Local currencies are usually grassroot community projects that increase localism, more sustainable living and help fight the ever-increasing inequality produced by our society’s political structures. Bristol is 1 of 6 cities* in the UK to have and use its own local currency, however, it’s easy to forget what everyone else is doing. For example, there are upwards of 140 local currencies active in the USA alone and countless more globally. In the first of a series of articles on ‘Cool Currencies’ Kester McLennan, UoB Geography student and Bristol Pound Intern takes a look at the TEM.
The Greek alternative currency that’s rekindled the barter economy, supporting hundreds in a time of economic turmoil.
Existing in the Eastern city of Volos, the TEM (which stands for local exchange trading system in Greek) is making a positive impact on people’s lives. While their economy is said to be recovering slowly, the effects of the financial crash on the Greeks was huge. When trouble hit Volos, people turned their backs on the failed mainstream economic system and took matters into their own hands. They discovered that one answer is to print your own currency. Without any official encouragement, several local people created the TEM in 2010. Since its conception use of the TEM has grown rapidly, the scheme now involving over 1000 people who continue to rely on the currency for their day to day lives.
TEM combines an alternative currency with an element of bartering. Volos residents can sign up to the online network and offer up services to their neighbours. As long as you’ve got something to exchange, you can use TEM. Founders Yiannis Grigorou and Christos Papaioannou designed the online platform and a digital coin in order to make barter trade easier. In the interview, Christos describes how “the network allows shop owners who lost their businesses to exchange any leftover stock they may have for things they really need. Similarly, the unemployed can carry out transactions even though they are short of money.”
Most modern barter systems arise in times of upheaval where people lose trust in banks, or the national currency more widely. For example, barter was also seen during America’s great depression in the 1930’s, used by people who had skills or homegrown items but no access to cash. Several companies even issued their own currencies to their workforces in substitute to legal tender.
This is where we see a difference between what’s happening here in Bristol and what the Greeks are doing. While Bristolians are using Bristol pounds to discover and support their local independent sector, the Greeks in Volos are using the TEM to help meet their needs in an extended period of austerity. Volos is typical of any Greek city as it’s still seeing continued industry decline and disastrous unemployment rates, particularly with their youth. People are struggling to pay for things with the Euro. TEM originated from both a lack of trust of the Euro, and as an aid for people who could offer services but not money. The local Mayor describes the scheme as “a way out from the deep economic and social crisis”, something which has according to the locals, re-energised the town.
One local says, “I grew up in a village, this is how it used to work in the old days, before money was involved”. It seems that TEM’s simplicity and transparency is uniting locals. You can’t earn interest or save TEM. its less volatile, less mysterious and provides a more human, tangible way of living and trading alongside others. Both the Bristol Pound, TEM and the hundreds of other local currencies that exist globally allow us to better know and interact with people. They’re a tool not only for economic redevelopment but for cultural renewal as they allow you to experience a more tangible and unified version of the city.
This allows us to reflect on the ultimate purpose of money in our society – it’s simply an economic tool to minimise friction and facilitate trade. The Euro in Volos did the opposite and opened the gateway for a load of substitutes like the TEM that challenge convention and allow people to interact with more trust and commitment to their neighbour. While money is necessary in today’s society, the TEM provides an example of how money’s conception and use can have extraordinary potential in changing how we live our lives.