Let it Bleed II

March 22, 2013

Here is Asako’s latest Les chroniques purple contribution. Originally posted March 16, 2013.


We have two pairs of chabo — Japanese heritage breeds of chicken. They are much smaller than regular chickens and thus lay smaller eggs but we chose chabo instead of the typical hybridized egg-machine chickens. Be it creatures or plants, we prefer the strong, close-to-wild ones that can take care of themselves. Chickens that have been selectively bred for high productivity require special food to keep up with the nutrient, mineral and protein demands that come from pumping out so many eggs. Favoring particular genetic traits always comes at the expense of others and so these chickens are prone to illness and have usually lost the ability to efficiently forage their own food.

Our four chabo all hatched last summer, making this their first spring.

Their names are Bully, Obasan (Japanese for auntie), Chabosuke, and Chaboko. Chabo tend to pair bond and are ‘faithful’ to their partners. Because of this it is traditional in Japan to keep pairs of chabo – one rooster for every hen. Our two pairs are descended from different breeds, one of which produces roosters that are considerably larger. Due to this difference in body size, Bully was always bullying Chabosuke (hence his name). Recently Chabosuke began taking out his frustration on the girls and sometimes on me too! Then one day he decided enough was enough. It was time to confront the bully.

The challenge started with a high flying kick to Bully first thing in the morning. But mostly their fighting method is more like sumo wrestling. They stand off, puffing up their collars, staring at each other. One lunges at the other’s comb or wattle, pecking it with his beak and pulling on it to drag down his opponent’s body. This is the first time I have seen chickens fight. It was a frightening scene: blood on their faces, on their feet, and splattered all over the ground. They wouldn’t stop. I became worried that it might not end until one was seriously injured, crippled, or even killed.

After thirty minutes of carnage I stepped in, and put everybody into their separate houses to cool down (interestingly, the girls didn’t care about the boys’ fighting at all, and were busy with their usual scratching up the soil and munching away on things while right next to them the voltage was at maximum!).

Next morning I opened the doors of the two chook houses and, within seconds, witnessed the same scene as yesterday. After a short while I shunted everyone back inside their respective houses and closed the doors again.

Not knowing what to do, I called the guy who had given the chabo to us. He said, “I don’t know. I never know what they are thinking. We can only observe them. They will figure it out for themselves.” I asked if it was a good idea to move one of the houses away from the other. “No”, he replied. Of course, I don’t know what they are thinking either! I made up my mind to stop interfering and see what would happen, to let it go all the way even if the outcome was one I didn’t like.

Next morning it started again. This time I didn’t interrupt but just observed the fighting. It seemed like Bully was losing, trying to run away from Chabosuke. He looked confused, like he couldn’t comprehend what was happening. But Chabosuke wasn’t letting him escape. They ran beyond the perimeter of their normal playground. I patiently followed them wherever they went just to keep an eye on where they were. At one point Chabosuke knocked Bully down. He seemed completely off-switch, blood all over him. It looked like Chabosuke wasn’t going to stop attacking him. I reached in to the fray, grabbed Bully and held him tightly to my chest. After having a good look at the damage I put them into their houses again.

And I moved Bully’s house far away from Chabosuke’s.

I thought by now Bully would understand that he was no longer No.1. And here, in this new location, he could enjoy a new life with his partner, Obasan.

Next morning, they were having breakfast at their now widely separated locations. It seemed a quiet, gentle morning … until Chabosuke started crowing loudly. Sure enough Bully, hearing the crowing, rushed off in the direction of Chabosuke. At this point I just walked away. I went back to my daily tasks but I kept thinking about it.

I had lived in cities my whole life until recently when I moved to the mountains to live within nature. After two years, I thought I was getting better at it but this incident showed me that I am still far away from nature, trying to force other living things to fit my view of the world, domesticating them into cute house pets and ignoring their instinctual natures. To ‘protect’ them both I had tried to prohibit them from fighting. But then, are they the only ones to have been domesticated?

Recently I went to the city. Around the station there were many signs prohibiting people from doing all sorts of things: No parking! No smoking! No talking on mobile phones! Don’t litter! Don’t stand in front of this line!.…  Red and yellow is everywhere. The colors of security and safety, we are led to believe, are protecting people from one danger or another, some inappropriate behavior or filthy habit, but aren’t they actually preventing people from listening to their intuitions, to their instincts and senses, redirecting the very process of their thinking? Domesticated animals. And I am one of them.

The situation calmed down that day. Chabosuke lost both of his spurs and gave up the fight. Bully kept his dignity after all. They went back to their usual roles, but only until Chabosuke’s spurs re-grow, perhaps.

Let it Bleed

February 18, 2013

Originally posted on Les Chroniques Purple, February 16, 2013.

During a recent spell of particularly warm days a paper wasp appeared on the toilet wall. In subsequent days the temperature plummeted and (if she has moved at all) her movements have been barely perceptible. Coaxed from hibernation by the arrival of spring. Or, maybe not…

Although the sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day the nights remain crisp—cold clear skies and shimmering stars. This cold dark energy has dominated the past months. During this time many plants concentrate their vital energy, their ki, in root systems sunk deep in the relatively warm soil. There are also plants that have hugged the ground closely protecting themselves from the brutal wind that whips up the valley. Now, here and there, fukinoto, the small buds of the giant butterbur, have begun popping up from the ground. Fukinoto we deep fry or boil and mix with miso paste. It is a bitter tasting plant. The bitterness of many spring wild edible plants stimulates the digestive system and helps flush out the residue accumulated through the winter’s heavier fare. Fukinoto is a plant that reminds us of winters passing and the arising of spring.


It is a commonplace that farmers or those who “live close to the land” are more keenly attuned to the seasons. For us, living as foragers and gardeners in a forest, what we have become more aware of is the bleeding boundaries of the seasons across time and space. Spring, summer, autumn and winter as discrete seasons with “official” starting dates—be they astronomical or calendar-based—seem to have little to do with the dynamic flow of constant and gradual change that we experience. The drum roll of spring beginning somewhere in the depths of winter. The fall crescendo building momentum in the torrid days of summer.

During February—usually the coldest month—the morning ground glistens with a carpet of frost. The chickens struggle to drink water through the crust of ice that covers their bowl during the frigid nights. Winter scenes to be sure. However, late morning, as the sun crests over the mountains to the south, a warm glow fills the valley and a different scene is revealed. The tiny white flowers of chickweed peek out from the plants’ increasingly lush growth. Thousands of frog eggs become visible (how long have they been there?) on the bottom of a small pond. The first tentative blooms appear in the tree canopy.

Behind our house a path cuts across the slope of the hill. Above the path, where the sun hits early, where a bamboo grove shelters the land from strong winds, where the slope of the hillside encourages frost to move along without settling, daffodils have been glorying in days of spring for weeks already. It is here that the florets of nabana, a wild mustard, can be picked first. Below the path, in the depths of the valley, where the sun comes late, where the land is fully exposed to the gales and where frost settles thickly it is still the midst of winter. Here the nabana will arrive much later but will continue producing delicious florets for much longer.

For the forager attuning to the seasons, or “eating seasonally,” is a deep practice. It is an invitation to learn the lay of the land intimately; to learn the precise gradients in temperature caused by the differing angles of the sun as it touches a hillside; to develop a sense of the microclimates offered by a rocky outcrop, a tree, a body of water; to observe where the soil is most, or least, fertile. We overlay this information with what we have learned from the plants: preferences in soil fertility and warmth, preferences in amount of sunlight exposure relative to air temperature, how much rain in which temperature range will spur the fruiting of a particular fungi… Of course this is not to be studied in books then applied in the field but learned by doing, slowly. And anyway, it can hardly be said that it is consciously applied at all but rather, in a most subtle way, the feet, the eyes, the hands are guided.

– Asako Kitaori & Dion Workman

On the Road

January 3, 2013

Well look at that…The end of the world has come and gone (again) and we’re all still here! With the latest apocalypse/salvation distraction behind us we’re back to the reality of the slow catastrophe daily unfolding and the responsibility for doing something about it.

While the Japanese have just voted in a right-wing, pro-nuclear nationalist “strong leader” to end their woes (not that there was much of a choice – being a modern democracy an’ all) Asako and I have a different idea. In January we’re hitting the road (well, the tracks actually) to propagandize the people and hopefully inspire a little action.


During January 2013 we will be giving presenations in Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Tokyo about our life and work at Shikigami. Through photographs and stories we will discuss our approach to permaculture, deep ecology, forest gardening and gift economics.

Hamamatsu Wednesday January 9, 13:30. Payaka: 4-19-12 Kamoe, Naka Ward, Hamamatsu Permaculture Chubu, Hamamatsu

Nagoya Sunday January 13, 14:00. Tokurinji: Aioi-28-341 Tenpakucho Oaza Nonami, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya Permaculture Chubu, Nagoya

Tokyo Friday January 18, 19:30. One Kitchen: 3-26 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


1月9日(水) 13:30 Payaka(パヤカ) 静岡県浜松市中区鴨江4-19-12  詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月13日(日) 14:00 徳林寺(本堂裏のギャラリー・ハスタクティ1Fにて)  愛知県名古屋市天白区天白町大字野並相生28-341 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月18日(金)19:30 One Kitchen  東京都新宿区 荒木町3−26 サウスウィング荒木町2F奥


Too Posthuman to Die?

July 3, 2012

By Jason Workman

levitating caterpillar

With the sliding doors open, my brother and I sat with the view and scent of an idyllic forest garden. After spending almost two weeks as a visitor here at Shikigami, nestled between wooded hills, on the Pacific coast of Honshu Island, Japan, I found amidst familiar rhythms, endless variety and nuance. Whether lighting a handful of brittle foliage to fire the rocket stove, following a meandering garden path to collect a colander of leafy greens, sitting at a bend in the stream listening to water snag rocks, drinking fragrant tea from a hand thrown cup, or watching the flicker of a large cosmically-dark butterfly blur your vision. Within the space of close attention, no two moments are alike, life is in constant flux.

The view beyond this forest garden is of a hillside cleared of its native vegetation for the purposes of plantation timber. This land is no longer biodiverse, and just one repercussion of this, is that the topography here, as in many other parts of Japan, is in perpetual danger of sliding away after heavy rain. While some surface erosion is common on steeply pitched slopes, landslides, which are much more destructive, are predominately caused by disruption of native habitat. It is a cycle of degradation. Mono-cultures with no ground cover, lacking inputs of organic mass (to decay back into soil), create non-resilient, depleted soils and give rise to weak rooted trees (which ironically here, have also proven to be an economic failure).

A task which happily coincided with my stay, was to harvest the first, second and third leaves of the Camellia sinensis, and process – employing heat and one’s hands – these mildly fragrant leaves into an aromatic Kamairicha (tea). As we worked and talked, hands stained lightly green, the conversation took an apocalyptic turn. Enter futurist and robotocist, Hans Moravec.

Moravec, born 1948, Austria, desires – amongst other things – to abandon the human body. The very body that at that precise moment, was coordinating itself to roll excess moisture from clumped leaves, while simultaneously revelling in, and calibrating to the fine sensations of the day. A clenching seized my gut as I struggled to digest what was being relayed – mind downloading / uploading (into a remote and artificial body) – the mind a digital ‘architecture’ supplanting the need of an ‘analogue’ flesh. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nation (1991) Jerry Mander provides an overview of Moravec’s whacked, dangerous and nihilistic aspirations[1]. As I listened to the reading of a few excerpts, Mander’s words oscillated between reality and unreality, terminating eventually, with an existential chill, only half real inside my head.

Forays into virtual reality and telepresence – as mediated through ‘remote’ robotic bodies, are merely a fledgling phase in the enhancement of our ‘capabilities’;

The remote bodies we will inhabit can be stronger, faster and have better senses than our “home” body. In fact, as our home body ages and weakens, we might compensate by turning up some kind of “volume control”. Eventually, we might wish to bypass our atrophied muscles and dimmed senses altogether, if neurobiology learns enough to connect our sensory and motor nerves directly to electronic interfaces. Then all the harness hardware could be discarded as obsolete, along with our sense organs and muscles, and indeed most of our body. There would be no “home” experiences to return to, but our remote and virtual existences would be better than ever.[2]
– Hans Moravec

The human – following on from an untidy, unwieldy and resistant ‘nature’, is a thing (obviously also a ‘natural thing’ and subject to the same laws of decay?) to be manipulated, moulded, controlled and transcended.

…the brain is a biological machine not designed to function forever, even in an optimal physical environment. As it begins to malfunction, might we not choose to use the same advanced neurological electronics that make possible our links to the external world, to replace the gray matter as it begins to fail? Bit by bit our brain is replaced by electronic equivalents, which work at least as well, leaving our personality and thoughts clearer than ever. Eventually everything has been replaced by manufactured parts.[3]
– Hans Moravec

Aging and death are increasingly seen as pathologies, and not as natural processes. Subsequently, these degenerative processes are being treated ever more liberally, with intricate, and experimental technologies. Death – for the anti-aging movement, for futurists, and within medical science itself (with its predilection for quantity (lifespan) over quality) – is being conceived of – if not as surmountable, then at the very least as something to be postponed. Moravec’s sketch for a ‘postbiological’ future; The human as cyborg, is merely on the extreme (and logical?) end of this technological thinking.

The U.S. military plans to implant soldiers with medical devices [utilising nanotechnology], making them harder to kill with diseases……………..Stanford University researchers are developing tiny robotic monitors that can diagnose illnesses, monitor vital stats and even deliver medicine into the bloodstream, similar to the devices that the military plans to create.[4]

At the risk of affording Moravec any more space on the page, the cult of immortality to which he subscribes (alongside notable futurist peers: Kurzweil, Minsky, Warwick et al) has numerous, extant and future implications, not in the least because the very technology that is most salient for futurists: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, simulated reality, robotics……is current research fodder of many prestigious, mainstream, research laboratories across the world[5], or else it has already obtained either nascent or broad application within the public realm. That this technology comes with myriad, little understood risks, and with unpredictable consequences, ranging from the relatively benign to the catastrophic[6], should be a prompt for concern, as should the fact that every other interest on this planet is excluded, barring one – the human.

Tired of discussing M______, and his apocalyptic future (which he gives about even probability of coming about)[7], we left the house, and walked a short distance, on a dirt path, into the bamboo grove. As we dug out a few of the freshest shoots – the smell of wild pig in the air, the bamboo colliding in a light percussive music – the day’s lightness insinuated itself back into my flesh. This living was no less intense for knowledge of the inevitable – everything sliding toward a destiny – that we are again, to become food for this earth.


(This piece was first published for the exhibition Projections by Alex Rizkalla – Place Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, July 2012)

[1] All the local materials (of the earth) will be plundered and turned into machines, and these ‘conscious’ artificially intelligent robots, far superior, physically and intellectually to the human, will at the very best treat humanity benignly, as a curiosity, a relic of the past.
[2] Moravec,H. (1992) ‘Pigs in Cyberspace.’
[3] Ibid
[4] Knibbs, K, March 21, 2012, Mobiledia. Accessed 25/6/12
[5] Moravec, regarded as a pioneer of the robotics industry, helped establish The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he currently holds the position of adjunct professor. The Robotics Institute, known as R.I has a staff of 500 and a budget of 65 million (2012). MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, is the largest on-campus laboratory in the US and was originally formed by the cognitive scientist/futurist Mervin Minsky in 1970 as an offshoot of his A.I group.
[6] Bostrom, N. (2002) ‘Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards’ and Bostrom, N. (2011) ‘Existential Risk Reduction as the Most Important Task for Humanity.’PDF
[7] Platt, C. (1995) ‘Superhumanism’, in Wired, Issue 3.10, October 1995.


February 29, 2012

Gathering fukinoto again can only mean that it is just over one year since we moved on to this land. Actions repeated as our rhythms synchronise with the seasons. Seasonal tasks emerge: a winter of pruning to revive long abandoned fruit and nut trees, cutting logs for growing mushrooms, gathering vines from the forest for basketry, thinning the bamboo grove, making miso and, of course, plenty of foraging for winter foods.

Short evenings spent with a pot of hot tea on the hibachi (a large urn in which charcoal is placed on a bed of ash), hands kept warm with the whittling of bamboo utensils, weaving of baskets or binding of grass brooms. Legs warm under the low, quilt covered table, covering also another bed of ash and more glowing charcoal. An arrangement the Japanese call kotatsu. For the inexperienced it will be meaningless to talk of the qualitative difference in the heat that emanates from charcoal. It may lack the look of adequate heat, the brash and violent blaze of a well fuelled wood fire but nevertheless it slowly, quietly projects a heat that penetrates deeply.  A little can go a surprisingly long way, but we are talking quality not quantity. This may be the old secret to the close-knit nature of Japanese family life: there is but one warm place in the house and you must be within inches of it to receive its warmth.

Now spring is returning, so says fukinoto, a proclamation seconded by the flowering willows. The clear days are warm. Birds sing encouragement to the swelling buds in the build up to a full spring crescendo. Encouragement is needed for the spring comes in fits and starts. Warm humid days fool shiitake into a premature flushing. The return to cold dry weather leaving only knobs of stunted and dehydrated would-be mushrooms on the logs. A hapless wasp, likewise fooled into a premature emergence, staggers on the door step, dazed by the cold.

There are good reasons for the long delay since my last post. I prefer to write in the early morning but as winter progressed my warm futon produced increasingly compelling arguments against such a routine. Winter almost done I had a novel idea: I could write with pencil and paper! Imagine that. And no need to get out of bed. Wake up, reach for notebook and pencil and dip in to the flow. Writing when half asleep is an interesting exercise. A revealing exercise. Jotting down whatever comes in to your head as you linger in that sweet space between sleep and wakefulness… But whatever comes into my head, interesting, or revealing as it may be, doesn’t necessarily make for appropriate blog material. Nevertheless, I am quite taken by this pencil and paper thing and will happily spend a lot less time in front of a glowing screen.

It is not that I have not been writing at all though. I have written a piece on miso making for the Permaculture Research Institute website and have another couple of articles in the works for them. There is a wealth of interesting articles posted regularly on the PRI website.  The pieces by Kyle Chamberlain I have found particularly interesting.

I am also working on a book. Ostensibly about wild harvesting though not a field guide. More like a politico-philosophical treatise, or a foragers manifesto, if you will.

It has been a wonderful first year at Shikigami. A difficult thing to say in light  of the traumatic events in Japan. The best news this past year has been the permanent closure of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, about 80km’s south west of Shikigami. We are very happy indeed with this announcement and look forward to future announcements of the closure of all the remaining nuclear reactors in Japan and throughout the world. From the timing of the announcement (or our awareness of it, at least) it could be tempting to think of it as last years Christmas present but we know that Christmas presents go with the opening of power stations, not their closings.

The closure of Hamaoka is good and necessary, to be sure, but it remains that the options in Japan are largely between nuclear and coal fired power plants. We say, none of the above! And forget about green tech fantasies to keep the economy rolling (bulldozing) along. Our economic system is the driver for the wholesale destruction of environments and the lives woven through them, not to mention the further decimation of communities long stripped from sustaining environments. We put our own energy into showing the desirability and wealth of low energy living. (More workshops to be held in Tokyo in March. Details soon.)

Given the continuing and deepening global economic crisis, playing out most dramatically in Greece at present, the time may have finally come  when significant numbers of people will realize that not only is a change of system desirable but also inevitable. I continue to do work on gift economics, mostly focused on researching anthropological works on traditional gift economies. I am beginning to think that the notion of reciprocity may be overemphasized in contemporary reconstructions of gift economies, something I have done in my own writing. Perhaps the inevitable result of those fully immersed in market ideologies trying to come to terms with the radical difference of gift cultures.

Recently, thanks to the brilliantly titled Art for Housewives blog, I have been introduced to the work of Mark Boyle, a Brit who has lived for over two years without using any money. Boyle has written a book, with the rather dull title, The Moneyless Man (a publishers, not a writers title choice, to be sure), recounting his cash free experiences. He has a second book on the way that addresses many of the questions and criticisms raised by the earlier work. I have not read his book but I have been looking at freeconomy, the community website he founded. Freeconomy is basically a site to find local people to join with in the creation of gift circles. People list skills, tools and other things they can share and if you require something you contact the individual concerned and a connection is established. At first it may sound somewhat like LETS (Local Energy Trading System) but an important difference is that LETS is based on the exchange of time, that is, time is used as a unit of currency. Its essential difference from the regular economy is a difference in the means of exchange. Freeconomy has no accounting, no unit of exchange and is therefore a true gift economy.

I do not mean to suggest some kind of purist gift economics dogma though. Our current economic system will be the dea(r)th of us all and any and all methods of operating outside of that system are needed. Now.

Finally, while on the subject of gift economies, this blog now features a new Gift Circle page. The Shikigami gift circle provides a way for you, should you so wish, to offer gifts that will help in the continuation of our work and the work of others we wish to support. If you enjoy reading this blog, find the information useful, the ideas stimulating  or inspiring, the pictures nice, please take a moment to check it out.

The Gift Economy (part II)

November 25, 2011

In 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 spells and how to break spells. In a future post I shall look at the practicalities of gift economies and address the issues of transitioning from our current money economy to something more desirable. Or, in other words, from scarcity to abundance.

Monetized Life

The loyalty of school children, indigenous knowledge, drinking water, the human genome—it’s all for sale.
– Lewis Hyde, The Gift

It is commonly  believed that the origins of money lie in barter. Money, we are told, developed as a technology to facilitate the otherwise cumbersome direct exchange of goods. As anthropologist David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, points out (as have many others) there is virtually no anthropological evidence to support this view and plenty of evidence suggesting that it is erroneous. [Graeber] Barter, the direct exchange of goods based on an agreed upon value of the goods by the trading parties, is found where people have previously come into contact with money.

Money and barter are systems where the emphasis, the value, is placed on the object of exchange, that is, on the material goods or services. The purpose of the exchange is acquisition. In traditional gift economies, such as potlatch, for example, we see something very different. Objects that help meet material needs are indeed transferred but the value does not reside solely in the object but, rather, in the giving and receiving. The purpose is not acquisition of material goods but the strengthening of support networks or gift circles.

What does it mean to strive for “financial independence”? That we don’t want to be dependent on others, to need others. We want to be free of obligation and responsibility. If you do something for me and I pay you for the service I have met my obligations and therefore owe you nothing. Job done, money paid, we’re finished. “Nice and clean.”

This hard won “independence” is illusory, of course, for we have actually exchanged interdependence, with family, friends and community for near total dependence on money and the goods and services it can afford us. We are no longer intimate with the people who sustain our lives. The monetized life is a depersonalized life.

The Gift Circle

The dynamic of the gift is very different. The gift builds relationship. The feelings of gratitude we experience in receiving gifts foster our desire to give back, to share our gratitude. And, on the flip side of gratitude we have obligation. We feel a sense of responsibility to those who are generous toward us. We look out for them and care for them. The gift attends to our self-interests by fostering the interests of the community at large. More for you means more for me.

It is told that when a needy family came to the house of the Prophet Muhammad his wife, Aisha, took the meat that they had in the house and gave all but a shank to the family. When later she explained that nothing was left of the lamb but the shank the Prophet replied that all was saved but the shank.

The gift economy, in fostering relationships of gratitude and responsibility, relies on social witnessing: a community awareness of who is generous and who stingy which consequently determines the level of generosity shown to individual community members. How, and by whom, your needs are met directly relates to how you have treated others.

In the modern world we often bemoan the loss of community. It seems the more “affluent” the society at large the more keenly the loss of community is felt. But this should not surprise us for the dynamic of money undermines community bonds by removing our interdependence, our needing each other. This need for one another is the foundation of community.

The gift circulates through the community – and we should note that the movement of the gift is indeed one of circulation and not exchange, for where, as Charles Eisenstein points out, our gifts are exchanged we are moving into the realm of barter and are no longer in the realm of the gift [Eisenstein]. As the gift flows through the community it infuses  the feelings of generosity and gratitude that strengthen our communal ties as our needs are met. Spirit is breathed into the community.

The Community of Life

What is the origin of this monstrous machine that chews up beauty and spits out money?
– Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics

The fictitious story of money’s origins in barter conveniently supports the notion that markets will spontaneously emerge, sooner or later, wherever there are human societies. Again, David Graeber shows us that such an assumption is highly problematic as the emergence of markets had far more to do with rulers meeting the needs of their armies than it ever did with meeting the needs of the people. [Graeber] If markets are inevitable then it is only to certain kinds of societies. Getting “the people” to participate usually required forceful coercion such as undermining social networks and stealing land (enclosing the commons, or privatizing, as we call it today. As Proudhon said, “Property is theft”). Of course the simplest method is to start issuing currency and then demand taxes paid in that currency. What was formerly given away is now sold and co-operation disintegrates into competition. The market emerges.

The functioning of markets requires an element of scarcity. There must be a need for something not easily obtained. Either new needs must be manufactured or the meeting of existing needs made difficult. When intrepid explorers, missionaries, anthropologists  and the like encountered “primitive” societies they did not find barter or market mentalities because what they generally found were people who lived in a world of abundance, not scarcity. Needs were met by the gifts of the gods. The world, the entire community of life, was a gift circle where, as long as behaviour appropriate to a gift circle was maintained, all ones needs would be met.

Of course, the simple minded savages couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue living in such a state of ignorance. One of any number of ingenious methods of inducing scarcity was introduced, necessitating the establishment of markets, the use of money, the collection of taxes, debt, poverty, theft, prisons, and so on, and so on… From living by the gifts of the gods to survival of the fittest. More for you means less for me.

If money has undermined the bonds of human community then it’s severing of our connection to the larger community of life has been even more complete. As the quote opening this section suggests, our economy is a monstrous machine that consumes the natural world to create money. Although the overt buying and selling of human life is generally looked down upon in our “enlightened” age the rest of life is still up for grabs. “For a price, you can buy anything, even the pelt of an endangered species.” [Eisenstein] Although money is not the root cause of our (self)exile from the community of life, but is, rather, a manifestation of it, it has nevertheless become a ferocious enforcer of the belief that we are discreet beings separate from the rest of life.

Our sense of separation goes back at least to the Neolithic and the first agriculturalists. With agriculture a new binary view of the world is born, a world of competition, of us against them: crops or weeds, beneficial insects or pests, domestic or wild, good or evil, etcetera, etcetera. Some, such as John Zerzan, would place the origins of our separation even earlier with the emergence of symbolic culture; representational language, number and art. [Zerzan]  No matter when we place the origins of our separation, with money we have carried it to its conclusion and today find ourselves in a world of abstractions where everything has been reduced to number.

The fate of life is determined by the monetary value that can be extracted from it. If we see more value in a field of soy beans than a prairie then prairie will become field of soy beans. Sacred land or uranium mine? Rain forest or hardwood decking? Endangered species or pelt? Numbers in a ledger.

Living in the Real World

From the mistaken view of ourselves as discrete and separate beings we have developed our stories, our cultures, philosophies, sciences, technologies, economies…that support and reinforce this view. We have written ourselves into a monstrous fiction and remade the earth as a backdrop for our dystopian plot.

But we are not separate, are we? When we look at a forest freshly clear cut we feel the pain of the forest. We feel the sense of loss of the creatures whose home has been razed. Thousands of years of steadily increasing separation has not completely extinguished our sense that we are those creatures, we are those trees. When we allow ourselves, when our rational mind momentarily drops the prison guard role it has been educated to play, we feel the truth of our interdependence.

Returning to live in the real world requires just that we live in that world of interdependence. That is to say, not just believe, or even know, but live.

From the moment of your birth, no, before that even, you have been receiving the gifts necessary to sustain and nourish you. Before you were capable of “earning your keep” you received the gifts of life, of Earth. It is no wonder that we often experience deep feelings of gratitude for simply being alive, for we’ve been receiving precious gifts non-stop the whole time we’ve been here. What has changed? Why do we now feel anxious that what we need will no longer be given to us? Is it because we have not maintained the behaviour appropriate to a gift circle?

Marcel Mauss noted that traditional gift economies contained a trio of obligations: “the obligation to give, the  obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate.” [Hyde] We have all been given gifts, ways in which we are able to make unique contributions to life on our beautiful planet and, if we are not to renege on our obligations then we must be giving generously of our gifts. To do not what you love but what you think you must do “for the money” is to renege on your obligations. Behave inappropriately and the gift circle is broken. To overcome your survival anxiety, to put aside the monetized illusion of security, and wholly offer up your gifts for the well-being of all life is to re-enter the gift circle. (I am not suggesting that you will never need money but, rather, that if you do what you love and give of your gifts, whatever money you need will come.)

To refuse a gift is to proclaim that we do not want to be in relationship with the giver. The obligation to accept also requires that we be open to all gifts that come our way, that is, not to have fixed ideas about how our needs are to be met. Let’s face it, we don’t know best. The evidence of that is everywhere. Our “knowing” is so wrapped up in our story of separation that it is woven through with desires to control the world around us. It is time to let go. Remember, the “weeds” are often more nutritious than the crops.

The earth gives us what we need. Long before we got the idea that we could run the show, Earth generously provided for our every need. We must reciprocate if we want to live in the gift. Nothing can demonstrate this more clearly than looking at the current state of this planet. Since attempting to take over the reins we’ve run vital life support systems in to the ground. Not reciprocating the gift ceases to flow. To rejoin the circle we must use the gifts given us and give back to Earth. That is, to fulfil our purpose in life. To fulfil our ecosystem function.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, 2011. An earlier text of the same title, later expanded into the 2011 publication, is available online or as a PDF here.
Eisenstein, Charles. Sacred Economics, Evolver Editions, 2011. Online text here.
Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal, CAL Press, 1999. Free eBook download here.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift, Vintage, 2007. Free eBook download here.


November 20, 2011

Part II in my gift economy series will be posted soon but in the meantime here is a little half-time entertainment. In this short video Charles Eisenstein, 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 gift economics.

One of the most inspiring aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement for me (and the Indignados movement in Spain which, in turn, inspired OWS), is the spontaneous emergence of gift economies. Food, clothes, electronics, books, medical supplies etc., have flowed into the movement and circulated freely. Until the NYPD raided Zuccotti park and trashed everything, OWS was running the only library in the area. Within days after many hundreds of books had been carted away in dumpsters the OWS library had received donations of a few hundred more books and was operating again.

The real “threat” of OWS is people realizing they don’t need Wall Street and the global economic system it represents, they need each other.