Do we all need a gift-economy network?

More than once Richard Heinberg’s book The End of Growth left me feeling like the sky is falling.  However, any survey of markets over the last four years seems to show the trend of no or little growth.  He argues that sustainable networks of economic interaction will have to be built on something other than debt and raiding of natural and human wealth.

I keep finding myself returning to his “economic history in ten minutes” and his reflections on the transition from gift economies to trade economies.

“With more and more of our daily human interactions based on exchange rather than gifting, we have developed polite ways of being around each other on a daily basis while maintaining an exchange-mediated social distance.  This is particularly the case in large cities, where anonymity is fostered also by the practical formalities and psychological impacts that go along with the need to interact with large numbers of strangers, day in and day out.  In the best instances, we still take care of one another–often through government programs and private charities.  We still enjoy some of the benefits of the old gift economy in our families and churches.  But increasingly, the market rules our lives.  Our apparent destination in this relentless trajectory toward expansion of trade is a world in which everything is for sale, and all human activities are measured by and for their monetary value.

Humanity has benefited in many obvious ways from this economic evolution:  the gift economy really only worked when we lived in small bands and had almost no possessions to speak of.  So letting go of the gift economy was a trade-off for houses, cities, cars, iPhones, and all the rest.  Still, saying goodbye to community-as-family was painful, and there have been various attempts throughout history to try to revisit it.”   The End of Growth, p. 29-30.

Do we all need a gift-economy network?  I think so.  We’ve renamed it social capital.  But there’s still a rub even there.  Relationships won’t last under the weight of what people take from them.  Vibrant and resilient relationships are build on what we willingly give to them.

Vancouver is abuzz with the longing for the community-as-family life.  (See the Vancouver Foundations most recent study.)  However, its our conditioning in the trade-economy that keeps us from the generosity and sacrificial approach required to include others in our circle of friends of family.

We all need a gift-economy network.  Perhaps the best way to get one… is to start giving.

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