Emerging EcoNomics #5: Gifting – and the gift economy
For years I’ve known people who gave away their professional services as a gift, explicitly encouraging (though not requiring) gifts in return to allow them to continue their work. I’ve also loved the idea of “paying it forward” – enjoying as a gift what one has received from others and still giving them money so that people in the future can receive such gifts.
I’ve also known that the “gift economy” is already a gigantic (though seldom acknowledged) part of the overall economy of the world. When children come of age they do not receive a bill from their parents for “services rendered”. Countless home cooked meals, mowed lawns, and love are neither traded nor paid for. Neighbors and strangers regularly “lend a hand” to each other, donate to causes and volunteer in their communities. Invisible in the midst of all this, plants pump out oxygen for us, and we exhale carbon dioxide for them, without any dollars moving from hand to leaf or leaf to hand.
For hundreds of thousands of years gift economies have formed the foundation of families, friendships, tribes and communities. Generosity, kindness, love and gratitude have been the fabric of belonging and the sources of untold abundance. Reputation and power equity have been guardians of the web of interdependence – relational feedback loops that minimize freeloading and hoarding that can be toxic to community. As gifts move through the community, its true wealth grows – not only the common wealth of shared resources and mutuality but also the individual wealth of reputation, appreciation and richness of life.
Laid over this profusion of gifting is the logic of exchange – you give me this and I give you that of equal value – and the abstraction we call money that enables us to expand beyond tit-for-tat barter and relationship-bound exchanges. The less intimacy we have with the people and life around us, the more we need money to ensure proper balance of giving and receiving. But a shadow of this great gift is that the more we use money, the less intimacy we need with the people and life around us.
Complex societies – especially national and global societies – need currency to measure of flow – or current – of exchanges among strangers. There are many forms of currency – some say even reputation is a currency – but the government-issued “fiat currency” – what we normally think of as “money” – dominates our exchange landscape. For most people “the economy” is all about money. Money is the prime measure of “economic health” as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is basically the sum of all the money spent by everyone.
Whatever is not paid for is simply invisible to modern economic calculation. Likewise, many harmful things or things of no intrinsic value to life – such as oil spills, bets on the future value of wheat, and usury – show up as “economic growth” because they involve money. This is part of the system that is destroying our world.
But money is not bad. It is just very powerful. Like fire, electricity, and political power, it needs to be kept within bounds, doing what we need it for and not colonizing and traumatizing every nook and cranny of our existence. Our economy is not just money. “Economy” is a beautiful word that comes to us from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning “management of a household”. An economy is and should be much bigger than what we can commodify and monetize – especially given the sometimes toxic impacts of commodification and monetization on the earth, on communities, and on human life, beauty, sanity and meaning.
So perhaps we should ask, how many of our needs can be met through an economy of gifting and sharing? The more needs we can meet this way, the richer our individual and social lives will be, the more resilient our communities and families will be in the face of “economic downturns”, and the more modest will be our negative impacts on the world around us.
I used to dismiss the idea of intrinsic abundance as a fantasy, given the realities our modern world. But several months ago I was sitting at dinner with a couple I’d recently met, where I discovered that the husband was a car salesman. I found myself dismissing this profession in my mind. However, as the conversation proceeded, he said he had once been a lawyer. What?!! It turned out that he had been doing public interest law but the stresses were so high and the rewards so small that he went on to other things. He’d become a glass worker (both in windows and in art), he’d moved buildings, and he’d gone through a half dozen other professions. He’d landed in car sales because he loved cars and enjoyed talking to people and helping them get their unique needs met. The extent of his competencies and potential gifts to the community blew me away. And all the time it was hidden (to me) behind the reductionist economic label of “car salesman”.
I realized that ALL OF US have a vast range of potential gifts for our communities, hidden behind whatever narrow economic role we’ve landed in. Our latent gifts are known only to a limited network of friends, if that. But what if the gifts all of us had to offer were suddenly made available to all of us? What abundance would there be then? For the first time I began to appreciate what a gifting economy could reveal to us about how rich our communities actually are.
I recognize, of course, that a vibrant gift economy is only the beginning of sustainable abundance. Over the long term, greater abundance requires, as well, preserving our natural environments – including air, water, soil, ecosystems, climate and biodiversity – and aligning ourselves to natural cycles – including reducing and reusing “waste” and tapping the exorbitant energies of today’s sunshine – as well as reducing our population while increasing social equity.
But one of the most immediate blossomings of abundance is available right here, right now from you and me in co-created economies of gifting and sharing. The rewards for all of us are potentially immense – especially for the unemployed, poor, houseless, and simple living folks whose numbers will likely grow considerably during the coming decades.
This won’t just happen. We have to co-create those economies. Unlike the money economy, they are not given to us. They present us not only with opportunities, freedoms, and many rewards, but psychological and logistical challenges, as well. These are the challenges of evolving into a better world. I feel called to rise to them, and I invite you into that co-arising.
In addition to simply amplifying the generosity and gratitude in our immediate lives and relationships, today’s gifting economies offer two emerging institutions to help us expand the support and warmth we can give and receive – in-person gifting and sharing circles and online gifting and sharing networks.
For an introduction to gifting circles, see Alpha Lo’s Gift Circles FAQ.
For online gifting and sharing networks, shop around at places like this:
and last but not least, http://kindista.org, the online gifting community starting up right now in my hometown of Eugene Oregon. It features social networking and a strong reputational aspect. If you like the looks of it, let me know if you’d like to help them expand into your community.
For more understanding of what this new economy is all about and what its implications are, you’ll find great resources at http://www.shareable.net/, such as the article below by Charles Eisenstein. I recommend his groundbreaking book SACRED ECONOMICS.
You will find more eye-opening, mind-expanding, possibility-generating ideas and visions in these two TED talks
and this article
Finally, for a bit of remarkable street theater from this new consciousness, consider: http://www.freemoneyday.org/
There’s a LOT going on here. May the Gift be with you. And blessings on the Journey.
A GIFT OF CIRCLES
by Charles Eisenstein
Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill) is “community.” What happened to community, and why don’t we have it any more? There are many reasons – the layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public space, the automobile and the television, the high mobility of people and jobs – and, if you trace the “why’s” a few levels down, they all implicate the money system.
More directly posed: community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors – or indeed on any specific person – for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it.
In former times, people depended for all of life’s necessities and pleasures on people they knew personally. If you alienated the local blacksmith, brewer, or doctor, there was no replacement. Your quality of life would be much lower. If you alienated your neighbors then you might not have help if you sprained your ankle during harvest season, or if your barn burnt down. Community was not an add-on to life, it was a way of life. Today, with only slight exaggeration, we could say we don’t need anyone. I don’t need the farmer who grew my food – I can pay someone else to do it. I don’t need the mechanic who fixed my car. I don’t need the trucker who brought my shoes to the store. I don’t need any of the people who produced any of the things I use. I need someone to do their jobs, but not the unique individual people. They are replaceable and, by the same token, so am I.
That is one reason for the universally recognized superficiality of most social gatherings. How authentic can it be, when the unconscious knowledge, “I don’t need you,” lurks under the surface? When we get together to consume – food, drink, or entertainment – do we really draw on the gifts of anyone present? Anyone can consume. Intimacy comes from co-creation, not co-consumption, as anyone in a band can tell you, and it is different from liking or disliking someone. But in a monetized society, our creativity happens in specialized domains, for money.
To forge community then, we must do more than simply get people together. While that is a start, soon we get tired of just talking, and we want to do something, to create something. It is a very tepid community indeed, when the only need being met is the need to air opinions and feel that we are right, that we get it, and isn’t it too bad that other people don’t … hey, I know! Let’s collect each others’ email addresses and start a listserv!
Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today’s market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition in which more for me is less for you, in a gift economy the opposite holds. Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a “circle of the gift.”
Fortunately, the monetization of life has reached its peak in our time, and is beginning a long and permanent receding (of which economic “recession” is an aspect). Both out of desire and necessity, we are poised at a critical moment of opportunity to reclaim gift culture, and therefore to build true community. The reclamation is part of a larger shift of human consciousness, a larger reunion with nature, earth, each other, and lost parts of ourselves. Our alienation from gift culture is an aberration and our independence an illusion. We are not actually independent or “financially secure” – we are just as dependent as before, only on strangers and impersonal institutions, and, as we are likely to soon discover, these institutions are quite fragile.
Given the circular nature of gift flow, I was excited to learn that one of the most promising social inventions that I’ve come across for building community is called the Gift Circle. Developed by Alpha Lo, co-author of The Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, and his friends in Marin County, California, it exemplifies the dynamics of gift systems and illuminates the broad ramifications that gift economies portend for our economy, psychology, and civilization.
The ideal number of participants in a gift circle is 10-20. Everyone sits in a circle, and takes turns saying one or two needs they have. In the last circle I facilitated, some of the needs shared were: “a ride to the airport next week,” “someone to help remove a fence,” “used lumber to build a garden,” “a ladder to clean my gutter,” “a bike,” and “office furniture for a community center.” As each person shares, others in the circle can break in to offer to meet the stated need, or with suggestions of how to meet it.
When everyone has had their turn, we go around the circle again, each person stating something he or she would like to give. Some examples last week were “Graphic design skills,” “the use of my power tools,” “contacts in local government to get things done,” and “a bike,” but it could be anything: time, skills, material things; the gift of something outright, or the gift of the use of something (borrowing). Again, as each person shares, anyone can speak up and say, “I’d like that,” or “I know someone who could use one of those.”
During both these rounds, it is useful to have someone write everything down and send the notes out the next day to everyone via email, or on a web page, blog, etc. Otherwise it is quite easy to forget who needs and offers what. Also, I suggest writing down, on the spot, the name and phone number of someone who wants to give or receive something to/from you. It is essential to follow up, or the gift circle will end up feeding cynicism rather than community.
Finally, the circle can do a third round in which people express gratitude for the things they received since the last meeting. This round is extremely important because in community, the witnessing of others’ generosity inspires generosity in those who witness it. It confirms that this group is giving to each other, that gifts are recognized, and that my own gifts will be recognized, appreciated, and reciprocated as well.
It is just that simple: needs, gifts, and gratitude. But the effects can be profound.
First, gift circles (and any gift economy, in fact) can reduce our dependence on the traditional market. If people give us things we need, then we needn’t buy them. I won’t need to take a taxi to the airport tomorrow, and Rachel won’t have to buy lumber for her garden. The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.
Secondly, a gift circle reduces our production of waste. It is ridiculous to pump oil, mine metal, manufacture a table and ship it across the ocean when half the people in town have old tables in their basements. It is ridiculous as well for each household on my block to own a lawnmower, which they use two hours a month, a leaf blower they use twice a year, power tools they use for an occasional project, and so on. If we shared these things, we would suffer no loss of quality of life. Our material lives would be just as rich, yet would require less money and less waste.
… [I highly recommend four paragraphs I’ve deleted here for brevity and flow, which explore the larger economic dynamics of money and economic growth, how these are reaching their limits, and how gift economies can facilitate the transition to more benign, sustainable economic systems. – Tom Atlee] ….
Many of us no longer aspire to financial independence, the state in which we have so much money we needn’t depend on anyone for anything. Today, increasingly, we yearn instead for community. We don’t want to live in a commodity world, where everything we have exists for the primary goal of profit. We want things created for love and beauty, things that connect us more deeply to the people around us. We desire to be interdependent, not independent. The gift circle, and the many new forms of gift economy that are emerging on the Internet, are ways of reclaiming human relationships from the market.
Whether natural or social, the reclamation of the gift-based commonwealth not only hastens the collapse of a growth-dependent money system, it also mitigates its severity. At the present moment, the market faces a crisis, merely one of a multiplicity of crises (ecological, social) that are converging upon us. Through the turbulent time that is upon us, the survival of humanity, and our capacity to build a new kind of civilization embodying a new relationship to earth and a new, more connected, human identity, depends on these scraps of the commonwealth that we are able to preserve or reclaim. Although we have done grievous damage to earth, vast wealth still remains. There is still richness in the soil, water, cultures and biomes of this planet. The longer we persist under the status quo, the less of that richness will remain and the more calamitous the transition will be.
On a less tangible level, any gifts we give contribute to another kind of common wealth – a reservoir of gratitude that will see us through times of turmoil, when the conventions and stories that hold civic society together fall apart. Gifts inspire gratitude and generosity is infectious. Increasingly, I read and hear stories of generosity, selflessness, even magnanimity that take my breath away. When I witness generosity, I want to be generous too. In the coming times, we will need the generosity, the selflessness, and the magnanimity of many people. If everyone seeks merely their own survival, then there is no hope for a new kind of civilization. We need each others’ gifts as we need each others’ generosity to invite us into the realm of the gift ourselves. In contrast to the age of money where we can pay for anything and need no gifts, soon it will be abundantly clear: we need each other.
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