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Circulating Wealth

Elemental Value Systems: An Inquiry into Indigenous Currencies for Future Currency Designers

Kolealea Stream, Ha'ikū, Maui, Hawaii


Spoken introduction:


Authors Intent: I seek to contribute to the discussion of wealth inequality, inviting current and future students of currency design to think critically about our dominant value exchange systems and exercise creativity in imagining alternative systems to address wealth inequality and to guide the design of corrective instruments of value exchange. It is written to facilitate dialogue, to be read aloud and discussed, to be Illustrated with visual metaphors. It is through dialogue and visualization the author hopes to transfer the lessons he has learned about the fundamental dynamics of wealth and value exchange systems.

In reading this draft text, these are the questions (lenses) I would appreciate you having in mind (👁️):

  • How can this be written with more Clarity and more Concisely?

  • How can this be written to encourage Conversationality and Inquiry?

  • What information is Incorrect or could be considered Incomplete or Misleading?

  • Where could the poetic, lyrical quality of the writing be improved? Where is it too lyrical or abstract?

Targeted reading level: highschool-aged students, from 14 to 18+ depending on maturity and prior education.


The Hawaiian word for wealth is rooted in the element of water, Wai. Wealth is water spoken twice, Wai wai. 

There is an inherent, indigenous wisdom in this concept of wealth that we can all relate to as humans. 

Water is needed for survival. Water is needed to grow food. With water there is life, without water there is drought, famine, and death. 

The quality of water you drink has a direct effect on the quality of your life. If you drink polluted water, you will sicken, quickly or slowly, the contamination will kill you. Simply put, good quality water is required for maintaining health, both of the body and the environment.

Clean water is inherently valuable. It is perhaps the most precious and sacred element on the planet. And it is an increasingly rare resource. Water scarcity is the root cause of many conflicts across the world. Many wars are preceded by periods of drought and famine. We could even say, water is the source of war and peace.

There is a second layer to the wisdom of Wai Wai. If water is wealth, a true currency, perhaps the way water flows, cycling nutrients, and creating abundance and life through flow in good times, and causing disaster through flood and drought in bad times, then perhap water holds is a lesson for the design of our monetary system.

What can laws of water tell us about the wealth and health of our society?

In our current system, the distribution of wealth is extremely unequal and the dynamics of wealth creation favors the rich, encouraging ever larger pools of concentrated wealth. 

If wealth were water, a few people would have oceans unto themselves, while the rest of us would be beached, or perhaps worse, wandering the endless desert, chasing mirages of an eventual oasis.

Also, in this monetary system, the richer you are the less you have to do to generate wealth, and the easier it is to capture and control wealth. 

If you can buy one house, you can flip it to buy two more, then two more, then two more. Wealth accrues, and compounds over time, over generations. Continue playing that game until you can retire on a beach, paying someone else to manage your wealth.

Every time a billionaire splashes in the ocean, a tsunami is created. They barely lift a finger and generate waves of new value creation. Meanwhile, millions or billions of people at or below the poverty line are digging in the desert for the entirety of their lives, working so hard to hold onto so little wealth.

The rich get richer, the poor poorer, and the folks in the middle ride out life, getting rocked by waves, sheltering in tide pools. Some brave and clever few escape to live more comfortably in the sea, while many more attempt to catch a wave and end up getting washed up on the beach.

This is the essential dynamics of our money system. Inequality is sewn into the fundamentals of a money system designed around the idea of a gold standard; a rarity, a scarcity, a commodity to be captured and held.

Gold is a metal from the earth, a very rare earth that just sits there. Gold does not flow. It clusters, it compounds. Gold, once discovered, is refined into ornament, used in industry, traded for wood and brick to create mighty castles, create impenetrable forts, stored safely in a vault, hidden away for a rainy day.

Our society moved away from the gold standard, in part, because it was too hard to move and secure as a material, but the inherent dynamics of our money system are based on the rareness of earth, not sacredness of water; a system that favors control over flow.

To be continued…

  • Can you design a currency inspired by the elements of water, air, and fire? 

  • What is the essence of the element of water? What are the dynamics of the water cycle? (Flowing, pooling, flooding) 

  • What is the nature of air? Rising and falling, hot and cold, stale or gusty.

  • What about the nature of fire? A flicker, an inferno. How would you measure transformative destruction and what would you aim that awesome power at?

  • What are examples of the presence of those currencies in our society? 

  • How might we make them more visible?

  • Are there four elements or five? Or more??? 

  • Soil, Metal, Fire, Spirit, Water, Wood, Wind. 

  • How many combinations of these elements exist? How many currencies can be created based on the interaction of these elements?


With gratitude to Ferananda, David, and Lehua for our recent conversation on currency, and to all the carriers and couriers of indigenous wisdom and holographic epistemology.

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