“We Don’t Want Hippy Money”: Contradiction and Exchange in a Local Currency System
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Local currencies are non-governmental monetary systems created to address particular economic, political, or social problems within a specific geographic area. They have a long history, exist in various forms, and have grown in popularity since the 1980s. Most recently they have been promoted as a strategy for economic localization and de-growth, preparing for climate change, and reducing social inequity. This ethnographic project draws on field study of various local currencies in British Columbia, Canada in 2012, focusing on the Columbia Basin Community Dollars system in Nelson. It considers local currencies’ capacity to spur social change by focusing on the subjective experience of using them. Despite Nelson seeming an ideal site for a successful local currency, Community Dollars were not widely adopted. In considering why, I detail Community Dollars’ development, the research context and its history, and the complicated Community Way currency model employed. The most significant issue in the Community Dollars system was pervasive tension between mainstream and countercultural values, a tension seen throughout the local currency movement. Using data from participant observation and interviews, and Bloch and Parry’s concept of transactional orders, I argue that most people will only use local currencies if they experience some direct benefit from doing so. National currencies have lower transaction costs, so outside of periods of financial crisis people receive few economic benefits from using local currency. The main benefit for those most likely to use local currency in stable economic situations is feeling they are improving social balance by enacting countercultural values and challenging the status quo. This study of a struggling local currency counterbalances literature emphasizing unusually successful local currency systems, provides insight into the lived experience of currency pluralism, and casts doubt on local currencies’ capacity to promote widespread social and economic change.