Envisioning a Gift Economy

It’s becoming clearer each day now that our “conventional” economy built on money, debt, and global trade is doomed. I’m convinced it will collapse, even though I’m not at all sure how or when. When it does, how will we humans cope?


I place the word “conventional” in quotes because there’s nothing “conventional” about our present economy. It’s a freakish creature of cheap fossil fuels, solely dependent on a fantasy of perpetual growth that simply cannot continue in anything like its present form.

If you think I’m wrong and that we can continue forever to base our collective survival on convincing people to borrow and spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need and can’t afford, I can respect that. I won’t try to convince you otherwise. But I’m encouraging those I love to at least play like I’m right and to prepare for a new and different world where money is not nearly so important as it seems to be today.

For most of us, that’s going to mean a long period of slowly declining denial and episodic coping with the collapse and a slow transition to some form of economy that will use a combination of money, barter, and gift economy. If you’re not familiar with the term “gift economy,” it’s high time you learned, because unless you’re on your death bed, it’s likely to become increasingly important to you during the remainder of your life.

The idea of the gift economy is that we live in community and that each of us has at least something in abundance. For some of us, it will be health knowledge or medicines. For some of us it will be vegetables, or fruit, or eggs. For some of us it will be woodworking or electrical skills. For some of us it will be be simply our time to provide (relatively unskilled) labor. But nearly everybody has something. In a functional gift economy, we give from our abundance. There’s no overt or acknowledged quid pro quo. We simply give it away to other members of the community. When other members of the community have something in abundance that they perceive would be helpful to us, they give from their abundance to us.

Gift economies are not some New Age invention; they’re the most stable and resilient form of economy humanity has developed, used for thousands of years in every culture and on every continent throughout human history. It’s just during the last 100 years within industrialized societies that the money-based economy has shoved gift economies aside. Gift economies don’t depend on government, there are no contracts to negotiate or sue on, and they strengthen the social fabric of the community. They also enhance art and creativity, because unique gifts are particularly prized. Gift economies are inherently resilient.

In a smoothly running gift economy, each gift comes wrapped in thoughtfulness; giving the same gift to many people is frowned upon. So is attempting to pay someone for the gift he or she has given you. In a smoothly running gift economy, no one has to say “you’ve done a favor for me, so now I’ll do one for you.” It’s understood that we all give from our abundance and that we all stay in touch with each other so that everyone who needs something has a way to get it.

In a sense, I’m breaking the rules even to talk about the gift economy. It’s necessary that I do so only because so many of us are out of practice. Because of recent distortions, we in western industrialized society have become more attuned to money than to relationships, more attentive to the strangers in our workplace than to our family, more focused on saving for our retirement fund than on getting to know our neighbors. We have to relearn the gift economy; in all likelihood this will make us a unique generation. Those born today and later will grow up using it and won’t need to be taught.

I will be talking more about the gift economy in the weeks ahead, and specifically about the ways Amanda and I think we will be able to contribute to it from what we’re doing here at Longleaf Breeze.

6 thoughts on “Envisioning a Gift Economy”

  1. Yes, that would make sense. His Koinonia group’s philosophy would be comfortable with the idea of the gift economy.

  2. I agree with you that we cannot continue to sustain an economy based on consumption and consumerism. I’d like to add to the discussion the ideas of William McDonough on sustainability. He wrote a book called Cradle to Cradle. He advocates finding the sweet spot where there is a balance of feasibility, profitability, and sustainability. I blogged about him on my blog Peaceworks, here: http://xanskinner.blogspot.com/2010/02/william-mcdonough.html He has done a TED talk, but the link on my blog is to a talk he did at the Univ of South Carolina in 2010 that is one hour long.

  3. In a post tornadic environment, which I continue to thank you for the insightfulness of my family being prepared, we have been blessed with a sunny yard, formerly occupied by large trees. We now have 3 raised beds of tomatoes, squash and cucumbers which have been fruitful. Besides my 80s couple next door neighbor being thankful for hooking up to my generator immediately after the storm, we have been sharing our crop with them. While we still have lots of landscaping to deal with (cutting a 8 ft tall, 100 ft long hedge imbedded in my fence, that needs to come down so we can get a new fence), I keep finding my neighbor helping to cut my hedge in my absence. First let me say, this 84 year old neighbor can outwork me on any given day. He dragged me onto my roof after the storm to show me how to patch my roof withn stray tin that blew into our yard, some roofing nails and roofing tar.(I’m afraid of heights) :). Older people who remember the Great Depression have such a great sense of helping each other out. He has, and is still, teaching me with the wisdom of his age. “the more you have, the more you have to take care of”, “you should always be be looking for a better way to perform a task”, “time is money, you can spend your time or you can invest your time. If you spend your time, you do not get anything in return. if you invest your time, you’re building for the future”. With our recent heat wave, my biggest concern is finding him dead in my yard. 🙂

    This is my neighbor I thought I knew well before the tornado. Actually, I’m just beginning to get to know this “old man”, and the rewards coming to me are much more than what I have done for him. The tornado we experienced in Tuscaloosa has opened up a whole new world with me and my neighbors, he is only one of them. Whenever we meet each other, the first words are “what can I do to help you”, even before we know each others name. And lastly, the motto for Forest Lake in Tuscaloosa, “We are coming back”! And this is my example of the gift economy, may we continue to prosper!

  4. Thanks Chris. That’s beautiful. So much of what “old men” know is slipping away from us before they have a chance to teach it to us. What a privilege to get to know your neighbor the way you are and to learn from him. Study well!

    Alexandria, thanks for the link to McDonough’s talk. I started watching his lecture but had to stop because of time constraints. I’ll return to it later when I have a little more time available. I was immediately intrigued, though, by a statement he made early in the lecture to which you linked, something like “We humans are the dominant species on the planet. So we need to be asking ourselves what our intention is for the planet. That calls for an answer better than that we want to be doing a little less damage than we have in the past.”

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