May/June 2012 Featured Stories
by Charles Eisenstein
Community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society.
If you are financially independent, you don't need your neighbors.
But can you create community through sharing?
Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer is community.
What happened to community, and why don't we have it any more? There are many reasons —the layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public space, the automobile and the television, the high mobility of people and jobs — and, if you trace the "whys" a few levels down, they all implicate the money system.
Community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don't depend on your neighbors — or indeed on any specific person — for anything. You can just pay someone else to do it.
In former times, people depended for all of life's necessities and pleasures on people they knew personally. If you alienated the local blacksmith, brewer or doctor, there was no replacement. Your quality of life would be much lower. If you alienated your neighbors then you might not have help if you sprained your ankle during harvest season, or if your barn burned down.
I Don’t Need You
Community was not an add-on to life, it was a way of life. Today, with only slight exaggeration, we could say we don't need anyone. I don't need the farmer who grew my food — I can pay someone else to do it. I don't need the mechanic who fixed my car. I don't need the trucker who brought my shoes to the store. I don't need any of the people who produced any of the things I use. I need someone to do their jobs, but not the unique individual people. They are replaceable and, by the same token, so am I.
Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today's market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition in which more for me is less for you, in a gift economy the opposite holds. Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need.
In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a “circle of the gift.”
Given the circular nature of gift flow, I was excited to learn that one of the most promising social inventions that I've come across for building community is called the Gift Circle. Developed by Alpha Lo, co-author of The Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, and his friends in Marin County, Calif., it exemplifies the dynamics of gift systems and illuminates the broad ramifications that gift economies portend for our economy, psychology and civilization.
The ideal number of participants in a gift circle is 10 to 20. Everyone sits in a circle, and takes turns saying one or two needs they have. In the last circle I facilitated, some of the needs shared were a ride to the airport next week, someone to help remove a fence, and used lumber to build a garden. As each person shares, others in the circle can break in to offer to meet the stated need, or with suggestions on how to meet it.
When everyone has had their turn, we go around the circle again, each person stating something he or she would like to give. Some examples last week were graphic design skills, the use of my power tools, and contacts in local government to get things done, but it could be anything: time, skills, material things, the gift of something outright, or the gift of the use of something (borrowing). Again, as each person shares, anyone can speak up and say, "I'd like that," or "I know someone who could use one of those."
During both these rounds, it is useful to have someone write everything down and send the notes out the next day to everyone via email, or post on a web page or blog. Also write down the name and phone number of someone who wants to give or receive something to or from you. It is essential to follow up, or the gift circle will end up feeding cynicism rather than community.
Finally, the circle can do a third round in which people express gratitude for the things they received since the last meeting. This round is extremely important because in community, the witnessing of others' generosity inspires generosity in those who witness it. It confirms that this group is giving to each other, that gifts are recognized, and that my own gifts will be recognized, appreciated and reciprocated as well.
I Need You
It is just that simple: needs, gifts and gratitude. But the effects can be profound.
First, gift circles (and any gift economy, in fact) can reduce our dependence on the traditional market. If people give us things we need, then we needn't buy them. I won't need to take a taxi to the airport tomorrow, and Rachel won't have to buy lumber for her garden. The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.
Secondly, a gift circle reduces our production of waste. It is ridiculous to pump oil, mine metal, manufacture a table and ship it across the ocean when half the people in town have old tables in their basements. It is ridiculous as well for each household on my block to own a lawnmower, which they use two hours a month, a leaf blower they use twice a year, power tools they use for an occasional project, and so on. If we shared these things, we would suffer no loss of quality of life. Our material lives would be just as rich, yet would require less money and less waste.
In contrast to the age of money where we can pay for anything and need no gifts, soon it will be abundantly clear: we need each other.
Charles Eisenstein is the author of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition. Visit www.sacred-economics.com.