Radical localism: a decades-long pursuit


Cover of the Berkshire Business Journal August issue.

A tip of the hat to Schumacher Center members who have supported the evolution of our local currency program to this current iteration of BerkShares digital currency. The following are some of the highlights from recent press coverage on the initiative.

In a recent feature for Politico Magazine, “Western Mass Challenges the US Dollar”, Ben Schreckinger touches on the highlights of that decades-long pursuit. He notes its rich intellectual roots in decentralist thought and cites Susan Witt’s essay Democratizing Monetary Issue — “at times a fiery manifesto.”

The Schumacher Center’s “ultimate goal was to reduce the Berkshires’ dependence on distant industries and inspire other regions to do the same. To that end, it sought to issue local money to finance the development of businesses that could replace imported goods.

He goes on to write:

In 2006, it (the Schumacher Center) re-launched BerkShares and formed a purpose-built nonprofit to issue them. . . The notes themselves were created with assistance from a member of the Massachusetts Crane family, which supplied Paul Revere with the paper for notes that financed the American Revolution, and has supplied paper for U.S. currencies ever since. . . .

This generation of BerkShares notes more closely resembled a national currency. But instead of dead presidents, the notes bore the likenesses of homegrown notables like civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington, and the author Herman Melville, who wrote “Moby Dick” at his farm in nearby Pittsfield. . . .

“We needed to go digital,” Witt said. She explained that a digital system would enable more and larger transactions while generating detailed data about how Berkshares are being used.

Schreckinger notes the use of the blockchain, “a technology often associated with unfettered global capitalism, for a different end: radical localism,” and coins the term “farm-to-table crypto.

For Witt, the new cryptocurrency is just a stage in a glacial process of economic transformation…

The most important business to sign on is the co-op, a pillar of the community and hotbed of localist sentiment. Marketing manager Devorah Sawyer said the currency project and the co-op were kindred spirits. “It almost doesn’t matter if it catches on,” she said. “It helps us maintain the camaraderie of the local shops.”

Maddie Alsdorf at the Berkshire Food Co-Op, Great Barrington.

In another piece for The Boston Globe, “A local currency in the Berkshires is going digital,” Andrew Brinker writes:

It is an unspoken rule in the Berkshires: Buy local whenever possible.

That principle is at the center of an economic experiment in Western Massachusetts that is putting the power of local, decentralized currency to the test. 

Brinker quotes Jared Spears, the Schumacher Center’s Director of Communications who explains “BerkShares sparks a broader community conversation where people are asking, ‘Where do our products come from? What do we make in the area? What do our businesses rely on from outside the area that we might not need to rely so heavily on?’”

Spears goes on: “All of the recent headlines — supply chain issues, climate change, war — cause people to really step back from business as usual and think about community resiliency, and what it would actually mean for communities to have more self-reliance in a very turbulent time; BerkShares is one piece of that broader puzzle.”

Stephen Root of Berkshire Bike & Board is also quoted:

Instead of me going to buy that thing on Amazon, I’m going to…go a little bit out of my way to find it locally, because I know it’s going to support my town and keep people employed.

In his The Berkshire Eagle’s Berkshire Business Journal story, Tony Debrowski calls BerkShares a “values-driven currency.”  He discusses how “BerkShares enters the digital mareketplace, but on its own terms.”

As Robin Hefland of Robin’s Candy explains: adopting BerkShares is “not only the right thing to do, it’s a smart thing for a business owner to do.

The piece continues:

Susan Witt, the co-founder of the organization that manages the currency says “BerkShares is a nonprofit. We feel currency should be a tool that serves a local community, not one that extracts profit for others.”

She went on to describe the conditions BerkShares, Inc. put forward to potential digital developers, the first being a commitment to continue working with the local community banks. “The second condition was that the esthetics that we so carefully built into the paper currency featuring our local heroes through the artwork of local artists and highlighting some of our key natural resources be maintained, and that the nonprofit ethos that we had constructed be maintained.”

The article also features Chuck Leach, President of Lee Bank, who said he’s happy his bank decided to back the program:

I think, candidly, people here were a little nervous that I was interested in exploring this because crypto carries a bit of a stigma…I viewed it as a way to make the Berkshires work better.”

He credits BerkShares technical partner, Fennie Wang of Humanity Cash, for the Bank’s willingness to step in to digital currencies: “She’s so smart and savvy that when she got involved I got a lot of confidence that the bank would be protected and that this is a way to continue…supporting the Berkshires…”

Leach is also glad that the BerkShares program was able to enter the field while maintaining its values. “They did pull it off,” he said. “It’s pretty genius actually.”