Posted on 25 October 2015 | No responses
Last night was the final for my variety show Sandbox Land. The theme was Harry Potter and I decided to end the night with the below letter to JK Rowling.
Dear Joanne K Rowling…Jo,
I did not come to you as a child, but as a child at heart. Yet, even as an adult the Harry Potter books inspired me and I would like to thank you.
Thank you for renewing my sense of wonder. Thank you for a world so rich in imagination and joy that even though my mundane world does not include wands and dragons and golden snitches, I am uplifted and my awareness of other magic such as beauty, laughter, and friendship is magnified.
Thank you for creating a little boy who cares: he cares when Ron can’t afford treats such as magic chocolate frogs, he cares when Cedric Diggory shares tips on how to win the Wizarding Cup, he cares enough to save his cousin Dudley from death, and he cares when he realises his enemy Severus Snape has been his protector all along. You have created a whole world where people frequently care when it would be safer and more convenient if they did not.
Thank you for creating feisty and interesting girls like Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood. These are capable girls who successfully navigate their lives through the use of intelligence and kindness, discovering these are not second-rate attributes only fit for a weaker sex, but sources of real and enduring power which make of the world a better place.
Thank you for making clear to young people what adults do not always have the courage to admit: no one at any age has all the answers. We are all deeply flawed and doing the best we know how. All we can do is maintain the best of intentions, learn from our mistakes, and find the courage to keep making mistakes as we do what we can to reduce suffering and promote what is most life-affirming. Harry Potter, Severus Snape, and Tom Marvolo grew up under similar circumstances and at times made dreadful mistakes. Those who discovered and rediscovered their essential connection with humanity in the end sought to redeem themselves. Having made similarly dreadful mistakes in his youth Albus Dumbledore understood this process. He understood that from a young age we all need to learn how to sensibly forgive ourselves and forgive others. For it is better to nurture goodness than to simply enforce order.
Finally, thank you Jo for cutting through both the cotton candy and the lemon sour bitterness of our age. Thank you for creating a world that grapples with real issues such as dysfunctional families, bureaucratic evil, suffering, and death. No amount of Disney magic protects either the ordinary or the good from these realities. Thank you also for not succumbing to cynicism. The world may be mottled with darkness, but it also holds great light flitting among the shadows. Sometimes its a light that does not recognise itself. And always it comes when each of us actively practises such skills as kindness, friendship, and most especially, love. These may not come in perfect packages, but they are indeed still very real things.
Thank you Jo. And thank you all her fans, for taking these messages to heart. The world needs now more than ever a Dumbledore’s Army, an army of young people whose hearts are filled with both courage and compassion, who are willing to take action protecting the weak and building on what is right and true and good. It is you who have helped to make the Harry Potter stories great!
In peace and friendship,
Posted on 24 September 2015 | No responses
What we want are functional interdependent communities where we feel safe, secure, and accepted. We want to find the sweet spot between self-determining and cooperative, so that we can mutually let go of all the fear and judgement we bear toward one another. We need to collectively hold this vision, so that together we work toward creating it.
We have people congratulating themselves for being self-made, rugged individuals. Such toxic self-portrayals are a myth and a false idol. These people imagine themselves as Rambos, but these Rambos rely on civilisation for the skills and technology they need to dominate their surroundings. Few if any of these sorts could achieve Bear Grylls style survival, and few if any would want to. They simply want to flatter themselves.
The problem is we have given these people power out of our own fear and vanity. Too many seek to imitate the spurious Rambos in order to achieve power for themselves. If enough people out of a sense of disempowerment start imitating these destructive fools, our culture will crumble and none of us will survive.
We have to start finding one another again. We have to learn how to look out for one another, understand one another, and care about each other’s well-being. We need to find the courage to face emotional vulnerability and learn how to ride the waves of longterm meaningful relationships, not just with partners, but with communities and the world.
This doesn’t have to be a drear and painful endeavour. We can begin by dancing together, singing together, playing board games together, sharing meals together, and thereby learning the landscape of each individual’s personality and how it intersects with our own.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 19 September 2015 | No responses
Cynicism leads to
Apathy leads to
If you do nothing,
If you are cynical you don’t have to
It has been said:
If you aren’t part of the solution,
You are part of the problem.
Cynicism is a form of conservatism,
Just as surely as if
You are a paid member of
Any right-wing political party.
Your mouth says left,
But your actions are supporting right.
I have a great grandmother
Who was a suffragette.
Many suffragists died
Before women achieved the vote.
I now have the vote.
Many civil rights activists
To see an African American president.
If one person
Plants one tree,
They may feel
Alone, pathetic, disspirited.
If you join with others
Who plant one tree each,
A whole forest goes up quickly
And you sense you can change the world.
Cynics cloak themselves in
The illusion of realism.
Cynics say: “Nothing can be changed.”
Those who have moved the world say:
“Many things can change,
When people have the will to create change.”
What are you doing?
What are you doing?
What are you doing?
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 16 September 2015 | No responses
I am deeply grateful that it was Charles Darwin who largely founded and popularised the study of evolutionary biology. The industrial era has a lot to answer for. Any number of other scientists might have injected British imperial bombast into the incipient field.
Even so we are still laden with Victorian attitudes permeating business, politics, technology, and science. And I mean the attitudes that see educated rich white male humans as the pinnacle of evolution. This is why just because someone is an intellectual does not mean they are on the side of universal human rights and the preservation of the environment.
I bring these points up because even though business, technology, and science largely no longer believe that God gave us nature in order to hold dominion over it, much is made of the distinctions between humans and animals. Until very recently all animals were seen as biological automatons who couldn’t feel pain, but simply gave programmed responses to stimuli. “All” meaning every animal except man. Historical documents abound that describe women, non-Caucasian peoples, the poor, and imprisoned as less than human as well.
As such people like Jane Goodall had an upward battle getting the scientific community to accept their research. To describe any behaviour of great apes that might have a parallel with human behaviour was seen as anthropomorphising. This comes from a perspective that believes humans are utterly distinct from animals. In time researchers, for instance, have been able to prove that chimpanzees laugh. The empathetic structures in our brains were giving us correct information about this behaviour, without it being our own projections.
I’m sure most of us know people who are overly fond of their pets and project all sorts of emotional and intellectual behaviour onto them. However, seeing animals as simple machines that we can use with impunity is no less a projection. In both cases people are wanting something from the animal and therefore choose to see it in a particular light. They may want the animals to help demonstrate human superiority, or alternatively human moral inferiority. They may want to believe an animal understands them, or that it has no understanding and therefore we are free to ignore its suffering.
When doing any sort of research we are going to be limited by our social expectations. We all have to be prepared to change our minds when better information comes to light. If we become bound by the need to bolster our social status, we start losing the capacity to properly observe reality.
One aspect of elephant behaviour I have been reading about concerns musth. Musth occurs in adult male elephants. It is characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones, but is not in fact a rut. It seems more closely related to establishing dominance than mating. Many documentaries and many pages of books have been written about male elephants fighting for mating rights or going into musth.
Because of Africa’s growing population more and more elephant territory has been taken for farmland. The elephants that have been confined to various parks are at times more than the ecosystem can bear. It is possible to dart elephant cows with hormones to reduce their fertility, but certain nations prefer to cull these animals and turn a profit from the resulting ivory.
Elephants have been proven to have self-awareness like humans, apes, whales, and dolphins. They also have spindle (aka von Economo) neurons. These are the cells that help make us what we consider most human. They give us social sensitivity, self-monitoring (especially emotions), and the capacity to cooperate. Wholesale culls are a very real holocaust for these animals. They suffer, they grieve. They lose the wisdom of their elders. This is especially significant when it comes to young males who reach musth and don’t have an older male elephant around.
Young males without an elder have been known to form gangs and slaughter rhinoceroses and even kill tourists upon occasion. When an elder is brought in, their behaviour is more controlled and they do not slip into this hormonal cycle as frequently.
The Melbourne Zoo has two male elephants that are kept in a paddock together: one is father forty-one year-old Bong Su and the other is his five year-old son Ongard. Asian elephants mature faster than African, and Ongard is almost breeding age. He is already on zoo “dating sites”, since the Melbourne Zoo has no suitable females with whom he can start a family (they are sisters and cousins).
When I was at the zoo this week I watched as Ongard playfully bumped heads with Bong Su. Bong Su affectionately reached out his trunk and caressed Ongard. When his trunk gently brushed Ongard’s cheek, Ongard twined his trunk around Bong Su’s. For several minutes they tenderly held each other’s trunks. Upon disengaging they lightly jostled one another as they walked over and ate some hay together.
We hear a lot about female elephant bonding. Of the numerous books and sites I have read recently, I have seen little mention of male elephant bonding. Clearly it happens. I wonder if our culture is more interested in powerful, dominating, and violent male elephants, and not so much for powerful, caring, and nurturing male elephants. Both seem to be true depictions, but they exist side by side and both need to be recognised. I might be told this only happens in a zoo environment. I do not know. But if they are capable of such behaviour in one place, no doubt they express it in others.
From my research I am coming away with a couple of firm recommendations: we have to start seeing the other animals of this world as our family, not in an anthropomorphic sense but in the sense of empathy and due care; and we need to better understand ourselves and develop our own social and emotional maturity, for only with that maturity will we have the capacity to better understand the family of living beings.
Peace and kindness,
Post script: A friend sent me a link to this Smithsonian article, “Elephants Have Male Bonding Rituals, Too“. A few months ago researcher Caitlin O’Connell released a book Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse with new research about male elephant behaviour. I look forward to reading it!
Posted on 10 September 2015 | No responses
We are living in a time when critical decisions must be made to ensure the survival of this planet and ourselves. What is clear: how we treat one another is part of how we are treating the environment and vice versa.
We have allowed a culture of competition to reach toxic levels. Bullying is much higher in offices and sports groups where competition is rampant. People who are solely focussed on “winning” lose sight of the damage their behaviour is causing. Constant competition causes people to be stressed, angry, and frightened. When out of fear they take up a “me first” attitude, they create the circumstances that generate more fear in everyone and an intensification of “me first” attitudes everywhere.
The answer is for people to learn how to care about the well-being of one another and the well-being of the planet, how to share resources, how to cooperate, and how to accept change. We have to address both the stratification of society and its environmental outcomes. Attitude change is of exceeding importance.
From 30 November to 11 December of this year the countries of this world will meet in Paris to once more discuss climate change. Before that time we have to let the government know how we expect them to represent us at that conference. I’m wondering if concerned citizens should put together an independent Australian statement of what we want achieved at that conference, gather as many signatures as possible, and send our own delegation to the event. Climate change isn’t just about “leaders”, it’s about humanity. We all need to be leaders in order to turn things around.
In May of 1994 an international group of experts on human rights and environmental protection put together a proposed document entitled the UN Draft Principles On Human Rights And The Environment. They understood the connections between human and planetary well-being. They assembled in Geneva at the invitation of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund—in cooperation with the Association mondiale pour l’école instrument de paix and the Société suisse pour la protection de l’environnement—on behalf of Madame Fatma Zohra Ksentini, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment for the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Below is the resulting document.
I am currently on a campaign to help people understand UN documents such as this because they must be the shape of our future. We want a world guided by deeply considered principles. We want these principles taught, understood, and taken to heart by all people. We must all learn to be both wise and compassionate toward all living beings.
Draft Declaration of Human Rights and the Environment:
Guided by the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of the World Conference of Human Rights, and other relevant international human rights instruments,
Guided also by the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the World Charter for Nature, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development, and other relevant instruments of international environmental law,
Guided also by the Declaration on the Right to Development, which recognizes that the right to development is an essential human right and that the human person is the central subject of development,
Guided further by fundamental principles of international humanitarian law,
Reaffirming the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights,
Recognizing that sustainable development links the right to development and the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment,
Recalling the right of peoples to self-determination by virtue of which they have the right freely to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development,
Deeply concerned by the severe human rights consequences of environmental harm caused by poverty, structural adjustment and debt programmes and by international trade and intellectual property regimes,
Convinced that the potential irreversibility of environmental harm gives rise to special responsibility to prevent such harm,
Concerned that human rights violations lead to environmental degradation and that environmental degradation leads to human rights violations,
THE FOLLOWING PRINCIPLES ARE DECLARED:
1. Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.
2. All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. This right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible.
3. All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment.
4. All persons have the right to an environment adequate to meet equitably the needs of present generations and that does not impair the rights of future generations to meet equitably their needs.
5. All persons have the right to freedom from pollution, environmental degradation and activities that adversely affect the environment, threaten life, health, livelihood, well-being or sustainable development within, across or outside national boundaries.
6. All persons have the right to protection and preservation of the air, soil, water, sea-ice, flora and fauna, and the essential processes and areas necessary to maintain biological diversity and ecosystems.
7. All persons have the right to the highest attainable standard of health free from environmental harm.
8. All persons have the right to safe and healthy food and water adequate to their well-being.
9. All persons have the right to a safe and healthy working environment.
10. All persons have the right to adequate housing, land tenure and living conditions in a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment.
11 . All persons have the right not to be evicted from their homes or land for the purpose of, or as a consequence of, decisions or actions affecting the environment, except in emergencies or due to a compelling purpose benefiting society as a whole and not attainable by other means. All persons have the right to participate effectively in decisions and to negotiate concerning their eviction and the right, if evicted, to timely and adequate restitution, compensation and/or appropriate and sufficient accommodation or land.
12. All persons have the right to timely assistance in the event of natural or technological or other human-caused catastrophes.
13. Everyone has the right to benefit equitably from the conservation and sustainable use of nature and natural resources for cultural, ecological, educational, health, livelihood, recreational, spiritual or other purposes. This Includes ecologically sound access to nature.
Everyone has the right to preservation of unique sites, consistent with the fundamental rights of persons or groups living in the area.
14. Indigenous peoples have the right to control their lands, territories and natural resources and to maintain their traditional way of life. This includes the right to security in the enjoyment of their means of subsistence.
Indigenous peoples have the right to protection against any action or course of conduct that may result in the destruction or degradation of their territories, including land, air, water, sea-ice, wildlife or other resources.
15. All persons have the right to information concerning the environment. This includes information, howsoever compiled, on actions and courses of conduct that may affect the environment and information necessary to enable effective public participation in environmental decision-making. The information shall be timely, clear, understandable and available without undue financial burden to the applicant.
16. All persons have the right to hold and express opinions and to disseminate ideas and information regarding the environment.
17. All persons have the right to environmental and human rights education.
18. All persons have the right to active, free, and meaningful participation in planning and decision-making activities and processes that may have an impact on the environment and development. This includes the right to a prior assessment of the environmental, developmental and human rights consequences of proposed actions.
19. All persons have the right to associate freely and peacefully with others for purposes of protecting the environment or the rights of persons affected by environmental harm.
20. All persons have the right to effective remedies and redress in administrative or judicial proceedings for environmental harm or the threat of such harm.
21. All persons, individually and in association with others, have a duty to protect and preserve the environment.
22. All States shall respect and ensure the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. Accordingly, they shall adopt the administrative, legislative and other measures necessary to effectively implement the rights in this Declaration.
These measures shall aim at the prevention of environmental harm, at the provision of adequate remedies, and at the sustainable use of natural resources and shall include, inter alia,
- collection and dissemination of information concerning the environment prior assessment and control, licensing, regulation or prohibition of activities and substances potentially harmful to the environment;
- public participation in environmental decision-making;
- effective administrative and judicial remedies and redress for environmental harm and the threat of such harm;
- monitoring, management and equitable sharing of natural resources;
- measures to reduce wasteful processes of production and patterns of consumption;
- measures aimed at ensuring that transnational corporations, wherever they operate, carry out their duties of environmental protection, sustainable development and respect for human rights; and
- measures aimed at ensuring that the international organizations and agencies to which they belong observe the rights and duties in this Declaration.
23. States and all other parties shall avoid using the environment as a means of war or inflicting significant, long-term or widespread harm on the environment, and shall respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development.
24. All international organizations and agencies shall observe the rights and duties in this Declaration.
25. In implementing the rights and duties in this Declaration, special attention shall be given to vulnerable persons and groups.
26. The rights in this Declaration may be subject only to restrictions provided by law and which are necessary to protect public order, health and the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
27. All persons are entitled to a social and international order in which the rights in this Declaration can be fully realized.
Sourced from the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Library.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 8 September 2015 | No responses
My grandfather was a goodwill ambassador for the US government. He was sent to places like Morocco, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Vietnam to help people grow crops.
Because he was representing the US, he was expected to wear a suit and hat to work, even when working in wet humid climates as you find in Southeast Asia. When he worked in Vietnam he would also ride an elephant to the fields while clothed in such a fashion.
He was besotted with the elephants. He told my brother, sister, and I on a number of occasions about how smart they are. My favourite story was about the time when his hat was blown off. The elephant reached out with its long grey snout, carefully picked the fedora up, and PLACED IT BACK ON HIS HEAD! How cool is that?
The elephants at the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens are Asian elephants like the one my grandfather rode. Now I know it was probably a bad idea that he did. The back of an Asian elephant is humped, unlike an African elephant whose back is somewhat swayed. This means that after awhile, the elephant’s back will be hurt by the weight of a rider.
The Melbourne Zoo has a herd of eight elephants. They have given them Asian names. I’m not certain if some of the names are Malaysian and some Thai, since those are the countries from which they came. Mek Kapah is the oldest elephant and she is the matriarch of the group. The one fully grown bull is Bong-Su. He is kept in a separate paddock. Dokkoon is the next oldest female. She gave birth to two daughters: Mali and Man-Ja. Female elephant Kulab is the mother of five year old boy Ongard. Female elephant Num-oi is currently expecting. She will probably give birth around May next year.
In 2006 Mek Kapah and Bong Su found their herd of two expanded with three more females. In 2009 the elephant enclosure was completely updated. It’s certainly an improvement on the previous area in which the elephants lived. I’m sure that Mek Kapah and Bong Su are much happier with more space and more elephants with whom to share their lives. Elephants are highly social, they need to be with other elephants. Mind you, I hear when Dokkoon arrived, she didn’t take to Mek Kapah straight away! They seem fond of each other now.
I am interested in writing a musical about African elephants, but my time observing and learning about this family of Asian elephants is already proving a real joy.
Peace and kindness,
Quote of the day:
A teacher brings her kindergarten students from lunch to see the elephants. “See, how the elephants pick up their food with their trunks? Their trunks are like a hand. People in some cultures also eat with their hands.”
Posted on 5 September 2015 | No responses
I have started the journey of writing a musical about the lives of elephants.
The idea popped into my head while I was travelling around the US visiting family. I had been playing with a number of ideas, because the goal I have set myself is to write a theatrical work that can be shared with other theatre groups around the world. To do this the work must either be entirely original or make use of select Creative Commons work. I am happy to go either way. The thought of creating a work that I in turn release into creative commons excites me.
As soon as elephants came to mind, at the facility in Bend Oregon where I was joining my family for a reunion, I found the book African Nights by Kiki Gallmann. I was deeply moved by Gallmann’s elegant writing and soulful storytelling. She portrayed a continent rich in life, emotion, and spirituality. Elephants themselves are deeply feeling and soulful creatures. My chosen subject would give me the space to explore a world lavish with meaning, where the story could swing from the humorous and playful to the tragic.
When I returned to Australia I wasn’t sure if I had really found my subject. I didn’t even have a plot in mind. However every time I mentioned the possibility, people would get excited and start smiling. The zeitgeist seemed to be with me. And besides African music followed me everywhere: cafes, radio stations, waiting rooms. Magic or my subconscious giving me a hefty poke, I don’t really care, but clearly this is a good direction for me to follow.
So, I have checked out a stack of books about elephants from several libraries. I have begun to read articles on line about news to do with elephants. I am contacting people who can give me first hand information about African elephants. I have also renewed my precious zoo membership (usually my mother does this for me at Christmas). I am now visiting the elephants at the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens once a week to observe.
The subject is becoming much bigger and much more critical than I at first realised. Portraying the lives of elephants isn’t a frivolous idea at all. It connects up directly with issues to do with climate change, refugees, and the rich/poor divide. As my friend Ted Nelson says, “Everything is deeply intertwingled.”
I am hoping to keep everyone informed of my progress here. So keep your eyes peeled as I share the journey.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 3 September 2015 | No responses
I am organising a UN Peace Day event. If you are in Melbourne, come along! Should be a fun and interesting afternoon for all, as we explore the UN Declaration of Human Rights together. $5 tickets to cover venue and cup of tea!
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 2 September 2015 | No responses
Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill) is “community.” What happened to community, and why don’t we have it any more? There are many reasons – the layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public space, the automobile and the television, the high mobility of people and jobs – and, if you trace the “why’s” a few levels down, they all implicate the money system.
More directly posed: community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors – or indeed on any specific person – for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it.
The traditional necessity for community.
In former times, people depended for all of life’s necessities and pleasures on people they knew personally. If you alienated the local blacksmith, brewer, or doctor, there was no replacement. Your quality of life would be much lower. If you alienated your neighbors then you might not have help if you sprained your ankle during harvest season, or if your barn burnt down. Community was not an add-on to life, it was a way of life. Today, with only slight exaggeration, we could say we don’t need anyone. I don’t need the farmer who grew my food – I can pay someone else to do it. I don’t need the mechanic who fixed my car. I don’t need the trucker who brought my shoes to the store. I don’t need any of the people who produced any of the things I use. I need someone to do their jobs, but not the unique individual people. They are replaceable and, by the same token, so am I.
That is one reason for the universally recognized superficiality of most social gatherings. How authentic can it be, when the unconscious knowledge, “I don’t need you,” lurks under the surface? When we get together to consume – food, drink, or entertainment – do we really draw on the gifts of anyone present? Anyone can consume. Intimacy comes from co-creation, not co-consumption, as anyone in a band can tell you, and it is different from liking or disliking someone. But in a monetized society, our creativity happens in specialized domains, for money.
To forge community then, we must do more than simply get people together. While that is a start, soon we get tired of just talking, and we want to do something, to create something. It is a very tepid community indeed, when the only need being met is the need to air opinions and feel that we are right, that we get it, and isn’t it too bad that other people don’t … hey, I know! Let’s collect each others’ email addresses and start a listserv!
Community is woven from gifts.
Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today’s market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition in which more for me is less for you, in a gift economy the opposite holds. Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a “circle of the gift.”
Fortunately, the monetization of life has reached its peak in our time, and is beginning a long and permanent receding (of which economic “recession” is an aspect). Both out of desire and necessity, we are poised at a critical moment of opportunity to reclaim gift culture, and therefore to build true community. The reclamation is part of a larger shift of human consciousness, a larger reunion with nature, earth, each other, and lost parts of ourselves. Our alienation from gift culture is an aberration and our independence an illusion. We are not actually independent or “financially secure” – we are just as dependent as before, only on strangers and impersonal institutions, and, as we are likely to soon discover, these institutions are quite fragile.
Given the circular nature of gift flow, I was excited to learn that one of the most promising social inventions that I’ve come across for building community is called the Gift Circle. Developed by Alpha Lo, co-author of The Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, and his friends in Marin County, California, it exemplifies the dynamics of gift systems and illuminates the broad ramifications that gift economies portend for our economy, psychology, and civilization.
The ideal number of participants in a gift circle is 10-20. Everyone sits in a circle, and takes turns saying one or two needs they have. In the last circle I facilitated, some of the needs shared were: “a ride to the airport next week,” “someone to help remove a fence,” “used lumber to build a garden,” “a ladder to clean my gutter,” “a bike,” and “office furniture for a community center.” As each person shares, others in the circle can break in to offer to meet the stated need, or with suggestions of how to meet it.
When everyone has had their turn, we go around the circle again, each person stating something he or she would like to give. Some examples last week were “Graphic design skills,” “the use of my power tools,” “contacts in local government to get things done,” and “a bike,” but it could be anything: time, skills, material things; the gift of something outright, or the gift of the use of something (borrowing). Again, as each person shares, anyone can speak up and say, “I’d like that,” or “I know someone who could use one of those.”
During both these rounds, it is useful to have someone write everything down and send the notes out the next day to everyone via email, or on a web page, blog, etc. Otherwise it is quite easy to forget who needs and offers what. Also, I suggest writing down, on the spot, the name and phone number of someone who wants to give or receive something to/from you. It is essential to follow up, or the gift circle will end up feeding cynicism rather than community.
Finally, the circle can do a third round in which people express gratitude for the things they received since the last meeting. This round is extremely important because in community, the witnessing of others’ generosity inspires generosity in those who witness it. It confirms that this group is giving to each other, that gifts are recognized, and that my own gifts will be recognized, appreciated, and reciprocated as well.
It is just that simple: needs, gifts, and gratitude. But the effects can be profound.
The benefits of a gift economy.
First, gift circles (and any gift economy, in fact) can reduce our dependence on the traditional market. If people give us things we need, then we needn’t buy them. I won’t need to take a taxi to the airport tomorrow, and Rachel won’t have to buy lumber for her garden. The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.
Secondly, a gift circle reduces our production of waste. It is ridiculous to pump oil, mine metal, manufacture a table and ship it across the ocean when half the people in town have old tables in their basements. It is ridiculous as well for each household on my block to own a lawnmower, which they use two hours a month, a leaf blower they use twice a year, power tools they use for an occasional project, and so on. If we shared these things, we would suffer no loss of quality of life. Our material lives would be just as rich, yet would require less money and less waste.
In economic terms, a gift circle reduces gross domestic product, defined as the sum total of all goods and services exchanged for money. By getting a gift ride from someone instead of paying a taxi, I am reducing GDP by $20. When my friend drops off her son at my house instead of paying for day care, GDP falls by another $30. The same is true when someone borrows a bike from another person’s basement instead of buying a new one. (Of course, GDP won’t fall if the money saved is then spent on something else. Standard economics, drawing on a deep assumption about the infinite upward elasticity of human wants, assumes this is nearly always the case. A critique of this deeply flawed assumption is beyond the scope of the present essay.)
Displacing a broken economic system.
Standard economic discourse views shrinking GDP as a big problem. When the economy doesn’t grow, capital investment and employment shrink, reducing consumer demand andcausing further drops in investment and employment. For the last seventy years, the solution to such crises has been (1) to lower interest rates to spur lending so that businesses have access to funds for capital investment and consumers have money to spend and create demand; (2) to increase government spending to replace stalled growth in consumer demand. These are known, respectively, as monetary stimulus and fiscal stimulus. In both cases, the goal is to “stimulate” the economy, to get it growing again. Government policy in the present economic crisis has been the same. Liberals and conservatives may disagree on the amount and type of stimulus required, but rarely does anyone – not Barack Obama, not even the most liberal member of Congress – question the desirability of growing the economy. That is because, in the current debt-based, interest-bearing money system, the absence of growth leads to rapid concentration of wealth and economic depression.
Today, however, on the fringes of political and environmental movements, the recognition is growing that society and the planet can no longer sustain further growth. For growth – which in GDP terms means the expansion in the realm of monetized goods and services – ultimately comes from the conversion of nature into commodities and the conversion of social relationships into professional services. Consider again the social gathering I described. Why don’t we need each other? It is because all the gift relationships upon which we once depended are now paid services. They have been converted into service work which the market converts into cash. What is there left to convert? Whether fossil fuels, topsoil, aquifers, the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste; whether it is food, clothing, shelter, medicine, music, or our collective cultural bequest of stories and ideas, nearly all have become commodities. Unless we can find yet new realms of nature to convert into good, unless we can find even more functions of human life to commoditize, our days of economic growth are numbered. What room for growth remains – for example in today’s anemic economic recovery – comes only at an increasing cost to nature and society.
From this perspective, a third consequence of the gift circle and other forms of gift economy becomes apparent. Not only does gift-based circulation subtract from GDP, it also hastens the demise of the present economic system. Any bit of nature or human relationship that we preserve or reclaim from the commodity world is one bit less that is available to sell, or to use as the basis for new interest-bearing loans. Without constant creation of new debt, existing debt cannot be repaid. Lending opportunities only occur in a context of economic growth, in which the marginal return on capital investment exceeds the interest rate. To simplify: no growth, less lending; less lending, more transfer of assets to creditors; more transfer of assets, more concentration of wealth; more concentration of wealth, less consumer spending; less consumer spending, less growth. This is the vicious circle described by economists going back to Karl Marx. It has been deferred for two centuries by the ceaseless opening up, through technology and colonization, of new realms of nature and relationship to the market. Today, not only are these realms nearly exhausted, but a shift of conscious motivates growing efforts to reclaim them for the commons and for the gift. Today, we direct huge efforts toward protecting the forests, whereas the most brilliant minds of two generations ago devoted themselves to their more efficient clearcutting. Similarly, so many of us today seek to limit pollution not expand production, to protect the waters not increase the fish catch, to preserve the wetlands -not build larger housing developments. These efforts, while not always successful, put a brake on economic growth beyond the natural limit the environment poses. From the gift perspective, what is happening is that we no longer seek merely to take from the planet, but to give back as well. This corresponds to the coming of age of humanity, transitioning from a mother-child relationship to earth, to a co-creative partnership in which giving and receiving find balance.
We need each other.
The same transition to the gift is underway in the social realm. Many of us no longer aspire to financial independence, the state in which we have so much money we needn’t depend on anyone for anything. Today, increasingly, we yearn instead for community. We don’t want to live in a commodity world, where everything we have exists for the primary goal of profit. We want things created for love and beauty, things that connect us more deeply to the people around us. We desire to be interdependent, not independent. The gift circle, and the many new forms of gift economy that are emerging on the Internet, are ways of reclaiming human relationships from the market.
Whether natural or social, the reclamation of the gift-based commonwealth not only hastens the collapse of a growth-dependent money system, it also mitigates its severity. At the present moment, the market faces a crisis, merely one of a multiplicity of crises (ecological, social) that are converging upon us. Through the turbulent time that is upon us, the survival of humanity, and our capacity to build a new kind of civilization embodying a new relationship to earth and a new, more connected, human identity, depends on these scraps of the commonwealth that we are able to preserve or reclaim. Although we have done grievous damage to earth, vast wealth still remains. There is still richness in the soil, water, cultures and biomes of this planet. The longer we persist under the status quo, the less of that richness will remain and the more calamitous the transition will be.
On a less tangible level, any gifts we give contribute to another kind of common wealth – a reservoir of gratitude that will see us through times of turmoil, when the conventions and stories that hold civic society together fall apart. Gifts inspire gratitude and generosity is infectious. Increasingly, I read and hear stories of generosity, selflessness, even magnanimity that take my breath away. When I witness generosity, I want to be generous too. In the coming times, we will need the generosity, the selflessness, and the magnanimity of many people. If everyone seeks merely their own survival, then there is no hope for a new kind of civilization. We need each others’ gifts as we need each others’ generosity to invite us into the realm of the gift ourselves. In contrast to the age of money where we can pay for anything and need no gifts, soon it will be abundantly clear: we need each other.
Posted on 2 September 2015 | No responses
I am someone who crossed over. I was born into a right-wing family with a strong religious allegiance. I have always been deeply sensitive and empathetic. Two teachers said almost word for word the same thing about me, “Sensitive and outspoken…ouch.” Yes, “ouch” but pretty much the primary ingredients for any significant artist who ever lived. That ability to recognise other’s feelings and then the desire to care meant from very early in my life I began to question my family’s outlook.
When I was five I would walk to kindergarten on my own. One little girl in the neighborhood took to ambushing me, knocking me down, and pulling my hair. I complained to my mother who took me with her to talk to the mother of this child. Their house was dirty and in disrepair, rubbish was strewn across the lawn. The woman who answered the door was in an equal state of disrepair. Her hair was matted and she had bruises. I was gobsmacked. I thought to myself that if I lived in similar circumstances, I might want to pull someone’s hair as well. I don’t remember what was said that day. I don’t even remember if the hair-pulling stopped. I just remember the feelings of horror and sorrow. No one should have to live that way.
So from early on my outlook and the outlook I was being taught by those closest to me started to diverge. When you are very young this isn’t noticeable because communication between the young and the old is particularly limited. As such my own awareness that I was heading a different direction wasn’t strong. I loved my family, I believed they loved me, and left things at that. It was when I became old enough to start articulating differences that the trouble began. Worse, in being able to articulate such things I was better able to question and keep questioning, and recognise where my family was falling short of the ideals I was forming. This is an awkward process. With no one there to help it was fraught with regretful errors and deep pain.
At university I finally had room to breathe and be myself. I was no longer in danger if I revealed my thoughts. Well mostly. I was fortunate to meet with some kind Buddhist intellectuals, atheist humanists, existentialists, and more. These were tolerant people who showed me acceptance and kindness. They did not judge me because of my religious or political background. They shared their knowledge, and upon occasion looked out for my physical and emotional welfare when things went wrong. This had me questioning how do we decide who the “good” people are and who are “bad”. I was taught many stereotypes that painted everyone who wasnt’ part of our particular brand of religion as unmitigatingly “bad”, but it wasn’t true. Given my experiences, it clearly wasn’t true.
I became angry about the lies, manipulations, and judgements I experienced within my family and their community. However, I still love many of the people there. Yes, I can see their dark side, and it is ugly. Yet, I can’t erase from my mind all the good moments. It can be so hard finding any joy, kindness, or love in the world. The last thing I want to do is obliterate even small moments of light. Rather, I want to carry them forward and leave the rest behind. If I wallow in the anger (and I do upon occasion still), if I direct all my thoughts and actions at punishing these people by simply being against what they are for or by transgressing their mores, I become their mirror image. I never get to be wholly and truly Katherine Phelps.
When you turn people into a symbol of evil in your mind, you not only dehumanise them, they also become superhuman. That’s what makes them so frightening. You can never defeat a symbol. If on the otherhand, you see people for who they are: products of their own environment, their own culture, their own fears and vanities—it’s as if you are looking at a naked child. They are vulnerable. That’s what terrifies them; that’s what motivates them. They individually may still be dangerous, but individually some may be coaxed into following a different direction as I did.
When I read about one of the grown children of the Westboro Baptist cult leaving her family and their way of life, I wrote to the journalist who reported on her story. I asked to write to her and show some support, since leaving an entire life behind can be hard. The article was being passed around in one of my Google circles. People were crowing over the event as a victory for the left. I couldn’t help feeling that really it was a failure of the right. The journalist wrote back to me and passed on my details to the woman. Why did he have time to do that? Instead of crowing about victory, more people should have been holding out a genuine hand of support to make sure this woman had all the help she needed both physically and emotionally in order to move on with her life, rather than being a poster child.
At this time in my life I am far “Gandhi left” (as opposed to “Che Guevara left”). I would like to see an end to hierarchies, corporations, and capitalism. I would like to see a rise of greater democracy, a universal unconditional basic income, more socialised services, more means to share, community building, greater environmental stewardship, and people capable of negotiating, cooperating, bonding, and caring about one another. Would I have made it to this point if I had been born twenty years later than I was? I have serious doubts. Why?
People are generally so frightened and so angry that they are drawing lines rather than reaching out hands. We feel the urgency for change and many are looking for fast simple solutions. As such people are looking for easy markers as to who is “bad” and who is “good”, so they can stamp the bad people out. Anyone of a different ethnicity is “bad”. Anyone of a different religion is “bad”. Anyone of a different political party is “bad”. Anyone of a different economic class is “bad”. Soon every one is a symbol and a stereotype and problems become insurmountable. I do not think I would feel the freedom to explore and learn in our current world, and thereby find the strength to cross over from a conservative position to a caring one. That’s the problem.
We are seeing such deep splits that I fear for another world war. Our current problems have so damaged the environment that the additional damage a major war would wreak would tip us mutually over the edge into extinction. Even without war our lack of cooperation will keep us from taking the action necessary to turn things around and again we face extinction, just at a slightly slower rate. Most people are born into their religions and politics. When the left takes the bait to march around in outrage expressing their hatred, they frighten off those who may be starting to see the sense in their position. The left should be looking for more people who are for their position, rather than simply against the right.
We need to start NOW building positive alternatives. So when the collapse of our civilisation becomes particularly acute, people will have life vessels in which to jump. We need to revive something of a flower-child movement. As toilet paper advertising tells us, it is possible to be both strong and gentle. We need to stand strong for our values of compassion and stewardship, and we need to so deeply and unconditionally care for humanity that people expect a warm welcome when they join the cause. This will tip the numbers. This will create lasting change. Breathe in peace and love, breathe out fear and outrage…let it go. What sort of life do you want to live? If it’s one where you experience human warmth within and without, then start modelling that.
Peace and kindness,