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.