Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace (formerly CharityFocus), an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, technology and gift-economy.Writing in Open Democracy (28.01.15) he – characteristically – puts his finger on the tensions invoked by the new langauge of the ‘gift economy’ once it becomes embedded within the discourses of the prevalent culture of economic transaction and consumerism.
He leans towards an alternative language of (see below) ‘gift ecology’ to imply a ‘more intricate interplay of relationships that generate diversified – sometimes immeasurable – value’.
The shift is more than linguistic. It also implies a shift in our orientation to the world and other…a shift that Mehta describes as ‘rooted in selfless action’: ‘We have to transition from me to we to us, with the understanding that the small self is best served when it can let go to the bigger ecology.’
Research, he suggests, indicates that such a shift cannot be taught. Compassion cannot be taught…’but we can create the conditions for it to arise naturally’. In that sense, we cannot manufacture such a world or a culture. It has to emerge by tilling the soil and sowing the seeds, trusting that qualitatively different interconnections will ripen in an emergent ecosystem.
Looking at the trajectory, I now wonder about gift economy. Over the last 15 years, ServiceSpace has helped popularize the modern iteration of that idea. Smile Cards, Karma Kitchen and more. The essence of gifting is to give with no strings attached. That kind of giving creates relationships that are deep enough to facilitate a circle of giving — A gives to B, B gives to C, and C gives to A. It’s not just enough that A, B, and C are connected, but they have to be connected in a way that everyone trusts in a pay-forward interconnectivity. Only generosity can create that kind of economy. So if this phrase goes the way of its predecessors, if the unchecked momentum of economy overrides the gift, we will have cheapened the idea of generosity.
As Viral recently pointed out, gift ecology is probably a more suitable word. Economy reduces value into a few focused dimensions, whereas ecology implies a more intricate interplay of relationships that generate diversified — sometimes immeasurable — value. When we give freely, we naturally build affinities with recipients and over time, and create deep ties that form the basis of a gift ecology and a resilient society.
Of course, such an ecology is rooted in selfless action — which requires a significant inner transformation. In the deeper recesses of our mind, where the dominant pattern is to operate from a very narrow notion of self, we have to transition from me to we to us, with the understanding that the small self is best served when it can let go to the bigger ecology. A lot of research suggests that, for instance, we can’t teach compassion but we can create the conditions for it to arise naturally. In that sense, we can’t manufacture such a world or a culture. It has to emerge. We simply till the soil, sow the seeds, water the plants, and then trust the interconnections of the ecosystem to build its trees as the time ripens.