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How A Gift Economy Works in a Monetary World

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

A world without money. How would it work? Is it possible to enjoy the benefits while we are still stuck in this world?

A world without money does exist in cultures that are tucked away from the influence of “modern” society. Yet it doesn’t really help to look at those examples because we cannot “tuck” ourselves away from the world. It’s like we can’t undo it because a life centered around a monetary system is all that we know. To envision a post money world is difficult because most of us have never experienced anything like it before. Or have we? If we look, we might find examples of the emerging gift economy and how it exists alongside our monetary one.

I experienced one such example just the other day. I have chickens and they lay eggs, too many for my family to consume without some preservation. We also heat with wood in the wintertime. Last week my husband was splitting wood, trying to make a dent in the 8 or so cords we need to carry us through a Wisconsin winter. This is hard work and my husband is not getting any younger.

A couple stopped by because they saw the sign for eggs. They live in Chicago and they love to eat farm fresh eggs whenever they come up to the “wilderness”. As the young woman and I were talking, her husband went over to where my husband was working. After about 20 minutes he wandered back up and announced that they should get out of our hair. He asked how much I wanted for the eggs and I told him that I didn’t want anything for them. “Why the sign”, he asked. I chuckled at how it must look to an outsider and explained that we often have too many eggs and that I thought a sign was a good way to get rid of some. I could tell that taking something for free was out of their comfort zone so I helped them to see that they were actually doing me a favor.

At the time I didn’t know what the young man and my husband had talked about while they were together. My conversation with the young woman had centered around farm life and the preservation of food like canning and freezing. She had told me that see wished that she knew how to do all that. She said that someday she and her husband would love to leave the Chicago area and live in Wisconsin at their vacation home full time. As far as canning went, I offered to teach her the next time they were up and she seemed genuinely interested.

Fast forward three days. I woke up at the usual early morning hour and when I went outside I was stunned to find about 6 cords of wood, all split, on the drive by the house. Imagine a giant pile of wood. A really giant pile. Where the hell did it come from? I knew that my husband would die before he would buy cut firewood. We would just purchase and use propane throughout the winter months if we had the extra money.

When my husband saw the wood he got dressed and set out to the task of stacking it in the barn. We were both confused and grateful. We had no idea where it could have come from but we knew that our needs for the winter were now taken care of. We felt blessed.

We did eventually find out the identity of our “wood angels”. As it happens, one of our neighbors owns the local hardware store and he said that a “foreigner” from down south came in and mentioned what he had did. He said that a couple of really big oaks had fallen on his property and that he had a service cut and split it. He said that after meeting us, him and his wife realized that they would never need that much wood because they were rarely there in the winter. That was when they decided to give it to us. He was hoping that he did the right thing by dumping on the drive and expressed that he was afraid that he may have over stepped. Our neighbor told the young man that he knew us and knew that we would be grateful for the kind act.

Notice that no money exchanged hands, that no barter agreement was made. It would have been ridiculous to trade 2 dozen eggs for hundreds of dollars worth of split firewood anyhow. That is where most of us fail to understand how a gift economy works. Value is assigned differently from person to person. The eggs had no value for my family because we had an overabundance. The wood had no value to the couple because they had no use for their overabundance. It would take thousands of bonfires in the fire pit to use that amount. It would have rotted before they were able to use it all.

I would be dishonest if I were to tell you that I didn’t have a desire to give them something else to even the scale. I too was not understanding the basis of a gift economy. Without a receiver there can be no giver. It’s always easier to be on the moral high ground of giver. Somehow we feel as if we are carrying the weight of another and that makes us feel good. When we get the sense that someone else is carrying us, hell no. We do not like that at all.

I hope that our paths meet again. I hope that she takes me up on my offer to teach her how to can vegetables. Why? I can now honestly say that it is because I liked her company. I will not spoil their gift by trying to even the scale. I will not assign monetary value to the being of service to one another. I will not put a price tag on a loving act. I understand that reward and sacrifice are happening simultaneously. A gift economy does not need for anyone to keep records. It is based on individual talents and individual abilities. I had eggs, they had firewood. It’s that simple.

***T. A. Fave lives in North Central Wisconsin and besides writing, enjoys working on her small permaculture homestead. She and her family raise their own food and endeavor to live a very low carbon lifestyle. She is a defender of Earth and a fighter of Climate Change. You may contact her on Twitter at @432frequency or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tooshay2018