The Gift Economy and the Ecological Self (Pt. 3)

This is part 3 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.

Living in harmony with Gaia, acknowledging her primordial gift to all of life, is to keep the spirit of the Gaia gift alive and so pass it on to other members of the community of life. What is necessary is a collective realization of our inherent dependence on the other members of this community for our survival and the continued flourishing of the entire system. Fortunatey, this process can begin at the level of the individual human – the process Arne Naess has termed self-realization (Naess 1987).

Inherent in the functioning of gift societies (in the human domain) and larger-scale gift systems (in the ecological domain) is the truth that what benefits one ultimately benefits all. For humans, this involves a process of identification with something outside of our self (the gift I give to you will ultimately come back to me, albeit in a different form). It is through this process of broadening and deepening our identification with others that the boundaries of our self expand. Naess (1987: 82) introduces the concept of the ecological self as the broadest and deepest level of self, or the self which identifies with the entire human and more-than-human world. Through the cultivation of our ecological self, we learn to live harmoniously with all of Gaia and relate to it just as we normally relate to our limited self (ego). From this perspective, we care for all of creation just as much out of self-love as any sense of altruism (Naess 1987: 93).

Yet how do we cultivate such an expanded sense of self when our everyday experience of the world clearly reinforces the more limited self? At dinner time, my hunger isn’t satiated when the robin outside my window finds a worm or my neighbor has a slice of pizza.

In fact, one way to strengthen our identification with others is simply to give. Anyone who has lovingly cooked a meal for friends and felt full simply in watching their satisfaction knows the power of giving to heighten our experience of identification. Just in participating more openly in the natural gift relationships all around us, we can begin to expand our boundaries and experience reality as a wider self.

The simple act of perception – seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting – offers another gateway into deepening our relationship with the sensuous world around us. Perception offers us the most direct way of participating with the world and fully experiencing ourselves as part of something larger than our own ego. The phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1962 cited in Abram 1996) described the reciprocal nature of perception by drawing attention to the fact that my hand can only feel something because it is itself something which can be felt. Similarly, my eyes have the capacity to see because they are themselves visible to other seeing entities. In this way, perception becomes a mode of exchange in which we might enter into a gift relationship with the earth – seeing and being seen, touching and being touched, walking lightly so that we may be lightly walked upon.

As David Abram exclaims, ‘We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us’ (1996: 68).

The humble act of receiving the natural world as a gift becomes a powerful and transformative experience. When walking through the garden just after sunrise some mornings, I am greeted by the joyful singing of a robin welcoming the day. Open to the reciprocal nature of perception, I become aware that it is not possible to hear this robin without both influencing her song and being influenced by it. Thus perceiving and receiving the robin’s song as a gift, I am instantly filled with joy. I enter into a gift relationship with the robin as I realize that something outside of my narrow self is the source of this joy – yet as my experience of self expands to include this relationship with the robin, the source of joy is no longer outside my self, but deep within. It is the dynamic act of receiving that allows for this deepening and widening experience of self.

Whether the gift of life or the gift of song, my experience is deepened and enriched in the opening to this latent gift relationship between my self and my environment. The process of entering into a deep relationship with nature facilitates and is facilitated by participation in gift exchange. A genuine giving-receiving relationship with others can lead to the profound expansion of the boundaries of the self, and thus a dynamic shift in our mode of being in the world; this self-expansion, or realization of the ecological self, is the ultimate expression of our gift relationship with Gaia.

The Gift Economy: From scarcity to abundance, from ownership to relationship

It has been acknowledged by spiritual leaders such as Satish Kumar and Ariyarantne (1999), scientists like Johan Rockstrom (2009), and economists from E.F. Schumacher to Herman Daly and Tim Jackson (2009), that the economy is just a subset of the larger earth system. Yet awareness and recognition of the fundamental dependence of economies – indeed all of life – on the Gaia Gift has been disturbingly absent from mainstream politics and socio-economic policies. As the economic impacts of resource scarcity and environmental degradation are felt more explicitly in industrialized countries, more widespread recognition of this basic fact will no doubt emerge.

Similarly, many economists and even politicians are beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of human wellbeing, one that incorporates our social, ecological and spiritual needs as well as our material ones (Jackson 2009; Ariyarantne 1999). However, in a society dominated by market exchange and driven by the logic of infinite economic growth, the potential for these other facets of wellbeing to be met are inherently limited. The necessary expansion of the global market to feed economic growth has only been possible through increased conversion of the natural world into commodities and human relationships into professional services (Eisenstein 2010). This conversion necessarily involves the transformation of gift relationships (and other forms of mutual exchange) into market relationships. According to Eisenstein, ‘Community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own’ (2010).

In societies characterized by economic decay, ecological degradation, as well as ‘social recession’ (Jackson 2009: 86), different forms of exchange and interaction are needed to provide what market exchange is inherently incapable of – connection to the ecological world and genuine participation in the life of society. We have seen how gift exchange is associated with the natural increase in characteristics such as group identity, community cohesion, and expansion of the self – all movements from the narrow individual to the wider whole. Market or commodity exchange, on the other hand, is everywhere associated with privatization, accumulation of profit, and competition – movements in the opposite direction from group to individual.

What is evidently in need is a balancing of these forms of exchange, particularly in areas where ‘the spirit of the gift’ operates most effectively – in our relationships with neighbors and the larger natural world. If our world is increasingly characterized by the market logic of scarcity and private ownership, we must find ways of interacting that cultivate abundance and relationship. Indeed, these are the very qualities enhanced through gift exchange, both in the planetary emergence of the gift of Gaia and in the bonds of relationship strengthened by gift communities.


The gift ethic is already thriving in many underappreciated ways, along the margins of our global market economy. Initiatives such as timebanking and LETS schemes, online gift communities such as GiftFlow and CouchSurfing, and the emergence of community Gift Circles all point towards a growing participation in the gift economy. However, our collective relationship with Gaia, with the larger community of life, is still trending towards commodification, even in the most well-intentioned economic circles. International schemes such as TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) and REDD-plus (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) to value the ecological world and reward stewardship risk reinforcing a market relationship with Gaia where a gift relationship is desperately needed.

Perhaps the most hopeful initiatives in this regard are the international efforts to formally recognize and protect the rights of the Earth, giving the more-than-human world a legally recognized voice (Higgins 2011; Earth Charter Commission 2000). If the polar opposite of pure gift is theft, as Hyde puts it, then international laws such as the proposed crime of Ecocide can protect our gift relationship with the earth from the commodification and over-exploitation that degrade the gift ethic of Gaia.

Indeed, if Gaia is perceiving herself through us as David Abram intuits, perhaps the greatest gift we can return to Gaia is in giving her a voice.


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