We conduct research and develop policy

What roles might special-purpose money, such as local complementary currencies, play in achieving a socio-ecological transition? With insights from the humanities and social sciences as well as empirical research, this project sets out to explore potential pathways for sustainable socio-economic futures.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are formulated as a comprehensive global policy framework for addressing the pressing social and environmental challenges facing humanity. C entral to sustainable development and the SDGs is concern to secure the needs of the current generation without compromising the possibilities of future generations to meet their needs. This means working to end poverty and create more equitable opportunities and scope for personal development, wellbeing and security through dematerialised forms of production and consumption while ensuring that interactions between our economies and ecosystems through material fluxes and direct disturbances stay within a safe operating space. This puts sustainable production and consumption at the heart of the SDGs

While recognising the importance of special-purpose currencies, the UN policy framework does not provide guidance on how to accomplish the needed transformation. Policies to date have focused on changing the (technological) structure of production and consumption, for example through strategies of ecological modernisation, green technology and circular economy. Structural change is necessary, but eco-efficiency is insufficient as a standalone approach and even counterproductive, as rebound effects show. Effective transformation requires a systemic approach that simultaneously addresses, also, the scale and distribution (geographic and demographic) of production and consumption. This is reflected in SDG target 12.2, but we are still missing, and therefore still searching for, systemic mechanisms and interventions to achieve SPC that can be effective and tractable politically.

Political tractability is critical because national governments depend on the mainstream economy and growth for tax revenues and jobs for citizens, which makes them reluctant to constrain or reverse economic expansion, even when further growth is damaging to quality of life and longer-term ecological, social and economic security.

The roles of the globalised neo-liberal capitalist regime of political-economy in driving unsustainable production and consumption are widely debated in academic literature, including the part played by institutions, such as market competition and fiat money. The role of money in development processes generally has long interested academics, but wider and more intense interest has arisen over the last 50 years, including among social innovators, stimulated by two events and their repercussions particularly. The first is the end of the gold standard in 1970, which marked the start of the current neo-liberal regime of capitalism and rapid acceleration of globalization processes. The second is the financial crisis of 2008, which highlighted uncertainty, instability and the limitations of traditional institutions.

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Perspectives from the humanities and social sciences

In the humanities and social sciences, academics have long questioned the role of mainstream markets and fiat money, both now hegemonic, recognising that these ostensibly human artefacts have come to play roles as quasi ‘agents’ by preordaining economic decisions: they have become de facto economic ‘decision makers’.

In this context, the way that fiat money is issued as interest-bearing credit is a serious concern. The ‘general purpose’ aspect of fiat money is also important since it imposes ‘commensurability’ on transactions, making everything tradable against everything else, but this is largely overlooked in mainstream economic analysis.

The humanities have long recognised different and distinct ‘realms of value’, but the significance of this has not been fully appreciated more broadly as a potentially potent critique of fiat currencies and explanation for their capacity to drive unsustainable development or, conversely, to be an entry point for interventions to steer more sustainable development pathways.