The Gift Economy: Recession Proof and Responsible


“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” -John Donne (1572-1631)

No man is an island indeed.  Although I’ve striven in life to learn as much as I can, I’ll never scratch the surface of the vastness of human knowledge.  Although I’m sure I could merely survive on my own, at least for a while, I don’t know how fulfilling it would be (or what my quality of life would be like).  Modern society requires interaction (if you don’t believe me check your W-2), but how and why we interact is ours to decide.  My recent work to get “back to the land” has had an interesting side-effect: I’m also getting back to humanity.

The concept of a gift economy is not new, and it’s actually debated frequently by people who have useless college degrees.  The concept is simple: humans do things for one another out of a feeling of obligation and responsibility to each-other (unless they are sociopathic) and if you expand the number of people who you have helped, you’ll expand your circle that will feel obligated to help you.  The more cynical among us might stick on that point, but let’s not.  I don’t help people to make them feel obligated to me, I help them because I already feel obligated to them because we are both human.  The wonderful side-effect is that when I am down, or life takes a bad turn, or I need help with a project in an area I have no expertise, someone will come to my aid.

It’s the old concept of the barn-raising.  Nobody can do that work alone, so everyone within a few miles comes to help raise your barn.  You serve food, knock out a heavy chore in a day, and all of a sudden you have a grand, useful structure on your property.  Having that big beautiful barn is going to increase your prosperity, and you can now use it to help raise others’ barns.  This type of communal work increases your sphere, meeting people with special skills that you may really need some day.  What does it cost in today’s dollars to build a big beautiful barn, in time and money?  That is an important question, and the reason we should work hard to help others, barter work and goods when we can, and grow our communities together.

Dollars are important for a market-based economy: they allow us to exchange unequal goods and services and allow us to save our effort in a jar for a later day to be exchanged.  This is very convenient, especially for those that print dollars, for they then can then print “effort” to exchange for your goods or services, without having to actually work.  What happens is that the amount of effort put into the economy has stayed the same, but the dollars have increased, and they are always equal.  If the total economy contained $40 and four hours of effort, you could say that hour you worked was worth ten dollars.  When someone prints $40 more and throws it in the pot, without four more hours of work, it causes the value of your effort to be halved (while giving them $40 worth of your effort for nothing).  This is the sad part of a credit based economy, we will all always be playing catch-up because every hour we work is consistently devalued by “stimulating” monetary policy, and it is leading us into further economic depression.

All that aside, a way we can insulate ourselves from this phenomena is by trading our work and goods with each other, those things hold constant value.  We can also bank our excess now in the gift economy, in case we need help later.  If the economy became so bad that a dollar was worth absolute zero, I’d require a little help from my friends, but I would also be ready to give it!  Another way to protect yourself from reckless fiscal policies is to buy a productive piece of land to live on.  If everything goes south, hopefully you can at least grow your own food.

Another way that working together can benefit us is the economy of scale.  Big companies don’t buy or do things one-at-a-time, and that’s how they do things cheaper.  Getting together with your circle to do group buys, or work together on projects instead of individually, can benefit everyone.  Imagine the cost per ounce of every person buying their own canning equipment, heating their own water, and spending their own hours canning jam.  Now imagine one person owning the equipment, everyone dividing up the work, and heating water once.  It just makes sense for us to find more and better ways to work together!  This could apply for any number of homesteading activities, like gardening, making soap, canning, collecting seeds, etc.

In this vein I’m excited to announce that a few friends from town will be helping out with the projects at Primrose Station this year.  I’m relatively inexperienced in the growing area so our friends Dawn and Mike are really going to be valuable sources of information, plus they can help us grow food!  In exchange for providing land and water and food, we’ll gain the assistance of some experts and help with labor.  More importantly, we can run this homestead as a community, and not an island, because the value of our human relationships is paramount to our success and happiness.  Plus, isn’t it more fun working on a project with your friends instead of trying to do everything alone?

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