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.