The Gift Economy (part I)

October 31, 2011

Goods and Services

This past week I have been feeling deep gratitude for the gifts of October. The delicious Akebi (chocolate vine) fruits that have appeared everywhere amongst the trees, the walnuts and chestnuts littering the ground, the first of the winterberries, little raspberry like fruits peeping out from under a carpet of deep green foliage, the Inubiwa (wild fig) fruits, persimmons, salads of tender chickweed, dandelion, plantain, sorrel and pomegranate, the warm sun on my face, the cool moist earth under my feet. Receiving a squid from Tsuchiya-san I give thanks also for the gifts of community, for the gift economy in which we participate.


Via Tsuchiya-san we are part of a (at least) three-way gift economy which also includes a local fisherman whom we are yet to meet. Passing on our surplus to Tsuchiya-san, and often things we have made with our surpluses, we receive the surplus not only from Tsuchiya-san’s garden and kitchen but also the surplus catch of her fisherman friend. I don’t know if our gifts ever make it directly to this particular fisherman but they will certainly make it out to Tsuchiya-san’s circle of friends and family as there is simply too much for her to consume on her own. In the words of a Pirahã hunter-gatherer “I store meat in the belly of my brother.” [Everett, Eisenstein] This is security.

In our present day conception that we inhabit a world of scarcity security is equated with acquisition, possession, hoarding. This is a mindset that, in large part, results from our shift to agriculture. It is not found amongst hunter-gatherers who show little concern for tomorrow. It has repeatedly been remarked by anthropologists studying the life ways of hunter-gatherers in different parts of the world that while there was food for today that was enough. [Sahlins] Even though it could be stored or preserved usually it wasn’t. It is not that technologies/processes for food storage were unknown, they often were, evidenced by the fact that they would sometimes be utilised to keep food items for later barter with visiting traders, [Everett, Eisenstein] but because food was stored in the bellies of brothers and sisters. And here we must understand “brothers and sisters” in the widest possible sense: all creatures, all plants, Earth itself, are our kin, or, more precisely, are us.

The gift economy is, of course, not limited to goods. With Tsuchiya-san we also participate in another ancient form of the gift economy, a form absolutely fundamental to the development of culture, the defining characteristic of culture: the intergenerational passing down of knowledge borne of experience.


After a morning spent helping Tsuchiya-san with some physical labour we rested, eating rice balls and drinking tea. Tsuchiya-san remarked how wonderful it was to have young bodies about to help out with the physical work and I in turn remarked how wonderful it was to have old folks about to pass on their wisdom and knowledge. This lead to a teary moment of gratitude amongst all of us as we realised how lucky we were to be receiving these gifts. Such exchanges, so essential, are now largely absent not only from rural  communities that have experienced a mass exodus of young people but throughout our entire culture (in the cities of our most “affluent” societies there seems to have been a mass exodus of old people, shunted off to retirement and nursing homes, hospitals, or self-exiled somewhere). Our relationships have been monetized, as “services.” The guidance of our elders has been replaced with educational institutions, life coaching, counselling, therapy, the physical contributions of our young ones replaced by labourers, hired help, contractors etc. As our economic system, with its insatiable need for growth, converts every natural resource into money, taking them away from us so they can be sold back to us, so too are our relationships slowly but surely being replaced by services for which we must pay. [Eisenstein]

To break the psychological tyranny of our deeply engrained fear for tomorrow is no easy task. Increasingly our belief that scarcity is the ground state of Earth is being actualized. Our (agri)culture has made it so. The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture has altered the environment from one that abounded in an astounding diversity of wild plant and animal foods to a homogenous landscape of agricultural crops that we must sow and tend today in order to harvest tomorrow. And thus begins the process of deferment that has come to dominate our culture (exemplified in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions but present throughout all agricultural peoples), a process of rewards for work done where nature no longer gives freely but must be coaxed into giving, where we must toil to “make our living,” where paradise will come later, always later. Our monetizing of everything, every natural resource converted into a “good” and every relationship converted into a “service” realizes this belief in scarcity, making mere existence a cause for anxiety: Get to work! if you don’t want to die cold, hungry and alone. In other times we called this slavery.

Given that we have created a world of scarcity how can we possibly move again into a state of abundance? This shall be the subject of my next post but rest assured I won’t be trotting out the New Age cliché that you just have to “allow your consciousness to dwell in a state of abundance and it will come to be.” More often than not the “gurus” that pull out lines like that (for a buck) are in fact talking about manifesting monetary abundance. It should be clear from what I have written above that I do not see money as merely a neutral medium of exchange, just an “energy,” to cite another New Age cliché (money is about as neutral an energy as atomic energy, making toxic everything it touches). Money, as we have it today, is an agent of scarcity, a creator of scarcity. But putting money aside for a moment, there is, nevertheless, a germ of truth to the first New Ageism: our perception of the world helps shape it and if we can free our consciousness from the fetters imposed by a lifetime of messages to the contrary, we will see that not all is as we had previously believed, that the ground state of Earth is, in fact, abundance and not scarcity. With this realization we may not immediately enter into a world abounding in all that we need but we may see that what prevents us from entering such a world is not what we thought it was. In other words, we will already be well on our way to reaching it.

The irony, that on the day I write these words the seven billionth person will join us on this small planet, is certainly not lost on me. If scarcity wasn’t Earth’s ground state we’re sure doing our best to make it so. Or, should we see it through the generous eyes of Charles Eisenstein who has suggested that maybe every human being that ever lived is being reincarnated on earth now to witness humanities great transformation.

Everett, Daniel L., “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language” Current Anthropology, Aug-Oct 2005.Vol.46, No. 4
Eisenstein, Charles., The Ascent of Humanity, Lightning Source Inc., 2007. Full text available as a gift here.
Eisenstein, Charles., Sacred Economics. Berkeley: Evolver Editions, 2011. The full text of Sacred Economics available online here.
Sahlins, Marshall D., Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972. Sahlins well known essay from Stone Age Economics, ‘The Original Affluent Society’ can be viewed here.

14 Responses to “The Gift Economy (part I)”

  1. Thank-you for this lovely, heart-felt piece of writing! I stumbled upon your blog while hunting for a picture of freshly harvested arame. I live in Asheville, North Carolina, USA.

    Statements such as: “ask the bamboo” from your earlier blog on gathering (and what pictures, scents and feelings that entire piece gave me!), plus: “In the words of a Pirahã hunter-gatherer “I store meat in the belly of my brother,” –as well as the tearfulness of the exchange between yourselves and Tsuchiya-san. . . will certainly keep me reading, as well as passing your blog on to like-minded friends. I very much appreciate your sharing of your experiences and your obvious wisdom, and would love to see an autobiographical piece on yourself and others there if you are willing. (Perhaps it’s somewhere on the site but I’ve not found it yet?)

    many blessings and much love to all of you,
    Danielle Creeksong

    • dion Says:

      Hello Danielle. Welcome! I’m glad you found us. I love the name Creeksong.

      At first I was a bit surprised by your question about an autobiographical piece because I think of most of my posts as being autobiographical in that they are usually drawn from my everyday experiences. But I think I know what you mean. You are looking for a bit of background. How we got here, or what got us started on this journey, right? If so, then no, there aren’t yet any posts like that. But, it just so happens, that I have been considering an idea for a post that would require just such an autobiographical sketch. So, it might be on its way.

      Thank you for your very kind words.

  2. Dion your insight and the ability to share your thoughts are no less than stellar. I have rarely consumed a piece of writing (though that appellation does not do it justice) with such intensity, one that left me so deeply in resonance with the ideas therein. I use the word “consumed” advisedly – it is the storing of ideas in the mind of a brother , if I may be permitted to misappropriate Eisenstein and Everetts quote. The nourishment it gave me is immense, placing something that at the core of my being has always felt so wrong into a clear context. It also feeds me with courage and with hope.

    You continue to be an inspiration and an aspiration, thank you so much for the gifts you share beyond your immediate bioregion. Kia kaha. Kia ora.

    • dion Says:

      Ron, wow! Thank you, brother. That really means a lot to me. Its like a great big bear hug. I’m sinking in to it feeling the warmth and goodness. It brings a big smile to my heart.

  3. kenelwood Says:

    Well said, dion.

    I’ve been heavily into a “family economy” for about 7 years now, and an extended gift economy for about 3 years, taking and giving to the land on a daily basis. Whenever I build something here, or add on to a preexisting structure, one of my tests is, does this increase or decrease the total aliveness of the land? Another is, what would this look like if it were abandoned for a thousand years?



    • dion Says:

      Thanks Ken. Feels good doesn’t it! If we can only trust in the gifts of the earth the abundance becomes an everyday reality.
      Great criteria for action. One thing that bothers me about the permaculture approach of many people is the notion of “usefulness” of species. If we have that attitude we are still in the mind set of separation and control that is the root cause of the shabby thinking that got us in to the mess we’re in. An attitude of we know best. That our needs, or the needs of other species that we deem important should be elevated above all other needs. We’ve come some way since our programs to exterminate all insects but we’re still dividing them up into beneficial and pests so we’ve still got a way to go. For this reason I see forest gardening as a transitional practice. The subject of a future post, maybe.

      • kenelwood Says:

        Hi again Dion, nice wrap up in part II.

        If we can only trust in the gifts of the earth the abundance becomes an everyday reality.
        Great criteria for action.
        …I see forest gardening as a transitional practice. The subject of a future post, maybe.

        My life has become the forest garten here. Here’s ongoing pictures. I’m not showing you this because I want to say hey!look at me!, I’m showing you this because the thing is growing itself! I’m just around a lot. 🙂

        One thing that bothers me about the permaculture approach of many people is the notion of “usefulness” of species.

        Right, I don’t think Permaculture is spiritual in that way. At least not yet. Aut I think at least it’s a start, and at worst it’s still silly, but not batsh*t crazy insane.



        • dion Says:

          Thanks Ken. And thanks for the link to the pics. The garden looks great. Have you still got olive and ginko saplings? I’m going to have an interesting collection of seeds arriving soon and thought you might be interested in some. I’ll send you and email and we can discuss it.

          • kenelwood Says:

            Hi Dion, thanks. “Yes” on both the olive and ginkgo saplings. Olive — (Picual [table], Nevado Blanco [oil], Leccino [oil], Frantoio [oil].) Ginkgo — Grafted to rootstock (Kyuujyuu, Toukurou.) and 3 to 10 inch mystery seedlings (from seed) x 30.



  4. Jocelyn Says:

    Hi Dion and Asako,

    At last if caught up and been caught by your shared wisdom and writing. I’ve always enjoyed your thinking as it questions my own and add new dimensions… strength in diversity 🙂 I want to hug you all, Tsuchiya-san included. Blessing always.

  5. brodoland Says:

    Superb post Dion, I really look forward to Part 2. The gift economy of rural Japan, which you describe so eloquently is one of the things that compelled us to move here. There is true freedom in “storing food in the bellies of bothers and sisters.”

    • dion Says:

      Thank you. As monetised as life in Japan is (where isn’t it these days) the practice of gift giving remains very strong and definitely gives an element of resiliency to communities. I read somewhere recently an economics “expert” (American, I think) claiming that if it weren’t for Japan’s gifting tradition the Asian economic crises would have been felt much more severely by many more people.

  6. […] author of The Ascent of Humanity and Sacred Economics, works that I am drawing on heavily in The Gift Economy posts talks about the Occupy Wall Street Movement and raises some very salient points related to […]

  7. […] this post, the second part of a series on gift economies, [part one can be read here], I contrast the dynamics of a money economy to those of a gift economy, and discuss the casting of […]

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