This Thursday Charles Eisenstein will be speaking in London on the gift economy. We republish here our review of his book, Sacred Economics – Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition by Biff Vernon. Transition Free Press will be running a report of the event next week.
I was a little wary of the title ‘Sacred Economics’; was it to be biblical, mystical or about the financing of rainbow-coloured pyramids? No worries. This book helps construct a solid foundation to the ‘New Economics’ movement, challenging the conventional orthodoxy, providing practical tools for critical thinking and suggesting realistic approaches to enable the inevitable transition from where we are to where we must be.
Eisenstein sets his scene by reminding us that “Three or four thousand years ago the gods began a migration from the lakes, forests, rivers, and mountains into the sky, becoming the imperial overlords of nature rather than its essence. As divinity separated from nature, so also it became unholy to involve oneself too deeply in the affairs of the world.” He soon brings us down to earth by showing how “money today is an abstraction, resembling the divine; it is the invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, the invisible hand that makes the world go round”.
The myth that money is derived from a system of barter is dismissed and we learn rather that money developed to facilitate the long-established gift economy. Money as a medium of exchange was the primary purpose and needs to be re-established, with money’s secondary purpose as a store of value being demoted. We may be able to do almost anything with money but do we want it to be the exclusive means, so that without it we can do almost nothing? The trend towards monetising household goods and services that once were given freely needs to be reversed.
Eisenstein asks whether we can create an economic system that liberates, celebrates and rewards the innate urge to give; a system that records flow, not accumulation; creating and not owning; giving and not having. It is the idea of gift which forms a central and recurring theme to the book, from the historical origins of money, the philosophical underpinning of our economic systems, to the practical ways in which gifting becomes the basis of monetary transaction in the future we need.
In a series of challenges to the economic orthodoxy he presents policies on negative interest, social and environmental costs, a gift culture, degrowth and localisation. Sacred Economics is an important addition to the growing genre of books whose authors are voicing humanity’s predicament but declaring that all is not yet lost. It parallel’s the late David Fleming’s Lean Logic in its intertwining of history, philosophy and practical tools and prescriptions for the necessary transition. Richard Heinberg’s End of Growth, Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth, the series of books from the Transition Network, the continuing work of the New Economics Foundation, and many other authors and organisations all testify to the recognition that the way humanity orders its economic affairs imperils its very existence, yet there are ways forward to preserve what is best about ourselves.
For sure, there are nits to be picked and some economists will declare that the author was wearing rose-tinted spectacles at times, but Charles Eisenstein has more than earned his place amongst the New Economists. True to form, Sacred Economics is published by Evolver Editions and available free online from The Reality Sandwich under the Creative Commons. This is not a short book, at over 450 pages, but it is eloquently written, full of fascinating insights, not least in the footnotes, balancing skilfully our perilous position with enough hope and ideas to motivate the reader to join in creating a better world. BIFF VERNON
Biff Vernon (Transition Louth) started environmental campaigning in the early 1970s, stood for the Green Party in the 1979 general election, spent the next three decades teaching and now makes nice things from oak and glass, grows vegetables and flowers in Lincolnshire, and is attempting to save the planet one facebook post at a time.