At The Buy Nothing Project, we’re a collection of local gift economies that have popped up all over the United Sates. We have groups from Galveston, TX to Amherst, MA and Upper Kittitas, WA to the Upper Keys, FL. And there’s one fundamental truth that underscores each gift economy: Giving begets more giving. Think of it as a cup of yogurt. For that yogurt to exist, you need a tiny bit of starter yogurt to make the next batch. Like yogurt, giving economies need a tablespoonful of starter giving to sustain more giving.
What strikes me is the similarities I see in the growth of each Buy Nothing gift economy. First people sign up quickly, wooed by the idea of joining a local giving circle where items and talents are offered for free and anyone is welcome to ask for what they need. It’s a utopic alternative to the market economy. There’s no judgment involved, just a celebration of the bounty around us, and it’s all free. But then, at the early stages of a startup gift economy, there’s a lull in the giving. At first it doesn’t even happen at all. People are, indeed, afraid to give, thinking they couldn’t possibly have anything that anyone would want. This is the crux of the problem of a stalled-out gift economy.
Stalled out? Why? People often think they have nothing to offer their community, perhaps they are struggling to make ends meet. Some members of the group might start things off by asking for items they need in an “ISO baby clothes”- type post. There’s no information about who you are or a story or picture of your baby, and the ask feels anonymous and, well, inhuman. People retreat into skepticism of whether a giving economy could truly work. It’s too good to be true. There’s too little out there and therefore not enough for me. This is the modern sickness of scarcity-thinking which is blind to the abundance in us all.
How do we kickstart a gift economy and overcome our fear of giving? We need to see ourselves as sources of bounty, whether it’s a story you can offer a group of elderly people or a cup of sugar to your next door neighbor, just start the giving. Even the poorest neighborhoods in our country have bounty to give. I’ve been stunned countless times by the generosity of people who are subsistence farmers in Nepal, who invite my family into their homes and offer us endless cups of tea, sweets, cookies, the best of what they have in their kitchens as a gift of pure generosity, celebrating our connection as humans. In a gift economy we can do the same, offer the members of our village a little of what we can spare, to spread the good will of our connectedness which spurs our neighbors to do the same.
Everyone Has Bounty To Give
“I’d be happy to receive a wheelbarrow-load of dandelions,” my friend Rebecca declared. That was when it struck me: People are afraid to give because they believe they don’t have anything to offer, we lost our belief that we’re connected to each other and are needed by our neighbors. What if we started our Buy Nothing giving groups by asking for things that we know anyone can contribute? A bagful of dandelions would be gold for my chickens, but my neighbors don’t know this.
A tattered old book can be a DIY project for a craftsperson.
A box of old Christmas cards could be this year’s wreath for a creative spirit.
Shredded paper could be bedding in my henhouse.
Broken ceramic dishes are coveted art materials for a ceramicist who makes mosaics:
A box of unwanted little plastic toys and stickers can be rewards for good reading in a teacher’s classroom.
The things you take for granted are what your neighbors would love. Those are the gifts that are the soul of a gift economy, the items you see everyday that someone on the other side of your town can put to use in new ways.
The bay leaves on the tree in your back yard, the corks from your bottles of wine:
Your clean odd socks can be treat bags for another person’s kids in the bulk department:
The flannel from a torn or stained set of sheets are material for a seamstress’s creation:
Your old wedding dress could become a young girl’s dream dress:
Your old fishing lures and the stories that go with them could make a boy’s dreams of fishing come true.
The ability you have to paint faces can make a group of children happy:
A gift economy requires a shift in consciousness where we see ourselves not as individuals but as connected selves where we understand that together we have our things, our talents, even our ideas to give to our community. Each week we all can contribute in ways that make a difference to everyone else and therefore ourselves because gifts create bonds between people, and when the whole community witnesses the gift-giving in their Buy Nothing groups the community is strengthened. I believe, no matter what your socio-economic situation, the bounty is there, hiding in plain sight. But we can’t benefit from it if we don’t ask for it or see the beauty in each gift we can offer to start rebuilding our connectedness to each other — And this great shift in consciousness, the search for the sweetness in our communities, the utopic ideal of a giving economy, can’t happen until we just start the giving.