Becoming Denizen

Gift Economics with Charles Eisenstein

Episode Summary

What attributes define gift economies? How do they establish an economy that is relational vs. transactional, facilitating interconnection vs. individualism? How do gift economies mirror nature? Our guest for this conversation is author and public speaker Charles Eisenstein who has written about this topic and works in accordance with a gift model.

Episode Notes

Charles is the author of several books, including The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and Sacred Economics. His work spans multiple pillars of the Denizen Inquiry, including economics, culture, and consciousness.

In this episode, Charles and Jenny discuss gift economics, a very different model of exchange than capitalism. In a gift economy, goods and services are given away as gifts without an explicit agreement on giving anything in return. This does not mean there is no financial exchange -- in many cases, the consumer opts into paying an amount that is determined at their discretion after the good or service has been received.

Gift economies are moderated by social norms and were the dominant form of exchange in many indigenous cultures.  Critically, gift economies are circular and relational as opposed to a transactional, and thus present a compelling example of a non-extractive economic model that is more aligned with natural law.

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Resources

Episode Transcription

[INTRODUCTION]

"CE: But there's another principle operating on a deeper level that tends to support and reward people who are deeply giving of their gifts to the world. Not always, it's not a guarantee. But in general, it's like a metaphysical principle, because we are here to serve life and beauty on Earth."

[00:00:25] JS: That's Charles Eisenstein, author and public speaker discussing what often happens when we step out of a transaction economy, the prices, goods, and services, and into a gift economy that's relational and circular. This is the Becoming Denizen podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti.

Today's episode explores gift economics, a radically different model of economics and capitalism, which dominates today. In this model, goods and services aren't priced, they're given away. In many cases, the consumer of the goods or services opts into paying at a price is determined at their discretion. Gift economies were the dominant form of exchange in many indigenous cultures.

My guest for this conversation is Charles Eisenstein, author and public speaker who's written several books, in particular, the ones that have really impacted me are The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and Sacred Economics. He's a very influential thinker in the scope of the Denizen inquiry. I'm sure many of our listeners are familiar with his work. In this conversation, we focus on gift economics, something he talks about a lot in Sacred Economics and something that he's employed in his professional model, in order to align with The More Beautiful World His Heart Knows Is Possible

In this episode, we cover what a gift economy is, why we both believe it addresses some of the issues with capitalism, how it establishes something that is relational and circular instead of transactional, how it relates to the way nature operates. Why putting a price on something changes how we orient towards it and Charles experience stepping into the model. As always, you can dive deeper into this topic on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com. There, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. This is a particularly important topic for us to cover in our initial set of episodes, because alongside the launch of our podcast, Denizen is itself implementing a gift model. Which has always been the obvious way for me, in my mind to formalize Denizen in a way that aligns with our values, and also just retained something that's made it really special from the beginning. 

That means that our content and community offerings will always be free, but we are opening a channel for our community and audience to reciprocate. That will enable us to continue to create this kind of content for the community and the world. We've written a blog post about this on our medium publication, so if you'd like to dig deeper on our thinking behind this, you can find it there. Okay. I hope you enjoy this episode with Charles.

[INTERVIEW]

[00:02:41] JS: Charles Eisenstein, I feel like you need no introduction. I have always been really compelled by your perspective on the narrative that's underlying our institutions. For those of you who have not read Charles' books, I very highly encourage you to do so. I started with The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, which I think is really wonderful, deep context for our conversations. There are so many pieces of it that have influenced me that I want to touch on today. Then I read Sacred Economics over the summer, which really crossed a lot of T's and dotted a lot of I's in the deep economics inquiry that we've been on for a long time. There's so much to talk about. I'm so thrilled to host you today. 

I wanted to start off and anchor our conversation talking about the gift and gift economies. Because, I think part of what has made Denizen so special is that it's been a gift. It's just a passionate project of mine that has been fueled by appreciation from the community. I've been thinking very, very deeply about how to formalize it in a way that is aligned with the future that we're exploring and interrogating in the conversations, because it's really imperative for me that we embody it in everything that we do. In thinking about monetization, the instinct was always to do something around a gift to not corrupt the specialness of what we've created. That's how we're kicking off monetization, it will continue to be a gift. But if people choose to reciprocate financially, that will be a first revenue stream for us in a way to really move on to the next phase, because I really feel like this is something that we're all doing together. When I read sacred economics, and when I got into the content of the gift course that you did, a lot of what I had been intuiting landed in a deep, deep way. I wanted to start talking about that.

One of the really potent things that I've seen in your thinking was really the articulation that the world is a gift. I'd love to hear you say a little bit more about that.

[00:04:41] CE: Yeah. First, I just want to say, when people talk about digital commerce, and monetizing, and things like that, there's kind of this preconception that, "Well, I can't give it by gift. I can't do it by gift, I can't do without paywalls, or do without advertising, or do without upselling, or do without some financialization because I have to make money." What I've been trying to communicate and have practiced for many years now is that those two things do not have to be in conflict.  You can use a gift model to run a business, and still do well, financially. The reason is, because when people feel gratitude, they naturally want to give. In fact, that's almost what gratitude is. It's the desire to give in turn. It's the knowledge of having received, and the desire to give forward from what you have received. 

To answer your question, this is fundamental to the human being. Because on some level, we all know that life itself is a gift that we didn't earn our existence here. We didn't earn our mother's taking care of us. We didn't earn the sun, or water, or the processes of life, or the ability of seeds to grow. We didn't earn any of these things. They were given to us. Which means that we are, by default, when we're aware of this in a state of gratitude. That's where I get my ideas about things like livelihood and so forth. It's just an enactment of something that is true in the human being, where you can say it's the purpose why we're here, it's to give, it's to offer something, or to participate in a creative process bigger than ourselves. That philosophical or metaphysical idea surfaces in the way that I do business. The course you talked about, the living the gift course, part of that is a training to help others practice the same model. I'll just finish. The reason to do it is not so that you can believe yourself to be a selfless, virtuous, good person. Don't be in the gift to be good. It should be something that feels natural, and right, and joyous, and practical, actually. In a certain sense, practical. I'll stop there, but I can talk a lot more about it.

[00:07:21] JS: Well, there's a lot to dig into. But I thought that that first point – that just if you think deeply about life itself as a gift, and the default state of gratitude, that was the first really potent point that I got out of the course. But the other one is that you just touched on. Also, Charles, I've read all of this, and then I went to Burning Man, I think for the 15th time this year. Having an embodied experience with that deeper intellectual foundation of understanding really shot me out of cannon on this stuff. The thing that you said, that I thought was so compelling, is that when you just said it again, when you naturally want to give in return. That reciprocity, I think that reciprocity that gets induced from gratitude is really, really potent, which then induces a sort of circularity. And you had something to say about that, and particularly with respect to building community.

[00:08:19] CE: Okay. Yeah. One thing about generosity is that it's contagious. If you act upon your gratitude, if you're in touch with your gratitude, and you act upon it, then you become generous, because you want to give in turn. When other people receive generosity or witness generosity, then it reminds them that, "Yeah, I don't have to be so tight." The world is not actually a doggy dog competition, a war of each against all, headlong competition for self interest. Because here, this person isn't acting that way, and so it gives license to depart from that modern standard of selfishness also. When you have a group of people who are all being generous to each other, then you have community in which every person in the community kind of feels like they're in debt to the rest of the community because they have received so much. And they have given so much as well, which means everybody feels like they're in debt to them as well. Now, this is a bit of an idealization.

In real life community, there are some people who are more or less generous. If you don't meet the expectations for generosity, then people might start to shun you. So yeah, it gets very complicated and I don't want to make it into a fairy tale. It is like shifting into a different reality. I find that the more that I trust people to be generous, the more generous that they are. It takes the form of signals, like for example, if I am describing the gift model for, say, an online course. I say you pay whatever feels good and right to you. If I slip in there, even the slightest amount of guilting. This course cost a lot of money to make, something along those lines. We put a lot of work into it, or comparable courses cost hundreds of dollars.

If I put in any kind of levering of the reader, then they feel that energy, and we are dumped back into an oppositional relationship, where I don't really trust their generosity. I'm trying to manipulate them a little bit, I'm trying to pressure them. To the extent that I pressure them, I'm not actually in the reality of, yeah, people want to give. When I am in that reality, I'm so fully in it, and so confident in it that I'm like, "Oh, gosh. I don't want people to feel obligated to give because what if it's their grocery money. I better assure them that zero is welcome, it will be fine." It seems a little counterintuitive, but I don't know, here I am doing okay.

[00:11:12] JS: Well, I think it – one of the things that really struck me and this is what formed my early beliefs about our own monetization model was, Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics talks about how putting a price on things crowds out intrinsic and altruistic motivations. She gives this example, I'm sure you're familiar with it, the preschool in Israel with the late pickups, right?

[00:11:30] CE: Yes.

[00:11:31] JS: I think that the sense of what you call guilting, the sense of levering, or it's almost like a hint at pricing, like hints at that crowding out of that instinct. I am really curious about, I'm thinking about this a lot, though. I'm sure you've thought deeply about this. You're hinting at it here, because let me throw in the behavioral economics piece. Because I'm thinking deeply about, "Well, how do I frame and articulate this?" You seem to be indicating that you don't anchor people at all in what might be the right pricing. You just completely leave it to them to assess.

[00:12:06] CE: Yeah, it depends. If it's an online course, I'll say, "Pay what feels good and right, and respects your financial means. Maybe you will reference other courses that are comparable, maybe we'll just pick a number that feels good. If it's zero, please trust that instinct." You see, because the thing is, in a robust gift culture, if you say, go to the village herbalist, and get some herbs, or go to the shaman, you get a spell or something like that. There's a pretty good cultural understanding of what might be the appropriate gift. Gift relationships are incredibly elaborate, and guided by all kinds of customs and considerations. It's not like – you're not operating without context. Today, because we're so divorced from gift culture, maybe some guidance is necessary, maybe you need to tell a little bit of the story about how this came about, and why you're doing it, and what it's for. Yeah, I don't think that you necessarily have to leave people completely in the dark.

[00:13:15] JS: Well, you also say, if on the back end, you feel differently about the course, right? You can assess it on the front and on the back end, you feel differently, you can recalibrate that.

[00:13:24] CE: Yeah. For a lot of digital goods, according to traditional economics, there is no natural price point. Because the marginal cost of production is zero. It doesn't cost me anything. I mean, if we're having breakout rooms, we need volunteers, and stuff. But generally speaking, it doesn't cost me anything if one more person downloads my course, or subscribes to my Substack. If the marginal cost of production is zero, the natural price point is zero as well. It's to my financial advantage to sell it to you for one cent. That's one reason why I think that this is the natural business model for digital goods, because otherwise, you have to establish artificial scarcity with payrolls, and digital rights.

[00:14:10] JS: Yeah, sure. Within something called an NFT.

[00:14:12] CE: Right. All of these are a way to – it's like this panic at abundance.

[00:14:17] JS: Right, 100%.

[00:14:18] CE: Every software, music, movies, all of these things could be completely free and abundant, and should be in a certain sense. We are at the brink of the age of abundance, but we're resisting it, because of the legacy economic system, and the legacy psychology around that economic system. What I'm saying is, you can step out of that, and you'll be fine. I remember I used this app called night eye for my computer, because the blue light really makes me sick. I have this – it makes all websites dark with white letters. It's really great for me. So then, I had the yearly subscription, and I decided to upgrade to a lifetime subscription. They're like, "Yeah, here's the discount code for your upgrade." I'm like, I wrote back, I said, "I don't want a discount. I want to pay full price for such an excellent plugin." They wrote back, kind of like in this in shock. But also, they said like, "That really warms our hearts." That's an example of like, "Yeah, I want to pay." When I enjoy something really good, I'm like – even if I know that the producer is rich, it's an amazing artist or musician, I can get the album for free. No, I want to pay. I want to show you my appreciation. 

[00:15:38] JS: Yeah. It's interesting that – well you said a couple things that I thought were really interesting as well. The feeling that everyone feels in debt to one another. Because I mentioned this over the weekend, I said, I haven't learned earn a cent from the work that I've done. It's been a lot of work. I frankly feel over compensated just by the tokens of gratitude that have been pouring forth consistently for so long. You also said something, I think really important about how you don't have to be so tight. I think that that speaks to knowing that when the time comes, your needs will be met by the community, versus needing to hoard everything for yourself. There's a circularity there as well.

[00:16:19] CE: Yeah. In a traditional culture, you saw it every day. That whoever was in need, would receive. Whoever had more than they needed would give. That's how hunter-gatherer cultures work. Partly because possessions were a burden when you were nomadic. So there was a lot of sharing, and because everybody shared, nobody needed to hoard. As soon as people start hoarding, then goods are no longer circulating, and everybody has to hoard. In our current economy, it sure looks like it's very different from a hunter-gatherer economy. We have incredible polarization of wealth, tremendous poverty, alongside obscene riches. It sure looks like if you don't guard your own, and save for retirement, and keep your investments secure, and so on, and so forth. If you just gave it away, you would have nothing left, because no one's going to give to you, because everybody's out there trying to get the best deal, trying to make the most money. How do you make the money? You get it from other people, so we're all on guard against each other. 

It sure seems like that is, if not the law of the universe, certainly just the way of the world in our time. But there's another principle operating on a deeper level that tends to support and reward people who are deeply giving of their gifts to the world. Not always, it's not a guarantee. But in general, it's like a metaphysical principle. Because we are here to serve life and beauty on Earth. When we are doing that, we are supported in staying here. We're part of the agreement. This version is very close to law of attraction kind of stuff. Anyway, I'll just offer that as a thing to contemplate.

[00:18:09] JS: I have a question for you related to that, because we actually have been experimenting with – I don't know if you've ever heard this Donella Meadows talk that she gave in the '90s at a conference in Costa Rica about envisioning. She talked about how we spend a lot of time strategizing and executing, but we don't drop into our bodies and envision. Then she takes the audience through a very brief sit and asks them some questions to envision the future. We've been experimenting with iterating on that here. When I did mine, one of the key things that came up was this question. It was this notion of a community of people who had a sense of what was enough for them. You just indicated this, right? Once they reached that threshold, they gave to others. But this to me felt like a core philosophical question that I'm holding, when I think about the next society, the next system. I'm curious about your thoughts about the answer to that question. How much is enough for one individual or one family at which point you then would spill over and give to others? Or do you feel like it's an assessment of relative need given a situation that's more dynamic?

[00:19:13] CE: Well, it depends on your context.

[00:19:15] JS: Yeah. I mean, I guess it's just in a particular community. When I think about how –

[00:19:19] CE: Within a community where people take care of each other like a remote village in Ladakh, or something like that. Then enough might be very little. But if you are completely dependent on money, to meet all of your needs and forestall any emergency, any eventuality, that no amount is enough, actually. You could have a billion dollars. But what if the financial system collapses and your portfolio craters. Typically, you're going to be a little safer, just in case. Another thing is, enough of what? Because right now, in society, we have so many unmet needs, especially the need to belong, the need for connection. For many people, the need for intimacy, the need to have authentic relationships with others, the need to challenge your boundaries. All of these needs that are seldom met in modern society often get displaced on to money. Especially the need for security, which comes from actually belonging, and connection.

When you are lacking that, you feel insecure, you feel like I'm not fully at home in the world. That need for security that's supposed to come from relationships displaced onto money. Ask yourself this, how much money is enough to meet your need for a full set of relationships? No amount is enough. No amount is enough to meet the need for meaning in your life, to meet the need to be doing something meaningful to you for your life energy. People who are suffering that lack might distract themselves by playing the numbers game of making more money.

[00:21:09] JS: I appreciate that. That is such an important point that you've made again, and again in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, that we're trying to meet these deep fundamental human needs with these more superficial things, like consumption, or like substances. It's infinite, because it's not actually meeting the underlying need.

[00:21:26] CE: Yeah. It's not that we're bad and stupid for doing that. In various ways, sometimes the true object of the need is unavailable. It could be because of inner blocking our trauma, it could be because of poverty, it could be just the way that the infrastructure of society is built. I just want to say that because it's important to avoid blaming ourselves, and by extension, blaming other people for conditions that we are born into that are beyond our contrivance.

[00:21:59] JS: I want to ask, I have another frontier philosophical question I think related to this gift question, and also related to what you're talking about the digital economy. That I'm really curious what your answer is. Because one of the things that you also talked about in terms of the gifts that we inherit, the world as a gift is the cultural history, the intellectual history. Are you familiar with the book, What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly?

[00:22:25] CE: Uh-uh.

[00:22:25] JS: He talks about – this is a really potent one, and has influenced both me and my husband a lot. But he talked about how the same ideas have cropped up repeatedly throughout history, in different places. And in many times when the ideas couldn't have traveled from one to the next. The implication there is essentially that there's this intellectual and cultural frontier that we inherit. Then we naturally just kind of connect the dots to the next idea. It's very interesting to think about the implications of that. One of the most potent things that you talked about in Sacred Economics relating to this is, that is an argument for universal basic income. Then I think, related to that, a question I'm holding, I think that has very interesting implications for intellectual property.

I'm thinking a lot about, okay, you have the container of something called a firm, right? Then you have an assessment of what is an appropriate amount of extraction from the firm from my contribution? How can you assess? How might you even begin to assess what my contribution is to something? If you inherit your intellect as a gift, or all this cultural context as a gift. Clearly, in today's society, we overweigh the idea of an entrepreneur, in looking at what the cap table looks like, and how much value they extract from value that's created. I'm curious how you just think about a disproportionate extraction of value that's created and then extracted, given the context of the inheritance of all these cultural and intellectual gifts. Does that make sense?

[00:23:57] CE: Yeah. Let's take maybe Elon Musk, for example. There's no doubt that he is charismatic, and brilliant, and has a certain power – what he says is going to happen, people believe it's going to happen. He's definitely a gifted person. But the operation of those gifts, and therefore the wealth that he has accumulated is only possible in the context of really thousands of years of technological development and intellectual development. In a sense, he's not the only one who has contributed to his wealth. His gifts are only operable in a context that relies on many, many, many other people's gifts. 

Another way to put it I think, I said it in the book is like, which one of us deserves to benefit more from the inventions of James Watt, or the contributions of James Clerk Maxwell, or Nikola Tesla than anybody else? That is the collective inheritance of all of humanity, and it has allowed us tremendous wealth, which therefore should also belong to all of humanity.

[00:25:09] JS: Yeah. I thought that was a really potent point, but I'm trying to get it. Okay. So let's say, Elon Musk inherited these gifts of charisma and intelligence, there's some amount of effort that went into cultivating those things, and starting the company. Any entrepreneur tomorrow will tell you, it's not the ideas, but the execution. But I'm still kind of getting at this question of, I think in a society, you can justify some degree of inequality because of variation of effort. I'm just curious how you think about that.

[00:25:40] CE: I mean, it's hard to say that whether he's put more effort into building Tesla Motors than just pick some wonderful kindergarten teacher who gets paid a very low salary. But instead of just going through the motions, like really, really puts time and care far beyond the call of duty into her work. Which one of them is contributing more to humanity? There's no way to measure that.

[00:26:06] JS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Sure, 100%. I also love so much what you said about the economy is about converting cultural, spiritual, natural capital into money.

[00:26:17] CE: Yeah, we could leapfrog into that if you want.

[00:26:20] JS: I just thought that was a really potent point that it made me think of what I wanted to get into. I want to more deeply explore the gifts. I want to talk a little bit more about your experience in living the gift.

[00:26:31] CE: Well, we touched about it.

[00:26:32] JS: Well, just tell me about the path you took. Because I know, at some point, you were not sure how you were going to pay the rent, and you pursued this path. At what point did it start to work?

[00:26:43] CE: Well, see, my first book, my first major book was the Ascent of Humanity, which I self published in 2007. As I was finishing the chapters, I put them on a website. I wrote a website for myself and put the chapters up there. Finally, the book was published, and I'm like, "Okay, I guess I better take down the stuff on the website, because then, no one's going to buy it if they can read it online. Maybe I leave the introduction up there or something like that, make it a marketing site for the book." But when I went to do that, it just didn't feel right. I had such a heavy heart. I'm like, "Hold on a second. I'm going to listen to my heavy heart, and I'm just not going to take it down. I don't care. I just don't care. I'm just not taking it down."

That was the start of my practice of gift economy. People are going to buy the book. When they could read it online, they're actually giving me a gift, in a sense. I mean, I suppose maybe they want a physical copy. But it was a little step, at least, into business and the gift. Then, I think that in this era of bankruptcy, and being destitute, like I was really poor for a couple of years, $2 in the bank kind of poor. I don't think that's because I practiced a gift model, and I was in that state because I was not selling hard. I think if I had done the promotional site version of it, and took it down, and everything, I still would have had miniscule sales of my self-published 600-page book by a completely unknown author. I mean, what was I thinking? I had these delusions that I was going to be rich and famous from publishing, because the books are so brilliant, and people are going to – that's not a very realistic plan, but I was young and naive. I'm like, "Yeah, this is going to work."

I don't think it's because I did gift economics that that book was a total failure in conventional terms. Then I got a job as a construction worker for this artisanal builder. Did that for a while, and then I got a part time teaching position at Goddard College, and that paid some of the bills for a little while. Then I started speaking more and more through more and more public speaking, when I could, instead of selling tickets, just accepting whatever donations. In doing that, I refined my language, and refined also my psychology, and began to work through these issues of fear, and greed, and resentment if people don't give, and attachment to – there's a lot of psychology that rises to the surface when you try this.

If somebody says, "Charles, this is an amazing retreat." I just paid $10,000 for Tony Robbins retreat last month, and this was way better. Here's 50 bucks." That kind of thing would happen and I'd be, "Ugh!" Over time, there's issues that come up. Yeah, I don't know. I just began doing more and more events that way. If it's a professional conference somewhere, and they pay their speakers an honorarium, I'm not going to reject it. But from my own events, whether online or in person, I don't charge money.

[00:29:53] JS: How do you think about the gift being given ex ante or ex post? I've been thinking about this, but because I feel like we're accustomed to the philanthropic ask for cause. And you're sold on the cause, and you give before that impact actually has been had, versus giving on the back end, where you have received, and then you have that inducement of a sense of gratitude and a desire to reciprocate. For example, with your courses, you're paying on the front end.

[00:30:31] CE: Well, people, they can get a refund and they can change. We have a way for them to change their tuition to modify it up or down. But yeah, it is a bit more natural to pay on the back end. For my live events, I do that. 

[00:30:44] JS: Yeah. I mean, in that model, yeah.

[00:30:45] CE: Because that's the way gift exchange works. You receive a gift, and then when it's your birthday, I give you a gift. Usually, and especially, because gratitude motivates the return gift, and how do you know how grateful you will feel until after you've received the course, or the seminar, or whatever.

[00:31:03] JS: That's right. I also am thinking about this in the context of just what we're accustomed to in the philanthropic space. I do feel like a lot of times, so many people are calling us asking us for the money even though we know what we believe in. I just think that there is a psychology around it too, that I'm at least thinking of around just that we kind of shut down sometimes, because there's so much solicitation for gifts coming from so many different places. But I guess there's a distinction here, because you, again, you're paying afterwards, which I think is interesting. It sounds like it's worked out great for you.

[00:31:38] CE: I've learned a lot about how to do it. It's been quite a learning curve. I believe that I can help others shorten that learning curve. I think that this business model is actually the business model of the future for at least for digital, any kind of digital product. It works and I can train people to make it work.

[00:32:01] JS: Well, I'm following your footsteps and taking notes. But I think it's so potent, particularly when you think more deeply about the effect on relationships, the transaction nature of paying and getting in return. It turns on that part of your brain that says like, "Is what I'm getting commensurate with what I've been priced," and it just kind of puts on a critical brain. Again, the circularity, it was just so amazing being at Burning Man. The camp that I'm in does this really big production of music and dance parties. You know what really struck me, Charles, was that people said, it wasn't even a desire to reciprocate a gift. The words that I heard repeatedly. I'm curious if you're hear these too, or in service and at your service.

[00:32:47] CE: Yeah, gift giving is not usually reciprocal. There are people in my life from whom I receive, and receive, and receive, and maybe give a token in return, and maybe not. Then there are people in my life to whom I just give, and their role is to receive from me. Sometimes they're like, "Charles, how can I repay you?" I'm like, "No, no, you're not supposed to repay me. You're supposed to pay it forward someday. Someday you'll be in my situation or in a similar situation. It's just like in a traditional culture where you might receive from certain kin, and give to other kin according to elaborately prescribed rules. I think like karmically, it's like that too. 

There are certain people like forget ever trying to pay them back. They're just here as this beneficent presence in your life. There are others who you just recognize as, yeah, I'm supposed to take care of this person. It's not reciprocal usually, it's like this gigantic circle, like an ecology, like an ecosystem. The bees that pollinate the flowers, well, they get something reciprocal from the flower. But there's a lot of relationships where it's a long circle before it gets back to the initial gift. Or like the elephant dies, and its rotting corpse nourishes plant life, and that plant life nourishes something else, and something else, and eventually, it comes back to something that nourishes the elephant.

[00:34:18] JS: How do you think about boundary conditions or what happens at the boundaries between gift and market economies?

[00:34:23] CE: Can you be a little bit more specific? Like give an example.

[00:34:25] JS: Yeah. I'm just thinking about this, like again, take Burning Man as an example. I think it's pretty interesting. Burning Man has this principle of decommodification. And in the container of the event, everything is a gift other than buying ice and coffee. But if Burning Man was really to fully embody that. They wouldn't – I mean, they're commodifying Burning Man by virtue of selling tickets. There was this big upheaval about the selling art to fundraise at Sotheby's commodifying Burning Man itself and its art. But at the same time, we don't even have a global gift economy. So there needs to be capital for employees to then go spend out in the market economy, right?

[00:35:07] CE: Right. I think that Burning Man could do it in a different way. I think that they could have ticket prices that are not fixed, and take the bold step of trusting people to pay the amount that's good and right for them. I think they will actually make more money that way.

[00:35:26] JS: We could experiment.

[00:35:28] CE: See, there is that fallacy that I mentioned at the very beginning. The idea that if you step into a gift, you're going to make less money. It's not always true, but you have to fully step into a reality in which you are okay with getting less. In the gift, there's always the letting go. In any true gift, you're letting go of something and you don't know. You have no guarantee, you're not in control of the return gift. The form is going to take, even if it is going to come back to you. It's a release. The most distilled example of that would be the sacrifice, the offering. If you burn tobacco, or scatter cornmeal in an indigenous society, that seems like a rather insignificant gesture. But you have to remember, corn and tobacco take a lot of effort and time to grow. They are a precious substance, and there you are, scattering it to the wind. But there's faith. 

It is kind of like you said about Burning Man, like in service, in service, in service. It usually does come back to you in the form of blessings. But you're not doing it, because it comes back to you in the form of blessings. The more you let go of that, because the more it comes back to you.

[00:36:50] JS: Yeah. I wanted to just ask you one last question about synchronicity, as it relates to this letting go.

[00:36:57] CE: Synchronicity is a form of gift from the universe, because synchronicity is something meaningful that you didn't make happen. It's not something that you forced to happen, that you could have predicted would have happened. If you didn't make it happen, then it's a gift, it just happened. Like other kinds of gifts, in fact, just what I was speaking about this letting go that opens the channel, and that shape shifts you into the world that operates according to gift principles. Synchronicity is the same. Usually, people experience more synchronicity when they are in an in between place in their life, when they've let go of certainty and control, when they've just moved to a new city, where they've just left a relationship, where they've just left a job, where they're traveling, where they haven't arranged their hotel that night and then something happens. 

One reason that people experience a lot of synchronicities at Burning Man, at a transformational festival, is that they are not in their familiar matrix of control. Even to go into those spaces, you're letting go of something. That gift, that letting go is a gift in a sense to the universe, and it invites its reciprocation.

[00:38:24] JS: Charles, thank you so much. There's so many really, really critical and important things to draw out of your work in the context of our overarching inquiry. I just so deeply appreciate your time. I really just have been so impacted by your work in general, specifically with respect to the gift economy, stuff that we drew out today.

[OUTRO]

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