Living the Simplest Life: The Gift Economy

In thinking about how to jump into a discussion about the simplest life I contemplated various places to begin. Food? Shelter? How to pay the bills? Creative income streams? None of them seemed to capture the essence of the way of life I am attempting to describe. In the end I have decided to start with a discussion of the gift economy. This is a fancy term to describe the parts of our lives and relationships that provide value for us outside the conventional monetary economy. We all do this within the circles of our families and close friends. We pass clothes down between siblings and cousins and our friends' kids. We share our garden surplus with our neighbours. We offer to do the grocery shopping for our parents during a pandemic. We take care of each other as best we can, and we share what we have. Without this approach to life all we have is money. All we can do is concentrate on how to save every penny and how to make more pennies. This is boring and gets petty and turns us sour and encourages us to hoard and become Scrooges. Imagine if we can instead turn our creativity to how to live outside of the monetary economy where we can do so and turn our backs on capitalism and make our own world which is better than that pesky one we are currently dependent on? That is the enterprise I am currently embarked on in a very small and fairly incompetent way. So let's see how it happens in my life.

The main problem in starting a story about the gift economy is where to start? For this particular story we'll begin in January when Rosy moved out of home to a share house with apple trees. None of the other house occupants were that excited about home-grown apples so I would go over and pick the apples and dry them and send jars of dried apples back to Rosy and her housemates. I also stewed a lot of apples and shared them with Paul, and we all ate a lot of organic golden delicious apples. Last week I popped in to see Paul's mum to pick some things up for Paul. I took her some dried apples. We walked through her garden because we both love food gardens and talking about vegetables and she gave me a bunch of Russian kale and a huge bunch of rhubarb. She has the most productive rhubarb patch I have ever seen. Next day I popped up the street to my neighbours and took them some of Rosy's apples and Paul's mum's rhubarb because Mrs Neighbour likes to make apple and rhubarb crumble. Mr Neighbour was downstairs cleaning out the chest freezer and he came up with a lump of unidentifiable freezer-burned meat for me because he knows I make Benny's dog food. I popped it in the slow cooker with some of the kale, some brown rice that had got pantry moth in it, some five year old sorghum I found at the back of the cupboard and some rosemary from the garden. The meat turned out to be wallaby, shot on a local bush property by Mr Neighbour's 84 year old friend Albert. So Benny dined all week on slow cooked wallaby with organic Russian kale, brown rice, sorghum and rosemary; surely the most well fed dog in town.

None of this food was swapped or bartered. All of it was passed freely along from one person to another as part of a wide web of human relationships. We all want our relationships to prosper and as part of that we share what we have, often things that we don't need but we know others will value. And what goes around does come around, not because we are striking a bargain but because we value each other. The relationship is more important than the gift in the gift economy, but the gift helps to glue the relationship together and indicates that we value each other. It is not only things that are gifted either, but knowledge, expert advice, an introduction to a useful contact. And sometimes the things freely given are so negligible to the giver that they are hardly missed. For instance, I could give away a hundred cuttings from my giant rosemary bush and it would grow all the more from the pruning, but out in the community there would be a hundred more rosemary bushes than there were before, and each of those recipients have saved $10 buying a rosemary bush from the nursery and have gained a lifetime's supply of rosemary for cooking and medicine.

The way to join the gift economy is to be a human being, have family and make friends. In other words, we are all already in the gift economy. We probably already give freely of our time and our worldly goods for the important people in our life. But what happens in the world when we expand that circle? Friendship, like the gift economy, starts small. You might meet someone and you tell them how much you enjoy foraging and preserving food. They mention that there is a heap of mushrooms just popped up in the pine woods across the road from their place. They have no idea what kind or if they're edible, but you might want to take a look. From your new acquaintance's perspective this information has no value for them whatsoever. They offer it both to keep the conversation going and because we humans like to be helpful to one another. You go to the pine woods and discover a treasure trove of slippery jack mushrooms which you take home and peel and dry for the winter. Next time you see your new friend you present them with a jar of dried mushrooms and tell them about your adventure in the pine woods and your friendship is deepened. And that is how the gift economy starts.

Here is a real life example: a little while before I met him Paul employed an excavator driver to come and clear a safe bushfire zone around his cabin and do some landscaping. Of course Paul made friends with Excavator Man because that's what he does, and soon they were swapping snacks at smoko time, just like first graders, and then there was the Great Anzac Biscuit Bake Off which happened soon after I met Paul. I think it was a draw. They shared coffees at lunch time and glasses of wine at the end of the day. Then Excavator Man's mate who works at a salmon farm called him to say the processor had broken down and there was a tonne of fresh salmon that would go to waste. Excavator Man drove up there in his truck and loaded it with whole salmon then called all his friends, including his new friend Paul and they all sat around eating barbequed salmon and cleaning the fish until midnight and each went home with dozens of fish. Paul sat up until three in the morning finishing off the cleaning then distributed the fish into the freezers of his extended family because he doesn't have a freezer. For the next year there was whole baked salmon at every family gathering and my girls came to associate visiting Paul with dining on roasted salmon..

A couple of months later Excavator Man called Paul to help him with his internet difficulties at his farm and Paul cheerfully helped out and also helped him set up a program for a more efficient invoicing system, and refused payment. In the course of their conversation Excavator Man mentioned he wanted help cleaning up his garden so I got the gardening contract which helped out my new gardening business. Over the course of our gardening days together Excavator Man told me about his farmer neighbour who had a small weatherboard cabin on his land, an outbuilding that had housed a farm hand, that he wanted to get rid of. Excavator Man offered to transport the cabin up to Paul's place for the trucking fee of $1000. We talked about this and finally refused the offer because Paul and I want to build a cabin in our own unique style for extra accommodation, but there you have it, that friendship that started a year before with coffees and Anzac biscuits ended up with an offer of a $1000 tiny house. None of those transactions involved any real cost to the giver but provided enormous value to the receiver. And that, my friends, is how the gift economy works.

We all have surpluses from time to time, or things we want to move on out of our lives, or constantly free resources such as plants that can provide essentially endless cuttings or seeds. If we can connect these surpluses with folks who appreciate them we create an extra layer of richness to a friendship. And it is not all about things. Sometimes it is knowledge or skills that we can pass on, and that is a resource that never runs out. Or maybe it is time or practical help we can offer, with lending a hand to a friend moving house or bringing meals to a family with a new baby or a broken leg, or looking after someone else's kids. That last one is a classic gift economy example. If you have a couple of kids adding an extra one or two doesn't make much difference to you, in fact it can make everyone play nicer, but it makes a huge difference to the other parent who has a few child-free hours to complete some task or have a well-earned nap.

Enmeshing yourself in the gift economy is one of the best ways I know to guarantee some kind of economic safety in life. The bonds of family and friendship and the constant flow of goods and practical help around a community of like-minded people creates a lot of trust. These are the people I would offer my spare room to if they were in difficulties and they would do the same for me. But here is the paradox. We don't form and pursue relationships and participate in the gift economy for our future economic benefit. We form relationships because we are human and this is what we do. The relationship comes first and remains central. Other benefits accrue, and they foster trust and show us we can rely on the other person in the relationship, but they are not the relationship. It is a very interesting path to trace. I think also that this is the reason that rich people sometimes don't have such deep relationships as poor people. People without many resources need each other. Rich people buy their independence from the web of deep relationships that poor folks have to create and rely on. The downside of this is that rich folks are in a world of trouble if their riches forsake them..

How to start this kind of community? First, think about the people that you love and trust the most. What is there that they may need that you can easily offer? Always deepen the relationships that matter the most by whatever means, including this one. Then look at the rest of your friends and your neighbours and work colleagues and ask yourself what it might be that some of these folks need. There is your way in to a richer relationship. Offer cookies. Everyone needs cookies. Think of Paul and Excavator Man. It all started with cookies. But don't do it with an eye to future benefits. That leads down a very thorny path where you are using others for your own advantage. What you are fostering is the tentative beginning of a friendship. The gift economy is not a linear or back and forth transaction like swap or barter. It is the human condition where where you benefit someone and they may benefit someone else and all of those generous deeds connect us in a world wide web of actual goodness. Human connections always benefit us more than things do, and a reputation for kindness and generosity is one of the greatest treasures we can lay up on earth. And when the world becomes a strange and frightening place and the cold winds blow, knowing that we have a web of folks who we can rely on through thick and thin is worth more than wealth, which after all can evaporate like dew in the sun.


Deborah said…
Brilliant and so true! Realised the constant and generous gift economy that exists within my own family and how far it extends. My neighbours are also part of this as we live in an old suburb with well established lemons, limes and kumquats.
Lots to think about, thankyou!
Jo said…
Deborah, I think that naming things up is a powerful tool, and that our instinctive gift economy behaviour within family and friend groups can be quite the game changer in our communities. When used deliberately we can make our family, our street and our wider community a safer, happier place to be..
Anonymous said…
Yes! This was more prevalent in my life when my children were small. Several of my neighbors (now dear friends) and I would swap child care, run errands for each other etc. We called each other "the village" and helped raise each others children. It was a life saver!
Great post!
Anonymous said…
What a great topic to start with. A few years ago I was worrying myself to death about the future of the planet, and by extension, the future of us and our kids, when I came across the book Retrosuburbia by David Holmgren. It was a game-changer for me, and one of the things he emphasises in the book is the building of relationships and community. He talks about all sorts of sharing, from child-care and elder care to veggies and honey from your backyard, to skills. The ability to share and form these connections is what will provide us with resilience when times are tough. I think those tough times have started already! As you say when money is in short supply these connections are especially vital to keep body and soul together.

A little recent example from my own life. We have known our wood man for a couple of years now and I always make time to have a chat with him, busy or not. He bought a farm just as the drought started and that meant he needed to start a firewood business to keep him going. So we'd always have a chat and sometimes I'd pull something out of the garden for him. Then the pandemic hit. He delivered me a load of wood and said, 'I'd ration that if I were you', letting me know supply was going to be short. I asked if he had enough to give me a bit more and he said 'I'll put you on the list'. The next day he phoned to say he could drop me a double load! I was touched that he pushed me up the list, I certainly wasn't going to ask him for special favours. It just goes to show that having relationships can be the difference between surviving or not in a crisis.

Jo said…
Patricia, it truly is better to have a village to raise a child. What a nice childhood your kids must have had running around the neighbourhood! Becoming friends with neighbours is gold in any situation.

Madeleine, that is exactly what I am talking about. People will go the extra mile for someone they have a positive relationship with. When you take time to form that relationship you are no longer a stranger, but a friend, and in a tricky situation you want a lot of friends.
Treaders said…
I have two sons and when they were younger most of my friends also had at least one, older son, so I can't really say I ever bought anything much new in the way of clothes for them. One time my friend smiled as my young son came in to work as he was wearing a jacket she had given me, and it was already about third-hand by the time she got it. I reckon that jacket was over 20 years old (and my son loved it). Being from a big family I was also second-hand Rose but I can't say it did me any harm either!
Jo said…
Anna, I love stories like that. The amount of clothing thrown away every year is staggering and to have a jacket worn and loved for over 20 years is a real win. My children also lived in a virtual circle of hand-me-downs handed to them and down the line, then handed on again. I always loved seeing their clothes (already second-hand) turning up on the small siblings of their friends. Nowadays I get hand-me-ups from the kiddos:)
simplelife said…
I've been thinking about this post a lot, while I'm very happy to share what I have I've realised that I have a lot of trouble accepting from others. I feel as though I must always repay the gift, to the giver. I feel as though I'm being greedy or ungrateful or even worse unworthy of the gift. This troubles me, community, a village these are the underpinnings of society. I have so many thoughts but this isn't a therapy session
Thank you Jo for helping me to see, I can't be a giver without also being a receiver
Cheers Kate
Anonymous said…
Great story about Paul and Excavator Man! And I hope we eventually get to read about the new cabin you and Paul are going to build.
I'd love to be part of a gift economy, and have had a little experience of it from time to time. Our son has a small block of land in a dairy-farming area, and has really good neighbours. One day my son saw his neighbour cycling, wearing a helmet that was obviously too small, so he dug out a spare one and took it across for the neighbour. A couple of days later, a tractor arrived at his place, towing a trailer load of firewood in return. Impressed by this, we baked a loaf of bread and some biscuits for the neighbours, and were very surprised when our son called in with fresh butter and a big jar of buttermilk, sent by the good neighbours!
I look forward to more of these posts, and the stories that go with them.
Linda in NZ
Jo said…
Kate, as always I appreciate hearing your point of view and your honest responses. This is not a therapy session because I am not a therapist but I hope that people can come here and find a safe space to express their views and ideas. I am always more than willing to engage. I find your response interesting because I kept it very much in mind while I was writing the post. I think we are trained up to be what is called 'independent' but which really means being dependent on 'the market'. Think about it. Traditionally, pre-money, communities were small and like large extended families and depended on each other for everything. Trade and barter only happened outside the community, ie with other separate communities who weren't 'family'.
Money, and our capitalist system attempts to destroy community bonds and replace them with 'independence' as a virtue. They claim we can take care of ourselves. We should take care of ourselves. We are supposed to do that by buying stuff instead of sharing it or giving it away or receiving help from our neighbours. Who does that benefit? The whole capitalist enterprise plus pollution plus waste plus misery. It results in a lot of sad, lonely people who can't connect in the way that people have connected throughout history - by taking care of one another.
Ok, hopping off my soapbox now. I get really mad about the untruths our society tries to sell us.
Jo said…
Linda, I love this story! See what happens, your son and the neighbours are trying to outdo each other in neighbourliness! This also speaks a little to Kate's comment - sometimes we feel a need to reciprocate right away in a lavish gesture to overtures of kindness, but I think that a neighbourly competition to see who can be nicer to the other is one of the better kinds of competitiveness out there. Also, it cements that relationship between your son and his neighbour - they have both demonstrated their kindness and generosity to each other, and now it will be much easier for them both to ask and receive from each other because both will know that the other is generous and trustworthy.
simplelife said…
I agree Jo, we have been conned into thinking we need to be independent from each other just so we can spend our dollars with those large companies who will help to fill the gaps left by our independence. Your comment re people connecting by taking care of each other also made me stop and consider how we have come to put such little value on caring professions and even less on people who chose to care for their family rather than earn money. Then I got all caught up in the idea that it's not valued because traditionally it was 'womens' work and we should just do it for nothing.
For the record we do have a wonderful relationship with most of our neighbours in our country lane, with much swapping and sharing of resources, skills and time, yet I still always feel I must repay in someway.
Anyway thanks for this post I really appreciate how much you've made me think.
Cheers Kate.
Anonymous said…
I love the concept of the gift economy as being really about just good relationships. Not about what you can get from someone; not about saving money; not about what is in it for oneself. They are all off shoots, benefits that come from being a good neighbour, friend, family member. I have received hundreds of dollars of cuttings and bromeliads and aloe vera plants from a neighbour and friend. They did not give them to make me like them. They gave because they wanted to share the joy of gardening, and help me.

I live in an amazing street. We got together to oppose over development. We had a minor win, and a big loss. But the biggest win was to get to know one another, to come together to celebrate birthdays, to share fun, to support when there is death or blown hot water or children/husband strength. And we share cuttings, information etc. One man saw Mr S looking at a new gum tree that was being attacked by unseen pests. He offered advise and brought down some white oil. I've been given info about great local bush walks. When busy during early COVID, one brought me dinner. Myriad of little things that develop relationships and grow friendships and help out one another. Lucinda
Jo said…
Kate, I wonder if it would help if you reframe what you are doing? You are clearly a very generous person, so maybe you could think in terms of 'returning' a favour or a gift when it is appropriate, rather than 'repaying' it? Then you can see it in terms of relationship rather than transaction?

Lucinda, your street sounds like a wonderful place to live. And that common cause you took up together clearly forged some strong bonds. Money can't buy that kind of community.. and here is the kind of thing i think about.. you could perfectly well have afforded to go out and buy dinner when you were busy at work, and your neighbours no doubt know that, but the dinner you buy yourself and the dinner your neighbours brought over from the kindness of their hearts is a completely different beast, isn't it? The latter dinner makes you feel all warm inside, and grateful, and it indicates that your neighbours are willing to go to some trouble for you and that they see how busy and tired you are and that they value the work you are doing. There are so many layers to the neighbour dinner and just a single monetary transaction layer in the bought dinner. It has no heart.
Rose Petal said…
Your post is so true. Here in New Zealand I live on a 10 acre lifestyle block with my elderly parents. We used to be productive with our land, but now my parents are elderly, not much was being done with the land. The grass in the field was knee high. Then last year Mr Young Neighbour asked if he could graze his cows on our land. He wanted to pay, but dad said he could graze his cows for free. For us, having the cows graze the land reduces the fire risk of having dry long grass around. Mr Young Neighbour then without us knowing it mended the whole fence along one side of our land for free. He then asked if we wanted the trees trimmed along the top fence of our land. Dad said that would be great and told Mr Young Neighbour that he could keep any logs for firewood. When the trees had been trimmed it was revealed that the main fence posts had rotted and the rest of the fence was sagging. Mr Young Neighbour said he will come with a friend and fix the fence, we just need to pay for the replacement fence posts. Then last week Mr Young Neighbour came over with 2 jars of fresh honey for us. He said that he lets someone put 12 beehives on his land in return for honey and he thought we might like some. Such a thoughtful guy.
Jo said…
Rose Petal, just think of the cost of agistment, fencing labour hire, tree cutting work and a load of firewood, plus two jars of honey, all added up if paid for in the money economy. It would be huge and yet your dad and your neighbour worked it all out for free just by being generous.. it is such a great alternative world that we all have access to by being neighbourly and generous. Thanks for your story:)

Judy said…
Well said! Having to give up my allotment last year, I feel like I have lost a very generous bunch of friends, so I feel a bit cut off from my gift economy. However I have some lovely veg growing in my garden and have already given Rhubarb to 2 neighbours and shared my seeds with another. I am open to lots of new opportunities coming my way.

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