The Case for a Gift Economy

This is the first post of a summer series I’m calling “What Are You Reading? Wednesdays.” Every Wednesday in August, you’ll find a short review of thought-provoking books, articles and speeches about generosity, money, philanthropy and more. Stay tuned. 

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I recently stumbled upon an intriguing book by Charles Eisenstein called Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition. The book traces the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism—discussing how the money system has contributed to alienation and scarcity, destroyed community and commoditized nature.

Not exactly light summer reading, but a page-turner regardless. Here’s a short film describing the book’s major concepts:

In the Introduction, Eisenstein writes:

“If anything is sacred in this world, it is surely not money. Money seems to be the enemy of our better instincts, as is clear every time the thought ‘I can’t afford to’ blocks an impulse toward kindness or generosity. [And] money seems to be destroying the earth, as we pillage the oceans, the forests, the soil, and every species to feed a greed that knows no end.”

Without a doubt, money dominates our choices—how we spend our time, how generous or constricted we feel, and how we treat one another. What we’ve seemed to forgotten (and what Eisenstein wants to remind us) is that money is an agreement that we humans have invented and given power. At its most basic, money facilitates exchange: It is meant to connect human gifts with human needs. Yet somehow, it seems to create more competition and divide than connection.

Eisenstein argues that the current economic system is based on perpetual and unsustainable growth. For example, banks loan money to businesses that will make more money. In order to pay that money back, businesses need to come up with goods to sell that were once free (bottled water, anyone?) or services that were once considered a gift relationship (such as childcare, entertainment, music).

“By turning things into commodities, we get cut off from nature in the same way we’ve been cut off from communities,” says Eisenstein. “We look at nature with eyes that it’s all ‘just a bunch of stuff’—and that leaves us very lonely, with a lot of our basic human needs unmet.”

Eisenstein calls for a return to a gift economy. Although he is the first to say it will take nothing short of miracle to make it happen, he does offer small steps each of us can take in the greater shift toward a gift society.

“On some level, we know that life is a gift, and the natural response to receiving a gift is gratitude. In a gift society, if you have more than you need, you give it to someone else. If there are no gifts, there is no community.”

The Case for a Gift Economy

Can we return to a gift economy? Charles Eisenstein thinks so.

In true gift economy fashion, Eisenstein has offered his book available for free online at Reality Sandwich. It’s worth a read.

What are you reading these days? Write me to let me know. 

About Elaine

Elaine Gast Fawcett helps grantmakers, nonprofits and businesses tell their story, market their mission and attract more support.
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