Starting Somewhere

Why, you may ask, are we doing this?  The individuals who've volunteered their time and talents to bring Bay Bucks to this stage of development, and our current members are an interesting group.  We share affection for Northwest Lower Michigan; enjoy the kind of life it's possible to live here among lakes and woods and villages and small towns.

Much of what's rewarding about living in Northern Michigan is being part of a community where people grow food, hunt, craft cabinets, throw pots, weave, rebuild their own engines, and organize benefits and community dinners to raise money for their neighbors' kids' medical bills. We volunteer for the local fire departments, knit socks, play in bands, forage for mushrooms, compost, buck firewood, raise pigs and sheep, dip smelt.  Some of us--and not just the hippies--are off the grid, have solar panels windmills, and working knowledge of R-values. All of the foregoing abilities, I submit, are among the makings of a durable local economy. 
Ends and Means.

There are plenty of reasons we're doing this but high on my list is helping in a small way to make this region I love more resilient in the face of the kind of troubles that befall a country that's trying to sustain itself on the root of all evil which, the apostle Paul said, is the love of money.  Money is not an end but a means.

What we need is not money per se, but a local economy with a good circulatory system, where money's flows strengthen and reinforce the economy's vital functions.

You can't eat, drink, wear, or take shelter in money.  Money is not what we need.  We need enough to eat, a warm dry place to sleep, clean water, good gear, good medicine, good teachers, good work to do. We need beauty, knowledge, and a few treats like chocolate, coffee, and a good show or a chance to dance.

It is said that to live here comfortably, you have to be rich, resourceful, or retired.  That's not unusual in a resort economy.  Most Bay Bucks members, I suspect, fall into the second category, although we want and need more elders in the mix, and affluent folks are more than welcome to belong.

Right now our economy is so big, import-based, and lacking in primary production, that we have to hire ourselves out to get scarce and increasingly flimsy federal dollars to procure our needs.  In a seasonal, second home economy, a lot of those federal dollars we spend fly south for the winter, line the pockets of Sam Walton's heirs, boost Exxon's profits, or trickle down as the pittances paid to Chinese or Indian factory workers.

Bay Bucks donít do that.  Bay Bucks can't pay for imports.  Bay Bucks can indicate opportunities for locally owned import-substituting enterprises.  Bay Bucks can do a lot to help local food production, local crafts persons and service providers.  Bay Bucks won't buy you any gas, although someday it might buy you biogas.  In the meantime, our local currency might reduce your need to spend national currency on things produced here, leaving you some federal dollars to purchase that dinosaur wine.

A Considered Opinion
Our human resourcefulness is going to be ever more important around here in coming years as we face unprecedented changes in the world and national economy, and in the region's and planet's ecology. I'm persuaded that over the coming decades we'll be making a transition to a low-energy way of life--low energy not meaning lacking in vitality, but consuming less fossil fuel.  Because the world economy, upon which we became so dependent over the previous century runs on oil and coal, and because oil demand will exceed the oil supply, which is finite, around the middle of this century, and because coal is also finite and far from being interchangeable with petroleum and natural gas, we're going to have to relocalize and democratize our economies, shorten our lines of supply, and learn how to make things again.

In the nearer term, the US economy, which is as tenuous as a house of cards--credit cards--could implode, meaning that we, like our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents may have to make it through a depression together.  If worse comes to worst, we'll be focusing on meeting the most basic needs here in the community, with a contraction in the portion of our economy devoted to imports.

I am not arguing against trade, production for export, comparative advantage, or a degree of specialization by different local economies.  There are good, mutually beneficial ways to carry these on.  Fair trade coffee is an example. We can't grow it here.  Those of us fortunate enough to afford more than the bare necessities are fortunate to be able, through fair trade, to obtain this amenity without doing great harm in the world. Bay Bucks' member Higher Grounds roastery exemplifies this good practice:  Direct relationships with growers, good prices paid to the growers' cooperatives for the beans, customer education and a healthy portion of the profits given back to finance village water systems in the producing regions. This is trade for a reason and at a scale that makes sense.  Money is being used productively, not speculatively.  When Higher Grounds and the many other public-spirited businesses in our region prosper and share their wealth in our community, we all benefit.

Urgent Opportunities
Still, we could use much more local production for local needs.  It's a long way from printing a few thousand Bay Bucks to capitalizing little factories and public transportation systems, but it's a point of entry. Bay Bucks is a participatory local initiative in reclaiming economics. In addition to being fun, and a very particular kind of supplement to the existing money flows in our area, it's hugely educational (ask any Bay Bucks board member) and a fine opportunity to get involved in growing a local economy that can endure and be more suited to the coming realities of reduced consumption and greater self-reliance.

One basic need that your Bay Bucks can pay for is food.  A handful of local growers, restaurateurs, and grocers currently accept Bay Bucks.  And what if those growers could obtain labor, soil amendments, and seed with their Bay Bucks?  What if, some day, local banks accepted Bay Bucks for mortgage interest?  Or townships were willing to accept Bay Bucks for taxes? This is one vision of how our local currency could work to reinforce the region's resilience.

To return to the problem of imports for a moment:  However horrible it is to contemplate, I could probably survive here without coffee.  I'd have a hard time living here without shoes. (Interestingly enough, Maple City in whose vicinity I live was once known as Peg Town, for its manufacture, from local maple, of shoe pegs.)  Through the miracle of economic globalization most of us wear shoes that are so cheap, they're disposable.  It doesn't make economic sense to repair them--until there's an interruption in trade, or pervasive higher energy costs drive the prices of many ordinary, taken-for-granted items beyond the reach of the resourceful and retired.

Back to The Future
Can we imagine an economy in our region where householders "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without"?  And when we can't do without, we can find someone with the skills to fix it or make another?  And when neither of those is possible, we can find local credit to begin an import-replacing business? Last I knew there was one shoemaker and one shoe repair shop in the whole Grand Traverse region. In Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties, though, there are about 333,762 feet.  If the trucks stop running or the federal dollars grow scarce, that's a market for locally owned cobbler's shops and locally produced footwear.

A community currency can illuminate opportunities for local entrepreneurship.  When retailers can't use their Bay Bucks to obtain wholesale goods locally, it may signal a potential for local production of such goods, and a teachable moment to explain to a customer why a comparable, if not identical, and maybe even more expensive locally made item is worth the price.

Upscale vs. Downhome
In the late seventies and early eighties, I lived in North Beach in San Francisco.  It was a great little neighborhood that had begun as a sort of Italian fishing village, close enough to the bay that the Ligurian and other fishers could drag their boats uphill to their homes after plying their lines and nets in those cold Pacific waters.  In the late forties and early fifties, North Beach's cafes and reasonable rents made it a haven for the Beat generation. Grant Avenue, its main street, had one of the best hardware stores I'd ever seen--Figone's--which carried everything from carpenter's tools to shiny copper zabaglione pans.  Cater-cornered was a dry goods store where you could get the basics, including quite comfortable union suits.  These neighborhood businesses were interspersed with salami factories, bakeries, mom and pop grocery stores, laundries, tailor shops, spaghetti restaurants, art galleries, and an excellent shoe repair.

For a lot of economic reasons, many having to do with real estate and too complicated to go into here, North Beach and much of San Francisco were gentrified while I lived there.  The hardware store was displaced by some kind of gift shop.  The dry goods store was replaced by a gelato store selling $3 ice cream cones. The shoe repair shop couldn't keep up with the rising rents.  Along about that time, San Francisco's alternative paper The Bay Guardian observed these kinds of shifts and in a headline asked "Will we have to drive all the way to San Jose [then still a suburb, not quite yet the total Silicon Valley boom town] to get our shoes repaired?"

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

Roll Up Yr. Sleeves!
If the pattern of gentrification and Walmartization in our and other regions is opening up serious gaps in our local and national economies such that the necessities and amenities of every day life here drift out of reach to far too many, then the place to make a different pattern is right here, the time is now, and we are the makers of the new pattern, learning from other communities and correcting our work as we go.

Bay Bucks' motto is "trustworthy tools for local exchange keeping our wealth close to home." Our real wealth is in community--women, men, young and old, skilled, enterprising creative people--and the winds, soils, woods, fields, creatures and natural processes that make this place what it is.  Bay Bucks is one among many tools that will help each and every person who wants to, to be a creative participant in a just, vibrant, enduring local economy.

By Stephanie Mills, president of the Traverse Area Community Currency Corporation. A nationally known author and longtime bioregionalist, Mills has been writing and speaking on ecology and social change since 1969.