Cocoa Bucks

by Kevin Kanarek on May 7, 2009

in economics, food, marketing, sustainability

A little while ago I was in a grocery store with a friend, standing at the checkout line around lunchtime. We had put together the ingredients for a simple lunch that could be assembled at a picnic table using just a pocket knife: tomatoes, cucumbers, salad greens, a packet of dressing. We were feeling very virtuous, but then at the checkout line, there was the enticement of the small chocolates rack: the ultimate impulse purchase.

She said, “Keep moving.” I said, “Hang on a second.” Which side won out? Virtue, frugality, and a healthy diet on the one hand, or the irresistible pull of cocoa and sugar?

I’ll tell you in a minute, but first, a little known fact: did you know that chocolate used to be money?


There was a presentation on sustainable economics at the Green Festival. The speaker was Daniel Pinchbeck and he was talking about Ithaca Hours, a local currency in Ithaca NY which encourages people to spend their earnings within their community. Afterwards someone asked what happens when this currency pools — when one business is stuck holding alot of the Ithaca dollars but needs to pay suppliers that don’t participate in the program. After looking at different mechanisms for dealing with this scenario, Pinchbeck took a longer view of the issue.

Our current economic system encourages investments that will yield the highest short-term return regardless of the long-term consequences. But what if we could measure and reward investments according their ability to sustain community? Currency only has value as long as it’s in play. Pinchbeck mentioned the work of Bernard Lietaer, architect of the Euro, and alternative systems that Lietaer had proposed including currency that would depreciate over time — a kind of negative interest.

The Ancient Aztecs, Pinchbeck noted, traded in cocoa beans. The actual unit of currency decayed over time and lost value. The point was to spend wisely and invest, not hoard the wealth.

After my friend and I finished our vegetable lunch, just so you know, there was a chocolate bar to look forward to. But I let go of any impulse I might have had to hold onto the chocolate bar, to use it as a hedge against an uncertain future. Instead, I broke off a small piece for my friend. Before we knew it, the whole thing was gone.

(Photo Credit: davitydave under Creative Commons Attribution license)

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