In choosing a sustainable future, words matter. Words have power both to open new possibilities and to set horizons to what we are able to see.
In a world where words are as plastic as the experiences they label, however, introducing a new term requires its meaning to be constructed by those who use it.
I have set gift ecology against exchange economy, so in some sense its meaning is also in opposition. But this creates the wrong impression. The two terms are antithetical in every respect and not merely the two sides of the same coin. Any relationship is only apparent; because both are found in the stuff of our lives, they may share the same tools and opportunities, but they yield entirely different results for radically different reasons.
To play the etymology game, it is worth remembering that the Greek word logos in ancient philosophical contexts can be understood as the inherent pattern of the universe. In more frequent usage, such as in conversations about biology or technology, it is seen as a system of physical patterns or connections. Add in the work “oikos,” with its attributions in Greek to the household or household, and there is a world of difference between understanding ecology and economics in their modern derivations.
One aspect of the management of the estate would be the transactional elements of daily operations, something which requires a firm grasp of the metrics of everything involved. Yet wherever judgments are required either to maximize immediate returns or to manage toward its future health, metrics are less helpful than wise stewardship based upon an understanding of both the metrical and non-metrical elements.
“Ecology” therefore symbolizes the web of living relationships participating with what we mislabel as a distinct, “physical” and metrical world. Economics is entirely about metrics; the future exists as a metrical category to be measured and weighed in terms of probabilities.
Were we to label our gods again, one might say there is literally a world of difference between the followers of Ecology and the followers of Economics. Followers of Ecology may successfully learn to use the language and rituals of Economics without losing their soul, but the reverse is impossible. After all, in the metrical world of the exchange economy, “soul” is a meaningless and empty category, irrelevant to any calculation.
If, as I would argue, we live in a universe of relations and not merely an environment full of connections, then recognizing the deeper patterns in those relations is essential to make choices toward a sustainable future. The last 200 years in particular yield ample evidence of the disastrous, unintended consequences of the choices of people who have tried to manage the earth by metrical means, however well-intentioned.
Ecology, therefore, is not only something that belongs to the metrical universe of things that can be counted and measured – frog calls per second, compared to this time last year. It is also a manifestation of the non-metrical universe, of mind, meaning and value.
Pairing “gift” with “ecology,” therefore, is appropriate. Giving a gift is not just a matter of metrics, either, as it begins or deepens a relationship in ways that also cannot be counted or measured. In terms of sustainability, the two words together are a reminder that we need to understand deeper relationships than those that are observable using the means that we have through our science and technology.
Playing out the opposition between ecology and economy, the first tends to be self-sustaining while the second is only (theoretically) sustainable. Think of it in terms of how systems work: An ecological system continually adjusts to conditions to maintain an equilibrium required for its ongoing life. Economic systems (while in theory sustainable) seem to require constant intervention to maintain a semblance of equilibrium over the longer term.
Economics is inherently hierarchical. Growth is measured in percentages, not in wisdom, and the prospect of death and rebirth tends not to be seen as a good thing, especially by shareholders. Success is measured in the same comparative, competitive way – the merit of a larger pile of money at the end confers not only success, but freedom to choose what is done next with it.
Within ecology, hierarchy makes no sense. Systems require all of their elements to function properly; from the smallest to the largest component there is an interdependency that makes pointless any discussion of hierarchy. All elements of the system must be respected for their own intrinsic value for there to be sustainability.
Gift ecology, therefore, is a self-organizing system based upon giving without any anticipated return. Its participants freely choose to offer what they have to others out of a generosity of spirit and not in response to expectation or coercion. What is offered may in part be material, but it will also be non-material, grounded in a universe of values and not only in an economic world we have designed and asserted.
It is what indigenous peoples around the world have long recognized and which they have lost, with the rest of us, in the global spread of the exchange economy. As they took only what was needed from the world around them, they respected the spirits of the animals they used for food, acknowledged the four spiritual directions of the universe, and welcomed the creation that enfolded them along with everything else.
It is what every religious tradition on the planet has embedded in the cultures where they are found, maintaining the centrality of spirit amidst the illusions of reality we find in the physical world around us. In all these traditions, the impulse to care is in its purest form without expectation of any material return. It is an expression of what Albert Schweitzer murmured was a “reverence for life.”
Definition is an intellectual activity, because words are the tools we use to define and shape the way the world unfolds around us, but the implications of gift ecology take us out into the wilds where anything is possible.
Gift ecology is intentional in the moment, giving toward an end that is sustainable in the longer term but not able to be perceived in the present. It creates possibilities within a system of relations that appears unpredictable, unmanageable and chaotic from the standpoint of any metrical exchange.
It is about feeling, about emotion – about passion – aspects of our lives as humans that find no resonance in the metrics of an exchange.
It creates inspiration. It challenges us to reconceive not only the solution, but the problem itself. It compels us to throw our whole being toward creating a sustainable future for all of the children of earth, as Thomas Berry put it, not just the human ones.
It is found in the best of creativity and the triumphs of ingenuity, gifts thrown out into the universe as acts of celebration. See it in a painting, hear it in a symphony, admire it in a cathedral, mark it in the life of a Da Vinci as much as in the delight of a child’s first smile.
In the exchange economy, we fear to give too much and worry about where to find what we need to replace what is lost. We want to control what is given, anxious that our efforts will be wasted by those who do not appreciate what we have provided. We count the numbers, and measure the cost, and fear for a future in which the metrics are already catastrophic.
In a gift ecology, we see the same metrics but in a different context and from a different perspective. It becomes a world full of possibilities, as people give what they should not be able to give, or what they did not realize they had, toward a future for which there is no limit except what imagination can envision and generosity can provide. Every element, every person, has value in being, not only in being useful or profitable.
Perhaps you can see, better than I can, how the possibilities unfold from this point for how we might live together and how we could make wiser choices toward a sustainable future. What has been said here only begins to unpack what a difference it would make if gift replaced exchange, if ecology shaped our views of what we should do rather than economy, if values and emotion drove our decisions instead of profits and anticipated returns.
I have already broken all the rules of blogging by beginning at this length, and writing in such a vein. No doubt a book will emerge from these thoughts, if the pattern of their framing holds true, and I now want to explore writing about other things.
What I’ve written is a gift. That you have read this far is your gift to me. If it makes you think, if it was worth the time spent, please share it with a friend.
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