Published as Chapter 58 of The Way: An Ecological Worldview, originally published in 1992.
This text is taken from the revised and enlarged edition, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.
” [General purpose] money is one of the shatteringly simplifying ideas of all time, and like any other new and compelling idea, it creates its own revolution.”
“Our money is impersonal and commercial while primitive money frequently has pedigree and personality, sacred uses, or moral and emotional connotations.”
“Only when the last tree has been cut down,
only when the last river has been poisoned,
only when the last fish has been caught,
only then will you learn that money cannot be eaten.”
In our world, money is a medium of exchange in terms of which the value of all commodities designed for exchange on the market can be expressed. It is thus general purpose money. It clearly serves to facilitate trade in goods and services but it does so regardless of whether such trade is desirable on social, ecological, spiritual or moral grounds.
Money, in this sense of the term, does not exist in a vernacular society. In the first place, goods are not produced for exchange, except in special circumstances, but for use; secondly, the system of valuation is different: things are not valued in accordance with what they can be exchanged for but for their importance in maintaining the stability of the social system, the ecosphere and the cosmos itself.
Some form of money is used in vernacular societies; but rather than being designed, as is our money, to facilitate economic exchange, it is designed instead to serve social ends: to maintain social structures, strengthen social bonds and hence build up social wealth. Not surprisingly, modern economists criticise what they regard as the irrational nature of primitive money. They find it too bulky and difficult to carry about; worse still, it is not divisible in the way pounds can be divided into pence.
Thus the Rossel Islanders use two different types of shells, Ndap and Nka. There are actually 22 different classes of the Ndap and only a limited number of actual shells in each class, probably no more than a thousand in each of the first 13 classes. Each shell is known and has a veritable identity of its own and a different value. There is no means of changing a shell of one class into one of another.
This means that something which is priced in terms of shells of class 20, for instance, must be paid for in shells of that class. Thus under the existing arrangements, if a man wants to buy an object priced in terms of class 20 Ndap shells, he has to borrow an object also priced in terms of this currency.
W. E. Armstrong, an economist who studied Rossel Island money, was keen to show the islanders how their currency could be ‘rationalised’ so as greatly to facilitate the conduct of their commercial transactions. He pointed out that this elaborate borrowing could be avoided, or much reduced if the value of the different shells could be related to each other as dollars are to cents. What he completely failed to grasp was that their unsuitability for use in a modern market economy was irrelevant, for they were designed to fulfil a very different purpose. 
The Kula armbands used in the famous Kula trade described by Mauss  and Malinowski;  the coppers (great ceremonial copper disks) used by north-west coast Indian chiefs at a potlatch; Rossel Island shells and all the other currencies in use in tribal societies may not be convenient, portable or divisible but neither, as Dalton points out, are they the media of commercial exchange. Instead, as Malinowski suggests, they should be regarded as treasure items or heirlooms, crown jewels or sports trophies. According to Dalton,
“such treasures can take on special roles as non-commercial money; their acquisition and disposition are carefully structured and regarded as extremely important events; they change hands in specified ways, in transactions which have strong moral implications. Often they are used to create social relationships (marriage; entrance into secret societies), prevent a break in social relationships (bloodwealth; mortuary payments), or keep or elevate one’s social position (potlatch). Their “money-ness” consists in their being required means of (reciprocal or redistributive) payment.” 
Mary Douglas regards primitive money as more closely resembling coupons than modern commercial money. Their role “is not to expedite the transformation of goods and services, as is money”, but instead to control the drive to satisfy individual wants:
“The essence of money is to be transferable. It circulates, but coupons (like primitive money) when spent, return to an issuing point and their acquisition is continually under survey and control. Admittedly, there is a big difference between modern and primitive coupons. In a modern economy, paper coupons once spent are returned to the office of issue, counted and destroyed. But primitive commodity coupons simply
return at each transfer into the hands of the senior members of the community who become by this fact, to all intents and purposes, the issuing authority. This makes it almost impossible to acquire coupons without being acceptable to the senior old men who hold them. Coupons do not circulate; they are continually issued and returned and re-issued.” 
Going further, she suggests that they provide a means of licensing rather than rationing. The object of rationing is to assure equal distribution of scarce resources. The object of licensing on the contrary is protective. One of its uses is
“to ensure the responsible use of possibly dangerous powers, so we have licensing of guns and liquor sales. Licensing pins responsibility so we have marriage licenses and pet licenses, licensing protects vulnerable areas of the economy so we have import licensing etc.” 
But licensing, of course, creates monopoly advantages both for those who issue them and those to whom they are issued, both parties becoming
“bound in a patron / client relation sustained by the strong interest of each in the continuance of the system.” 
Mary Douglas shows that this is precisely what occurs among the Lele of Zaire. The old men of the tribe, by the workings of the system, obtain a monopoly of the issue of raffia cloth, which is the currency used for paying bridewealth. Because of their monopoly, the older men establish a patron / client relationship with the younger men who acquire the raffia from them if they wish to get married.
This serves at once as a means of licensing marriage, and hence of controlling population, whose increase can lead to the degradation of the biotic environment; as a means too of maintaining the society’s basic structure and hence its stability or continuity that, among other things, depends on maintaining the power and prestige of the elders – the custodians of the traditional wisdom – thereby permitting its transmission to succeeding generations.
|1.||W. E. Armstrong, “Rossel Island money: a unique monetary system”. The Economic Journal 34, 1925; pp.424-429.|
|2.||See Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Cohen and West, London, 1954.|
|3.||Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific; p.87. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1961. First published 1922.|
|4.||George Dalton, Tribal and Peasant Economics; pp.44-65. University of Texas Press, Austin TX, 1967.|
|5.||Mary Douglas, “Raffia cloth distribution in the Lele economy”. In Dalton ed, ibid.; pp.103-122.|