Our financial system just being rescued by the European Union, millions of jobless people with no income, lower and lower salaries and pensions, restricted credits both for families and companies, and, of course, more and more cost cuttings and expenditure cuts … While looking at this picture, the million-dollar question is: How are we going to live? And, most of all, how are we going to consume?
Far from finding an obvious reply, one thing is clear: The current crisis presents a perfect scenario for creativity, for original ideas, and for recovering values and practices from the past. We are looking to find a way that prevents us from falling into the abyss. And, which initiatives are being tackled? As we already know, alternatives to conventional consumption are growing, such as second-hand and barter street markets, time banking, social currencies, and other hundreds of collaborative consumption projects that promote sharing and reprocessing the resources, using the Internet as a main tool.
Leaving aside such approaches which, to some degree, imply a negotiation between users (in order to reach an exchange agreement), a new trend that goes a step forward is also rising up — the so called Gift Economy or Gift Culture.
The Gift Economy
Contrary to what is usually done in trading, barter, or any other type of consumption activity where a transaction is produced, Gift Culture represents the culture of giving something without expecting (demanding?) anything in return. It is a booming movement that gathers initiatives created by people and communities wherein goods and services are offered without an explicit agreement to get an immediate, or even future payment, for them.
Even though the origins of the Gift Culture are uncertain, some anthropologists suggest that hunter-gatherer societies basically acted as Gift Economies (and they did not practice barter, as it’s commonly believed). Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift points to the Kula ritual as an example; this is an ancestral gift circle, which continues to be performed nowadays in the Papua and New Guinea archipélago. Similar rituals have existed in other Pacific islands for centuries.
Nevertheless, it is not necessary to make a trip to the past. We have very clear examples in the present, such as among our friends and family. We do favors for each other, cover necessities unquestioningly, without implying any negotiation or interchange. We consider these relations of mutual trust, confidence, and support to be crucial.
Above all, what really matters for us here is to explore whether or not this type of relation could be created with people beyond our inner circles. Is it possible to cover our necessities (without using exchange or money) interacting with tens, hundreds, or thousands of persons? Let us see some examples.
The Free Stores
As their name suggests, they are stores where items do not have any price; they are free. The Umsonst Landen (for-free store in German) were very popular in the late '90s in Germany, and there could be found every type of used articles such as clothes, CDs, books, toys, that wait for somebody to take them at no cost.
We may also find for-free stores in Spain, usually located in okupas centers. La Tabacalera and El Patio Maravillas in Madrid, and Can Masdeu in Barcelona are the pioneers.
The Givebox is a present initiative that is starting up in Berlin whose precursors prefer to be kept unknown. The idea is to install a kind of kiosk on the street where clothes and other kind of things can be left or picked up by anyone who passes by, looking for and taking away whatever he wants, for free. In fact, it is pretty similar to a free store. The originality is that the prefabricated kiosk or stand may be obtained and assembled by oneself.
The Gratiferias are like typical street markets, with the only difference that everything is free. “Bring here what you want, (or nothing), and take away what you want, (or nothing)” — this is the slogan of the original proposal, where it is possible to offer what is no longer useful and to get what is needed, without using money or any type of interchange.
The ideologist and founder of the gratiferias is the Argentinian Ariel Rodríguez Bosio, and the idea began to take shape at the beginning of 2010 in Buenos Aires and other cities in Argentina and Uruguay, progressively spreading through Latin America, arriving in Spain this year. Gratiferias have already been celebrated in Valencia, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Málaga. Our friend Alejo Molochnik, who lives in Buenos Aires, made and edited (all for free!) the following interview with Ariel Rodríguez.
This initiative is very similar to the Really Really Free Market which continues to be celebrated since beginning in mid-2005 in San Francisco and other cities in the United States. Both projects intend to break with the logic of the economy, as we know it, to minimize the environmental impact, to lower the volume of garbage that we generate, and to change consumerist habits.
Another possibility to cover requirements (beyond material ones) is the concept of the Gift Circle. Developed by Alpha Lo, this is a practice expanding across the United States and consisting of weekly meetings, wherein the participants expose one or more things that they would like to offer and also present necessities they would like to receive, within the group.
It seems that, very often, a magic synchronicity is produced to cover the requirements that gradually appear: “Do you need someone to take you to the airport next Friday? Curious, isn’t? My husband has also to fly that day!”
As time passes by, the members of the group know each other better and feel more comfortable asking for and offering things to others that are part of the circle, with the feeling of community getting stronger by doing so.
Here we leave you a video in which the founder of the concept explains how a Gift Circle works.
The expansion of the Internet is a privileged witness to the resurgence of Gift Cultures. To understand their evolution, it is necessary to learn that many aspects of the digital culture do not fit the traditional economic principles, which can explain neither the copyleft, nor the number of websites, open source programs, and file-sharing systems between equals that work as an open and communal system to share and manage resources. Conventional economic theories cannot explain, either, how thousands of programmers, spread all across the world, work for free and offer the source code of their programs on the Internet, where anyone may copy it or, more importantly, modify and improve it.
In spite of not getting money, with their behavior, these programmers gain prestige and respect, and the community as a whole gets favored by a better program. Undoubtedly, to belong to a community where not only the source code but also moral values and social goals are shared, may be, by itself, a powerful creative force (pdf).
A special case is Wikipedia which enables us to cover our basic need of knowledge with over 20 millions of articles in 282 languages and dialects, drafted by volunteers all over the world. This is really a great gift to the world! Another remarkable case is Couchsurfing. Since its beginnings in 1999, its goal has been to create a global community, wherein the users offer free hosting to be able to travel and to know cultures through promoting hospitality. There are other similar websites nowadays, but their almost five million users in 207 countries demonstrate how the indirect reciprocity (you host me and others will host you) is attractive enough to create a community where its members interact without expecting an immediate benefit.
The case of Freecycle is amazing, too. In May of 2003, its founder sent an e-mail to about 40 friends explaining the idea of promoting recycling through the creation of a list of e-mails, where material things were to be shared by their members. Today it has almost nine million members distributed all over the planet.
Following this example, at the national level in Spain we find nolotiro.org and segundamanita.com (with open code based on Nolotiro). Nolotiro started up at the end of 2008 and, thanks to it, between 6,000 and 10,000 objects have not been sent to the garbage each month. The idea is explained here:
More recently, a new wave of projects is creating tools for its users to cover their necessities without the use of money or exchange. With them, the proposal is similar, but it goes further than the recycling of material goods. On these platforms, all types of giving and lending of things, sharing the company and care of people, advice, and any other type of favor that we need, can be offered or asked for. Among others, we find Szivesseg, StreetBank, Sharedearth, and Giftflow at the international level, and Favorece in Spain.
We may wonder how it is possible that communities structured on voluntary work and collaboration can be more efficient and more flexible than many conventional interchanges produced in the real world. Sociologists have long been captivated by these sorts of selfless initiatives. Many ask themselves what moves a person to participate in them … If exchange is not a priority, what benefits are obtained by participating in a project or community of this type?
According to a study carried out by researchers of the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, to give something expecting nothing in return makes us feel better than getting some immediate compensation in exchange. This study, that surveyed 1,300 users of Freecycle and Craigslist, concludes that the users of Freecycle feel more connected with the spirit of the community.
German physicist and philosopher Stefan Klein gives us more clues in La Revolución Generosa, a book resulting from rigorous scientific research that shows why collaboration and altruism are the future, and why these attitudes make us happier. We find statements such as the following on this book:
"Men who give help to others live, generally, healthier and happier and very often have more success than their contemporaries who only think of their own well-being.” (Page 13)
“Neurological researches show that altruism activates, in the brain, the same mechanisms that enjoying good chocolate and sex do.” (Page 14)
“It may be unusual for many people to be conducted by the interests of others. Nevertheless, the opportunity to provide assistance to others is an attitude that may be practiced until it becomes as common as riding a bicycle. The fear of being exploited vanishes over time, and the willingness to give things brings up a sentiment of freedom. Altruism, therefore, makes us happier and changes the world.” (Page 299)
Expert Charles Eisenstein explains in his book Sacred Economics that the benefits of Gift Economies are given on the basis of the prestige and reputation of each user among his community, and that this type of community promotes gratitude and the appearance of indirect reciprocity among its members. According to Eisenstein, safety in life does not come from having material goods, but from giving to others, and the connections that we create with them. Here's a video in which Eisenstein tells us why the current moment is a good one for the change.
Beyond the charity, paternalism, and religious goodness, there is common sense; and the society of credit and excessive consumption in the last few years has not been positive for most people, the crisis being a reflection of it. Based on studies that show that the hyper-consumer society, as we know it, is already part of the past, we may state that very deep changes in all economic and social levels are approaching in the next years. One of these changes, also promoted by Collaborative Consumption and the Culture of Gift, is the orientation to the Commons and the shared access to goods and services, versue the search for short-term benefits and the accumulation of goods as individual property.
Evenly balancing our lives between an honest selfishness and a positive contribution to our environment may be a good guideline to follow. These types of projects helps us to realize the necessary change of paradigm to recover the lost values — like sharing, collaboration, and trust — through tools that evoke a sense of community and promote social relations of a more human quality; these elements, according to Happy, the movie, will be the key to increasing our quality of life and, definitively, to be happier.
Originally published in Ouishare (in French) and Consumo Colaborativo (in Spanish).