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The economy: Possible scenarios for the future 3

In Sacred Economy, Charles Eisenstein poses the seemingly outrageous idea that money should be sacred. In this he means that a good bit of the mess we’re currently in is because we have lost this sense of the sacred and the special – the connected and interdependent nature of transactions between people.

Eisenstein advocates for a moneyless or “gift culture.” He asserts that, anthropologically, people didn’t have barter transactions as we think of them today. Rather, he says, the transactions were more like gift circles, where borrowing and lending and buying and selling and gifting were virtually indistinguishable.

He says (quoting economic anthropologist George Dalton) that “moneyless transactions scarcely resembled the impersonal, utility-maximizing transactions of economists’ fantasies, but rather ‘tended to require lasting (and sometimes ritualized) personal relationships sanctioned by custom and characterized by reciprocity.’” He points out how “unlike a modern money transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants.” [p.6-8-10]

For example, when we go into a supermarket and hand over money to buy a tomato, the conventional, moneyed transaction is finite, complete. It ends there. We have no further obligation to the store clerk, nor he to us.

Contrast this with a friend giving you a homegrown tomato, still warm from the sunshine of her garden. As she hands you the tomato, she tells the story of how she selected the heirloom seeds and she describes the luscious flavor of the salad she made yesterday with its twin. You accept the tomato (and the stories) eagerly and with gratitude. You feel a connection, an obligation. You make a mental note: “I’ll bring her some of my zucchini bread when I bake tomorrow.” This is the ongoing connectivity, the flow and wealth of a gift culture.

“Another way of looking at it is that the gift partakes of the giver, and that when we give a gift, we give something of ourselves,” Eisenstein explains. “This is the opposite of a modern commodity transaction, in which goods sold are mere property, separate from the one who sells them.”

Eisenstein describes how our culture has gradually monetized everything – including things that in prior generations were abundantly available, provided by the community or the commons, with no payment required. He declares that “the expansion of the economic realm is … the expansion of scarcity, its incursion into areas of life once characterized by abundance. …

"Scarcity … is mostly an illusion, a cultural creation. … When something is abundant, no one hesitates to share it. We live in an abundant world, made otherwise through our perceptions, our culture, and our deep invisible stories. Our perception of scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” [ch 2 p 29-32] Eisenstein’s poetic assertion of this abundance – even within a peak oil, ecologically-overshot world – is mind-expanding to read.

Through his work I came to see how our more-more-more cultural upbringing has distorted our perspective. That, even within peak oil, post-petroleum circles, when someone mentions the idea of an abundant world, many of us continue to associate “abundance” pretty-much-exclusively with physical goods. Eisenstein demonstrates that there is plenty of abundance in our future, but it is clear that any “growth” will look vastly different than in the past hundred or so years.

An enormous proportion of this human activity [has been] either superfluous or deleterious to human happiness. … A world without weapons, without McMansions in sprawling suburbs, without mountains of unnecessary packaging, without giant mechanized monofarms, without energy-hogging big-box stores, without electronic billboards, without endless piles of throw-away junk, without the overconsumption of consumer goods no one really needs is not an impoverished world. I disagree with those environmentalists who say we are going to have to make do with less. In fact, we are going to make do with more: more beauty, more community, more fulfillment, more art, more music, and material objects that are fewer in number but superior in utility and aesthetics.” [p.28 illusion of scarcity]

Within the Transition movement, we understand that to further this Great Turning, we must make changes in both the physical realm and our inner landscape. Eisenstein’s Sacred Economy text represents a powerful tool in making some of these inner shifts in economics.

I am disappointed, however, that Eisenstein’s suggestions as to how to achieve the process of transformation to this marvelous future are extremely limited. Many of the items listed on his “roadmap” are top-down (shift in taxation; regulation with financial penalties for social and environmental costs; a “social dividend”). And at this point in political history, they are extremely unlikely to come about (see the comments of James Gustave Speth). However, as you will see in Part III, Eisenstein’s gift circles and abundance outlook do have an important place in the economics of this transition time.

This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming revision of "Economic Resilience: What we can do in our local communities." This white paper analyses what some economic thinkers see as the path ahead, and compiles a wealth of examples, resources, and ideas for what we can do at the local, grassroots level. Much of the April 2011 edition of "Economic Resilience" is currently available online, or get a two-page "handout" version of Part III (pdf, greatly abridged).

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