Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Growing Green 'Money' in the Green Belt

In keeping with my project to write to Nobel Peace Prize winners, below is a letter to Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt movement in Kenya that is simultaneously protecting and regenerating life nuturing forests while promoting the dignity and self determination of rural African women. I am using this project to frame the opportunity of Emissions Reduction Currency Systems in the most ambitious terms. For more down to Earth presentation and explanation see our website .

Dear Professor Maathai,

I have just finished your inspiring autobiography, Unbowed, and was many times brought to tears at the numerous great challenges you and your colleagues in the Greenbelt Movement have faced and surmounted. Your story is full of wonderful lessons in humility and determination that I will carry with me from now on in life. Thank you.

Besides thanking you, I would also like to share an idea that I feel may be of use to the Green Belt Movement in extending the role of tree planting as a cornerstone of the rural economy in Kenya. Our group in Western Australia, Maia Maia, has been developing a concept known as an Emissions Reduction Currency System (ERCS) in which a local currency system is backed by a reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Local currency systems are common in the world and are usually implemented to increase a sense of community, to keep money circulating within the local economy, and to make up for a lack of cash during economic downturns. They are typically based on hours of labour or a fixed exchange rate with the national currency. However, since they depend on local social capital their scope tends to be limited and they have historically played a minor role in the overall economy.

However, when the value of local currencies is based on activities that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere we believe something very powerful can happen. This is because such activities have amazing and unprecedented qualities:

1. They universally benefit all other living beings on the planet without discrimination;
2. They are democratically accessible – anyone can plant a tree or conserve energy, many can share in developing alternative energy sources;
3. They have a real economic value since climate change will have a huge predicted negative impact on both global and local economies;
4. They are measurable in a standardised way. The United Nations and other bodies have developed generic formulas to estimate greenhouse gas emissions or sequestration of carbon dioxide by trees based on data that is easy to collect (in most cases). I believe your ‘foresters without diplomas’ already capture some of this data.

These qualities allow the value of a local currency to have an value outside of the immediate community in which it is traded. As more and more of these systems come into being this value should increase in an organic manner over time. More information on how we envision an ERCS could be implemented can be found on our website, although I imagine many details would be different in rural Kenya than in suburban Australia.

In Unbowed I was struck by the role the introduction of a cash economy played in cementing colonial control of the economy during your father’s generation. At that time money was based on the gold standard and the British controlled the supply of gold since only a large Empire could afford a reliable supply - the mining of gold being the most energy intensive of all the metals. Similar dynamics exist in the global financial system which continues to disadvantage developing nations such as those in sub-Saharan Africa. Could a gradual introduction of a new kind of money create a future where restoring the forests of Africa as the ‘Lungs of the Earth’ becomes a dominant source of sustainable wealth for the people who live there?

In my backyard, one the first things I did upon emigrating to Australia from Alaska, and moving into a new home with my wife Nadia, was to plant the back of our quarter acre with many Native trees. Thirteen years later these shade the house and are home to many singing birds. Whenever I am unsure whether I have made any concrete impact on the world I often take solace in those trees and the peace they emanate. On finishing Unbowed I have made a vow to plant more trees.

If you or any of your colleagues in the Green Belt Movement would like to follow up regarding emissions reduction currency systems, or if there is any other way you feel we may be able to assist in your inspiring mission, we would be honoured to discuss this with you.

Warm regards,

Sam Nelson

Co-founder of The Maia Maia Project

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Social Currency?

This is an open letter to Grameen Bank and Dr. Muhammad Yunus inspired by reading his visionary book 'Creating a World Without Poverty' Having previously written a letter to another Nobel Peace Prize winner, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (see earlier post) I felt less inhibited writing this one.

Dear Dr. Yunas and the Grameen Board,

I am writing to you to share a very powerful idea our group in Australia has stumbled upon that may be of some use to the Grameen mission of helping those in poverty to liberate themselves from it.

The idea is that greenhouse gas emissions reductions and abatement have some unprecedented and amazing properties (they are measurable, have a universally recognised value, are democratically accessible, and are an indicator of good will) that make them an excellent medium to back a community run 'social currency'.

Many local currencies are in existence around the world most of which are a formalisation of a barter economy. These currencies are backed by local community social capital and historically proliferate during economic downturns when the official money supply is constricted. They tend to operate on a limited scale as the value of their currencies is dependent on relationships within tight knit communities.

The opportunity in basing a local currency on emissions reductions is that such currencies become controvertible to one another on the basis of universally shared interests and thus have a real economic value that is potentially more substantial than the national currency.

We are further proposing that the inherent value of greenhouse gas reductions can only become converted to a local currency when they are ‘donated’ to socially useful ‘projects’ and earned by project participants.

Such a social currency can be exchanged for goods and services between individuals, for discounts from social businesses, or indeed from any businesses. More details on how this might be structured are found on our website: .

Implementing such a social currency may prove useful to Grameen Bank borrowers and stakeholders in the following ways:

1. A social currency can help to pay for underfunded and vital services for impoverished communities such as education, health care, social services, water and waste treatment, etc...

2. A social currency circulating in a community will create economic efficiencies from division of labor and services that will optimise the value of national currency in that community.

3. Social currency discounts granted by social businesses such as Grameen Danone are an easy way to introduce differential pricing structures that target benefits from the businesses to the population most needing assistance.

4. The additional financial resources and efficiencies added to a community through introduction of the social currency will make it easier for microcredit lenders to pay back their loans in national currency.

5. 'Donation' of social currency collected by social business back to local community projects creates an additional avenue for social businesses to advertise their services to their target customers in a way that also directly supports those customers.

6. Social currency tends to remain in local communities rather than being pulled out of the local economy and is not subject to international currency value fluctuations.

7. Introducing an emissions reduction social currency creates a market wherein educated children of borrowers can learn environmental accounting skills to liberate the economic value of Clean Development Mechanism projects (while simultaneously creating additional incentives for those projects). This is a huge and expanding secondary services market and skills are exportable throughout Asia and to the rest of the world.

Grameen Bank is ideally constituted to introduce an emissions reduction backed social currency.

1. It has credibility and contacts with all three groups needed for a social currency to be successful - communities, families, and businesses.

2. It has the administrative structure already in place. Local Grameen branches can provide both micro-credit and social currency management services.

3. It has a large number of branches with a history of creative problem solving within which good ideas can thrive and others that aren't practical can be quietly dropped.

4. It has an immediate and local source of emission abatement in Grameen Shakti's alternative energy provision services. Grameen Shakti also has the technical capabilities to provide emissions accounting services for other local sources of emissions abatement or reduction.

5. It has the international credibility to attract 'donations' of emissions reductions from auditable corporate sources such as from Corporate Sustainability Reporting (CSR) and regulatory reporting by Danone and its subsidiaries.

Demonstrating a powerful new approach to countering greenhouse gas emissions could be a wonderful source of pride for Bangladeshis whose country is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

It is likely that an emissions reduction ‘social currency’ could be more successfully implemented in a poor country like Bangladesh where necessity can be the mother of invention, rather than in a more economically comfortable country such as Australia. Our hope is that in some years time we can be inspired by and learn from your efforts.

Please contact us if you would like to discuss this idea further or any other way in which we as a group can assist you in making poverty history.

All the best.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Triangles are the most stable geometry in the physical world. Force on any corner is redistributed over the widest possible area and all sides reinforce one another. This is why triangles are essential elements in construction going back to the Pyramids, the longest lasting human architecture still standing.

Triangles have a less favourable reputation for stability when it comes to human relationships, particularly those of the romantic variety. But in the case of The Maia Maia Project, triangles provide an extremely sturdy and durable social foundation that can provide new sources of livelihood and a sustainable economy.

The Maia Maia Project logo consists of a triangle of hands floating above the spiral of a sea shell in cross section. The sea shell represents our ideal, to build our lives and homes by removing carbon from our air and thus avoiding the sufferings of global warming. The hands are the three institutions that work together to achieve this - our schools, our families, and our businesses.

Schools are the starting place because they are our institutions with the longest view on the future, focused as they are on the education and success of the next generation. By bringing families and concerned members of the community together they provide the social glue that encourages us to stick to our pledges to reduce our emissions and thereby reward ourselves with booyas.

Our familes, by reducing emissions and receiving booyas for our efforts, naturally feel pride in our collective accomplishment and this reaffirms our commitment to our children and to their schools. This relationship, as such, does not require overt policing even though monetary value is created in the issuing of booyas. Who would want to jeopardise those good feelings, not to mention the good will extended towards our children?

When Businesses accept booyas as part of their sales, they reflect this good will back to their customers. By doing so they are developing a relationship of trust that will pay back in the form of customer loyalty. There is little incentive for them try to game the system since that would invalidate the object of the exercise.

By donating booyas back to the school and completing the cycle, the businesses are establishing long term relationships with enduring institutions in their community. By accepting the donations to use in various sustainability projects the schools are tapping into broader resources in their community, resources that are critical to expanding their educational mission in a time of constrained budgets.

The key point is that these transactions build up a triangle of social and economic relationships that are mutually beneficial, self-sustaining and thereby require minimal administrative oversight.

Compare this to the massive inefficiencies, and complex, expensive, and intrusive institutions required to prevent corruption in our national economy.

The magic of using emissions reductions as the medium of exchange is that, as measurable and universal indicators of good will and kind actions, they allow value created by these local triangles to be spent in other communities.

Linking up all these triangles through the use of Emissions Reduction Currency Systems has the potential to create an extremely durable social framework upon which to build up our communities to meet the challenges of this brave new millennium.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Looking Back Through the Bottlenecks

Assume we are in the not too distant future when our Emission Reduction Currency System is operational and growing.

In this imagined future we have had our first Annual General Meeting, adopted our Constitution, elected our officers (anyone up for the challenge of building a genuinely NEW kind of community from the ground up! WE NEED YOU!), have signed up members and distributed Booyas and they are actually being accepted as currency by other members.

HOORAY! Doesn't that feel good! We've done it!

Imagining we are already where we are headed is a part of the challenge. Otherwise all the mundane and difficult steps, each one taking time and energy and attention, that we need to take, one after the other, can make achieving a dream seem impossible.

So celebrate the vision. We have succeeded in finding a way of moving forwards. We are no longer cynical, despondent, waiting for politicians and impersonal powers to dig us out of the global environmental and energy crisis that we all have been complicit in. We are beyond all that now. We are having fun, making friends, doing meaningful work and literally "making money out of thin air" and a bit of care.

And what do we do when we are through all these inevitable bottlenecks?


Which happens to be precisely the same thing that we need to do right now.

This is a thought that one of our members, Nick, shared with me. Nick was a bit more to the point actually.

Nick has recently been successful in getting our Local Council to go along with his stalwart group of volunteers in granting land and resources for creating a community garden. We went to a council planning meeting this week and everything is going better than expected. Now they are doing whatever comes next.

On a more abstract level, Nick dropped by over the weekend and we had a lively conversation about a potential bottleneck in the Maia Maia Project currency system, one of these things on the far side of next. If we award Maia Maia groups annually for dropping below their original baselines and if businesses also contribute their emissions reductions to the system, won't the value of a Booya inevitably go down as the numbers of Booyas in the system goes up? In other words, won't we have inflation?

This is a question that has bothered me for sometime and I think Nick and I came up with a potential answer for you all to consider. Suppose the Maia Maia Project levies a surcharge, say 5%, on each Booya transaction. Some of this surcharge could 'pay' volunteers and retire the initial loans of Booyas to new members. However, after 20 transactions (for a 5% surcharge) a Booya would be removed from circulation and be stored in a Reserve account. Eventually a portion of the Reserve would be 'retired' and would be considered then as a 'permanent' reduction in emissions by the scheme. Alternatively, if there were more opportunities to spend Booyas that there were Booyas to spend, some of the Reserve could be donated back to the grants scheme to increase opportunities for folks to earn Booyas. By managing the Reserve and surcharge rates the Maia Maia Project can manage inflation and deflation in the scheme in much the same way as a Reserve Bank does in the national economy.

Hopefully this last paragraph hasn't become a bottleneck in itself for anyone.

The good news is, you are already on the other side of it :)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

ERCS and Other Mythical Beasts

I have taken the liberty of posting a document summarising all of our group's ideas which we have generated over the last two years (What is the Maia Maia Project).

The document is structured as a how-to guide for anyone else with perhaps more organisational accumen to take over. The ideas are important and revolutionary and should take on a life of their own in the right hands. Hopefully someone out there on the web can beat us to the punch and take all the credit as this could save us alot of hard work :)

Some developments that have occured by our own hands in the last 6 months are:

1. We established a coherent general concept as to the underlying value of booyas and how they fit into the community from our Camp Runamuck retreat.

2. Our ideas have consolidated into an operational system, as opposed to remaining as general concepts. Much of this is due to input from Cam Jakocevich who was previously involved in bringing alternative currency systems to Western Australia.

3. UnleashedDesign have been so kind as to volunteer their expertise in setting up our website (Soon to be released at

4. We were included in a successful grant application to local government for a community garden project. In theory the community garden will become a Maia Maia group and attempt to use booyas to attract resources.

5. We have been included in a grant application for building funds for the new library at a local Montessori school. A successful outcome of this grant would give the Maia Maia project an operational base. They have included the Maia Maia Project in their curriculum planning for next term.

6. We had a greatly fun annual dinner (albiet with a small number of attendees) at the Wild Fig last week with a rousing serenade of 'What a wonderful world' by the house jazz band accompanied by various group members on the tambourine.

7. Have made some terrific contacts with pledges of support from interesting quarters.

So slowly slowly slowly we are becoming real. The best indication of this is that we have been given a four letter academic acronym - we are now officially an ERCS (Emissions Reduction Currency System). Credit goes to Sally Paulin at the Murdoch University Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy. This was used rather casually by Sally in an email to me and I have tried to use it liberally where I can to good effect.

This idea is so much bigger than we are it is truly deserving of a bland moniker that can be used universally in studies and polices. Hopefully this only ERCS the right people :)

All for now folks - let's see where this all takes us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Letter to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Hi all - this week my little sister Katie Nelson had a rare opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama because her father-in-law is a noted scholar of Tibetan history. When I heard about this I had this impulsive idea to tell His Holiness about our project. I had been reading His Holiness's amazing book 'The Universe in a Single Atom' regarding his explorations of modern science, and it struck me that our little project might be of interest to him. I asked Katie if she could deliver it for me. She agreed and the letter was given to His Holiness's minder following their brief meeting this week!

I have included the text below as it is the most concise and evocative statement of what we are trying to accomplish that I have come up with yet.

Your Holiness,

I am writing to tell you of the efforts of my friends and I to develop an operating economic system based on care for the environment and the development of altruistic good feelings in society.

While our achievements to date have been marginal, we believe we have stumbled upon some simple concepts which have profound potential to transform basic economic behaviour from the base of society on up. Most importantly, we have formulated a way to implement these changes, starting from local schools, in a straight forward and easy to understand manner that does not depend on governments or other intervening organisations. We hope to contribute to change so urgently needed to reduce the already calamitous impact of climate change and other associated impacts of our collective modern lifestyle.

Our initiative is called ‘The Maia Maia Project’ (a Maia Maia is the local Western Australian Nyungar people’s word for ‘house’). Our diverse and dynamic core group includes a retired head of an oil company, an environmental accountant, a sustainability educator, an architect/building biologist, an upper atmosphere physicist, an ex-government official for greenhouse gas reporting, an events coordinator, a green technology enthusiast, a marketer and business analyst, a statistician, a permaculturist, a nurse, and a community organiser. Alas no economist! Working together over the past two years we have developed the following approach.

It all starts with schools. As you opined during your last visit to our city Perth, leadership on the environment begins with educating children, then educating the media, and then finally our leaders will lead! Currently there is an established effort underway in Australia and other countries to educate children regarding ecological sustainability; our work extends this learning into the local community and the businesses that service them.

To begin the process, we first attract a group of concerned students, parents, and teachers. Together we make a promise to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount. We then issue a local currency, designed by the children, the value of which is based on how many kilograms of greenhouse gases we reduced. In Western Australia we call these local notes “Booyas” (using a name suggested by a local Nyungar Elder for rock trading tokens previously used by his people).

When people and businesses exchange these “Booyas” they are recognising the kindness of each other in trying to reduce dangerous levels of greenhouse gas pollution that threaten us all equally. To allow a gradual start, businesses may accept only 1 Booya for every 9 Australian dollars and accept more as they get used to the idea. Businesses then have the option of donating the Booyas they accept (or any greenhouse gas reductions they or their suppliers achieve) to pay for various community and environmental projects. In return the businesses improve their public image which they can advertise. This virtuous circle allows a single action of reducing emissions to leverage many additional positive actions.

The economics of this process are based on three values.

Firstly, there is an immediate positive feeling that comes from performing an act of kindness for everyone in the world without discrimination through reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Especially for children there is a sense of empowerment from dealing directly with one of the biggest challenges their generation will face. The parents in our group identified this as the most important value.

The second value is an increase in community as the notes are exchanged and different parties recognise each other for their efforts. This shares the good feeling around and reinforces fragile and fragmented social bonds.

Lastly there is a very real economic value that can help people directly during these cash-strapped times. This value is actually more substantive than the values of existing national currencies. After all, "Booyas" in Western Australia can be directly and predictably exchanged with say, "Mani" from Tibet (perhaps based on non-polluting development) since they share an equivalent basis while this is not the case for other currencies. Also these currencies represent a measurable physical quantity associated with the well studied benefits arising from greenhouse gas reductions.

As your fellow Nobel Laureate Al Gore said in a public talk during his recent visit to Perth, the Chinese character for crisis is the combination of danger and opportunity, and this was his metaphor for dealing with the climate crisis. The well documented dangers of global warming (and other environmental disruptions) are immense and universal. It stands to reason that the opportunity arising must share these properties.

From this perspective, reducing the pollution in our atmosphere becomes the first and only globally recognised and identically valued economic commodity. Using a simple approach there appears to us to be the possibility for communities to access this wealth directly without the intercession of governments, corporations, and other intermediaries. But more importantly there is an opportunity for spiritual development. Those good feeling from helping others without discrimination, the result of altruism, are actually what determines the value and appeal of these currencies.

The Maia Maia Project is in its early stages, and while we have attracted a group of dedicated and accomplished people and had wide ranging discussions, we are yet to issue a single Booya. On behalf of the group I am therefore seeking your encouragement and insight to assist us in turning this dream into a reality.

My apologies for writing such a long letter given your busy schedule; I hope you have found it of interest.


Sam Nelson (Executive committee – The Maia Maia Project)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Camp Runamuck: It's all about the kids

Over two weeks have passed since our small group soaked up the cool pools of Icy Creek while the thermometer soared to 38C during our Camp Runamuck retreat at Nanga Mill camp site in the hills near Dwellingup.

Our kids, true to tradition, ran amuck, scouring the area for hidden trails and secret treasures. A big dusty hill in the center of the camp became a racing track for Tonka trucks imparting a thick film of healthy dirt over our little 'Pigpens'.

The rest of us, intermittently repressing our suburban anxieties over hidden snakes and skinned knees, had several useful conversations about the Maia Maia Project.

There was a range of understandings about what we wanted to accomplish, what booyas (our alternative currency based on achieving community targets in environmental footprint reduction) actually were, and whether they were important or not. Perhaps the single biggest insight from these discussions was that for many the possible financial benefits of a local community currency were entirely secondary to feeling that as a group we could do something about climate change. In other words, if generating and exchanging booyas helped this process that would be great, but it would be just fine if booyas only existed as an indicator of successful action.

Bryce summarised this insight for us by stating that booyas actually had three layers of value.
1. An intrinsic value without any exchange required as an indicator of community pride in doing something.
2. A social value in that any exchange of booyas would further provide social recognition of our efforts.
3. A possible economic value to be realised sometime in the future depending upon how things evolved.

People are free to engage with the Maia Maia Project on any of these three levels, and to me these three layers of value mean that booyas can be a flexible and creative tool that have the potential to evolve into something greater that what we as a group can currently conceive.

Another great idea that came up was the concept of a booya auction where families could bring unwanted possessions destined for eBay, yard sales, or the tip and hold to an auction where only booyas could be spent. This event would encourage recycling rather than consumption and would highlight the social and economic value of booyas.

But the real stars of Camp Runamuck were the kids.

They started by designing and decorating our very first batch of booyas with denominations ranging from 5 to 5000000000000. Some of the designs were superb and the older kids, 'Those Martin Girls', came up with interesting and aesthetic approaches to preventing counterfeiting.

Then, on the basis of pledges to take specific actions on global warming, the booyas were disbursed to the parents. The kids then ran tours for adults, in exchange for booyas, of all the interesting places they had found in their explorations.

Then, hunkered down in the art tent, they designed their own commemorative Camp Runamuck 2009 T-Shirts that are still worn with pride.

Finally they retired down to Icy Creek painting their faces and bodies with ocher ground up from creek bed material.

Their enthusiasm and intuitive grasp of concepts were a counter to the cynicism and sadness the subject of global warming can invoke in adult minds. The kids created an opening for optimism and, as they are the center of their parents hopes for the future, motivation to act.

What emerged from the weekend is that the Maia Maia Project is at it's heart an educational initiative, focused on empowering our kids and engendering an understanding that can heal the historical rift between economy and the environment. It is this fourth value that is at the heart of what we are attempting, and that fourth value is called 'Hope'.