From the caves of pre-history to the utopian survival freakfest, the Burningman Festival, man has been giving gifts to build community. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins talks about the culture of giving that existed in Stone Age life as being an expression of abundance. This is evidenced by the very fact that people shared everything they had with each other in times that we, in our modern reality of aeroplanes and computers, see as being a time that was extremely ‘poor’ with only basic survival needs being considered. And yet Stone Age Man was a giver. So why, when resources were seemingly so scarce, did he share? Because the act of giving kept the community strong and built stone age mans reputation. Being highly regarded meant that you were taken care of when times were tough. Back in the Stone Age it was important not to hoard when resources were flowing, because living as part of a group was an essential part of your survival.
Fast forward to the Black Rock Desert, home to the Burningman Festival, and a very modern take on the concept of a Gift Economy. At the festival, participants are not allowed to buy or sell anything, and must arrive with everything they need to survive for a week in the desert. But they bring more that that, and they do more than survive- they thrive. Massive art projects spring out of the dust, created by teams of volunteers, and camps with every theme imaginable are created for one week, and then disassembled and brought home, or burned right there in the desert. People meet in the middle of nowhere and share what they have with each other, taking joy in the very act of giving. Neighborly camps cook breakfast for each other and share costumes, shade and goodwill. A chance meeting between strangers might lead to the gift of a necklace or a button, with people building up their wearable trinkets as the week progresses, each one a memory of a connection made. Less tangible gifts of interactive playfulness might send one person on a treasure hunt, or a quest. Spontaneous performances erupt as people become players in ad hoc theaters. Musicians play, dancers dance, artists make art, and philosophers speak, even those who are highly paid professionals in their “real” lives, at Burningman they do it without any money exchanged.
Economist Bernard Leitaer tells us “the origin of the word ‘community’ comes from the Latin munus, which means the gift, and cum, which means together, among each other. So community literally means to give among each other.” ( from an interview with Bernard Lietaer by Sarah van Gelder). So the idea that you give within your community is built into the very entomology of the word. And yet for most people the concept of giving gifts is something you do during the holidays, and only to your close friends and family. So what has happened to this circle of giving which started at the beginning of man’s cultural roots in the stone age? In some places it survives, with Amish Barn Raising, Native American Potlatches, and even Open Source Software, but it certainly isn’t the norm.
The most surprising thing about the lack of giving in our culture is that most people will say it feels really good to give. So it feels really good, it builds community and it meets people’s needs, and yet we don’t do it. Why? Because the message that we receive from the media tells us that there just isn’t enough to go around and that someone, somewhere is going to have to go without, and in order to ensure that isn’t you (and your family) you should save up for a rainy day, keep your resources close in, not rely on anyone, and not give anything to anyone without getting paid. We are given the impression that to give a gift is naïve, and that people who give will be taken advantage of.
Looking back at all these successful examples of gift culture, it begs the question- what are elements that exist in these models which can be transferred into modern culture, loosening people’s grip on scarcity and giving them first hand experience of how good it feels to give?
Stone Age man wanted to survive, and that goal lead them to share what they have. Amish people join together and share resources to build barns. At Burningman, camps collaborate on creative projects, and share the bigger vision of creating a temporary city in the desert. Having a shared goal means that you are likely to have shared values, and therefore you can feel good about giving your gifts.
Although your gift is given without expectation of a direct exchange, if you give freely and openly to your community, your reputation will build and elevate your status. Even if you are not intentionally giving to gain reputation, the only way to avoid it is to give anonymously. If a person gives within their community, then it will inevitably lead to people having higher opinions of them.
Some people need to know that when they give a gift, it’s received by someone who they consider to be worthy of it. They are afraid they they will be taken advantage of, and so need to build trusting relationships within their community in order to give.
Giving gifts is a reason to gather, and being in a physical space together means that we can fully experience what it is to give and to receive. Community is strengthened when we celebrate together, and get to know one another.