Tennesseetransitions


An Informal Economy

Traditionally, ‘informal economy’ referred to economic activity that is neither taxed nor regulated by a government. Even though the term may be rather unfamiliar, examples of informal economies practices are as familiar as babysitting or the drug trade. But I recently read a different description of  ‘informal economy’: “that which allows people to acquire goods and services they might not otherwise afford.” It’s an idea that deserves more than a glance. As we move into the second half of 2015, I sense a deepening economic uncertainty that demands each of us find ways to transition to a life style that is built on community, local resilience and living well on less. Enter: trade and barter.

Not long ago I bartered fresh heads of bok choy in exchange for a nurse neighbor’s steady hand in giving Michael his B-12 shots. We often trade watering or harvesting chores down at the community garden with fellow vacationers. A friend recently had a raised bed but nothing to plant in it, nor any extra money to invest in it. So I gave her some of my heirloom bean seeds that I’d saved, to plant in her bed. She’ll no doubt enjoy eating her beans all winter, and has promised to repay me in fresh beans. Yesterday I offered my skills as a canner to a woman that is equally skilled in quilting. We will both benefit from our reciprocal agreement to ‘help one another’. Carpooling, house and pet sitting are favorite trade-offs for me. I also enjoy doing sewing repairs in exchange for goods or services that I might need. Years ago I helped an acquaintance prepare for a major move by organizing and packing, in exchange for several months of fiddle lessons; our friendship has lasted long after the trades were completed. These informal economies help friendships to grow and allow all involved to benefit without any money being exchanged.

I wrote here recently about the free truckloads of gravel for my driveway I was able to get, via Freecycle, from a nearby church, who just wanted it off of their parking lot. My own church offers many, many opportunities for sharing and trading of goods and services. Our local electric cooperative delivers shredded wood mulch for free to anyone that lives within the city limits, and the city crews deliver shredded leaves for our compost piles during the fall leaf pickup. The members of the nearby community garden that I manage are constantly learning from, trading with, and helping one another, even though we all started as perfect strangers and have few common bonds other than our love for growing fresh, organic food. From an online community to a community garden, all of these informal economies help to build community strength and resilience.

 The nearby town of Abingdon, VA is home to the Barter Theater, a live theater venue that was set up during the Depression and so named because you could gain admission to see a play by bartering fresh eggs, produce or chickens instead of paying the 40 cent admission price. During that same period, when no one had any cash, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to accept food as payment. My own grandfather was known to accept car repairs and haircuts as payment for his bookkeeping and accounting skills.

Produce traded at Barter Theatre
Produce traded at Barter Theater, circa 1933

For all those aspects of life that we need in order to sustain ourselves and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)? An Informal Economy is a logical starting point and offers limitless possibilities that can help us with these transition issues. Some communities have even gone so far as to start community currencies based on barter, trading one hour of work for $10 in credit. From food to computer skills, we all have something to offer. Might a more formal organization of these kinds of efforts be more helpful or hassle? Please let me know in the comments section below if you or your community are working in informal economies, and what affects it is having on your resilience and/or personal economy.

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