For the past ten years, I have cultivated a community that supports my most essential human needs (ie. food, shelter, education) with limited exchange of money. Sometimes called the barter and gift economy, sometimes called family, I call it “radical reciprocity.”
I came to this lifestyle not long after college, when I moved back to my hometown of Petaluma, California to take up a residential farm internship. In exchange for agricultural training, I laboured. The trade felt equitable and mutualistic and I became hooked on bartering for the basics. I saw viscerally how, when practiced with care and consideration, non-monetary exchange could yield more than the sum of its parts.
These days, I rarely go to the grocery store. Instead I meet my caloric needs in other ways, including work-trade at the place that I live—a grass-fed beef and land restoration operation. Here, I not only receive the gift of housing, but my housemate and I feed ourselves directly from the herd we manage on the land.
There is seaweed, too. I climb down steep cliffs at low tide, stepping out carefully into tidepools to pick nori, wakame, kombu (all regularly sold seaweeds) off the wave-crashed rocks, and then sun-dry it back at home to eat and share throughout the year. Seaweed is a gift brimming with essential nutrients long lost in many other foods due to years of extractive agricultural practices. We harvest it to promote regrowth and mindfully tip-toe through tidepools to avoid causing unnecessary harm.
Harvesting in this way becomes a ceremony of checking in, tending and expressing gratitude. It’s the same ceremony I experience when seeking out wild mushrooms, bay nuts (a local substitute for coffee and chocolate), elderberries (syrup for health and immunity), and kaffir limes from a tree I helped plant 10 years ago. Participating in harvest requires giving back; I regularly plant trees to build habitat and to harvest from in future years. Foraging for food provides boundless strategies for meeting our nutritional needs “for free,” but in a way that redefines our place as stewards of our home.
In 2013, I felt called to move from the nonprofit space where I had been working, into business. Whereas the conventional pathway exalted higher degree education, every bone in my body felt a dissonance at pursuing an MBA. I wasn’t convinced that it would teach me what I was yearning to learn: radical new strategies to remake our world based on economic principles of abundance, reciprocity and enoughness.
Instead, I pursued a relationship with the co-founders of LIFT Economy, impact consultants and entrepreneurs, who were willing to gift their knowledge of next economy business principles. I spent the first two years receiving exquisite training in an “apprenticeship” program that ultimately led to my becoming co-owner of the company. They saw my lack of an MBA as an asset, because it meant that firstly, I was not in debt—and by extension of that I was in accord with values of thrift and economy that defines our work—and secondly, I was not indoctrinated by the norms of current economics. What surprised me was the amount of trust that we experienced in those first years: trust I would ultimately give back to others.
Today, I am a partner/worker-owner at LIFT Economy with equal decision-making power in the company. My day-to-day work is dedicated to creating, modelling and sharing a locally self-reliant economy that works for the benefit of all life. We counsel local businesses on ways to allocate funds to redistribute wealth, improve profitability and create ecological resilience.
I also offer these skills in exchange for the land bases that feed me. For example, a local farm, Singing Frogs Farm, trades me my services for a membership in their No-Till Community Supported Agriculture farm just a few miles down the road. Each week, I pick up a box of herbs, veggies and staples from the land, and a newsletter that shares stories of farming that week, with endearing photos of heart-shaped carrots. In exchange, I help the farm deepen their expression of values and grow their impact. To be above-board we need to disclose the services we receive on our tax returns, but we save the dollars we would have spent to pay for these services outright.
I am also inspired by other people’s stories of leaning into the gift economy. A friend traded his labour to learn to build an Aleutian kayak. And Arrow, the business manager of Owinza, a worker-owned quilting cooperative on Pine Ridge, South Dakota, describes how her father built dozens of houses in compensation for a home of his own, all materials included. Each instance of trade is one less dollar circulating and one more heart engulfed in treasuring handcrafted skills and critical knowledge for survival.
Of course, bartering doesn’t come easy to a lot of people. The fear lies in the negotiation, which requires being honest about personal needs. But the rewards for this act of courage are greater: deep connection, exponential growth in our level of care for one another, and an increased ability to withstand and respond to crisis. Researchers are learning that our fundamental human need for belonging actually gives us an evolutionary edge, keeping us in communities working towards shared aims. It is a freedom to walk in the world knowing that you will be cared for no matter how big or small your bank account. I encourage you to pursue this freedom. Barter, trade and gift in my life has offered a daily opportunity to affirm my sense of belonging, whereas cash and credit has felt divisive and isolating by comparison.
I am a living commitment to regenerating California soils, water and community. I arrived at this purpose statement during coaching sessions with a mentor, and in exchange, I helped him with garden design and labour. Sometimes I struggle with whether that was enough of a payment. In some ways it’s much harder to barter than to simply write a cheque (which cleanly and neatly excuses me of further accountability). The truth is, there will never be a way to pay him back, and tying myself in a state of eternal debt is actually a beautiful thing: it holds us accountable to one another as extended family, and puts us in a state of perpetual service.
If everyone practiced these ways of transacting business, they might feel more indebted—not financially, but to each others’ humanity. How much more thoughtfulness, care and concern would we express to one another on a daily basis? It is fascinating how comfortable the West is with financial debt, and yet how starkly averse we are to accumulating this “emotional indebtedness.” What would our world look like if this were flipped? Imagine if people hesitated when they swiped their credit card, but freely accumulated a “community balance,” a debt ledger reflecting items bought and sold on the basis of transacting kindness, trust and a commitment in return.
Yet, I do still earn money and engage in the financial realm. So the question is, what do I do with the money I earn now? Where can I invest financial wealth to accelerate the creation of a world that I know is possible, one in which needs are met for everyone (non-human species included), with equal abundance? How can we cultivate increased resilience from global markets and independence from our reliance on fossil fuel use? Through my own investments I am learning strategies for answering these questions. My company has channeled more than $1M USD to women and person-of-colour owned businesses via our Force for Good Fund we launched in 2016.
I am learning the levers for using barter, gift (and money too) to move us closer towards an abundance economy. I can only imagine what gifts radical reciprocity will bring to you, and to your neighbours too.
This article features in our bumper Issue 55 of Dumbo Feather—”Creating the next economy.” For more wisdom, conversations and practical ideas about building a more inclusive economy, purchase the magazine or subscribe.
Erin asked that compensation for this article be gifted to the loan loss reserve of Community Ventures, a nonprofit supporting women and person-of-colour owned enterprises (like Owinza quilting coop on Pine Ridge).