners and/or their hired help with or without public subsidies.  

How can welfare for aged, ill, orphaned, handicapped people, etc be handled at a local level? Taxes are collected locally, sent to Washington DC or state capitals and then a portion comes back in welfare programs.  Can local taxes stay local and be dispersed by the will of the local populace to meet welfare needs? Strong family and community ties enable a greater degree of local care.  Full employment being a goal in that everyone is encouraged and enabled to be a productive member of society. 

At this time of growing unemployment some people are willing to take almost any kind of job, no matter how inane, hazardous to their health or unethical.  But the formal economy is shedding jobs by the bucketful.  I predict that the government sector will start laying off workers by the bucketful later in 2010.  

Local communities will be forced to come up with ways to productively employ the large masses of unemployed people who will still desire to eat, be housed and have their basic needs met.  They shouldn’t be given make-work jobs.  The work has to produce something useful for society.  The US at this time has way too many consumers in proportion to producers. Gardening and producing food will be major pastimes.  Local crafts, and small-scale production of goods will be more important than imported goods.  Natural resource restoration will be a major productive job category for several generations.  Repairing and restoring houses and the building inventory will take several generations as well.  Reconstruction of slums, brownfields and derelict areas will also take several generations.  Preventative and natural health care is needed on a big scale for several generations to heal the accumulated affects of the toxic world so many people have been
 living in. 

It is myopic to say there are no jobs, when so much work is screaming to be done all around us.  The productive work needing to be done is in front of us.  The ranks of the unemployed swell around us.  In permaculture we say the problem is the solution. The connections are waiting to be made. It may come in the form of local economies or perhaps in the form of mass movements.  

How is education going to function in the future?  Federal and state funding for education is shrinking. Many state governments are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The federal government is bankrupt for all intents and purposes but is relying on printing fiat currency at incredible rates as long as other countries will continue to take it.  This does not inspire funding confidence for schools and other public good. 

In 2008 and 2009 we heard lots of international talk about nations around the world trying to decouple themselves from the sinking US economy.  In a sense, local economies should be trying to decouple from the formal US economy. People and localities need to work at decoupling themselves from the globalized economy.  And create new vibrant local economies that meet the needs of people and the environment.  

What will these new, vibrant, local economies look like?  Following are some books and resources that are addressing this question.  Please send in your favorites to add to this list.  

- Michael Pilarski,  michael at friendsofthetrees.net

The following thoughts are correspondence from Kristi Laguzza Boosman on this topic.  

“These economies would all likely function within a larger economic system or model.  In my research, I have identified 4 major schools of thought on a possible economic model:

            #1 Fixing our current free market system to make if function in a healthier and more sustainable fashion

            #2 Use capitalistic criteria to create valuation for other forms of capital such as human and environmental to include in exchange calculations of this revised system (i.e.; ecological economics).

            #3 Move to supporting healthy, local economies that have alternative parallel systems to the larger system (Transition Towns).

            #4 Scrap the old system entirely by dismantling its institutions and building brand new ones focused on sustainable local economies (Korten’s “New Economy” agenda).

One thing the Obama Administration will likely need to do, given that I think our economy is going to level out at about a constant 20% unemployment rate, is to institute a jobs program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.  It would mean closing out our wars and bringing the military home to run it (as was done the first time) and using those funds to pay unemployed workers to rebuild our crumbling human and environmental infrastructures.  As you point out, there is plenty of work to be done.  Unfortunately, what I see with the current trajectory is that we are entering a period where governments (local, state and federal) will not have the funds to maintain the institutions required of a civil society unless something changes.  That “something” as I see it, would be a highly progressive tax rate that fairly taxes corporations (50% of which now pay no taxes at all) and the wealthiest members of our society their proportional
 share of maintaining these institutions we all rely on.  Oregon just passed, by wide margin, an institutive to do just that.  We also will not be able to afford to continue our current wars or world wide policing.  These would all be excellent changes, though my instincts tell me things will need to get considerably worse before our national leaders agree to these changes….And they will get worse.  Which is a good argument for what we want to do in terns of creating more self sufficiency and decoupling ourselves, to a fair extent, from the larger economy.” Kristi Laguzza Boosman.

ECONOMICS BOOKS: Here is a list of economics books currently in my library.  

* The End of Money and the Future of Civilization. Thomas H. Greco, Jr., 2009, Chelsea Green Pub. 268 pages. About 100 sources are cited. Greco is one of the best experts on the topic of people-centered economic systems and this is his latest synthesis. Chapter 18 is on Organizational Forms and Structures for Local Self-Determination and Complementary Exchange. Two examples studied are the Balinese Banjar governance structure and Spain’s Mondragon Cooperatives. He outlines credit clearing exchanges and mutual companies. 

* Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender. Thomas H. Greco, Jr., 2001, Chelsea Green Pub. 295 pages. Local currencies and community exchange systems.  One of the more thorough explorations.  

* Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World is Possible. John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander, Editors, 2004, 2nd edition. 408 pages. A Report of the International Forum on Globalization. 
This series of writings is on the more radical end of the spectrum of the books presented here. It is much more from the viewpoint of The Global South. It isn’t so much about tinkering with money systems as it is about tinkering with the power structure of societies.   It includes writers such as Vandana Shiva, David Korten, Walden Bello and Helena Norberg-Hodge.  The book has an extensive resources section which reviews about 100 organizations. Over 200 sources are cited.  

* Direct Pointing to Real Wealth. Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Money.  2000, fifth edition. 186 pages. HOPS Press, 12 Quartz St., Pony, Montana 59747. $19.95. www.hollowtop.com
A very thought-provoking book.  I haven’t read it yet, but a brief glance indicates it may be one of the closest stabs I have seen at looking at economics in real calories and not in currency.  Elpel’s book is written for the individual person and family. A guide to how to live a better life with less need for currency.  There is an 84-book bibliography. 
* Slow Money. The long title is “Inquiries into the nature of Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered. By Woody Tasch. Foreword by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International”. 2008. Chelsea Green Pub. 204 pages.
A most excellent development to divert some of the flow of investment capital to the needs of small farmers (and perhaps ecological restoration?). It currently depends on the smooth functioning of international finance systems and value of the dollar to do business. 
I expect that Slow Money will be incorporating some of the latest and well-thought out strategies to avoid the pitfalls of the past, so they bear close watching.  I wonder what fallback plans they have to continue operation in the event of a US dollar collapse?

* Small is Possible: Life in a local economy. Lyle Estill. 2008. New Society Pub. 226 pages.  Setting up self-reliant local economies.  

* Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front. Sharon Astyk. 2008, New Society Pub, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada. 271 pages. A grass-roots, do it yourself, permaculture manual for adapting to a failing formal economy. Appendix one is a long list of practical personal steps you can do. There is an annotated bibliography of books on many practical topics. 

* Ripples from the Zambezi. Ernesto Sirolli. 1999, New Society Pub., 151 pages. Describes Sirolli’s learning from 30 years of economic development in Africa, Australia and North America. Local entrepeneurship, locally-controlled, people-centered economic diversity. Includes a bibliography.

* Depression 2.0: Creative Strategies for Tough Economic Times. Cletus Nelson. 2009. Process Media, Port Townsend, WA. www.processmediainc.com 207 pages. This is a survival guide rather than an examination of financial systems. 

* Living Above the Store: Building a Business that creates value, inspires change, and restores land and community. Martin MeLaver. 2009, Chelsea Green Pub., 317 pages. The citations and bibliography sections list hundreds of books. How to set up ecological, useful businesses. 

Some books not currently in my library, but recommended.

Two books recommended by Kristi Laguzza-Boosman.

* Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. by David Korten. He outlines an agenda to create a new economy-- locally based, community oriented, and devoted to creating a better life for all, not simply increasing profits. Korten has written other books on the conomic paradigm shift. www.davidkorten.org

* Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. by Bill McKibben. Henry Holt, 2007. www.billmckibben.com/
Korten is more focused on global systems while McKibben looks towards local movements but they have much in common.

* Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy by Peter G. Brown. 2009. In Right Relationship, Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver use the core Quaker principle of "right relationship"--respecting the integrity, resilience, and beauty of human and natural communities--as the foundation for a new economic model.

Fourth Corner Exchange is a Sustainable Community Currency based in the Pacific Northwest USA, which operates throughout the USA and the world. Currently we have over eight-hundred participating members, with branches in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, California in the USA and other local chapters in Canada and Sweden. Founded by Francis Ayley and a small group of friends in 2002, Fourth Corner Exchange formally started trading in January 2004. From those small beginnings we have grown to over eight-hundred members, exchanging a large selection of goods & services throughout the Pacific Northwest, centered around Bellingham and Port Townsend. Our vision: A world of economic freedom and justice for all, where all communities have access to a fair and equitable universal medium of exchange, issued by the people in sufficiency to meet their own needs and the needs of their communities.

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 9, 2009 (IPS/IFEJ) - In May, the bartering system will celebrate 14 years of new life in Argentina. After a peak in this form of trade following the country’s late 2001 economic collapse, today it has a lower profile, though it involves tens of thousands of people around the country. But despite its survival, economists question its long-term viability.

Some 500 barter clubs operate in Argentina. And although the number of people involved today is far below the three million people who sought support in bartering in 2002, spokespersons say there are twice as many people in the clubs now as there were last year.

In the clubs, people exchange clothing, school supplies, homemade food, household repair jobs in carpentry, bricklaying and electrical work, medical and dental services, tutoring and tourism, among other goods and services.

Organisers have seen a 50 percent rise in the number of barterers over the last year or so, coinciding with the beginning of a feeling of economic uncertainty linked to the conflict between the government and farmers over a hike in export taxes. From http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46452

The following is from the website: http://www.appropriate-economics.org/latin/argentina/redglobal.html


In a Region where urban poverty increased more than in any other in the planet, in the last decade, this social laboratory could show us that barters:
* contributes to immediate satisfaction of needs in different social sectors;
* allows the reconstruction of social tissue inside the Nodes or Clubs;
* recovers and develop vulnerable people's self esteem;
* gives back the potential of producer/consumer lost in the project of social exclusion from the last decade;
* allows a permanent development of creativity, sometimes in the very opportunity of "fairs", when we practice the Exchange of Knowledge;
* allows a gradual process of re-design of career and job search for the "prosumers";
* tends to the self-regulation of offers and requests in every Club or Node;
* gives back local government and the small scale to the level of familiar life;
* reinforces the inclusion of different social actors gathered by their specific interest;
* develops small enterprises that solve the critical issue of any enterprise: the need for a stable market;
* reinvents a new market, complementary to the old one and not alternative to it.
* Finally, we believe barter is an effective tool to rebuild the market, when it allows us to re-shuffle cards to build democratic life with equity and solidarity instead of competition and exclusion. What means to build a new social game.

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