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Riches without dollars: embracing the gift economy

Somewhere along the line, money took over our lives. The dollar became almighty. And now we’re paying for it. With our happiness, our health, and the environment.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

We can embrace alternative economies. These informal economies can provide many of our needs – without the exchange of money. And as a bonus, the fuel for these alternative economies – sharing, trading, generosity and gratitude – build stronger and more resilient communities.

Generosity breeds generosity. A basket of homegrown mushrooms recentlly gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. Little eco footprints

Generosity and gratitude builds strong communities. A basket of home-grown mushrooms I gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. 

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition, argues that the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. In contrast: "In a gift society, if you have more than you need, you give it to someone who needs it."

Eisenstein suggests generosity is how you earn security: "Because if you have built up all that gratitude, people are going to take care of you." He says that "if there are no gifts, then there is no community. And we can see, as societies have become more monetised, that community has disappeared. People long for it, but you can’t just have community as an add-on to a monetised life. You have to actually need each other."

The gift economy builds community. A basket of gifted sourdough cinnamon scrolls. Little eco footprints

A bakset of homemade sourdough cinnamon scrolls I gifted to some strangers that had had a rough few days. I'll never see these people again....but perhaps they will (intentionally or unintentionally - it doesn't matter) pay it forward. 

Mechanisms to facilitate alternative economies can be formal and structured – like the many new collaborative consumption tools. These effectively enable sharing, lending, trading, renting, and gifting. These traditional actions are far from new, but new online technologies have made them easier. For example, there’s Freecycle, TimebankingLETS, Car Next Door, Airbnb and Home Camp, just to name a few.

There’s also more local options available. For example, a gifting circle that Eisenstein describes in Sacred Economics sounds delightful. In this weekly gathering, participants state one or more things they would like to give and one or more things they would like to receive. Often, a magical synchronicity of wants and needs unfolds. "You need a potato masher? We have three." Or, "You need a ride to the airport on Friday? My husband is flying out then, too."

My favourite way to embrace alternative economies is even simpler – take money out of the equation as often as you can. For example, our laundry is out of action. Rather than pay to use a local laundromat, I’m using a friend’s washing machine. As a bonus, I’m catching up with our friends each time I drop off or pick up laundry – and it makes them more comfortable next time they ask us a favour.

These days, money has taken over situations where generosity is more appropriate.

A friend had been minding my daughter a lot lately. I haven’t offered money for the favour, nor has she asked for it. But what we each get out of the interaction is far more valuable than money.

I recently said to her "I owe you big time". With a cheeky grin she said "yes you do". I like that one day I’ll be able to return the favour. 

What you give comes back, but not necessarily from the person you gave to.

A treasured original painting by Brian Nunan. - a gift from a friend. Little eco footprints

I was recently given a beautiful original artwork. The painting was gifted, not because I was generous to the giver, but because she has observed me being generous to a mutual friend. Generosity breeds generosity.

Money only has value because society gives it value. But there’s nothing to stop us putting greater value on non-monetary things. Wellbeing, kindness, fresh air, biodiversity, family and friendships. We can decide these things are of greater value than money and live our lives accordingly.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 27th April 2015.

Interested in exploring the idea of the gift economy more? 

Here's an inspiring story by Sash from Inked in Colour about the creation of a local timebanking project

The Flower Exchange by Grown and Gathered provides a beautiful example of the gift economy in action. 

Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition by Charles Eisenstein can be read for free here