A review of Honey Money: fSM – new money for a new society

by Jaeweon Cho, published by art.earth Books
a review by Rubén Abruña

Can we build a currency system based on the value of our excreta? To most people the question will likely elicit disgust. Money from poop and pee? Yuck!History has already made that trip to the toilet when Roman emperor Vespasian stated “Pecunia non olet” to proclaim that money derived from a tax on urine did not stink. In the toga days, human urine was used for tanning and to whiten garments. The levied tax paid for its transport from collection centres (cesspools) to users.For millennia and in all continents, our excrements (urine and faeces) have been used and valued as fertiliser, keeping the poop in the loop, and transforming our excreta into food again. But with canalization and sewers, coupled with the development of industrial-scale ag- riculture, fossil fuel-based artificial chemical fertilisers replaced the long-established custom. Over time, this practice depleted the micro and macronutrients from soil that our own natural fertilisers used to provide. This impoverishment is intimately bound to the hyper-normalized use of the flush-and-forget toilet which discards essential and renewable (we all poop) miner- als needed to grow food. It also pollutes the environment and uses drinking water, an essential resource scarcely available to half of the world’s population. After almost a century, we are finally beginning to become aware of the damage done to soils, food production, the environ- ment, our health, and the economy.In addition to its use as fertiliser, our so-called human waste can also generate energy through the production of methane gas in anaerobic composters. It is a technology that curi- ously took hold in a leper colony in Mumbai, India during the second half of the 19th century. Today, there are thousands of them around the planet providing clean, renewable, non-odor- ous energy for heating and cooking, and more reliably than its solar and wind counterparts.

Even in our hyper-sanitized part of the world, there is no doubt the products of our diges- tion are valuable. But how do we put a price on them? It is not like we expel golden coins like the Ducatenkacker, or Brothers Grimm ́s Gold-Donkey. How do we determine their value? These and other life-altering questions are tackled by Dr. Jaeweon Cho, professor at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in the Republic of Korea, in his recent book Honey Money: fSM- new money for a new society, a 124-page book packed with pro- gressive ideas, and published by artdotearth (art-earth.org.uk).Before naming the price, Dr. Cho briefly chronicles the development of money standards from gold to fiat money to cryptocurrencies, and how they relate to governments and power structures, setting up the stage for the later unveiling of the Ggool. Labour, of course, is su- premely important when discussing money, and determining value and worth. But Dr. Cho posits that “as the AI [Artificial Intelligence] revolution takes hold, and the supremacy of la- bour becomes increasingly challenged we must ask what will be our value criteria?” He “can no longer agree with the basic premise that human labour is sacred…and we need to be ready for a world in which labour is not the most fundamental value to the world”.What will happen when the fourth industrial revolution led by AI eventually takes over the labour that humans perform? What about the tax base linked to labour and government re- distribution of services and money? The AI revolution is slowly shifting power away from governments into the hands of large transnational corporations like the FAANG clan. (Face- book, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). We are drifting in unchartered waters, and the tide seems to be rising.In this brave new world where humans appear to march towards obsolescence and aliena- tion, Dr. Cho sets forth a fundamental tenet: “at whatever cost, we must strive as nations and societies to continue to place the human at the centre of our economic system”. He recognizes that capitalism, greed, and the non-stop drive for growth will not float. To replace it we need to “alter the criteria for creating value”.But how?

Echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s respect for nature and self-sufficiency reverberate on the halls of the Science Walden, which houses the Science Cabin, the research and artistic hub at the UNIST, where Dr. Cho has developed the BeeVi toilet. The BeeVi is a vacuum toilet that converts human excreta into methane gas through anaerobic composting. It is still in the prototype stage after having evolved through several versions, yet it already provides the Sci- ence Cabin enough methane gas for the residents (artists and researchers) to cook and heat. The yuck factor is minimal because vacuum toilets neither smell nor create aerosols, spread- ers of bad odours and the coronavirus. After 30 days the remains of the anaerobic digestion are processed in a fertiliser facility to eventually be used as soil rich in micro and macronutri- ents, essential to food production. So, nothing is wasted in the process: a glorious moment to stop calling our excreta waste and start designating it as a resource. BeeVi is a contraction of bee – the honey maker – and vision, – for its far-sightedness. The honey as money (from poop and pee) analogy is golden as it frames the proposal within a natural context.The implications of the adoption of BeeVi toilets are manifold: a reliable renewable en- ergy source, soil rich in nutrients for organic food production, water conservation and preser- vation, local treatment instead of mile-long pipes and expensive wastewater treatment plants, carbon sequestration, and the feel-good sensation that we are not polluting the planet. But, to Dr. Cho’s disappointment, most Science Cabin visitors hit him, without hesitation, with the impossibility hammer: “How are you going to pay for this? Changing infrastructure is too costly!” He counters it by reminding visitors and readers that the BeeVi toilet is a disruptive technology, like the car was when it replaced the horse as the primary mode of transportation. Moreover, he remarks that, as in all public utilities, a cost-benefit analysis which accounts for its many external advantages justifies its implementation and makes it a clear down-to-earth choice.The BeeVi toilet connects the user in a modern hygienic manner to the ancestral days when human excreta were collected and used as “night-soil” to fertilize the fields to grow food. With it, poop and pee are no longer discarded as waste but treated as resources with value. The intrinsic value of excreta, that everyone produces daily, can become money, and this money is the new currency invented by Dr. Cho and aptly named Faeces Standard Money (fSM). The unit of the fSM is the Ggool (honey in Korean). 10 Ggool represents the value of a person’s toilet output per day.

The fSM, as designed by Dr. Cho, is not meant to replace existing currencies, has no bank support, lies outside the taxation system, and unlike other digital currencies like crypto- currencies it is neither convertible to other currencies nor linked to conventional market sys- tems. This independence from mainstream financial indicators makes fSM hard to digest for many folks who ask the inevitable:how is the value determined?The author claims that fSM’s face value can only be determined by “the prevailing technolog- ical, economic, and social values” where it’s used. So, for example, considering that the toilet uses very little water, does not require canalization and wastewater treatment plants, produces bioenergy and fertilizers, it might be calculated in Korea that 10 Ggool are worth US$ 0.50. But in Germany it might be set at US$ 1.00.By default, the system demands “people-to-people connections” to make it happen, a lofty goal considering the deeply embedded individualistic behaviour spurred on by the domi- nant neoliberal capitalist system. But that is hardly a radical proposal from a book whose title declares a revolutionary plan: “new money for a new society”.So, where’s the beef?Honey Money or fSM can also be used as the foundation for a system of Universal Basic In- come like no other because, unlike all its previous iterations, it is derived from our own la- bour: the digestion of what we eat, and not from taxation. Furthermore, and to avoid the pit- falls associated with the accumulation of money and capital, Ggool loses its value to nil if not used or shared, just like fruit, brilliantly mimicking the natural cycle, or the (poop) loop on which it is based. I hope, however, a different name will be used because it is too close to the word Google and I initially assumed it was another product from the tech giant.After “business” is done, the BeeVi toilet registers the “deposit” and sends the user, via a mobile app, the equivalent Ggools. Before they lose their value or “disappear”, Ggools can be traded, shared, or used to buy goods and services. Presently, they can buy, among other items, music concert tickets, artwork, bread, and coffee, at participating establishments. But the fu- ture possibilities are more reflective of the social potential behind the fSM. For instance, a family is able to rebuild their house after a devastating hurricane with fSM received from other world users; or, appreciating that my neighbour shovelled the snow away from my house entrance, I send her some Ggools as a thank you gesture. The possibilities seem ever flowing.In 2016, I first learned about Dr. Jaeweon Cho and fSM in edge.org, during the research phase of my film Holy Shit: Can Poop Save the World? a feature-length documentary in pro- duction, with the support of Thurn Film in Germany, and Peacock Film in Switzerland. I was astonished at the revolutionary and poetic approach he took towards the topic of my film. That prompted me to reach out and engage him in the film as one of the main protagonists. That also brought me closer to his work and the awesomeness of the BeeVi toilet.Originally, I had understood that one could only earn Ggools through the use of the BeeVi toilet. But the book made it clear that one can also earn them by registering in the fSM platform on the internet. Initially I was disappointed that the earnings were not associated with the use of the toilet. But later I got it. The fSM is still in baby diapers. At publishing time, BeeVi toilets are only available for use in the Science Cabin at UNIST. Therefore, in or- der for the new currency to take hold, there needs to be alternative ways to earn Ggools, other than the toilet.There is definitely room for growth and improvement, and the author is the first one to admit it. The fSM platform is accessed through any device connected to the internet with a browser. So theoretically it can reach 59% of the world’s population. It is centred around Ko- rean speakers though there is an “English” version. More people around the world need to know about it, as the community of fSM users is currently made up of fewer than 1,000 peo- ple. In my opinion, the toughest challenge to make fSM a viable currency is to “convince” the habitual user of the flush-and-forget toilet that better sustainable alternatives exist, followed by the power brokers of the wastewater treatment industry, fossil-fuel giants, and Big Agro, along with their ancillary influence peddling troops who will not easily relinquish their cash cow.

Despite its short length, Honey Money: fSM- new money for a new society has a large scope, like a true manifesto. Its central message represents the aspiration of a modern mani- festation of a scientifically proven alchemy. One that demands fundamental changes which require acceptance of new paradigms, and the hard and persistent work to realize them. I en- joyed the book and appreciated its hopeful, human-centred, socialistic, climate-friendly tone. I was also delighted by the poetic awareness that we humans along with our possessions and money are but one of the steps of the regenerative natural cycle of life. Just like our excrements.

 

About the reviewer

Rubén Abruña has over thirty years of experience as writer, director, producer, and editor of documentaries, and broadcast journalism stories in New York, San Juan, Miami, and Zürich. His love for documentaries began early in his career when he studied under the guidance of Jean Rouch and George Stoney.

In 2014, Rubén Abruña completed “The Absent House” (55 mins.), about a designer from Puerto Rico who pioneered green architecture 30 years ago, and today confronts climate change with sustainable constructions such as a house without a roof that is off the electrical and water grids. It has screened in over a dozen film festivals in five continents and is distributed by Icarus Films and EspressoMedia. The film is regarded as the most successful ecological documentary from the Caribbean.

In 2020 he began production of “Holy Shit: Can Poop Save the World”: What happens to our poop and pee after we part ways? With scientific rigor and humour the writer-director of “Holy Shit” uncovers the manhole to expose the deadly secrets of our flush and forget system. In a global quest he discovers small and large sustainable solutions that make real money from our daily excreta to pay for our daily bread. The feature length film is produced by Thurn Film from Germany, and Peacock Film from Switzerland.

More information

  1. Toilets: A 1 minute motion graphic animation created by Rubén Abruña as an argument towards the abolition of the flush toilet. The video represents the birth of “Holy Shit”. https://vimeo.com/169518130
  2. Behind the scenes during the shooting of “Holy Shit” in Hamburg (under 1 minute): https://vimeo.com/458155316
  3. “The Absent House” Trailer: (under 3 minutes) https://youtu.be/IyMfSnKhNrs

 

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