TimeBank & Trust: The Mira Luna Interview
by Willi Paul
They tell what all they gonna do,
When they get
Into their office,
See what they can
Take off of us,
Take from me and take from you.
He frisk us, frisk us
He won't protect us,
Where O where is a honest man
Clip your whiskers
Clip your sister.
Banker man, he take your land.
Can’t beat finance,
Man and weather,
Workin’ man got to
Have a big meetin' down in town
Take the groceries
Feed the widows,
Feed the orphins.
Pass the groceries all around
Corn Song by Woody Guthrie + Blackfire
* * * * * * *
Interview with Mira by Willi
Give us an integrated economic vision for a local bay area city in 2025? How are you developing and sharing such a vision?
I think there are tough times ahead, a lot of crises that will likely climax in the next 10 years. We need to build the infrastructure for the new economy while trying to imagine all the things that could go wrong. That's not easy or fun to do. The best way to deal with so many factors in flux is to design relatively simple and diverse solutions. Simple solutions leave less to go wrong and diverse solutions provide resiliency.
What would this look like in terms of economy? A more simple economy with more direct flows from producer to consumer and vice versa. Less complicated goods to manufacture that can easily be produced locally by many people in many different ways. More services that directly meet our needs, rather than 5 middlemen, with many people being able to provide those services. We need to rapidly start replacing imports with local manufacturing and cottage production.
Let's take medicine as an example. Right now, you go to a doctor that had to go through a very expensive long training, she runs fancy tests and prescribes medicine. There are few people that can prescribe medicine, few companies who make the testing devices, few who do the tests and few that make the medicine. All of its expensive and there is a lot of scarcity in conventional medicine and too narrow flow channels for how many people are unwell. So if we had many people trained in barefoot medicine, like herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, massage, homeopathy, nutrition, Qi Gong, saunas and sweats, yoga, Ayurveda, etc. then we would have a lot of direct flows and a lot of diversity. I would approach all of our economic needs that way. There's many ways to convert solar energy into usable energy for humans. I think the region of the greater Bay Area is a good, realistic size for a sustainable economy that can provide the variety of goods that most people need.
In the future, we will be shifting back to a relationship-based and to some degree peer-to-peer economy. This means that the economy will look more like vast, intricate web, with many interconnected functions, nested and overlapping. It looks inefficient to the capitalist, but efficient towards what? A web supports you much better than a single line or two of thread. One thread breaks and that's it. The Timebank is helping to develop this web through exchange and connected unconnected groups to help each other. The Network of Bay Area Worker Coops is doing this by creating a web of relationship and exchange within the network. Just Alternative Sustainable Economics, is a project we started to tie together all the pieces of the alternative economy to support each other at the regional level. The US Solidarity Economy Network attempts to do this at the national level.
What are the hurdles in your personal strategic plan as you promote your transition to localization?
There isn’t a lot of funding for the work that needs to be done – developing alternative economic projects, taking them to scale, and building community. Funders are behind the curve. In the meantime we need to build a realistic bridge to the new economy so that people can survive while doing it. It's challenging for people who still have to have jobs for health reasons, a mortgage, family, etc. The Timebank is great for building that bridge because it rewards people with hours for the work of building the new economy and therefore that work is more sustainable. Another hurdle is the psychosocial habits we have that hold us back in the old economy - distrust, separation, competition, fear of scarcity, etc. In order to get there, we need to reduce our dependency on the old economy as much as possible. Right now it holds so much power, take away ours, and keeps us treading the hamster wheel in old habits that are destructive.
Are you attracting potent partners these days? Who are the strongest?
There is a lot of interest from potential partner organizations in the Timebank and other alternative economic projects. Seniors, people with disabilities, low income communities of color. These groups all need the new economy and so are the most eager to pioneer. Their lives depend on a new economy. Environmentalists are interested, but because many are white, middle class, able bodied people they are still living comfortably in the old economy and haven’t been as willing to step up to the plate in general as much as I’d hoped. There is less of an urgent push from them although they seem to definitely seem to get it.
What qualities in permaculture do you see as critical to building an alternative economy?
Biodiversity is something that is lacking in the mainstream economy. We get our needs met through fewer and fewer channels. This is a big problem for resiliency. If one avenue fails, we have catastrophe. The more elements we have the same function, the better. At the same time, the most promising elements are those that stack functions – for example, a local CSA providing jobs to youth, low cost organic food in more neighborhoods, funding to expand organic farming, space for animals, delivering on bikes to reduce fossil fuel use, and healing the earth.
Zones are also helpful in thinking about the economy. We should focus most on the zones closest to us and develop them, redeveloping the local economy at many levels, but starting with zone one. The largest zone is really skewed in taking over what should be our closest zones. In thinking about how we steal from the future by a debt based and growing, malignant economy, we can reinvest in our local ecology by doing away with interest or even using negative interest so that it becomes more attractive to give your money to local sustainable projects that create real wealth.
I think the whole process of developing and planning a permaculture site, observation, visioning, mapping, etc. would be really useful for redesigning the economy. Right now we go with the flow and it’s going in all the wrong directions.
Are you pro or anti capitalism? Neither?
Anti-capitalism, but not anti-market. I am opposed to making money off money and exploiting people and the Earth, but not in aggregating money for projects for the common good. I am also opposed to the concentration of wealth that capitalism encourages, which lead to huge power inequalities. Democracy and capitalism in its current form are incompatible. Because capitalism encourages growth and exploitation, I also see it as incompatible with sustainability goals in its current form. Capitalism is a multi-faceted beast, some parts may be salvaged, while other parts need to be swiftly discarded.
Many folks decry the greenwashing in the business sector. How do you dissect corporations, organizations and individual behavior to uncover corruption?
In all my years of activism and policy work, I see working on large or distant corporations’ behavior as mostly futile. The only way to have transparency, accountability, and democratic oversight is through local and regional economies. The further from the local you get, the more corruption and the less trust.
I have been outspoken in my criticism of permaculture schools who offer costly trainings with little regard to employment support. How are your projects creating jobs? Do you have any examples?
The timebank is creating jobs with a currency called an hour that you create at the time you provide a service –it’s a mutual credit system. It requires someone else to pay an hour, but it’s really just a guarantee that the receiver will help someone else out in the future. This way people can create their own jobs by using their skills without having to wait for money to appear at a business and then apply for the job. There isn’t much money out there these days, which is ridiculous because there are plenty of workers and work that needs to be done. Worker cooperatives also create jobs and more than conventional businesses because there isn’t someone at the top making a lot of money and worker coops will usually keep their workers in tough times instead of laying-off or selling off the business. Coop housing means people invest in place and community.
Do we need new symbols, stories and/or language to engineer the new economy?
Yes, we need new stories that will be about how people are tied together by helping each other, making the whole community stronger. We need stories of collective will, heroic gifts and reciprocity. We need stories that help shift our identity from me to we and illuminate our interconnectedness.
What is the role of competition in your new economic vision?
It’s quite limited. We need to engineer the new economic system so that the most well taken care of people are those that are the most cooperative, generous, caring, community-oriented, sustainable, and so on. Reputation systems are very important in this re-engineering. Our current money system only has one reputation element – how much money you have in your bank account determines everything. It’s a very incomplete picture of social reality that leaves the best people suffering because they are defined by their small bank accounts. In the new economy, we need ways of communicating and perhaps converting into currency good deeds and reputation. The smallest unit of this model is a gift circle where everyone is witnessing each other's gifts and reciprocating directly. The Timebank is a larger scale gift circle that allows people to exchange with people they don't yet know, but may become part of their community as trust is built.
How does time work for us and against us in a timebank? Do you want government to play a role?
You can only spend what you earned in a timebank and everyone’s hour is equal. This means you can’t make time off time like in capitalism. If you don’t have time, you won’t have hours. You can save them up though for the future in some timebanks and this can be a form of social security in old age. Governments are interested in Timebanks because they can provide lots of services at a small cost and take over functions that governments spends lots of money on, like taking care of people who are ill. So sometimes timebanks get grants from the government, which is helpful to get off the ground, but can create precarious dependency. If the government wants to support the Timebank, that’s fine, but ours will always be a member governed timebank.
Tell us about the Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE). What successes can you point to? What is on the horizon for 2012?
We just passed 1000 members and trading is happening often several times daily. We are forging partnerships with all kinds of community service organizations. These partnerships can be a strong force to get more active members and provide needed services on the Timebank. Also, we have a decentralized organizing strategy, allowing anyone to organize in their neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area or as a community forming an interest group on the Timebank using our software and operating under the core principles. We are encouraging more of this organizing as autonomous but cooperating local nodes of a regional reciprocity economy. We hope to improve the geographic organizing capability of the Timebank if funding comes in to help transition to more locally self-sufficient and interdependent neighborhoods.
We also want to have more in person swaps after the enormously successful Timebank Holiday Fair. Look for a Homesteading Skillshare Festival this year and more work with the SF Free School. Carebanks for seniors and people with disabilities are on the horizon. We are working in partnership with SF’s computer access program called BTOP to expand the Timebank’s reach where it’s needed most.
During the Great Depression, in the US, hundreds of thousands of unemployed people that got together to form Timebank-like exchanges to provide the currency to support clinics, foundries, mills, schools and so on. One in Oakland, was called the Unemployed Exchange Association. It definitely can be done though it's a little harder because we are so dependent on big banks. Of course, that's all just an illusion. We don't need banks for anything. They don't do anything but enslave us to their scarce, debt-based money.
Are there unique urban and rural needs and solutions to the present unsustainable economy?
Personally, I don’t think urban living is sustainable in the long run. It relies too heavily on resource import and export of waste. Most people employed in urban areas are inadvertently exploiting elsewhere in order to be able to have a job that provides no needed goods or services to society in a kind of pyramid structure. They are also disconnected with nature and cannot sense their disharmonies with it. The ecological feedback loops are missing in an urban culture. In the meantime, we need to build community in urban areas to make the transition. That is true for rural communities as well. Both have been disconnected and we need to be working together towards the transition. Urbanites need to start learning survival and homesteading skills and how to work with nature. These skills have almost been entirely lost in urban culture. Again, it’s a crisis of resiliency. We now have less than 1% of people that know how to grow food. We need training programs that train trainers in all the neighborhoods.
“New Hydrids: Paths to 21st Century Socialism from the Bottom Up” and a piece on OWS are on the home page of the US Solidarity Economy Network. Are you a supporter of Occupy? What is your understanding of their economic strategy?
Yes, I am a supporter of Occupy, although all OWS camps have their own ideals. I do think we need to occupy what’s ours collectively to build the new economy. We will need those resources. Some Occupiers are now moving from occupying the streets to occupying their economy – homes, workplaces, schools, clinics, etc. Although this phase is just beginning, US SEN is supplying information about alternatives to Occupy groups to move this initiative along.
How do you critique Wilson Riles’ Radical Alternative Currency System for Oakland?
Regular people need to be able to earn currency through work, otherwise the currency will not help much to eliminate problems of scarcity and unemployment. This needs to be built into the currency system to a greater extent. In particular, you need a way for low income people to get their hands on ACORNS without having to have cash. All of this can be easily changed in the design of issuance or by hiring lots of people to work for ACORNS on public projects that don't have jobs and accepting the ACORNS in taxes. For a similar model that was wildly successful, see the miracle of Woergl, Austria during the Great Depression.