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.