“We are reclaiming human relationships from the market.”
Lua laughed, as if I had asked a really silly question. She told me that ‘of course’ it was a very cooperative culture and that there was a pervasive custom of giving that was deeply felt, honored, and valued among the islanders in her community. And that they were generally very happy people. She said,
“Most people feel the same way I do. That it feels good to be blessed with good health and good fortune. But it feels even better to be a blessing to someone else. I try and make a habit of small gestures of kindness and giving — it’s why I enjoy cooking for others so much — and I know how this affects my mind, my body, my emotions, and my spirit. It is a habit that always rewards.”
She said she had always preferred being a go-giver rather than a go-getter. Taking less, sharing more. That attitude has helped her connect to the world and to the natural abundance in her own life. Lua continued,
“With the giving of gifts — whether of time, money, or things — the good fortune of one is also genuinely felt as the good fortune of others. On my island, we have a larger sense of self, so there is no need for coercive mechanisms to enforce sharing. For us, the social structures of gift giving serve a very important purpose: they remind us of the intuitive truth of our ultimate connectedness. It seems to me that a strong and vibrant gift culture that is recognized and honored throughout society is a beautiful self-regulating means of attaining an appropriate distribution of resources. In a gift culture, people pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it — my good fortune is also your good fortune; more for me means more for you, too.”
Paul soon joined in on the conversation and added that a money economy could do that as well — connect human and nonhuman needs with the gifts of humanity and Nature that can meet them. But instead it encourages concentration of wealth and excludes those who cannot pay — such as poor people, other species, and the Earth itself — from the circulation of gifts. And our current money economy has several negative features: its anonymity and depersonalization, its indifference to community and connection, its denial of cycles and the laws of return, and its orientation toward the accumulation of ever more money and property.
Lua went on to say,
“Both generosity and gratitude have an incredible influence on our emotional health. When we practice them, we’re happier, more optimistic. Generous people who live with a sense of gratitude are far less likely to be depressed and experience anxiety. Gift giving reflects how we feel about others and gives insight into how we can maintain healthier relationships with each other. It should come as no surprise that the act of giving has many of the same health benefits as meditation: lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol, longer life, and better sleep.”
Julie also joined the conversation and told us that when she talked to her restaurant customers about what, if anything, was missing from their lives, the most common answer was a sense of community. The layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public spaces, pervasive car culture, saturation of television and digital entertainment, and the high mobility of people and jobs have all eroded community life. But, if one digs a little deeper, they all seem to point to a common cause, Julie asserted: the money system. Julie explained,
“Authentic community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like we have on the U.S. mainland. That is because community is woven from gifts and giving and mutual trust, which is ironically why poor people often have stronger communities and healthier social relations with each other than rich people.”
Julie explained that if you are financially independent, like Tucker, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors — or indeed on any specific person — for anything; you can just pay someone to do something, or pay someone else to do the same thing. Lua pointed out that in former times, people depended for all of life’s necessities and pleasures on people they knew personally. And therefore, if you alienated the local blacksmith, brewer, or doctor, there was no replacement, and your quality of life would be compromised. If you alienated your neighbors, well then you might not get much help if you sprained your ankle during harvest season or if your barn burnt down. Community — the habitat for cohesive, vital, life-affirming culture — was not an add-on to life, it was your life.
Today, we like to think that we really don’t need anyone (or any culture or community) in particular. If one farmer won’t grow the food I want, I’ll just pay someone else to do it. I don’t need a specific mechanic to fix my car. I don’t need a particular delivery-truck driver to bring stuff to my door. I don’t need any of the individuals who produced any of the things I use. Sure, I need someone — or maybe soon just a robot — to do a particular job for me, but not some unique, individual person. They are all replaceable.
Julie added that perhaps this condition accounts for the superficiality of many social gatherings. How authentic can it be, when the common understanding is, ‘I don’t really need any of you’? When we get together to consume food, drink, or enjoy entertainment, do we really draw on the specific gifts of anyone present? Anyone can consume, as long as one has money — there is no special relationship there. Lua agreed,
“It’s true. Social intimacy and bonding comes from co-creation, not co-consumption.”
It is different from liking or disliking someone, she explained. But in a monetized society, creativity generally happens in specialized domains — and almost exclusively for money. Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today’s market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition with the understanding that more for me means less for you; in a gift economy, the opposite holds. Wealth circulates, naturally gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community like the one on her island, people know that gifts will eventually come back to them — everyone needs something at some point in their lives — albeit often in a different form.
In economic terms, though, a gift circle reduces Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the sum total of all goods and services exchanged for money — great for people and planet, but not so great for corporate profits. Having spent countless hours over many years in conversations with her local restaurant customers about deteriorating community life in her evolving city, Julie added,
“Both out of desire and necessity, we are poised at a critical moment of opportunity to reclaim gift culture, and therefore to build true community. I believe this reorientation toward a gifting and sharing culture is part of a larger shift of human consciousness — a larger reunion with Nature, Earth, each other and lost parts of ourselves. Our alienation from generosity and gratitude is an aberration, just as our sense of independence is an illusion. We are not actually independent, even if we feel financially secure — we are just as dependent as before, only on strangers and impersonal institutions and transactions. And, as I am quite sure we are likely to soon find out, those institutions are much more fragile than we have been led to believe.”
Giving and gifting reclaim human relationships from the market, Julie explained. They reverse the current trend of converting social relationships — like caring for one’s own children — into professional services. She continued,
“Fortunately, many of us, especially Millennials, no longer aspire to extreme financial independence, the state in which we have so much money we needn’t depend on anyone for anything ever. Today, increasingly, we yearn instead for community. We don’t want to live in a ‘commodity world,’ where everything we have exists for the primary goal of profit. We want things created for love and beauty, things that connect us more deeply to the people around us. We desire to be interdependent, not independent, and to rebuild the competence, confidence, and rich conversations of a particular, unique, cared-for place. The gift circle, and many new forms of giving and sharing, are emerging and are being enabled by social media and the Internet. People are yearning to be more, not have more. The trend is clear: we are reclaiming human relationships from the market.”
“Gift giving contributes to another kind of less tangible common wealth — a reservoir of gratitude that will see us through times of turmoil, when the conventions and stories that hold civic society together fall apart. During difficult times, community is necessary to support social cohesion, engagement, shared cultural depth, and possibly survival. In the coming years, we will need the generosity, the selflessness, and the magnanimity of many people. If everyone seeks merely their own survival, then there is no hope for a new kind of civilization. We need each other’s gifts as we need each other’s generosity to invite us into the realm of the gift ourselves. In stark contrast to this corrosive age of money, where we can pay for anything and need no gifts, soon it will be abundantly clear: we will need each other again — and it will make us happier.”