Critics blame modern capitalism for increasing inequalities and contributing to environmental destruction. If only money could be a driver for good.
When PwC Luxembourg announced its customers would be able to pay for services in bitcoin starting October 2019, the response was electric. Cryptocurrencies make headlines because they are alternative and, for a small minority, they’ve proved a lucrative investment.
But according to some critics, this decentralised alternative to fiat money is not radical and it only continues to fuel a system of wealth creation largely built on the exploitation of resources, to the detriment of society and the environment.
That is something that Luxembourg social entrepreneur and business journalist Jean Lasar has set out to change. “I think there’s a high level of underestimation of the role played by money. It’s by money that we are led to adopt a fossil fuel-rich lifestyle, because that’s what’s offered on the market. It’s via your budget and the options you have that you are compelled to do something which happens to emit a lot of CO2,” he says.
Lasar saw that to wean us off our fossil fuel dependencies, an alternative currency needed to redefine value creation. What if wealth could be accumulated from carbon reduction activities instead of extracting natural resources?
In early 2020, Lasar will launch survcoin, a local cryptocurrency which rewards subscribers for decarbonising activities. Survcoins will be pegged to non-emitted CO2, with a single survcoin worth 140g of non-emitted CO2, the average amount released over a one-kilometre car journey.
In the pilot phase, users will be able to earn survcoins when they commute using the free Vël’OK e-bikes found in eight towns in the south of the country. As people travel on the bikes, they earn survcoins on the wallet app being developed by Post subsidiary InTech. The survcoins can then be used in place of paid-for services in participating communes, for instance to pay for the disposal of an old tyre. The social entrepreneur explained that communes will be reimbursed through climate pact subsidies and grants, which are calculated based on their climate action scores.
CIGL bicycles in Dudelange, part of the network that will partner with the survcoin app. Photo: Delano
“You can quantify their efforts based on the number of survcoins they take in,” the journalist said. In a later stage, Lasar plans to integrate other means of earning survcoins, like linking them to responsible food consumption and sustainable fashion, two elements which he sees as “critical” in terms of carbon footprint reduction.
“On the one hand, I want to convince people that something needs to be done and to use survcoin to achieve the goals,” the journalist said. “But survcoin is also a simulation for the tepid ones, who don’t care at all, using this mindset of greed, gamification, the idea there is something to be gained for free.”
It is not the first time gamification has been used in Luxembourg to boost sustainability. In 2018, corporate social responsibility champions IMS Luxembourg launched Positive Drive, a mobility game tracking commuter behaviour, the data from which could inform policy. Almost 8,000 commuters participated, motivated by the prospect of a prize draw. And transport body Verkéiersverbond has for several years organised a contest rewarding people who cycle to work or university over a given period of time. Lasar sees Luxembourg as a good test bed for his project. In addition to having relatively easy access to decision makers, Lasar views the country’s general prosperity as “rather a positive, even if there is this inertia, this clinging to one’s lifestyle, which can be an issue. People are becoming more and more aware,” he said.
Lasar stresses survcoin is not intended to replace the euro, but nor is it simply a “nice to have”. The entrepreneur sees it as one tool among many that could help “avoid the worst”. “Because I think that we underestimate the level of suffering that’s looming as a result of destruction. […] I think it’s heart-wrenching to think that we’re sleepwalking into this.”
Regional currency the beki was launched in the canton of Redange in 2013. Photo: Mike Zenari
A historical exception
Survcoin is far from being the country’s first alternative currency. Prior to the introduction of the euro in 1999, different currencies circulated in the grand duchy depending on the countries with which it did business. After WWI, Luxembourg communes issued emergency currencies after the German mark became worthless. Steel manufacture Arbed even paid employees in its own specially printed marks from November 1918. “It’s a historical exception that we have just one currency,” Max Hilbert, coordinator of the regional currency beki, told Delano.
The money was launched in the canton of Redange in 2013, on the initiative of the late Green mayor of Beckerich, Camille Gira. Hilbert became the project’s champion after interviewing for a PR job with the Green party back in 2010. He didn’t get that job, but his bachelors’ thesis, exploring how regional currencies can help people to understand how global monetary systems function, got Gira’s attention.
Pegged on a one-to-one basis with the euro, beki notes are available in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 that can be withdrawn free of charge over the counter in a bank at advantageous rates--€100 is equivalent to 103 bekis at the point of withdrawal. The catch comes in changing the beki back into euros when beki bearers lose 5% of the value. “Businesses try to spend it as fast as possible to avoid having too much and losing 5%,” Hilbert explained, adding that a shop that has too much beki will be incentivised to spend it to avoid losing the 5%.
From sceptics to evangelists
Initially, the project was met with scepticism by locals. It did not help that the financial supervision authority CSSF issued a warning saying that people who use the beki do so at their own risk. Eventually, the government issued a statement saying it was “not illegal” but had to be restricted to a small area. “Only after more or less two years did businesses start saying that ‘this is going to last, people work with it’,” Hilbert recalled.
Today, around 100 businesses accept the beki, including the green electricity supplier Eida, which in turn switched to a local insurer in order to spend its beki. “They need to be very creative to continue spending it,” the coordinator said. Data shows that the notes remain in circulation for an average six transactions before being changed back into euros. “It gets stuck at some point. It’s not perfect,” Hilbert said.
Today, around 100 businesses accept the beki. Hilbert is pictured spending beki in a local business. Photo: Mike Zenari
He has limited information on how people spend their beki because many businesses record transactions as if they were made in euros. And it is tricky to measure performance in relation to the project’s strategic goals: supporting the local economy, increasing sustainability and social cohesion.
Anecdotally, the feedback is positive. “One business said that it did not change their relationship with the customer but they did have better relations with suppliers that accept the beki because when they ‘speak with the supplier, they speak about values and the philosophy’,” Hilbert found. Another user told Hilbert that the beki enabled them to meet people they didn’t know before. “They have more human contact than they did with the euro.” While the mayor of Beckerich even sees it as a source of pride and local identity.
A place worth living
In addition to encouraging a chain reaction of local spending and restoring a sense of community, Hilbert views the beki as an important tool to raise awareness about how standard currency works in a capitalist system and how, left untapped, it has the power to break down communities. Hilbert explained the canton experienced this firsthand after the closure several decades ago of the mines in nearby Martelange and the cessation of trains transporting timber to the mines of the south. The subsequent depression drove people away from the area.
Years later, the canton of Redange launched a series of initiatives, such as the beki, to create local jobs and commerce and “make it a place worth living in”. The beki notes serve as a physical reminder of this powerful message but they may soon be less visible.
Aware that the trend is shifting towards a cashless society and that it is onerous to go to a bank and withdraw cash, Hilbert is developing a digital version of the currency to ensure the beki’s long-term viability. He is also hopeful that other regions will follow suit. Some have sought out Hilbert’s advice, but none have yet to create a second regional money. “It’s strange. In Luxembourg we’re especially attached to the euro and this capitalist system,” he said.
This article was first published in the winter 2020 edition of Delano Magazine.