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.


Participating in the Gift of Gaia (Pt. 2)

This is part 2 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.

The Gift of Gaia: Emergence of a planetary gift ethic

The common understanding of a gift is based on intentionality – a gift is something given willingly without the expectation of payment, and so must be an act of consciousness. However, we have begun to explore a deeper articulation of gift exchange, where the gift is in fact an emergent property of a particular set of relationships. Of course there may be intention behind a gift, such as when the salmon-people willingly assume the form of salmon so as to give themselves as food; yet in some sense the spirit of the gift has a life of its own and needs no specific intention from the individual participants in a gift exchange if that interaction is part of a larger gift circle. As a dynamic flow of interaction within a self-organizing and self-regulating system, the gift ethic may find expression outside of the purely human domain.

How might we come to understand this gift ethic from the viewpoint of science? At its core, the pursuit of science is an exploration of and opening to the world. As such, it is not inherently a process of pure rationality. From an intuitive perspective, many of us humans have experienced life itself as a gift. We have done nothing ourselves to earn this life, yet every morning we wake up and here we are! More precisely (and regardless of our views on karma and rebirth or the presence of a divine creator), we have individually done nothing to earn the conditions that permit life on earth to exist at all – namely the specific chemical composition of our atmosphere, the relative stability of our climate, and the infinite source of energy radiated out by the sun. The gift of life thus finds expression in processes as seemingly insignificant as the production of dimethyl sulphide (DMS) by marine algae (a process which seeds cloud formation and thus climate regulation, but which mainstream science has not completely understood), to the infinitely significant self-sacrifice of the sun:

‘The Sun, in each second, transforms four million tons of itself into light…[T]he Sun’s extravagant bestowal of energy can be regarded as a spectacular manifestation of an underlying impulse pervading the universe. In the star this impulse reveals itself in the ongoing giveaway of energy. In the human heart it is felt as the urge to devote one’s life to the well-being of the larger community.’ (Swimme 1996: 41-42)

From the now widely accepted perspective of Gaia Theory, the conditions for life on earth have been maintained for roughly 3.5 billion years as a result of a co-evolutionary process between life and its environment (Lovelock 2000). It is not simply a happy accident that the atmosphere has maintained a nearly optimal proportion of oxygen for the past 350 million years, or that the earth has maintained a stable temperature within the optimal range for life despite the sun’s luminosity increasing by 25% since life began. These conditions for life have been co-created as part of a self-organizing, self-regulating Gain system encompassing the oceans, atmosphere, surface environment and crustal rocks of the earth. ‘[Gaia] is an “emergent domain” – a system that has emerged from the reciprocal evolution of organisms and their environment over the eons of life on Earth.’ (Lovelock 2000:11)

In this context, it becomes possible for us to both understand and experience the gift of Gaia as none other than the very conditions for life on earth. Based on the dynamics of gift systems previously discussed, the very possibility of life is continually made manifest through the complex cyclical web of relationships and interactions that constitute Gaia. Through the transformative process of self-regulation, every exchange within the various sub-cycles that make up the Gain system (carbon cycle, hydrological cycle, nitrogen cycle, etc.) are “intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community” – the community of life. As Primavesi states, ‘givenness is an emergent property of the entire Gaian system’ (2003:130).

Another way to understand the gift of Gaia is through the framework of planetary boundaries developed by Rockstrom et al (2009). Through extensive research into the biophysical processes that enable the self-regulating capacity of Gaia, Rockstrom and team have developed a preliminary model of the “safe planetary playing field” within which life and its environment can exist in stability. The nine planetary boundaries identified in this model can be understood to constitute the boundaries of the gift of Gaia, for within these boundaries the earth’s regenerative capacity absorbs our wastes and maintains the optimal conditions for life.

As we transgress these planetary boundaries, our gift relationship with Gaia may be severed and the gift no longer given. We are already experiencing this in the widespread loss of species, drought, failed harvests, mineral and fossil fuel scarcity, and perhaps most dangerously, our loss of connection as a species to these sources of our existence. As far as our gift relationship with Gaia is maintained, all of our existential needs continue to be given freely to us. However, as in all gift systems, if the gift is hoarded, accumulated, degraded, not given onward, used for private gain – in short, if the gift is not received as a gift, then the spirit of the gift dies and with it the entire gift system (Hyde 1999: 37).

According to Rockstrom et al’s calculations, humans have already transgressed three of the planetary boundaries: climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and disruption of the planetary nitrogen cycle. As the earth system is highly complex, these boundaries are interdependent in many known and unknown ways. Thus, we do not know how transgressing one planetary boundary might affect other boundaries, let alone the impact of transgressing three at once. Since complex adaptive systems like Gaia are subject to rapid non-linear changes in system state once tipping points are reached, the earth system is now in a highly uncertain and precarious position.

Recognized as either an emergent property of the self-regulating Gaian system or as the regenerative capacity of the earth to absorb our wastes within a set of planetary boundaries, the gift of Gaia sustains life in all its manifold forms. From this planetary perspective of gift exchange, a renewed relationship with Gaia is essential for human and non-human flourishing.

So how might human participation in a gift relationship with the ecological world transform our conception of self and the place of humans within the community of life? We will explore this question in the final installment of the series next week.

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.