Although the coronavirus brought agony to many, some of us have seen dancing in the streets, heard singing on balconies, or know people who have benefited from new food banks. The Lockdown has taught us that birdsong and the right to breathe clean air are beyond price. Although not all politicians and journalists may be ready for a big Switch there is a sweet smell of change in the air and many are ready for new ways of thinking.
While many house-trained economists are still insisting that the world owes itself 250 trillion dollars, the recent pandemic has brought fresh economic insights. Just as monkeys use grooming as a social lubricant, so humans in Lockdown found that exchanging pictures of kittens brings a mutual release of endorphins in the brain. More seriously, perhaps, we discovered that care, courage and kindness are profoundly disconnected from unit-based money. Of course, nurses need better shelter and food, but you can’t buy love.
As the chasm between love and money grew too big to overlook, we re-purposed collective applause as a currency of care.
Amidst the tragedies, governments decided to do things that were impossible. In the USA they are de-funding police forces and in the UK they are finding homes for street sleepers. Setting negative interest rates was a surprising way to discourage usury. Perhaps because food rationing can improve a nation’s health, some politicians experimented with wartime rhetoric. Maybe this will lead to land re-allocation, local permaculture experiments, self-build housing, thermal insulation and renewable energy schemes.
We could start by earmarking local parks for food growing, community recreation and biodiversity.
Of course, visions like this are unlikely to impress big money, unless they can be monetised and rolled out beyond their scale of usefulness. It is clear that hidden, vested interests are behind the populism that promises simple truths and machissmo. We have learned that ‘strong’ leaders hate to acknowledge the power of a virus, perhaps for the same reason that they refuse to kneel to the memory of George Floyd. Apparently, for those sad, sinister creatures seeking to ‘game’ the system via big data and big money, humility is not a good look.
I always thought that King Canute’s attempt to turn back the tide was an allegory of bravado and self-deception. I was wrong. Apparently, it was a humble demonstration of the limits of mortal powers. It is interesting that Trump, Putin, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, were all, in different ways, humbled by Covid-19. Bolsonaro’s popularity waned after he advised followers to “confront it like a man, not a boy!”; and Trump lost support after refusing to wear a face mask in public. More poignantly, Johnson’s decision to shake hands with just about anybody he encountered on a hospital walkabout may well have secured his return to an intensive care unit.
We often identify bigotry with xenophobia and racism, but the pandemic has associated it with other denials of complexity. Where Mr Trump blamed the Chinese government, other reductionists blamed bats for Covid-19. Surprisingly, one in five mammal population are members of the bat family and their immune systems can cope with thousands of pathogens that can kill humans.
The Corona virus has lived alongside us for fifty million years yet, until the recent Sars, Swine flu, and Covid-19 outbreaks, we had surprisingly few pandemics in the last century. One factor is overpopulation. As human populations increase, we encroach on wildlife habitats, then exploit new food sources.
Our newly acquired taste for exotic game has introduced us to the pathogens for which our immune systems are ill-prepared.
Ideally, an economy of care must embrace complexities that are beyond the capacity of a unitbased system. Although ‘big money’ is still the sharpest tool in the drawer, it is also the most dangerous.
Let us think of this as we co-create the ‘caring economy’. Perhaps the new currencies could be more closely attuned to living systems and how they cope with the current extinctions and climatic changes. In this regard, they might function as local maps of values, rather than ledgers of quantity.
This represents a radical and fundamental change to what we have normalised as an essential property of money. The Switch is necessary because of the way our monkey brains are wired. The global popularity of the Monopoly board game gives a clue as to why ‘big money’ will always create addicts. Just as the dopamine secretions in the brain are indicators of addictive activity, so, we may presume, they also apply to insatiable habits of acquisition, such as currency speculation or derivatives trading.
By making local communities more synergistic and resilient we might soon ditch our obsession with GDP.
Local currencies can be expected to emerge from grass roots enterprises and their particular idiosyncracies. In order to avoid a dependency upon industrialised farming and rapid mobility we would need to cultivate local diversities-of-diversities.
Unit-based ‘money’ was intended as a supertool for imperial expansion. Over the ensuing five thousand years, it has helped Homo sapiens to achieve great things. However, by facilitating the over-scaling of our global infrastructures it has also allowed a few hollow men to hold the world to ransom. Big money has shaped the Anthropocene and is leading us to extinction.
On the other hand, the time for a circular, ‘pay-it-forward’ economy has arrived.
The Sun will shine for another four, or five billion years so, if big money will allow it, we can leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Building local resilience and self-reliance will reduce the need for unit-based currencies. ‘Care Currencies’ would be cheaper and more rewarding, intrinsically, than big money and they would permit us to Switch from unit-based currencies to a hyper-diverse, synergistic economy of well-being and fun.