A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Gift Economy

       I'm going to call this next principle that inspires us in our lifestyle the gift economy, because that is the term we use in our community. But I could also call it sacred economics after the name of a book by Charles Eisenstein that really helped shape my thinking about this issue. For many years I had a hard time articulating what bothered me about the mainstream economic system, and describing why I didn't feel excited to be participating in it--by financially investing or by incurring debt in the form of a mortgage, loans, credit cards, etc. The more I saw and learned of the world as I traveled in my twenties, and all of the pollution, environmental destruction, growing industrialization, economic enslavement of entire nations, and the utter poverty and hardship that so many people live in (while others profit extravagantly), the more I felt I wanted to understand why things are this way and how my one little life and the money passing through my hands is connected to it all.

     As I traveled, these baffling questions kept appearing-- why is it that rice farmers in Burkina Faso (one of the poorest nations on the earth) can't produce rice for their own local markets at a price lower than imported SE Asian rice? All these farmers are out of a livelihood because their market price is undercut, but how can that be? The same thing when I went to Haiti with many commodities, like chicken. When I was in Haiti a year ago, I ate imported American chicken, just like everyone else did. When I went to Haiti 10 years ago it wasn't like this. (I remember the morning the rooster outside my window didn't crow! We had chicken the night before.) But now bags of frozen American chicken parts were all that was in the marketplaces. How could we be producing chickens and importing them more cheaply than local subsistence farmers in Haiti? Turns out, international trade agreements have a lot to do with this. Poor nations like Haiti are forced to sign them in exchange for aid packages (yes, the US did this to Haiti after the earthquake), and then they have no choice but to allow imported goods to compete in their markets. And rich nations like the US subsidize our farmers and exports so that we can undercut other nation's goods. That means tax payer money goes into making the difference between the American chicken and the Haitian chicken. Plus the way we mass produce and process chickens in giant factories called CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, pretty horrible places) using migrant labor (read: modern slavery) is pretty cheap too. So the poorest people in the poorest countries get poorer. And some wealthy people in some wealthy countries get wealthier. Trade agreements are just one piece of a giant economic puzzle. But this example points to the bigger issue: somehow the economic rules the world has "agreed" to play by are failing most of the people out there.

Note the American bags of grain in foreground of this Haitian market stall! NAFTA at work...

       Understanding the rules that our industrial economy operates by is trickier than you might think. Debt is one huge engine that keeps it growing: money is created through interest-bearing debt, and without growth, debt tends to rise faster than the ability to service it. Debt thus pushes the commoditization (turning trees in lumber, land into grain, etc.) and marketization of everything and everyone. We feed this grow-or-die system more and more natural resources which get turned into disposable goods, we try to invent more and more disposable goods (but we really only need so much, right?), and social relationships once free and gifted get monetized as services (i.e.- childcare, eldercare). We also continually chip away at the commons, converting what was once free into commodities (stuff we all once shared and no one owned--music, water, ideas, etc. increasingly get copyrighted, privatized and sold). We also "open new markets" via globalization and trade agreements to sell more stuff to even poorer people to keep our economy growing. But there is a limit to the amount we can do all this before we simply run out. And with the recent economic downturn we are feeling some of the effects of what happens when economic growth begins to reach its limits. (Though I should note, many people believe it is just a blip that we will recover from whereupon the economy will keep growing. Somehow. It remains to be seen...)

    I am a visual person so I came up with this image to help understand the big picture. (This is a bit exaggerated but bare with me.) Imagine the industrial economy is like a giant fire. We all need heat to survive, so we keep feeding it stuff to burn so it will get bigger and we will get more heat. Some people (the wealthy) get to stand closer to the fire and get more heat, while most of the rest are far away and get barely any heat to survive. But they all hope they will get a spot closer to the fire, so when the close people demand more stuff to throw in, the farthest out do all the work to gather stuff to feed it with. Natural resources like trees, fish, and fossil fuels get thrown in. Social relationships once free get turned into something bought and paid for, and that feeds it. Even when something bad happens like a natural disaster, that feeds it, and so on. If it decreases in size, we worry about the fire going out (economic downturn) and try to figure out something more to feed it so that it will grow again. You can see what the looming problem is... we are going to run out of stuff to feed it! The Earth has finite resources! And so few people reap the benefits of the heat while the outside people get almost no heat, all the work, and they have to deal with the ashes (pollution, trash, toxins, etc.) An economy based only on growth and profit neglects two other important bottom lines-- human rights and the environment. Considering there is only one Earth and we all have to share it, those are important pieces of the economic equation.

     Continuing this metaphor, the people around the fire have forgotten about the sun--there is already enough heat for everyone! This world we live in is inherently abundant, providing enough for everything we truly need. If you are a person of faith, you might call this God's providence, and it is so beautifully described by Jesus in Matthew 6:25-

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
It is also a theme of the Sufi poet and disciple Hafiz-

"And still, after all this time, the Sun never says to the Earth, 'You owe me'. Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the whole sky."

     In fact, I think you will find a finger pointing to the sun (continuing the metaphor) in every major religion out there, prophets who see outside the paradigm of their time to the larger economy of inherent abundance, grace, love, and gift that we are born into and return to. I think we all catch glimpses of that larger truth and its economic ramifications when there is a natural disaster or tragedy that touches our lives: our response is invariably to help each other, open our doors, give ourselves, love our neighbor and ask nothing in return. It is there in all of us. The question is then, how do we align our lives, our livelihoods, our systems, our economy, to that kind of abundance?

    That question is something our community in Missouri is experimenting with. We help each other without asking for something in return. We meet our basic needs by harvesting the abundance of the natural world, but only at the rate that it can be sustained. Classes and lessons and services are bartered or offered freely and gifts/donations accepted in whatever form they come back. Some people call this the gift economy, as it represents a system of transactions based on giving. When a gift is received, it inspires one to keep it flowing, either reciprocated, or passed on in another form. This system of exchange promotes a sense of abundance and gratitude that encourages everyone to draw from and share their innate talents instead of building up stinginess, scarcity, greed, and a sense of feeling indebted. I should point out that we all still need and use money, I am not saying money per say is a bad thing. But I am saying we don't need to put a dollar value on everything. And that in fact a life where goods and services are not inherently monetized can be far more fulfilling, humanizing, and connecting.

       Here is an example of the way the gift economy has worked in practice for me: a few years back our neighbor Don helped us clear some land for our house with his tractor. I was feeling really full and grateful so when another friend told us she was getting married and didn't have a dress to wear, I felt excited to help her make her dream dress as a gift. She was so grateful that she gifted us four wood benches (made for the wedding) in return, and has come to help us out at many of our house-building work parties since. And so the gift goes on! Another example of the gift economy at work is from our friend Mark, who started offering bread at our local farmer's market using the gift economy model as an experiment. He got a surprising offering of returns: some people preferred just to pay money (which was very useful for covering the expense of the wheat), but others returned their own homegrown produce, canned goods, crafts and such. What he was most struck by was the conversations and relationships that started happening. It was no longer an impersonal transaction, people felt excited to share their personal stories and their own gifts in return, and they would come each week to visit with him and share something new.

        I think this kind of alternative economic transaction is more common than one might think. Many people out there are experimenting with in many forms, creating new systems, new currencies, new markets and new products that encourage more connection, more fairness, and a better world for us all. I could probably write another paragraph about each of these next examples and the impact they are having, but suffice to say, here are some examples that inspire me:

Featured above: Berkshares- a local currency used in the Berkshires keeping money flowing locally; Fonkoze Bank of Haiti- signing up people for small loans within hours after the earthquake; Etsy- creative producers getting a boost with over one million artisan sellers and one billion in sales annually; Isidore Electronics Recycling- hiring and training ex offenders to recycle or upcycle e-waste in L.A.; Farmer's Markets and CSA's- allowing local farmers to sell directly to consumers and make a living wage; Skillshares- organized in communities all over to enable free workshops in hands-on skills; Fairtrade- with over $5 billion in annual sales worldwide, this movement helps producers in developing nations make a fair wage and promotes enviro. sustainability (Grenada Chocolate Company featured here... yum!); Service Swaps and Bartering- local networks and directories of folks offering to trade their services for other services (like Bartercard) are enabling bartered services equivalent to $60 mil/month worldwide!

     So, we might not be able to individually control things like international trade agreements, but we can become more educated about our choices. And we can start supporting the alternatives. They are out there and growing! Increasingly, for every product linked to a whole chain of human and environmental abuses, there is an alternative that supports human rights, living wages, and environmental responsibility. Not only are products moving in this direction as consumers ask for them through their spending patterns, but there are socially responsible ways to invest your money that help lift people out of poverty and help fund the alternatives. There are thousands of creative livelihoods that people like us are crafting to help usher in a new kind of economy. And there are hundreds of new marketplaces and online platforms that help us all find each other (for example- Kickstarter and the permaculture version, We the Trees, which helped us raise money to build our pond!) Here are just a few more resources to inspire you start getting involved in the gift economy:

Books, websites and such:
 Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein- This book is top of the list for me. It is both idealogically dense and very readable, beautifully fleshing out the concept of the gift economy and how our current money system works (and has to change). For anyone confused or overwhelmed about the macro-view of economics, or who is interested in exploring the invisible/spiritual side of economics, this book is for you! To fully embody the principle of the gift, Eisenstein has published it for free, chapter by chapter, online at- www.sacred-economics.com. There is also a short film on the website that someone made about the gift economy that further introduces the book. A must read if you are interested in the topic!

The Gift, by Marcel Mauss- This short book is for anyone interested in geeking-out on the anthropological side of economics and the gift economy. Mauss analyzes the econ. practices of indigenous societies around the globe and finds that they have a common practice of reciprocal gift exchange. In the book, he builds a case for a foundation to human society based on collective  exchange practices. Originally written in the 1950's, it has been very influential on the field of anthropology, as well as in the realms of philosophy, art, theology, and politics.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman, by John Perkins- This book is one of the most shocking true accounts that I have ever read, exposing the way American imperialism works in this day and age, told by a former self-described "economic hitman". After getting out of the dirty business of enslaving nations economically with impossible to repay infrastructure projects thereby ensuring US control over much of the developing world, Perkins worked up the courage to write this book (after a decade of threats and bribes not to!) In his work now, he is trying to undo some of the damage in the same indiginous communities he helped to ruin environmentally and economically decades earlier. Criticism to this first book led to a second cowriten book delving deeper into modern economic imperialism- A Game as Old as Empire: the Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption.

The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard- Okay, so if you like reading and getting all the gritty details, antidotes, and full thesis version of how our world of industrial "stuff" affects the planet, read the book. This book represents a lot of research, and much first hand experience on the part of Leonard. However, if you are short on time, check out the website, www.thestoryofstuff.org, or the really great little video that Annie Leonard made, simplifying the industrial process of manufacturing stuff down to an entertaining 20 minutes! Must see. Really. Watch at- www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM
The Better World Handbook/Shopping Guide, by Ellis Jones (and others)- These books are excellent little guides for the average person who wants to make the right choice with their dollars, but who is overwhelmed by all the options out there, or who may be too busy to be actively involved in social change organizations. Never fear, just bring your guide along when you go shopping! Very thorough research into the social and enviro. practices of most major companies goes into their "A-F" ranking systems, conveniently separated into categories like "toothpaste," "airlines," etc. I just discovered it is all on their website for free at- www.betterworldshopper.com. So just click there to find out... where is the best place to buy gasoline? pizza? Who are the top 20 best and worst companies? Find out!

The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, by Ched Meyers-     This is more of a short study guide than a book per say, but it will have you Christian-oriented readers cracking open your bibles and reading the same familiar passages with a profoundly different understanding. The Bible--both new and old testament--is full of powerful economic lessons that biblical scholars (and popes for that matter) are only recently beginning to shine a spotlight on. Ched is one of my mentors and a very excellent writer, teacher and scholar. This is a great way to delve into the "sabbath economic" lessons of one of the world's great wisdom traditions, and stretch your mind about everything you thought you knew about Christianity!