Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pretend Money

I paid for something with Lewes Pounds the other day. Not particularly noteworthy you’d think but actually it was the first time in the two years of its existence that I’d ever been asked for, or offered, the local lucre. To be honest I’d begun to wonder if it was still on the go (though now I come to think of it there is  still a rather forlorn looking stall at the Farmer’s market). However, Comedy at the Con (I highly recommend it) were offering 3 quid off the headline price so it seemed worth a trip to the Town Hall to buy some... Well is there a slang for Lewes Pounds? Given the absence of even a nickname as a marker of public consciousness I can’t help but wonder: what is the trouble with pretend money?

The arguments for the Pound are economic and environmental. The economic argument is that the money can only be spent locally thereby supporting local businesses who participate in the scheme. There are all sorts of questions posed by this and the evidence for such complementary currencies is not encouraging. It suggests that they have their best chance of catching on when physical money is scarce and large numbers of people really need a substitute. The Con Club, and anyone who offers a similar promotion, clearly can’t go on taking a hit forever so at some point meaningful use of local money comes down to a matter of whether enough people can be arsed with the extra hassle or not. The continuing novelty status of the LP suggests that most people can’t.  Local traders are really up against it when competing with big boys as the costs of core commodities costs can be kept lower due to economies of scale. There isn’t really any evidence that local currencies can do anything to challenge this trend.

It’s on the environmental arguments though that local currencies really become confused. The assumption is that keeping trade local will help the environment through reduced carbon emissions.  Alas this is not a straightforward case to make.  Sure, people walk to local shops but they also drive to them. Supermarkets often mean you have to drive, but then larger loads can mean fewer trips.  And since when do local traders have to stock local goods? Even corner shops have a global inventory.

It’s also worth considering if “locavorism” is quite as virtuous as all that. As well as being increasingly ripe for parody, a closer look suggests it offers no guarantees of reduced carbon footprints.  A vague notion of “localness” as a tool to combat environmental difficulties seems simplistic at best.

Clearly modern environmental problems are enormous and most of us may struggle to come up with a meaningful response. Initiatives like  the Lewes Pound  may have more piety value than practical effect. Of course, for as long as there are people willing put it out there the LP might possibly serve as another reminder of the crisis we’re in. Perhaps the trouble is though that it doesn’t do anything else.

John McGowan, 3rd Feb, 2011

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