The Starting Point

We need to replace our exchange economy with a gift ecology.

Locally, globally – even personally – it is disconcerting to realize how much of life in the 21st century is directed by the necessity of exchange.

We trade, we barter, we buy, we sell – in everything we do, there is an exchange, something offered and expected in return.  We live in a world of quid pro quo, of something for something.  We object to the idea of getting nothing for something (though we are happy to get something for nothing!).

Contrary to the critics of consumerism, it is not just about the money.  The expectation of exchange is embedded in 21st century society in ways that go beyond any financial transaction.  “What’s in it for me?” is a cruder version of this attitude, but not by much.

Exchange requires a transaction between two parties who each have something the other wants.  Sometimes that transaction takes the form of barter, where different items are exchanged or some goods are exchanged for a service.  Most often, what each side has to contribute to the transaction is valued in terms of a third element – usually a form of money or currency – which becomes the medium of exchange.

Social complexity follows very quickly, because we earn money for doing something in one part of our lives, only to spend it to acquire some goods or services in another.  The more people there are, the more transactions and the greater the complexity, to the point now our transactions – our exchange economy – ties people together around the world.  Such a global exchange creates wealth, we are told, and the global exchange economy creates a better future for everyone.

I suggest the opposite is true.  The exchange mentality in fact creates poverty, enforces disparity, fosters social injustice, causes conflict and undermines our hopes for a sustainable future in which there is “enough, for all, forever.”

Exchange creates poverty.  Poverty is not simply being poor, it is feeling poor.  Poverty is the consequence of comparison between your condition and that of someone else.  Exchange between unequal parties means I have nothing to give back.  Out of disparity comes despair – because no matter what the medium of currency or exchange, the weaker party will never catch up.

It is the same with an exchange-based relationship.  If there are disparities in age, opportunity, wealth or abilities, the two people are never equal.  The resulting inequality undermines and potentially damages a relationship in unnecessary ways – consider the various disasters that confront an ongoing series of Hollywood couples, for example.

Power is no better.  In an exchange mentality, the powerful may befriend the weak, just as the wealthy may befriend the poor.  Yet while friendship is expressed by the stronger party, the weaker ones find it hard to accept they have equal status.  Out of that imbalance comes suspicion (“what do they really want from me?”), resentment (“I am always the poor cousin”) and jealousy (“I wish I could control my life the same way”).  Out of these feelings, even between friends, arises the potential for alienation and conflict.

Outside the realm of personal exchange, the possibilities for suspicion, resentment and conflict multiply exponentially.  Even efforts to promote social justice falter or fail, not because of the things that are done, but because of the cultural system within which they are done.  It is a system in which there is no such thing as a free lunch, so that even what appears to be generosity must have a catch or hidden cost.

The debate about sustainable development is good example of the problem with the exchange mentality.  Countries in the North concerned about sustainability argue for the need to exclude development from the equation – there is already too much development, which is why the planet is in trouble.  Countries in the South in which there is a significant gap between their standard of living and that of the North, argue there must be development to provide the basic necessities of life for their people.

Without that development, the South will never catch the North; yet, given the global set of economic and political rules that keep the playing field unequal, they will not catch up before the planet implodes for any number of reasons.

This is at heart a problem with how economics has been misconstrued since the 19th century.  From its Greek roots, economics used to mean care for the household, or the equivalent idea of stewardship expressed in the idea that one’s responsibility was to care for what had been received from the past generation (in the form of land and its attachments) and pass it along improved to the next.

Economics is no longer about oikonomia – it is about metrics.  We now have indices of quality of life, as well as happiness, easily linked to GDP, GNP and whatever else we choose to number and count.  If we can count it, we can measure it; if we can measure it, we can exchange it.

In Sir Arthur Eddington’s Gifford Lectures The Nature of the Physical World (1928), the physicist knighted for proving Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity during the 1919 eclipse mused at the end that we all live in two universes, the metrical and the non-metrical – the universe of things that can be counted and measured and the universe of the things that cannot.  Surprising his audience, Eddington concluded that everything of value was to be found in the non-metrical universe.

His observation goes straight to the heart of the problem we face today.  A sustainable future requires a radical shift in metrics from what is going on today – a shift in every sense, from climate change, to population levels, to all the other numbers that indicate the growing fury of Gaia.  But those metrics are grounded in the larger problem of an exchange economy that cannot comprehend the reality that what is offered, on all sides, must be valued rather than measured.

The answer is to be found in the significance of a gift.

Part 2:  From exchange to gift