The Story Behind The Buy Nothing Project
What do the earliest settlers of the highest Himalaya and a modern social movement have in common? The gift economy. “At 14,000 feet, in high cliff caves, we’ve found a 1700-year-old-people who went to extraordinary lengths to ceremonially place their dead in human-carved shaft tombs. From their bones, we can see they lived healthy lives, not very different from the people who live nearby today, a testimony to cultural survival against all odds,” explains Liesl Clark, a National Geographic filmmaker and organizer of the archaeological expeditions led by her husband, 7-time Everest climber, Pete Athans. The Himalayan settlers thrived over the span of some 400 years in the thin air of the highest mountains on Earth because they relied upon each other and cared for the natural resources they depended upon. Today’s villagers continue to communally care for one another and their resources, an egalitarian cash-free gift economy connecting families in a web of interdependence.
“When our family brought 5 duffel bags full of clothing to a village last summer, the headwoman advised we divide the clothing equally into 17 piles for the 17 village households, each pile given equal amounts of adult and children’s clothes. But we noticed one “household” comprised of only a 68-year-old woman. We removed the baby clothes from her pile so she could have more adult clothing. When we pointed out our reasoning, the villagers explained: “The children’s clothing in the old woman’s pile ensures she’ll have something to give to the community.” The health of a gift economy is dependent upon each member being both giver and receiver.
“This radical shift in our consciousness,” Clark posits, “seeing each member of a gift economy as a vital participant, no matter what their social status or economic situation, got us thinking. Could we try it in our own communities back home? And, more importantly, would it work?”
Clark teamed up with her friend, Rebecca Rockefeller, an expert in social media, and they launched a Facebook group called “Buy Nothing.” What began as an experimental hyper-local gift economy on Bainbridge Island, WA, in 2 months became a social movement growing to over 4,000 members in 16 groups from San Jose, CA to Seattle, WA. Whether people initially join to quickly get rid of things that are cluttering their lives, or to save money by getting things for free, they quickly discover the groups are not just another free recycling platform. “A gift economy’s real wealth is the people involved and the web of connections that forms to support them. Time and again, members of our groups find themselves spending time interacting, finding new ways to give back to the community that has brought humor, entertainment, and yes, free stuff into their lives.” Rebecca Rockefeller believes the sharing economy is here to stay. “The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us, whether it’s the stuff we already own or our talents that we can freely offer to a neighbor.”
The Buy Nothing Project’s rules are simple: “Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. Keep it civil. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re a gift economy.” The transparency of Facebook groups’ design allows members to see mutual friends they share with relative strangers, and to build trust based on real-life connections visible through personal profile information. Clark and Rockefeller provide daily guidance and direction in the Buy Nothing groups, assisted by a team of over 200 volunteer local administrators who have on-the-ground knowledge of their communities. Each member can join only one Buy Nothing group, the group where they live, strengthening one’s commitment to one’s community. “We’re not about free stuff. Our rules belie a commitment to community,” says Rockefeller.
If statistics are a gauge of how well the project is doing, then it’s clearly a rapidly-growing revolution, having started just 8 months ago. Twenty-five thousand members-strong, The Buy Nothing Project is present in 4 countries (the US, UK, Canada, and Australia), and has over 150 groups. “There’s a tried-and-true method to our madness,” says Clark. We have a formula that’s working, filling a gap that’s been missing in our lives for so long.” Buy Nothing members ask freely for services or items they want or need, they give and share openly, and, perhaps most importantly, they express their gratitude. “We collectively witness each action in the groups: the giving, the asking, and the gratitude. Each post, and many of the comments, provides a little dopamine hit for everyone in the group, a daily dose of feel-good connectedness with our neighbors. It’s close to what we’ve witnessed in the remote Himalayan villages, a strategy for survival that’s worked for millennia. And these are lessons we know we can apply here, for the survival of our environment and the resiliency of our own communities could clearly use gift economies to help bring us closer together.”