Sunday, February 6, 2011

What’s the Big Idea? Emissions reduction currency, climate change, and us

“The way the Chinese express the concept of crisis. They use two symbols, the first of which ­ by itself ­means ‘danger’. The second, in isolation, means ‘opportunity’.“

Al Gore had come to visit our remote corner of Western Australia in 2007, and his talk started with this promising line. We are all familiar with dramatic scenes of the dangers of climate change: shrinking ice caps and calving ice, the human suffering from floods and droughts and storms, swelling seas engulfing our cities and the upward lines on graphs catapulting us back into the Jurassic. Those scenarios were the ‘danger’. I was desperate to hear the plus side. What could be the ‘opportunity’ of global warming? What exciting vision of the future might this global challenge of catastrophic proportions provide?

I was disappointed. As the talk wound down to an anticlimax, the ‘opportunity’ turned out to be a graph showing a mix of dry policy shifts mostly involving power utilities, some rather mundane technologies, swapping out light bulbs, politics as a ‘renewable resource’, and the chance to meet ‘the moral challenge of our generation’. Don’t get me wrong. I am a long-time fan of Al Gore’s and continue to be, but I couldn’t get away from the sinking feeling that the disintegrating glaciers, etc. had much more ability to command the imagination than the solutions did.

Psychologists have found that most people can only envision one future at a time and whether that future is positive or negative, will generally act in a way that will make that future become a reality. This type of self-fulfilling prophecy arising in society as a whole is known as the Synergistic Accumulative Effect. Given the options presented that night by Vice President Gore, it was clear that the dangerous vision of the future was more compelling that the alternatives.

For many years I’ve worked as an environmental accountant for large resources companies. My motivation to get into this line of work was the old maxim, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” While there have been some important wins with this approach over the years, it had been a source of frustration for me that the pace of change is not what I felt the world needs to meet the climate crisis. From this feeling grew a sense that I wanted to do something tangible in my own community and I began to discuss options with the sustainability group at my kids’ school. Perhaps I could put my professional skills to work with some kind of community carbon crediting scheme?

“Instead of carbon credits, why don’t you back a community currency with your emissions reductions?” This suggestion came from my friend John Croft, Director of the Gaia Foundation in Western Australia - a network that facilitates sustainability projects worldwide, the first being the 1992 Earth Summit. The idea intrigued me. In the same way our money used to be backed by gold, and continues to be backed by greed, was it possible to have money backed by measurable reductions in greenhouse gases and good will in our community? This approach was also more practical. From my professional experience with emissions trading I was sure that the charged politics and sluggish bureaucracy surrounding carbon credits were going to be difficult for our local Montessori school to manage. At least with this approach we could make up the rules to suit ourselves as long as we used the globally established and easy to use accounting procedures, that I was well familiar with, to determine our schools reductions.
"The real wealth of life aboard our planet is a forwardly-operative, metabolic and intellectually regenerative system." The Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969.

Buckminster Fuller was a gadfly American intellectual in the post-World War II era who is best known for inventing the geodesic dome. He was also one of the first planetary systems thinkers who would fearlessly cross any disciplinary boundary he happened upon, inventing new words to describe novel combinations of ideas. Fuller was also the first to suggest the type of currency system that my friends and I had decided to set up and had invented a whole new economics with which to back it. True wealth on a finite planet, he posited, had to use human ingenuity to capture renewable energy from the sun and tides in a way that did not compromise the natural life support systems of a “spaceship” Earth.

Could prevention of human induced global warming and associated environmental degradation be an opportunity for developing a whole new vision of what wealth is? This question followed from the idea of backing money with greenhouse gas reductions. What kind of wealth would that be? My friends and I came up with the following:

* It would be tangible wealth with a physical basis and universally accepted procedures for accounting for it;
* It would be democratically accessible wealth that anyone reducing consumption, putting up solar panels, composting waste, or planting trees could create without needing to visit a bank;
* It would be wealth with a universal economic basis, since no one will avoid the consequences of a rapidly heating and increasingly crowded planet; and
* It would be wealth that builds good-will since the atmosphere connects us all and preventing global warming is an act of kindness towards every living being on the planet;

Changing our economy to be more life-friendly and democratic would certainly be an historic opportunity arising from the crisis of Global Warming, one that could fire the imagination and impact people in an immediate way. It was an exciting time as these implications began to sink in. I wrote letters to Nobel Peace Prize winners on our blog and waited for the world to come marching to our door. Predictably, that hasn’t happened...yet.

Garry Davis, soul-sick from the experience of dropping bombs from his B-52 on the citizens of Europe, decided to announce himself a ‘Citizen of the World’ and renounce his ties to the national governments that had been the source of so much suffering. He self-declared a world government, travelled the world on his homemade world passport, and decided to put Buckminster Fuller’s idea of a solar energy-backed currency into circulation.

"We went out and finally printed our own money ‘kilowatt dollars’ and took them down to the [1992] Earth Summit and started to distribute them - it was very hot down there and we were accosted by the Brazillians who said, "Americans were rich and they were poor" - and the sun was broiling down and everybody was sweating and I said, ‘Look at that sun out there and that sun is pouring billions of 'kilowatt dollars' on your land every second’ and then I started distributing the 'kilowatt dollars'. I said I'm giving a 'kilowatt dollar' to every person ... and people just wanted them, they grabbed them, they said, ‘Oh world money - this is it.’ “

Our group, which we named Maia Maia after the local indigenous Nyungar people’s word for ‘home’, was having more trouble than Garry Davis did in inspiring enthusiasm, at least at our school. People just didn’t seem to get it, so we decided to take the idea ‘bush’ in order to flesh out the idea and think of better ways to ‘sell’ the concept. We dragged our families on a camping retreat to brainstorm our ideas. Our kids had a great time mucking about in water holes and designing their own ‘boyas’, the name for our currency taken from the Aboriginal name for rock trading tokens that may be the world’s oldest form of money. The kids seemed to accept the idea of a new way of making money, setting up trades between themselves for services rendered, but we adults were still struggling with the whole idea.

Our group was divided. One side was excited about the idea of creating a monetary reward that would motivate the community to reduce emissions. The other side felt that putting a monetary value on boyas was demeaning as they believed that boyas already had an innate value as a tangible symbol of “doing the right thing”. To them this ‘value’ was worth more than the economic value that might result from trading them. Interestingly this split occurred along gender lines.

To resolve these differences we decided to change the focus of our currency system towards extending good-will and educating the community, rather than it being an economic tool. The implications of this discussion were exciting to me as it seemed that a community currency based on emissions reduction could have an innate value even before it is traded. This would help us because we could encourage our school to issue boyas without having a system for trading them already set up.

The Rev. Hidehito Okochi of the Jōdo Shinshū Jukou-in Temple in the suburb of Edogawa, Tokyo believes that the Pure Land of Buddhism is not a destination in the hereafter, but can manifest on Earth in the present by working to make our ‘impure world’ into a Pure Land. Over the years he has involved his followers in a range of forward-thinking initiatives, including establishing the Edogawatt, the world’s first active community-based emissions reduction currency system.

Purchasers of Green Power Certificates from solar panels put up by the community, sold as part of a fundraiser for the Temple, are given 30 Edogawatt bills per certificate. Reads the Temple website, "These are currently being used among people ... as a certificate of debt or obligation in exchange for baby-sitting, carrying loads, translating and other small jobs. They have provided an incentive for creation of a mutual aid society within the community and we would like to make them a tool for deepening interpersonal relationships and trust."

Another year had passed. We had received a boost of confidence from having Maia Maia showcased alongside another similar currency, the Kiwah, on Danish television during the Copenhagen Climate Change conference. But on the home-front we were still encountering resistance to our idea.

We had not foreseen the obstacles that would arise from the strong emotions attached to both climate change and the idea of money. Harking back to our campsite talks, a major objection was the concern around teaching children to be motivated by something as impure as “money” instead of preventing climate change simply because it was the correct thing to do. Our money idea was actually a disincentive for some people wanting to reduce emissions! With some reluctance we decided to try another community other than our school to launch our currency. It was a revelation to me that negative feelings about money had proven so strong. Perhaps that Buddhist philosophy of changing the impure into the pure is one reason the Edogawatt was successfully introduced.

We decided to be creative in looking for another place to get started.


“Don't bother trying to teach people a new way to think, give them a tool the use of which will result in a new way of thinking”, Buckminster Fuller.

Solar Sister is an heroic organisation that helps provide solar lamps to African families. Their motivation arises from the need to educate women, long seen as a solution for poverty in developing nations. In more patriarchal societies, boys are allowed to study during precious free-time daylight hours while girls are committed to daily chores. Kerosene for night-time study is prohibitive for most families and so the girls face great challenges in developing literacy. Solar Sister literally provides light where there is none, through the provision of solar-powered lanterns. Their hope is that girls will then be able to participate in their education on a more equal basis. For their innovative approach Solar Sister were awarded a 2010 Clinton Global Initiative Award.

After reading about the organisation I ‘tweeted’ about them on the Maia Maia Twitter page and was delighted when Katherine Lucey, Solar Sister CEO, contacted me about using our currency system as a way to raise money for small-scale projects like hers. She presented a study showing that on average each lamp saved 550 litres of kerosene in its lifetime, which I calculated to be 13 boyas a year. Could we set up a sister school arrangement where an Australian school would raise money for solar lamps for a Ugandan school and the students from Uganda could return a gift of emissions reduction currency? If money issued by a Ugandan community could be spent in Australia that would demonstrate the exciting possibility that our local currency was also a world currency.

Neuroeconomics is the study of changes in the brain that occur during economic transactions. The results from these studies have shown that ordinary economic transactions based on money produce stress and anxiety whereas reciprocal gift giving releases endorphins and is correlated with happiness. When gift giving is one sided, as in the case of much charity, this effect does not occur. Could our currency be a tool for encouraging good feelings as we work together to solve the related threats of climate change and poverty?

This is where we are right now. We have found another school that seems excited by the prospect of entering into a Solar Sister school arrangement and introducing the boya on that basis. We are more open now to the opportunities that might come from unexpected quarters. If those opportunities result in connecting people on this small planet and widening our shared sense of humanity then our efforts have been well spent.