A short time back, we received a Christmas card from my wife’s 88-year-old grandmother. When I said something to my wife about getting the card, she immediately said that she was upset because her grandmother always sends a check for holidays and birthdays, and seeing how she is on a very limited and fixed income, she cannot really afford to send anything. More recently, we were getting a few Christmas gifts ready for my parents in anticipation of them coming over for an early holiday gathering (they winter in FL every year). My wife expressed concern that we were not giving my parents enough in return for the gift they gave us and told me that she felt bad about this.
While feelings of displeasure surrounding the receipt or giving of gifts may seem contradictory on the surface, the reality is that this is the reaction that many of us have more often than we care to admit — myself definitely included. It also shows that way that gift-giving has been almost completely marginalized within our society, for us to feel a sense of genuine unease over something that should bring us happiness instead. I think that the source for this unease is something that very few people recognize — the way that the rules of market exchange have gradually overtaken many areas of our lives that they have no business entering, with the exchange of gifts being a major instance of that intrusion.
In order to explore this issue, it’s important for us to look at the basic mechanics of gift economies versus market economies, because they are decidedly different from one another. The market relies primarily on immediate, quid-pro-quo exchanges between people who often have no other relationship than the moment of that exchange of money for an item or service. Once that immediate exchange is satisfied between purchaser and vendor, there is no outstanding obligation between the parties. Contrast this with gift economies, which not only rely upon continuing obligations to function properly, but exist within broad webs where those obligations are not necessarily paid back to the party who gave the initial gift, but are more often paid forward to others.
When looked at in this manner, I think that it is understandable how we have such issues with gifts when we are conditioned countless times each day to think in terms of market exchanges. To take it a step further (and perhaps make it more controversial), I think that greater engagement of the gift economy has the potential to undermine the market economy’s hold on so many aspects of our daily lives — and enable us to live more aligned with the permaculture ethics, particularly the third ethic of return of surplus.
Charles Eisenstein has written extensively on the nature of gift economies in his book, Sacred Economics. I don’t want to go too deeply into his writing in this piece, but one of the major themes he takes up is the subject of gift economies, and the central role that they played in our daily lives for the overwhelming majority of human existence on this planet. Eisenstein likens our current market-dominated economic landscape to a monoculture of one single plant (such as corn) spreading across thousands and thousands of acres. This kind of arrangement can be held together through massive interventions — at least for a time — but overall it is fragile and fleeting, and good neither for the corn nor for the end user. I don’t consider it a stretch to look at the goings-on of the financial sector over the past few years and conclude that what the money economy is currently doing is not good for most of the citizenry in the “developed” world, nor for the long-term viability of the currencies of those nations.
Another theme that Eisenstein visits in his writing and talks is the way that an increased reliance on money creates a sense of scarcity — and although it seems contradictory, the more money that people have, the tighter they hold on to it for themselves. This can be supported by the statistic that people from lower income brackets tend to give a higher percentage of their income as compared to people from higher brackets. Simply put, the more money a person or family takes in, the more they use that money to pay for a broader range of goods and services (thus increasing their reliance on the financial system), and the less likely they become to readily share what they have. I have seen this dynamic at work in my own life. As my household income has gone up, I have actually found myself becoming more preoccupied with money than I was before, and consistently finding excuses to put off giving — even as my surplus has grown. It is only through reading, listening and thinking about the nature of gift economies that I am even able to recognize this phenomenon at work and come up with a plan to counter it.
The first step I have taken to better orienting my financial life with the permaculture ethics through gift giving is to change the way that I look at gifts given to me as well as how I give gifts to others. Although I still have the urge to protest gifts when offered, I force myself to open up and accept them, with all of the gratitude that acceptance entails. When it comes to giving gifts to others, I have expanded my definition of a “gift” — it could be something material, but it could also be sharing my time with someone or providing a skill that I have. In the event that I feel like someone else has given me more than I have given them, I do not allow myself to be constrained by the need to pay them back, but rather open up the possibilities to paying their gift forward in the future to someone in need.
Taking this further, my wife and I are planning out scheduled giving as a part of our regular budget — no different than food, utilities, or savings. By doing so, we are forcing ourselves to regularly engage in the gift economy. My goal is for this to eventually help us to displace our over-reliance on the monetary/financial economy and increase our household resiliency in the process. For an example of how far you can take such an engagement of the gift economy — and the rich life you can discover as a result — I recommend checking out “Radical Possibilities with Ethan Hughes” from The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann. For a quick write-up on Ethan Hughes and his community, click here.
In a future post, I’m going to talk about a project I came up with to combine gift-giving, permaculture food production and communty building in my immediate surroundings.