The Gift Economy: An Economic Framework for the Economy of Communion?

by Richard Nelson Presented at Sustainable Resources 03, University of Colorado, Boulder

Solutions often exist to our most urgent problems and fail to be applied because the conventional economic system and its commercialization process cannot bring certain types of technologies profitably to the market. When an innovation will increase revenues and profits, then there is potential that it will be viable as a business venture. But if the innovation primarily creates benefits to the quality of living or saving our environment, produces conservation, reduces consumption or makes it possible for end-users to access free energy, water and food production, then there is a problem - because there may be little or no "returns to capital" from the end-users that would normally provide the incentive to attract investors.

Today the technologies that are greatly valued result in "consumer products" and higher rates of consumption. Technologies for sustainable living primarily will create savings and reduce consumption. This creates distributed wealth that is realized by the end-user. However, it is difficult to account for the wealth that is created. A further problem for our conventional business approach is that distributed wealth is often produced not so much by new products or hardware but by software and knowledge. Because of this the corporate world is engaged in an aggressive effort to establish property rights over knowledge and information. Hardware and materials are becoming commodity items that have low profit margins while the larger potential for earnings are found in systems, programs, networks and methods that are non-tangible.

Our concepts of private property were invented by capitalists who long ago established the rule of law and the power of the elite ruling class to enforce with arms their ownership of the land, resources and production - these are the mechanisms of the Command Economy. We have come to see that these concepts are limited and regressive and cannot provide an equitable foundation for universal prosperity in the new millennium. We are entering an era of resource depletion and face serious shortages of material necessities and in response the Command Economy is shifting its focus towards the control of intangibles. This attempt to fence off essential know-how, software and knowledge applications into domains of private property may succeed, and if so, we may all become knowledge serfs rather than knowledge surfers.

I will say for those who understand this language that abundant, free resources can emerge if, at this critical point in history, we can act with faith in each other and build the Gift Economy. The question is: Can we summon the vision and the courage to believe in a future where the divisions that separate people will be replaced by an authentic communion among all communities; knowing that this communion is the true source of world unity and peace.

The Gifts of sustainable energy and resources have been kept out of reach because of our ignorance and lack of communion with Creation and each other. How are we so trained and conditioned into habits of thinking and patterns of behaviour that lead to our separation from true wealth? We begin by putting our children into mental straight-jackets in school, where "free thinking" and creativity is stifled. We almost exclusively rely on the pass/fail method of advancement, on the precise regurgitation of information - only certain talents are measured and others are de-valued. We dwell on problem analysis but have little training in the methods of discovery and solution creation and emergence of innovations.

We direct our advanced students into isolated, independent and secretive work through competitions that reward individual brilliance but work against collaboration, disclosure and sharing. We inculcate the value of secrets and train young minds to distrust team work and common knowledge. We establish a culture where advanced knowledge is horded; research is motivated by greed; and common sense is abandoned and given no status. We live in a world where most are overwhelmed by problems but we have faith only in experts and the "qualified" elite. Why are THEY so powerless to solve the problems? Why is the whole world fast approaching resource exhaustion, ecological collapse and a human die-off of unimaginable proportions?

Conflict and an ongoing condition of warfare is now the norm and our societies are well on the way to becoming police states. However, we have no war on poverty, hunger and the conditions that give rise to illness and stress and conflict. We have no security on a personal or national level and the international sphere is a field of land mines. Why, with all the knowledge that now abounds do we continue to race towards disaster? Is there any doubt that the answer is that we face a spiritual dilemma and need to find our common will to build a better future based on common sense and on the goodness of the ordinary person?

The first step towards universal freedom and security is to be confident that the solutions to our common problems already exist or will emerge without the application of the resources that are controlled by the elite and powerful. We can find these solutions through Grass Roots action that is empowered by a DIY approach. Working as individuals we cannot succeed; together we can release the power of the Gift Economy through our COLLABORATION. This is the key that will unlock our capacity to change our lives and our world for the better. Full disclosure and sharing of all our knowledge and talents can now move ahead through the means of an openSource collaborative community.

As a practical initiative and experiment with the workings of the Gift Economy, I am attempting to establish a worldwide movement for openSource solar/eco-living technology and then link this community that have solutions to those that are in need. The needy are people everywhere living non-sustainable lifestyles - most certainly those in the west who are the source of most of the damage to people and the planet. What I am suggesting is that we replace the language of Globalization that refers to "developed and non-developed" communities with a more useful designation that would identify peoples living sustainable or non-sustainable lifestyles.

Pay It Forward is an economic mechanism of the Gift Economy - it is a voluntary acknowledgement of the benefit (financial and otherwise) that individual members have received from the openSource community and I am suggesting that every member who becomes an end-user of the "free" know how will make a gift of 3 to 10 percent of their project cost (and/or income if it is a commercial use) and pay this into a Grass Roots project of their choice that will be described on our community website. Grass Roots initiatives provide a mechanism for individuals and families to give a hand up to other families and communities who then can also join the chain of contributors as they become stronger. Not only money, but also technical support and guidance will be volunteered by our internet community through an Open Eco Wi Ki?.

While Pay It Forward is similar to micro credit the difference is that the money that is contributed is not paid back (like a loan) but is paid forward as a gift. Unlike a "charitable gift", and somewhat like the concept of a loan, the recipient of the assistance has a moral obligation to arrive at a stage where they can send the same or more assistance forward in a never ending (and accumulating) chain of support for others to adopt sustainable living lifestyles. Thus the users of openSource knowhow are never just free-loading the system developers and technology contributors, but are also contributing building the community's economic strength and quantifying the value of their activity. The entire system would be self directing and organic in its operations - a distributed intelligent network.

The idea is that we should act to help ourselves by collaborating to create, use and share the openSource know how providing first to ourselves the means to live sustainably and then out of the benefits we have received that we will be capable and can afford to help others. Through the Internet, without the intervention of any government or the creation of any new organization we can mobilize a huge grass roots initiative that can bridge the gap that now divides communities and deliver the results directly where the need is greatest.

The emergence of our worldwide openSource community will release the energy and wealth of the Gift Economy, which has a miraculous capacity to multiply and increase the wellbeing of us all and to restore, renew and revive the planet. True wealth is different from material wealth because it rests on these human resources - knowledge, love, compassion and hope - which are not depleted by their use. These resources of mind and spirit are not restricted by physical limitations and the finite value of material resources. The resources of the Gift Economy are sustainable and so as we begin to mobilize its power we will see that previous limitations will fall away and the power structure of the world will change.

I welcome editing of the text above and/or YOUR comments:


Feedback here

It's a shame, you weren't at Oekonux. It would have been great if you could have discussed this with me and Marcin of http://sourceopen.org/wiki/. Sola Roof did come up in one of the conversations I had with Marcin. We are clearly working on different aspects of the same project and collaboration makes sense. See you at WTF.2! Mamading

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