A Totally Different Way to Think About Economics — with Visionary Charles Eisenstein
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The course may not have fulfilled my expectations of sitting on a desk and scribbling notes about the new economy for a week, but it felt like a privilege to be in the company of someone with such a comprehensive understanding of both "self and cosmos", as his previous book The Ascent of Humanity depicts, as well as an adept story-telling ability that helped to bring these arcane ideas back down to earth. It was also an unanticipated pleasure to spend some time in the remote atmosphere of Schumacher College. At the beginning, it seemed rather stringent that all participants were obliged to help cook the food, hoover the halls and clean the toilets. But it's impossible to object as soon as you realise what a special place is the Old Postern in Dartington - which is really closer to being a commune of open-minded progressives, activists and scholars than merely an institution for getting a degree certificate in ecological studies. Even the resident ecologist and professor, Stephen Harding (whose brief lecture on Gaia theory and planetary boundaries was exceptionally funny and engaging), was scheduled on the rota to help bake the morning cookies and prep the lunch. The fireside chat on a Wednesday evening with Satish Kumar was sheer enchantment - there can be few people in this world who embody such homespun wisdom and humility (and are then willing to chat freely in the college bar afterwards, even partaking in a round of tequila courtesy of my new friend Hector from Mexico).
Overall, I think all of us who partook in the gift economy course at Schumacher College this summer - 16 of us altogether, including Charles and Toni - left with a feeling of warmth towards the staff and all our fellow participants, as well as a strong sense of gratitude that such a delightful communitarian ethos can exist in such a small university. It was a real credit to the staff that not only did they invite Charles Eisenstein to the college and give him completely free reign to design his own short course, but they also seriously considered how they could apply the ‘gift economy' concept to the running of the campus. Incredibly, the prospect of shifting all course fees and all staff salaries onto a donations model was earnestly posited and discussed. It was also incredible that everyone was invited to sit in on this ‘fish bowl' conversation and contribute if we so wished, as if we were all bona fide alumni of the college after just a few days of attending a course. I was even given a hug by the lovely college administrator before I left in a taxi to catch my train back home.
What everyone really wants
So I remain very grateful that I attended Charles' retreat and had a brief experience of Schumacher College. As Charles explained in his own words, the real changes that are needed on this earth are not the technocratic, policy solutions stuff, but the kind of things we worked on during the course - the process of inner transformation, the rise of a new consciousness, the awareness that we live in a ‘gift world' of abundance. The meaning of life, I remember Charles saying at one point, is to identify your gifts and learn how to contribute them to the whole (or words to that effect). The point is that what everyone really wants, whoever they are, is to give completely of their gifts. It is not that our unleashed desires will cause havoc, as the ‘powers that be' might think, but that they will rather heal the world. Of course, most of the desires that we express today - for junk food, video games, consumer products and so on - are a poor substitute for our real desire to connect with one another and give of our gifts. Our society would fall apart if we all demonstrated our gifts, said Charles, as current social arrangements are predicated on a vast swathe of humanity suppressing their inborn talents and creativity. A true leader in the new society now being born, he said, is the one who sees the gifts in others and creates opportunities for those gifts to be given. One could base their entire spiritual practice on this one motivation, Charles said; to see the gift in others, to imagine what it must be like to be the other person, and to see each person that you meet as the bearer of gifts.