The Great Lakes Commons project has embarked upon an ingenious campaign to reimagine money, value and water protection by issuing its own time-limited “Currency of Care.” The bills are not likely to be used for commercial transactions.  In a way, that is the point – to spark a new conversation about money, value, community and the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Commons is inviting people to give a Currency of Care note as a thank-you to people who have done something to protect the Great Lakes in big or small ways.  Or you can give notes to people as a request that they do something to protect the lakes in the future.  Paul Baines, an organizer of the project, notes:

“Each note represents the act of giving gratitude or requesting action. Each note carries the most precious value: acts of thanks and care for the Great Lakes. Rather than based on dollars, the value of these notes is our collective agreement and intention to reward people for their water protection through past actions (saying ‘thanks’) or future actions (saying ‘please’).  Because our current money systems only acknowledge economic utility and gain, our Great Lakes Commons currency needs a wildly different theory of value — such as past/future actions for water care.”

More than 5,000 individually numbered bills have been distributed, all of them due to expire at end of year.  Why the expiration date?  Because “this currency is for sharing not saving,” the currency webpage explains.  “The value of this currency comes through its use — its current.  The rules of today’s dollar system rationalize hoarding and controlling money to make more money.  The needs of healthy people and living water are denied not because there isn’t enough money in the world, but because it makes ‘sense’ to accumulate/hoard more and to spend it otherwise.”

The issuers of the Currency of Care make the point that “money is not just a medium of exchange, but a disciplinary force on what we value, the story of a meaningful life, and our position within this story.”  The point of the currency project is to promote a new vision of money and value:

“We need a new story for money and a new currency can help us tell it.  Right now our money commodifies time, ideas, muscle, relationships, and all of creation in order to create more money.  But what if the value of money was based on caring for water?….

“There is no money to be made protecting water as the source of life.  Financing Great Lakes care today comes through either altruistic charity or legislated compensation.  Water restoration costs are a fractional expense for a pollution-based economic system.  Advocating for a friendlier version of the current system denies its core impulses and interests.  Let’s be honest — degrading the living earth makes obscene amounts of money and defines our current story about ‘progress.’”

Inaugurating an actual, tradeable currency that asserts its own type of value and creates new circuits of value is, of course, a very complicated enterprise.  Just ask the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which has successfully developed the BerkShares currency in western Massachusetts.

The Currency of Care should not be mistaken for such a project.  It is more of a performance art project and public-education campaign that asks us to think about reconnecting money’s value with our values.  It asks us base the value of currency on things that really matter, such as the integrity of the Great Lakes as an ecosystem.

To promote new stories of value, the project invites people who receive or give the notes to share their stories on the Great Lakes Commons online map. People are asked to share:  “What was it like getting and sharing the notes? What kinds of conversations did it spark?  What types of past/future actions did people reward?  Where did their note go or where did it come from?”

One supporter of the Great Lakes Charter Declaration, Steve Edgier, gave his notes to activists who are protecting the Great Lakes from stormwater runoff and monitoring for sewage discharges.  Another person gave a Currency of Care to the Marquette Poets Circle for their work in “tending poetry and community along the wild shore of Lake Superior.”

Since its inception several years ago, Great Lakes Commons has done great work in helping people to express and imagine relationships of care to those much-abused bodies of water. Here’s hoping that the Currency of Care widens the circle of engagement.

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