Sunday, November 09, 2008

Cultural Exchange – Fair Exchange: We’re very proud to present a wonderful piece of original artwork, a larger-than-life-size mural which instead of pieces of silver, we paid for with pieces of wood. Using permaculture principles as our guide, we try to link different parts of our gardens / farm / lives into a coherent, designed synergy rather than a disparate collection of individually useful stuff, so that we end up with something that is more than the sum of its parts. One tool we use is to consider permaculture inputs and outputs, so that, for example, windfall apples are hoovered up by grazing pigs and chicken poo, rather than being a caustic pollutant, is turned into rich compost for the vegetables. In the same terms, an output from our wood is a happy excess of firewood, having this year cut a forest ride to provide access. Our friend Alastair has an excess of artistic talent (he’s also a very good rhythm guitarist) but a dearth of logs. A cultural exchange of inputs and outputs has taken place and we are now the proud owners of a superb piece of art, allowing Alastair and Caroline to relax in front of their cosy wood-burning stove.

An interesting point was how to fix the tariff of exchange. You might have heard of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) wherein goods and services are traded without using money. The exchanges don’t even need to be a direct, so that, for example, a member may earn credit by doing childcare for one person and spend it later on carpentry with another person in the same network. If I ever talk about LETS, Gabrielle usually smiles at me in a slightly knowing, slightly sceptical way, as her experience, when living in Brighton, was that it was easy to find any number of people offering aromatherapy treatments but damned difficult to find a plumber. And is the plumber’s hour worth more than the aromatherapist’s hour? Apparently, this "equivalence" is the one of the most controversial issues in LETS. What we decided with Alastair was to compare the local retail price of firewood with the price he’d charge commercially for an equivalent painting, thus calculating that our painting (which to us is “priceless”) was worth four cubic metres of chopped, split and seasoned firewood.

Talking of plumbers (as compared to aromatherapists) we encountered a blocked drain situation during the installation of the French drain around our French barn. Late on a cold and damp autumnal afternoon, on his way home from another job, our plumber called in to see what he could do. Ian worked his plumbacious magic, using chimney sweeping rods and a high pressure hose and, after a good three quarters of an hour, with fingertips turning blue, we had water flowing. Intended only as a “tip”—in French un pourboire (lit: for to drink) we pressed some of our homemade sausages on him. Unbelievably, for him this was enough. I disagreed; he insisted; I added a homemade chorizo. So there you have it, a plumber paid in sausages! And what about the aromatherapists? If you know of anyone working in Brittany that can give me a lower back massage, using sweet almond oil with lavender and who’ll take in payment a kilo of probably the world’s best British breakfast bangers, do let me know.


Rosie said...

I'd do just about anything to have the nostalgic taste of british bangers (I hope they are full of breadcrumbs like english sausages should be...) but I am not so good at lower back massage. I can't bend over cos I have my lower back!
On another subject,Mysweet has been worrying about the best way to dispatch our three cocks. Do you have a preferred method?

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Thanks for your comment Rosie,

Our bangers do indeed contain bread-crumbs along with real meat and the correct proportion of fat, you'll find no gristle or other unnecessary additions and they're in real boyaux. I shall be posting our very own recipe soon.

For our method of humanely despatching cockerels and hens, phone me and I'll explain all.

kristen said...

The French equivalent of LETS is SEL (système d'échanhe local), and I am very seriously contemplating putting my efforts into starting one around where I live, as I believe local 'currencies' such as the ones in these systems can save communities from total breakdown if (when) the world monetary system collapses (see my recent article on

Those local currencies often have a very useful feature: they melt when you do not use them (built-in negative interest rate). This encourages exchange and prevents hoarding. It places the supplier of goods and services in a dominant position with respect to the holder of money (which is the reverse of our current money system). It also has the same effect as hyperinflation of evaporating unused capital, but without the ill-effect of disorganising price references and gnawing at pensions and salaries.

Now the question of how to value work. There are three common possibilities: equal wages (as in: one hour of work = one unit of currency, be it aromatherapy, plumbing, or quantum physics), fixed prices (as in: some autority decides how much everything costs) or free market (as in: how many hours of plumbing would you be ready to do in return for ten minutes of high-end business consulting). Although there could be countless objections, I think I prefer the first (egalitarian) solution: everyone earns the same with the same amount of work. The difference then, between people with different skill levels, is that skilled people can choose the most interesting jobs, while unskilled people have to go for the repetitive tasks. It is now a struggle for quality of life rather than standard of living. I earn the same as my neighbour, only I like what I do better than he does. In fact, this is exactly what I have been doing in the past ten years, reducing my working hours so that my income has not changed.

I also like the possibility of fixed prices, as long as you can keep enough competition in the system. We know that one of the trends of a free-market system is to endlessly lower quality, because consumers go for the cheaper thing, even though it is flimsier or ill-finished. When the prices are fixed, the consumer will always go for the best quality, enticing craftspeople to always improve on quality (therefore durability, therefore sustainability). In essence, in a fixed price system, market forces adjust quality (instead of price). The danger when there is too little competition (oligolpoly or monopoly) is a drop in quality. But this happens with free markets too, in which monopoly not only reduces quality, but also increases price. So apart from the (probably titanic) bureaucratic burden of fixing prices, I also like fixed price systems. (but I still prefer egalitarian systems).

Kanisha said...

I can't believe no one has commented on the mural simply stunning; what a talent!

Kanisha not in the least bit envious......;