Cultivating a polyculture of exchange

Talking (and writing) about money is an interesting thing. It’s almost always done in relation to its scarcity (“I’d love to (fill in awesome activity), but I can’t really afford to right now”) or its overabundance (“CEO bonuses are (fill in description of disgust/moral outrage)”). Both conversations tend to get negative pretty quick. Language and social customs seem to make it far easier to talk about problems and challenges than comfort and sufficiency.


Money has occupied an increasingly polarized place in personal and public dialogue, as economic hardship continues to disproportionately affect people around the world and financial inequality is exacerbated in even the most ‘developed’ countries.  Such is our common relationship to money that we often forget (or never realized in the first place) that it is ultimately just a social construct, a medium of exchange, a representation of value – and not a concrete and universal fact of existence. It exercises such a powerful influence on our lives that the pursuit of money has become an end in itself, as if bills and numbers stored in a computer possessed objective value in and of themselves.

I’ve written elsewhere about the power of a dominant narrative to constrain our awareness of what is possible, how the cultural myth of progress ends up justifying otherwise reprehensible acts and patterns. And it is the same with money. Because it functions as such a radical monopoly of exchange, it is hard to even imagine how we might meet our needs without it (by ‘it’, of course I mean the national currency where ever you live – Pound, Dollar, Yen, Euro, Yuan, Rupee..). It is commonly assumed (and in fact, commonly taught in higher education) that hard currency was the natural evolution away from the primitive barter system which made life so darn difficult and inconvenient for early people. However, a thorough study of history shows that people have exchanged goods and services in a huge variety of ways over time, and that centralized hard currency systems are almost everywhere and in every age associated with war, violence, and the erosion of trust.

Sound at all familiar? While we don’t actually have a bullion-based money system since Nixon removed the US Dollar from the gold standard in 1971, we do have an exploitative debt-based credit system. Money created as interest-bearing debt necessitates perpetual economic growth to pay back interest, and thus markets must also perpetually expand – colonizing that which was previously outside the market, such as gift- and trust-based relationships (the social economy) and the whole of the ecological world. When the complex web of community woven together by gift exchange and trust is replaced by a cold and exact form of monetary exchange, essential bonds of relationship are lost. We no longer need to trust each other, we no longer need to need each other – as long as we have enough money, I need only trust that others will accept the money I have to get what I want.

The work of prominent thinkers and practitioners such as Lewis Hyde, Bernard Lietaer, and Charles Eisenstein compellingly detail the subtle and overt ways in which monetization is everywhere followed by the erosion of community and the progressive atomization of society. So how can money and exchange actually serve the real needs of communities, both human and non-human? How can we re-imagine money as what it is really intended to do – facilitate exchange between people, foster the flow of energy through and among communities to meet the needs of all?

When I look around at the community I live in and those nearby, I see many forms of exchange taking place everyday, many of them outside the formal global economy: people sharing their time and skills to help others, gifts being given and received, a community currency designed to keep more money circulating in the local economy, a credit union to provide loans to those not served by commercial banks and help invest in the community, a thriving informal barter system of skills and services…together sowing the seeds of a diverse polyculture of exchange.

Like all complex adaptive systems, the global economic systems needs diversity to remain resilient and the lubricant of that system – money – is anything but diverse at the moment.

In practice, what might such a polyculture of exchange look like? And how might it affect human relationships, our collective consciousness, community, connection to the rest of life? These questions are part of an ongoing inquiry into the emergence of the new economy being explored at Schumacher College – and one that I am particularly excited to explore experientially with the people of Totnes in the coming weeks. Along with Transition Town Totnes, I’m helping to organize a participatory event next month to explore just this in the specific context of the Totnes economy. Stay tuned for more details and reflections on the process as it emerges.

We are collectively the makers of meaning, so how can we re-embed value in people instead of paper? If money is merely a representation of value, lets not confuse the map for the territory as it were. As David Graeber reminds us, “if money is just a social construct,…an agreement, we can renegotiate it at any time.”

The Participation Paradigm (Pt. 2): The Social Economy and Collaborative Facilitation Processes

What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now is fine with me, but I’m happy to consider your opinion as well.  
-“Protest” Sign at Rally to Restore Sanity, Washington, DC

Occupy London, like the movement more generally, has opened up a space for public dialogue. By naming the systemic problems facing our society, the movement has invited people to question their relationships to corrupting and regressive institutions. Within this new space of possibilities, society has been asked to explore its values and priorities; it has been shown a different way of living and relating to one another through a dynamic mixture of participatory events and processes contributing to the life of the camp. In questioning the relevance of old-paradigm institutions such as the centralized state and the financial system to adequately address converging crises – and working towards systemic solutions to these crises through civic engagement – Occupy London is a unique manifestation of the social economy in action.

According to Robin Murray, the social economy is that area of economic activity “not geared to private profitability”. It is motivated explicitly by social values and yet, contrary to mainstream economic theory, has resulted in widespread social innovation and production. The development and integration of more collaborative methods of group facilitation represents a particularly exciting realm of innovation being explored in areas of the social economy such as Occupy camps and other hybrid social institutions.

To respond effectively to the highly complex and uncertain conditions we now find ourselves in, methods of problem-solving and community organization must also reflect complex system dynamics. Numerous examples from around the world – from participatory budgeting in Brazil to development of energy action descent plans in towns across the UK – provide evidence that more distributed and participatory group processes can be far more effective at responding to complex problems. As importantly in the long-run, such participatory processes build the foundations of a more inclusive and democratic society by contributing to a different cultural narrative of empowerment and community agency. Participants in such processes shift from consumers of goods and services to co-producers of the life of society.

As a way of simultaneously adding to the critique of our dominant growth-based economic paradigm and introducing more collaborative, dynamic forms of group engagement to the Occupy London community, I developed and facilitated a participatory visioning workshop. Entitled “Occupy the Future! Re-envisioning Economics in an Ecological World,” this workshop drew on the perspectives of ecological and transition economics to suggest alternative approaches to the institutionalized problems of resource over-exploitation and increasing wealth disparity. Crucially though, these concepts were introduced using inclusive and participatory techniques which transformed participants from passive audience to active co-creators of the learning experience.

The arc of the workshop was inspired in part by the transformative learning model practiced at Schumacher College: we began by exploring the implications of our dominant cultural narrative on economic and ecological systems, embodied ourselves as members in a vast and interconnected community of life, personally envisioned what a sustainable and equitable future might look and feel like, and finally created a collective vision of the type of economy which might support this sustainable, equitable, meaningful future for all. The results of this creative and collaborative process were highly consistent with the decentralized, re-localized, post-carbon future envisioned by, among others, the Transition Network (2009), E.F. Schumacher (1973), and the new economics foundation (2009).

Equally as important as the content of the workshop were the methods chosen to facilitate it. We employed proven self-organizing techniques such as Open Space Technology (used frequently by the Transition Network), personal visioning processes developed by Joanna Macy, Starhawk and others, as well as embodiment activities developed by Robin de Carteret and others at Schumacher College.  The cumulative effect of these activities was intended to be a feeling of empowerment about the future, rooted in the re-imagining of ourselves as active co-creators of our current and future communities. In nurturing the collective intelligence of the group – regardless of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it consisted largely of strangers – we arrived at far richer and more compelling visions of the future; richer due to the diversity of experience represented in the group, and more compelling because the vision was shared and thus responsible to more than one individual.

Social innovators such as Charles Eisenstein and Alpha Lo have written on the many varied techniques that might be employed to further develop the participation paradigm in settings such as Occupy communities. From Gift Circles to Appreciative Inquiry and World Cafe processes, there exist a growing abundance of facilitation methods that both harness and embody the self-organizing, non-hierarchical networks of the social economy. Such processes have the potential to contribute to a virtuous cycle of empowerment and participation because they simultaneously teach new ways of relating and exchanging information, while also creating more generative solutions to complex problems arising out of the collective and distributed intelligence of social networks.

A New Paradigm

Our stories guide us to write our reality. And because we then see our reality through these stories we think that is all that is possible. We collectively create these self-imposed constraints on reality. When we write new stories, our collective reality becomes different, we interact in new ways, we build new things, a whole new world becomes possible.
– Alpha Lo

The universe is pregnant with both uncertainty and potential. How we understand our collective and individual roles in shaping an uncertain future is significantly conditioned by the dominant cultural narrative, or paradigm, influencing us. In a period increasingly characterized by rapid non-linear change – in ecosystem functioning and climate regulation, in financial stability, in political representation and inclusiveness – we must employ a new set of tools, processes, and forms of organization more coherent with the nature of the world as we now know it.

The participation paradigm, then, represents a growing acknowledgment of the failure of neoclassical market mechanisms to fulfill our individual and collective needs above a certain threshold of material comfort. The narrative of citizen as consumer is both profoundly degrading to our higher potentials and materially destructive as the linear industrial economy threatens to transgress ecological limits. In its place, a more ecologically sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling paradigm of co-creation and mutual aid.

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the efficacy of ongoing developments such as the Occupy movement to catalyze systemic change, I have placed trends towards more participatory and distributed forms of organization in the context of the emerging social economy, an area of the socio-economic system better suited to respond innovatively to change. Examples of social innovation in action are demonstrating how we can organize our communities around something more meaningful than monetary transactions, that we can choose to base our relationships on cooperation instead of competition, generosity instead of greed, creation instead of consumption.

If our “Occupy the Future!” workshop was any indication, a meaningful exploration of the future begins with participation in the present. Individual and collective empowerment provides a limitless source of innovation and resilience, and thus simply re-envisioning ourselves as co-creators of the future brings us one step closer to realizing it. As one participant commented at the end of our workshop,

“What I’m taking away with me is this idea that much of the time we imagine that the future is something that happens to us, that it’s up to other people as to how the world is going to be. This [workshop] has reinforced the idea that actually we all create the future together. We are co-creating it. “

Participation, in all its manifold expressions, provides a way of re-experiencing the world in a more empowered way. In participating more fully in the life of society, we enter into relationship with all our fellow participators. And if the currency of the new social economy is relationships, then the revolution truly is love.

Participating in the Gift of Gaia (Pt. 1)

This is part 1 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.

“We do not own our intellect, our creativity, or our skills. We have received them as a gift and grace. We pass them on as a gift and grace; it is like a river which keeps flowing…we are the tributaries adding to the great river of time and culture; the river of humanity.”
– Satish Kumar

The life-sustaining gift of Gaia, which supports humans and the larger ecological world (Photo: Richa Pokhrel)

If you were a member of the Kwakiutl tribe of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest 300 years ago, the annual return of the salmon to their inland spawning grounds was of great significance to you.  For your tribe, the salmon were a primary source of food and natural wealth and thus, their abundance was essential to your survival and flourishing.

However, there was also a deeper social and spiritual significance to their return each year. For the Kwakiutl and many other Native American tribes of this region, the salmon, and all other animal beings, were seen as brothers who lived in human form in large tribes under the sea. According to this mythology, each year the salmon-people would don fish skin and swim inland so as to give themselves to their land brothers in the form of food. It was a selfless act of sacrifice that had to be honored and reciprocated by the Kwakiutl people for the salmon to return the following year.

Accordingly, the Kwakiutl evolved an elaborate welcome ceremony to honor and participate in a gift relationship with the natural world. In effect, this ‘first-fruits rite’ (common to many tribal and indigenous peoples) was an essential part of receiving the gifts of nature and keeping the ‘spirit of the gift’ alive. In this world, the relationship between all beings – and particularly between humans and the more-than-human world – was most fully expressed in the form of a cyclical gift relationship: the physical, social, and spiritual necessities of life were all provided by means of gift exchange.

This series of essays aims to synthesize the theories of socio-economic gift exchange elaborated by Lewis Hyde, Charles Eisenstein and others with our emerging scientific understanding of Gaia theory, planetary boundaries, and systems theory. In so doing, I hope to uncover insights into a particular way of being in the ecological world that humanity may use to respond to the converging crises of social, spiritual, economic, and ecological collapse. Building on the Deep Ecology framework of the ecological self and the phenomenology of perception, we will explore how participating in a gift relationship with Gaia may offer humanity a way of radically re-experiencing ourselves as part of a larger whole and the implications this may have for transitioning to a life sustaining socio-economic system based on the gift ethic.

The Spirit of the Gift: Towards a theory of gift exchange

In order to adequately demonstrate the gift relationship underlying the ecological world, we must first understand the nature of gifts. In the gift society of the Kwakiutl, the first salmon to be caught was always given an elaborate welcoming ceremony to acknowledge the gift of his life: a formal speech was made receiving him as a visiting chief from another tribe and he was adorned with sacred objects and placed on an altar. The chief of the Kwakiutl then distributed a piece of the honored salmon to every member of the tribe, in essence passing this gift from the sea on to the entire tribe. Finally, the intact bones of the salmon were returned to the river from whence he came, so that he could reanimate and return to his lodge under the sea (Hyde 1999). This final and most essential act completed the cycle, or spiral, of gifts, thus ensuring that the salmon would return in abundance the following year.

The gift economy in action at Occupy London

From this example, as well as many others from both modern and indigenous gift societies (Hyde 1999; Mauss 2011; Eisenstein 2010), we can distill several fundamental characteristics of gift exchange. To preserve the essence of a gift, the gift itself must remain in motion. The Kwakiutl recognized this by ceremonially giving a piece of the honorary salmon to each member of the tribe and ultimately, returning the bones of the salmon to the river. The gift is not accumulated or converted to private property, an important distinction between gifts and capital that we shall return to later. The gift is thus given in a circle as it is kept in motion. It is not a strictly reciprocal exchange between two subjects, and it is certainly not a barter exchange where two objects of equal value are exchanged for one another. As the gift moves from river to chief to tribe members back to river, it completes a cycle and thus brings into existence a gift system. Gifts, then, create networks of relationships as they flow.

However, the essential quality of the gift does not end there. In fact, as the gift moves, it transforms at each node of the network of giving. It is first received as a living, breathing salmon. It is then broken into pieces and distributed as food to each member of the tribe. To complete the first round of the cycle, the remaining bones are transferred back to the river. Though it appears that the physical gift is diminished at each stage, in reality the gift, or the ‘spirit of the gift’, actually increases with each movement. The momentum of the gift gives it increasing value as it passes hands (in the form of a tribal identity, a connection to the natural world, participation in the mythology of the tribe, etc.), highlighting another important characteristic: the power of the gift is contained in the interaction between giver and receiver, not in the physical manifestation of the gift. It is in the spaces in between, not in the objects themselves, that gifts release their transformational power.

Gift systems are created by the very nature of the gift. In this context, gift circles function as positive feedback loops: the spirit of the gift – contained not in the quantitative abundance of salmon, for example, but in the community cohesion of the tribe and its relationship to nature – has the potential for unlimited increase and unlimited decrease since it manifests in qualities such as satisfaction, intimacy, coherence, and love that are inherently opposed to exact quantification. The story of the Kwakiutl and their neighboring tribes furnishes us with a perfect example of decrease as well: when white settlers moved onto their lands and commercialized the salmon fisheries by the end of the 19th century, the fisheries were eventually overexploited and tribal cohesion gradually eroded as the Native Americans were forced to rely on market exchange for access to once-free salmon. As gifts were converted into commodities by whites, nature stopped giving and every member of the gift network suffered.

Gifts, then, represent a powerful force for creating and maintaining community, since they operate at the level of the relationship, not the object. Thus, as Hyde states, ‘any exchange, be it of ideas or of goats, will tend toward gift if it is intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community’ (1999: 78). With this understanding of the dynamics of gift exchange in mind, we will next turn towards an exploration of gift systems at the planetary scale.