The World of HANDS – New Zealand’s Most Successful Complementary Currency – by Rebecca Reider
My decrepit old laptop turned into a wide variety of locally grown vegetables. And new hems and mended holes on my favourite corduroy pants. And a month’s supply of firewood from a neighbour’s woodlot.
Interesting alchemy. How do I know? By reading my account statement and looking at what I’ve traded over HANDS, Golden Bay’s alternative currency network. When I first read, some years ago, about community currency systems, sometimes known as LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems), my first thought was, “Well? How revolutionary is that? I mean, you can create your own local money system if you want to, but it’s still money, isn’t it? Even though you’re calling it something else.” Isn’t a HAND just a dollar in more colourful clothing?
Well, it is and it isn’t. HANDS (How About a Non Dollar System) is more than a convenient acronym; trading amongst the 420+ members of our local currency network is somehow more tangible, more real, more human, than using bank-issued dollar notes. For every transaction that I make using HANDS, I know that I’m trading within my community. I notice a difference in feeling when I look at my balance statements online. When I log onto my Westpac bank account, I sense a slight yet palpable cringe, in the momentary pause as my slow rural broadband ticks along and I wait for the account balances page to pop up. It’s not that I’m panicked that I’ll discover that I’m completely broke this week. As I scan the screen, it’s just a cultural anxiety that for me, and for many others, I suspect, creeps in around money. Where’s it all going? When will my paycheck come in? How expensive were the groceries? Isn’t Telecom a predator? Shouldn’t I invest my savings somewhere else before I spend it all? When we participate in the money system, whether we appear to be winning or losing, we are always buying into a system riddled with global stress, a giant game in which some power broker rigging the rules in New York City can have a devastating effect on returns to farms here in my own community, without any of us fully understanding what’s going on.
On the other HAND (and in this particular network we place a very high non-dollar value on puns), when I log onto our community exchange website, I feel subtly rich. My list of HANDS transactions, since I joined the system two years ago, brings a tickle of heart warmth to the cold glare of the computer screen. When I glance at the names of friends and acquaintances in Golden Bay whom I’ve been able to trade with, I can see that my richness in this system is not about what numerical amount hovers at the bottom line of my account. Instead a feeling of abundance and interconnection arises in knowing that I am in relation with so many valuable people around me. In the debit column, I’ve used HANDS to pay for sauna sessions at a community-oriented motel, visit alternative healers, buy herb seedlings for my patch from some keen local gardeners, get help moving house, and compensate a neighbour for repairing my fences, among other things. I’ve managed to pay for it all by selling old items I’m no longer using, to community members who can use them (such as the aforementioned decrepit laptop), by using my writing skills, by marketing CDs of my performance poetry (and occasionally even crafting commissioned poems for special occasions), and by renting out my house while I went away. If it weren’t for the regularly updated directory of HANDS members’ services, which is indexed according to both the goods and services offered and the offerer’s neighbourhood, I wouldn’t even know who in my neighbourhood might have a trailer to help me move furniture, or who might have a surplus of organic persimmons from their trees. Members offer everything from farm equipment repair, to computer tutoring, to childcare, to “dreadlock maintenance” – skills that often fall off the radar screen of our traditional economic system.
For some people here in Golden Bay, where well-paid monetary employment can be hard to find, HANDS are more easily earned than “Kiwi dollars,” and hence are more willingly spent. Or maybe “spent” is the wrong word – for when I put some of our imaginatively decorated HANDS notes into someone else’s pocket, those HANDS don’t dissolve into the ether; that other person merely gains the potential to exchange the energy elsewhere within the local community. That’s all that money is, after all: a way of exchanging energy. And as a fan of communal interdependence, I like knowing that mine is cycling round right here.
For more on alternative currency systems, in New Zealand and around the world, visit http://www.community-exchange.org/
Rebecca Reider is rooted in Golden Bay. She can often be found cultivating community, writing and performing poetry, or floating in the ocean (sometimes all at once!) For poetic creations, see http://www.myspace.com/rebeccapoetry. Her new creative nonfiction book, Dreaming the Biosphere, tells the story of one of the most epic experiments in sustainable community ever undertaken; read more at http://dreamingthebiosphere.com