However you feel about the festive season it's undeniable that we Lewesians are able to experience yuletide joys simply not available to the residents of lesser towns. We can open our presents while congratulating ourselves on the continuing rebel status of our community, and sip our local ale with its taste all the sweeter for the memory of past battles to keep it flowing. This year, we can also warm ourselves against the economic chill with the glow of self-sufficiency provided by the Lewes Pound, confident that those who have skipped town will wish they were back as they gaze at the portrait of Tom Paine in their Lewes Pound Collectors Packs.
Though I'm a fan of local businesses and think the publicity for them is great, a few weeks ago I wrote a piece in a rival organ expressing some scepticism as to the Pound's prospects. In the likely event that you missed it (though the seriously under-occupied among you can read it here http://johnmcgowanarchive.blogspot.com/2008/12/lewes-pound-article-from-viva-lewes.html), I was wondering about three things.
The first was if the Pound would actually catch on in a society full of other ways to pay for things and where we aren't (yet) dependent on barter. The evidence for the success of other similar projects is sparse. However, even if Lewes ends up being exceptional, my second thought was how difficult it is to find evidence that such complementary currencies lead to any more money going into local economies, as opposed to what is being spent already.
My main question though, concerned the environmental claims made for promoting local shopping, given that buying in local shops and walking to them are two very different things; and that we usually expect our neighbourhood stores to stock products from all over the world.
My article prompted a polite response from Transition Town Lewes restating their hopes for the Pound, while (to my ear at least) toning down some of the grander claims made for the scheme. One point they made a great deal of was the value of buying locally produced goods as a way to help the environment.
The reasoning goes something like this. Let's say the Lewes Pound becomes popular and we all start moving our spending away from Tesco, lots more people walk and (let's stretch it while we're on a roll), we all cut down on imported fruit, Australian wine, mobile phones, and rice. And flour. And sugar. Oh yes and tea, coffee, chocolate...
Other than speculating that the transition Lewes would thereby undergo is towards the Middle Ages, one might assume that such a rather implausible sequence of events would have a positive impact on our environment. After all if there is one thing we all know about the science of climate change it's that local is best. Isn't it?
The broader ethical issues involved in buying goods made in Bangalore or Bognor, and who is most worthy of your consumer patronage are maddeningly complicated and I don't propose to get into them here. If we just restrict our moral sensibilities to carbon footprints, it seems logical that the less distance goods have to travel, the lower the carbon emissions associated with them. But can you always know for sure?
If you think about where the components in a product made down the road come from, things immediately seem less straightforward. And that's before you get into which parts are recycled and recyclable and whether the recycling is actually environmentally sustainable.
Even if you leave manufactured goods to one side and concentrate on food, things are not much simpler. Buying English strawberries may actually lead to a carbon footprint many times the size of that associated with the punnet from Chile on the next shelf. This is because the energy going into a heated greenhouse can be far higher than a plane flight from the southern hemisphere where no heating is required. Of course not all British strawberries are heated during growth but how can you tell which are and to what extent? You may do your bit by buying English apples in February but how do you think they've been kept fresh and what do you think the carbon emissions associated with that might be? The distance a finished product has travelled can actually be a grossly simplistic way to measure environmental impact.
One solution to this is that we all take the trouble to inform ourselves more fully as to the background of what we buy. However, just how easy would it be for even the most committed environmental shopper get hold of such information? In an article in the New Yorker magazine earlier this year, journalist Michael Specter considered the experience of Tesco who launched a plan to mark all their products with a carbon footprint indicator. They rapidly worked out that the distance commodities had travelled was only a tiny variable in their calculations which encompassed all the factors I've mentioned above and many, many more. If one of the world's largest retail chains struggle to work out the carbon emissions level generated by their products, good luck to you next time you buy a few groceries.
Though it may have little practical value, the Pound, like some other Transition Town schemes, is at least a bit of fun which generates media interest. It seems clear that such schemes like do have the potential to motivate people and help them feel that they are involved in something which will help the community. Clearly people like to feel they can have an impact.
That last paragraph may give the impression that the Lewes Pound, despite its dubious evidence base and questionable environmental rationale, nonetheless has the potential to be important and relevant. I'm struggling to see it as either. Even if its uptake does increase, it seems to me that engaging people in this kind of scheme also has downsides. Leaving aside the likely disappointment when the impact of people's effort turns out to be less significant than they'd hoped, there is also the danger that by focusing on contributing in this way, we fail to pay attention to more pressing challenges. It is superfluous to point out that tough economic times are coming and thinking about novelty money may end up being distracting rather than helpful.
What than should the town's priorities be? The focus of the Pound campaign has been on retail businesses. Obviously this is important and it is apparently the new trend to demonstrate our patriotism through shopping. Though we're perhaps becoming a little swamped by shops selling luxury goods, many of these business do help the town to flourish. But if retail businesses and the town more broadly are to survive, and perhaps even become more diverse, Lewes also needs to think about how to encourage larger employers and different sorts of work. The truth is that we may only be able to do a limited amount internally, and outside investment will be necessary. I'm wondering how this sits with movements which encourage us to look inward rather than outward, and promote self-sufficiency as our future.
I look at the portrait of Tom Paine on the Lewes Pound. Even in the 18th century he didn't shy away from seeing the interconnectedness of the whole world. What would he think of the kind of place our rebel town is becoming?
Lewes Pound, Transition Town, Carbon Footprint, Environment