The gift liberation front


The gift economy can allow us to really care about each other. Photo: asenat29 via Flickr.

I’m fussy about the words I use. For example, anarchy is not chaos, though you’d never be able to distinguish the two based on anything presented by the mainstream media.

As a further example, I’m averse to any form of the word sustain because we don’t and we can’t, if only because of the Strong Suggestions Laws of Thermodynamics. If the Laws of Thermodynamics aren’t compelling enough for you, consider this: Wal-Mart allegedly has poured more money into “sustainability” than any other institution on Earth.

In this brief essay, I’d like to take issue with a couple other terms. As I’ve pointed out recently, I’m a fan of the gift economy (which is not based on barter). I explain below. In addition, I differentiate between building social capital and contributing to a decent human community.

My customary gifts include hosting visitors at the mud hut, delivery of presentations for no charge, and copies of my latest book at my cost (or, to those interested in an electronic version of the page
proofs, no cost at all).

Here at the mud hut, I strive to promote and expand the extant gift economy. This approach makes perfect sense, considering how we began this relationship more than four years ago, when my partners on these 2.7 acres offered my partner and me the gift of an acre (we declined, and we now share the property and the attendant responsibilities).

In the name of comfort for our friends and neighbors, we barter, too, and sometimes work within the customary system of fiat currency. But I prefer an economy of gifts, which has been the prevailing model for most of our existence as human animals. Gifting removes the pressure associated with placing monetary value on the exchange of goods and services in a barter system. And, to me at least, it seems more compassionate and personal than other alternatives.

Many people believe they are doing themselves a favor by building social capital. I hear this phrase often, and I bristle every time. Employing the root word of a heinous system that developed as the industrial revolution began is hardly a sure-fire strategy for winning friends and (positively) influencing people. The process of “building social capital” equates connivance with decency. Analogous to use of a barter system, the act of building social capital suggests a deposit is being made, and will be drawn upon later, perhaps with interest (i.e., usury).

In contrast to developing social capital, I believe we can and should work to contribute to a decent human community. As an aside, I’m often asked why I use the phrase, “human community” instead of “community?” This is exactly the type of question I’ve come to expect from individuals who wrongly believe we are the most important species on Earth. We’re destroying virtually every aspect of the living planet, and yet we believe we’re the foundation on which robust ecosystems depend. Viewing your place in a human community, and your contribution to that human community, is analogous to development of a gift economy. By striving to contribute, instead of invest, I can focus on developing life-affirming ties instead of dreaming about the return on my investment. By serving my neighbors, rather than determining how my neighbors can serve me, I become an integral part of a valuable system. As such, the whole, holistic system becomes increasingly durable.

I’ve written often about the importance of a decent human community. I’ve hosted hundreds of visitors, and I’ve spoken and written often about this rock-pile in the desert as an example. In the remainder of this essay, I provide a brief summary of the ties that bind the members of this human community, with a focus on the few hundred people within five miles of the mud hut rather than the five-person community occupying this small property.

Love for this place

The humans here love this place. Consider the examples at either end of the fiat-currency continuum. There are several financially wealthy people here. They could live anywhere, but they choose to live here. The majority of my human neighbors, though, choose to live in financial poverty. A mile up the road is a land trust with 13 members who share life on 20 acres. They grow their food and share a common well near the center of the property. They could live in dire financial poverty anywhere, but they choose to live here.

This is not a bad spot. I’ve grown quite attached to it. The latest trailer for Mike Sosebee’s film reveals the perspective of one of my neighbors.

Respect for self-reliance

If you can’t fix it, learn how. If it’s an emergency, learn quickly. The preferred route is to teach yourself. If that doesn’t work, you’re encouraged to call one of the neighbors, most of whom have been pursuing self-reliance for many years. They know about building structures, installing electrical lines, repairing plumbing, changing the carburetor, growing food, tending animals, mending clothes, and mending fences.

I don’t recommend calling the expensive plumber in the town 30 miles away. Not when your neighbors need the work and appreciate the companionship and the Federal Reserve Notes. As John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath:

If you’re in trouble, or hurt, or need — go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.

Appreciation for diversity

Most of us claim to tolerate other races, creeds, and points of view. But that claim comes up well short, in many of my experiences.

And tolerance isn’t nearly as much fun as appreciation. Here, we appreciate diversity in its myriad forms. My favorite example is the combination New Year’s Eve and house-warming party I crashed a couple years ago. About 20 of us were attending another party. Two of party-goers had been invited to a party at the home of the financially wealthy literary agents up the road. So we all went.

We were welcomed, of course. The party was attended by 150 or more people. At one point during the festivities, I happened to notice one of the well-dressed hosts chatting with a cowboy from the cattle company. The cowboy was dressed to the proverbial nines, including the requisite felt hat, pearl-button cowboy shirt, vest, starched blue jeans, and ostrich-skin boots. I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find two people in this country with more disparate political views. They were joined by a man from the land trust. His dress and personal hygiene reflected his living arrangements, with limited access to fiat currency and water. The three men continued an animated, thoughtful conversation for 30 minutes or so, as if they care about each other. Which they do.

I’m not suggesting it’s all rainbows and butterflies here, much less that the years ahead will bring nothing but good times. We have our differences, thankfully, even here on this small patch of the desert.

There are many attributes that could keep us apart. But there are even more that can hold us together, if we allow. I’d like to believe the latter is stronger than the former, despite the tendency of civilized humans to find an “other” in our midst.

Sharing gifts to develop a durable set of living arrangements within a decent human community: If you can imagine a better goal, please let me know.

–Guy McPherson, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Thanks, Guy. For the most part, “ditto”.
    I have a pet peeve about thermodynamics. Very few humans have the awareness of physics and our universe to make any claims about what can and can’t be done.
    Sure, we can’t sustain the modern state of activities which are based on extraction mentality, but the earth receives nearly a kilowatt per square meter of energy from the sun. Nearly everything in nature runs on that, and wastes a lot of it. No species exists that didn’t have some way of being a ‘gifter’ to its environment, rather than an extractor (not counting the sun’s energy, which,for all intents and purposes is perpetual). Humans out-thought themselves and learned to be extractors: we didn’t evolve that way initially, or we wouldn’t exist now.
    In other words, it isn’t the 2nd Law which prevents humans from sustainability: it’s culture and belief systems.
    Speaking of which, any belief system is usually described by a word with an -ism after it. In the general sense, ‘belief’ and ‘love’ are the same thing. “Capitalism” could be described as ‘money-oriented behaviors’ or “belief in money” or “love of money”: the root of all evil.
    It isn’t the capital that is the problem. It’s the selfish Now-oriented love of it above all other things.
    Our political problems are, for the most part, the result of putting numbers (money) above all other factors in our decision processes. Whether it is campaign money or budgeting arguments, the representatives we have (whether we voted for them or not) are failing to apply thoughtful reasoning to their choices. Instead, they simply wait for the ‘numbers’ to add up. Whether those numbers represent money or votes, they come down to letting numbers do the decision-making rather than mentally projecting ideas and actions into the future and making choices with common decency and intelligence. The belief in an Invisible Hand is part of that ‘love of numbers’ a.k.a. Love of Money. The Invisible Hand is the avoidance of responsibility to make choices directly and live with those choices. “The market will decide for us.”
    Servicing the future through gift-based (generosity) living is what the fundamental Love of God or Love of Country or For the Children or Environmental Sustainability arguments are all about.
    It means giving more than we take. That’s what living things do.
    What modern humans are doing is milking everything to death, like a CAFO dairy farm. We do it by choice, not by any innate inheritance that can’t be changed.

  2. says

    Yes, thanks Guy…couldn’t agree more. …in the most part.
    …but I would have to agree with Auntiegrav in regards to your objection to sustainability.
    I would put to you that it sits neatly on the continuum… consumption -> durability -> sustainability.
    ie. use it once -> use it many times or for an extended time -> use indefinitely…

    As we shift to a more ‘durable’ approach we would design things to last rather than to become obsolete so as to support the growth of the economy. We maintain… and negotiate agreements for maintenance with our neighbours….note for example that the buildings and homes in many traditional European and Asian villages are several centuries old and with ongoing maintenance could last an incredibly long time.

    I agree with Autiegrav, that the shift from consumption to sustainability is the shift from taking more than you give… to giving more than you take. We ‘give’ to sustain others, who in turn give to sustain us.

    This is consistent with Buddhist ‘karma’, with the ‘Golden Rule’ of Confucius, with the call of Jesus to do ‘good works’ and with Socrates who, when charged by the established authorities with ‘not believing in the gods believed in by the State and of corrupting the youth’ said:

    “… and I shall repeat the same words to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren … For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.”
    “The Apology of Socrates”, by Plato

  3. Michele Benoit says

    “Building social capital” rankles my senses as well. Its tone parallels monetary investment, with the investor the primary and paramount beneficiary. It seems unilateral rather than reciprocal. Ditto on the buzzy ‘sustainability’, for its corporate use implies a sustained taking rather than an effort to live in balance with the planet.

    “Gifting” in this age is an interesting endeavor that can make others uneasy. On a small scale–sharing our abundant raspberries with neighbors and friends–it’s understood and easy, a pleasant surprise. But venture into other areas, and there is often a reflex urge for the givee to almost immediately give back, as if to right the balance. It takes some persistence and clarity to assure that there are no strings attached to the gift.

    That default reaction makes me wonder whether giving is what we’re discussing (though the roots of the 2 words are related). Gifts often are bestowed and can suggest positions in status, and in some ways, special occasions. I realize it’s a matter of semantics, yet giving suggests to me a more fluid reciprocity.

    When I read ‘human community’, I too wondered about the modifier. My question was more about expanding the notion of community beyond Homo sapiens to develop a connected, meaningful relationship with beings besides other humans, and to minimize the sense of separation between ourselves and other–which may be the root of our ability to destroy.

  4. OzMan says

    Thet group of three men, the literary agent, the cowboy, and the land trust member?
    Was one of them Cormac McCarthy ?
    I read a transcript of their conversation recently, and it seems like its a fit.
    Confirm or deny…?

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