50 oranges for some dental work

Give me some of this for some of that. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A quick wish to our Canadian readers for a happy Thanksgiving and Indigenous People’s Day. And now, your regularly scheduled not-a-newsletter…

About a month ago, I realized (and wrote) about how academics will make careers in years to come, studying what you and I and everyone we know did in order to cope with life and adapt during the pandemic.

My first big example: remote work. Pre-pandemic, there were really only two big studies on remote work that got a ton of attention—one from Harvard, one from Stanford. Why so few? Because it was really hard to find big groups of workers where the researchers could divvy them up into Group A who worked in an office, and Group B, doing basically the same work, who worked from home.

So we got approximately 1,000 different articles talking about how productivity and happiness changed for (a) travel agents and (b) patent examiners working from home, but far fewer takes on how people in other fields—and particularly ones that involve teams as opposed to mostly individual contributors—fared.

To put it lightly, it’s no longer a problem to find case studies for remote work research.

I was thinking afterward about what other big societal issues will be easier to study moving forward, since we now have a lot of big groups who quickly changed their behavior at scale.

What’s it like to be stuck at home? To not travel? To leave a job without a new one lined up?

The list goes on, and it brings us to today’s example:

What’s it like when an entire society, cut off from the rest of the world, resorts to a new (old) monetary system in order to keep the proverbial lights on?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Galápagos Islands, an isolated chain roughly 500 miles west of mainland Ecuador, population roughly 30,000, perhaps best known for Charles Darwin’s 19-day trip there in 1834.

Now, as then, the Galápagos are remote, but during normal times the islands have a constant stream of tourists, providing about 90% of their $800 million annual income.

During the pandemic, and especially during an 11-week hard lockdown in 2020, all of that stopped. And as hard currency and goods from the outside world dwindled to almost nothing, residents turned to the earliest, most primitive monetary system in order to keep going: barter.

Jamie Lafferty spent two months there during the pandemic and wrote about it for Outside:

Fruit was traded for meat; milk for English lessons. Clothes were handed down, not just within families but through the community. … 50 oranges for some dental work. [T]he affable owners of Galápagos Deli in Puerto Ayora traded produce they couldn’t use in their restaurant for houseplants to decorate their new home.

Nature guide Lola Villacreses, realizing she wasn’t going to be aboard any cruise ships for the foreseeable future … began growing fruits and vegetables ... During my two-month stay, whenever I bumped into her … she gave me a bucket of tomatoes.

“Things have been changing very fast. All the money used to be in the town,” said Matias Espinosa, a dive master and naturalist on Santa Cruz whose businesses had been crippled by the pandemic. “COVID froze all our enterprise. Instead, we have this trading now, so these farmers are the kings of the island.”

Not to short-circuit any future doctoral dissertations, but the brief version of the islands’ experience seems to be threefold:

  1. People liked the slower pace and less emphasis on materialism, at least in the short run.

  2. The outside world still existed, and it doesn’t take oranges as payment of business loans.

  3. It couldn’t last long-term, and if the islands hadn’t opened and tourism didn’t start to rebound a little bit, the islands likely would have had to convert some of the 97% of their land area that is currently a tourist-friendly national park to other uses, like fishing and hunting.

In other words, barter kept the islands alive, but to survive in the long term, they would have to quickly adapt. That’s almost so fitting I can’t even write it, since we’re talking about the place so associated with evolution and natural selection.

Final advice: There’s nothing like on-the-ground research. So, if you’ve ever wanted to visit the Galápagos, and you can pull it off, right now is more or less likely to be the best time in your lifetime to go.

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Thanks for reading, as always. Photo credit: Pixabay. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.