A Totally Different Way to Think About Economics — with Visionary Charles Eisenstein
What would the world look like if money embodied our values, if the best business decision was the best decision for society, and if wealth was defined by how much we give, not how much we have?
This summer, I decided to escape [my hometown of] London for a week .... for a different kind of short vacation. At Schumacher College in south Devon, the author and teacher Charles Eisenstein was travelling to the UK from the United States to run a course on ‘ecology, scarcity and the gift economy', before embarking on a tour around Europe. I'd only heard about Charles and his work when the Occupy Wall Street protests took off in late 2011, and I was captivated by his unique take on all that is wrong with our world as well as his fresh and engaging speaking style, as captured in a short film by Ian Mackenzie. After coming across his latest book, Sacred Economics, I jumped at the opportunity to spend some time in his company and learn more about his views on how "to make money and human economy as sacred as everything else in the universe".
The basic proposition of Charles' work was introduced to the course participants during a Sunday evening lecture on the first day of arrival. Charles suggested that everyone carries a secret knowledge in their hearts that tells them the society we live in is meant to be more beautiful than this, and yet we're constantly pulled back to a way of being that is somehow alien to us. Whatever world problem or crisis we look at, from fracking and atmospheric pollution to the destruction of the rainforests or the breakdown of community, someone somewhere is making money from it. It seems as if money has become opposite to our ideals, said Charles, and is often turned into a force for evil. So what would money look like if it embodied our values, if the best business decision was the best decision for society, and if wealth was defined by how much we give, not how much we have?
During the next morning of the course, we began to explore these broad ideas through a number of experiential exercises. This began with an exploration of ‘the gift' and what that means for us personally in our day-to-day lives and our work. As Charles began the session by explaining, this hearkens back to indigenous cultures in which an understanding of the gift was fundamental to how societies functioned - a concept that is widely explored in the fascinating book The Gift by Lewis Hyde (one of four books recommended for participants to read before the course began).* Today, we generally no longer see society as premised on the gift, but have rather constructed complex market economies that hinder us from expressing our gifts on a social, economic or individual basis - the implications of which is profoundly contemplated in Charles' writings. The need to re-learn the gift is central to the changes that are now needed to heal our broken world, as his latest book explains in compelling detail; from an analysis of how modern civilisation has tragically lost our understanding of the gift, to the collective actions necessary to create a gift-based economy and realise "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible".
Learning to give of our gifts
But it was on the more personal level, in terms of our individual gifts and the changes we need to undergo in order to ‘live in the gift', that we mainly explored throughout the course. For example, the first exercise involved describing our gifts to an exercise partner in order to understand, as Charles said, how we are all here "to fulfil the unique role we have within the social ecosystem". Every person has a gift to bear which is necessary for the whole to function, like an ecology of sorts, we were told. Such knowledge can be very strong in teenagers - that we are here for a reason, even though our schooling system mostly prepares us to make a living, to take and to compete, all based on standardisation and conformity instead of preparing us to give of our gifts. The aim of this first exercise was to listen and create a space for each other to realise what our gifts are, and how we may be in a transition in life in which new gifts are coming to us.