Could a Gift Economy Change the World?

Via Amy Jirsa
on Aug 23, 2012
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Photo: D Sharon Pruitt

Saving the world, with compassion, one gift at a time.

Photo: rajkumar1200

So, I was reading this very disturbing article about Monsanto and Indian cotton farmers in Mary Jane’s Farm (you can find the article online here). But I’ll sum it up for you: before Monsanto brought in its genetically modified cotton seed, farmers needed little water and fertilizer and no pesticides. After Monsanto?

“Whereas conventional cotton crops depended only on rainfall and cow dung for fertilizer, natural rainfall is often not enough for the GE crops, and farmers are forced to buy expensive fertilizer and pesticides as well [as paying Monsanto’s $80 ‘technology fee’ for every 2.6 acres of crops]. This has led to poverty and severe indebtedness for the farmers, often to moneylenders who charge exorbitant fees. One failed crop can put farmers into a downward debt spiral with no hope of ever paying back their loans.”

The result? A quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide since 2008.

How can this happen? Well, one solution would be to buy organic cotton. Voting with our dollar would definitely get the message across. The other? Well, okay. This probably would never happen, but let’s just delve into fantasy here for a second. Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but, without greed (individual or corporate), we’d all be a lot happier; we’d all have a lot more incentive toward working for a common, rather than an individual, good.

Let’s imagine, just for a second, that we live in a gift economy.

We’ve collectively decided that money is the root of every problem and we’ve done away with it. Okay, awesome. What does this look like? Well, say I need a new roof put on my house. I contact a roofer and ask what he’d like to barter. Maybe he’d do the roof for a month’s worth of organic veggies. So, I go to my nearest farmer and ask what she’d like in exchange for a month of veg. Well, I’m a yoga teacher, so she asks me to come to the farm weekly and teach an hour or two to the farm crew. She pays me in veg, and I get a new roof.

Photo: seanmcgrath

I know, I know. You’re thinking this is a naïve simplification that leaves big questions unanswered—how do we get things like cars, airline tickets, or surgery without money? Well, I kind of think that it would feel so good to work for a few hours doing what you love in order to get what you need that we just would become a more generous society overall.

Doctors would go back to making house calls in exchange for chickens or eggs or manual labor. Politicians would be elected based on the depth of their compassion instead of their ability to turn us against each other.

A compassionate government? Hell, that would take care of myriad problems—suddenly we’d have plans for green, efficient, mass transportation, socialized healthcare, farming that took the earth, and not the corporations, into consideration and compassionate foreign policy.

In the words of Carl Safina,

“Saving the world requires saving democracy. That requires well-informed citizens… Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from: compassion.”

The quickest road to compassion? Cultivate the art of giving; cultivate the art of gracefully receiving. We don’t need to wait for compassion to become the cause célèbre. Why not start now? In my yoga studio, I happily take organic veg in exchange for yoga classes. I’ve also taken gifts of art, massage sessions and offers to clean or cook. Everyone has a gift, an inherent skill, and there’s nothing that makes us feel more worthy than using that gift to obtain what we need.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta



About Amy Jirsa

Amy Jirsa is a writer, wanderer, yoga instructor and master herbalist. She makes her home at her studio, Quiet Earth Yoga, in Lincoln, Nebraska and on her blog. And if that’s not enough, you can also find her at Twitter @QuietEarthYoga or on Facebook (Quiet Earth Yoga). She'll be releasing a book on yoga and natural health, to be released in 2015. Stay tuned!


2 Responses to “Could a Gift Economy Change the World?”

  1. Mark Ledbetter says:

    I like mind games such as this one. They are great mind openers. This one, though it sounds nice on first thought, seems pretty close to impossible. Keep in mind, what follows is only the result of my own playing of this mind game, someone else may come up with a rosier picture.

    I can’t see how anything that requires extreme division of labor would work with barter. And almost nothing aside from basic food, shelter, and clothing would be barter-able. Of course computers, refrigerators, washing machine, electric lights, water pipes, bicycles, trains, steamships and such are out of the question. I mean, even pencils were luxury items in the 19th century and would become so again. Ballpoint pens? Forget it. We’re back to feathers. As for the ink, I’m not sure. Oh, and not paper! Or paint, if you're into art.

    And even going back to food, shelter, and clothing…

    Food, maybe, but only if you are willing to forgo a lot of things that most people want, and willing to forgo eating out except on rare occasions. Personally, after so many years of luxurious living (i.e. normal everyday 20th century living) I’m not willing. Shelter would work only if you are willing to live in a very small and primitive structure, and some people are. As for me, I was attracted to teepees once, many decades ago, and knew people who lived in them. Even teepees, though, would be a rather big project without money. Clothing? Before division of labor, cotton cloth was a luxury item. And even if it were not, the machinery for stitching it into clothing requires extreme division of labor so we’re back to homemade clothing. That alone would take hours a day and then there's several more hours keeping them clean since we wouldn’t have water pipes to our teepees. Personally, I’d rather be doing other things than making and washing clothes half a day every day.

    It’s a nice idea. I’m attracted to it. But wait! just thought of one more thing. I’ve traveled in countries where nothing has prices so you have to negotiate EVERYTHING. Some people get a kick out of that, but for me it’s just a huge pain.

    Still, go for it. That’s one thing about a free society. If you can find enough people who agree with you, you can organize any kind of social structure you want. If it’s nice enough, lots of people will join you. Who knows, if it works maybe even I, ancient skeptic though I am, might join you.

    Have a good one!

  2. Mark Ledbetter says:

    I know, I'm getting way too into this what-if mind game, but I was thinking as I walked along today… First of all, Amy nails what's actually important in the first five words: "Saving the world with comapssion." But applying my practical bent and understanding of economics, I was thinking some more about a barter moneyless economy, i.e. one without extreme division of labor.

    In such an economy, only the super-rich have books. I've read that pre-Gutenberg, i.e. before the age of extreme division of labor, one book had the value of three farms. I.e., most people could scrimp and save for a lifetime and still not be able to buy (or, in this case, barter for) a book. Nowadays, with extreme division of labor, one book has the value of, say, an hour or two working minimum wage or maybe a square foot of farmland. If you take advantage of even further division of labor and invest in a kindle or nook, one book may cost no more than a few square inches of farmland.

    Gift-giving is good and important, but I can't see it replacing money. We need money if we want the products of extreme division of labor. Sudden thought, we're blaming money for the sins of humans. If so, then it's us, not money, that's at fault. Simply getting rid of money isn't going to solve the problem of human greed.