A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Simple Gifts

What if the solution to all of our planet’s problems was hidden in plain sight?

If it weren’t for our symbiotic relationship with plants, we’d have no air to breathe—an exchange that even the greediest humans have found no way to monetize, though the monetization of just about everything else has certainly jeopardized it. 

The biosphere functions through interspecies collaboration, from single-celled creatures to apex predators. Lichen is a composite of bacteria and fungi. Every meadow and forest relies on the collaboration between fungi and vascular plants through mycorrhizal association, in which green plants supply the products of their photosynthesis to the fungi colonizing their roots and receive water and essential minerals in return. Needed nutrients are exchanged between the two and even transported to other plants through the mycorrhizal network. Not a scoreboard to be found.

Insects and flowering plants, ants, and trees, have evolved to maximize mutual aid. The clownfish has developed a mucus that protects it from the anemone’s sting so that it can live sheltered by tentacles that discourage predators; in exchange, the fish drives off other fish that would eat the anemone. Here again, no one’s making a dime, just a living.

Even humans depend more on what we freely give and get than on what we pay for. Bacteria keep us able to digest and move and think; we give them a place to live. Tending the soil, we tap into the interconnection between plants, fungi, and bacteria and receive food; when it’s done disrespectfully, the results are dire. Like all mammals, our beginnings depend on the blending of single cells, both of which sacrifice their individual existence to create something totally unique —which then depends on a complicated parasitic symbiosis with an adult host that’s ideally the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

There’s a theory that the symbiotic relationship between certain microorganisms was responsible for the development of the nucleus, without which we’d have no fungi, no fish, no fowl, no trees, or flowers. Zilch. Nada.

Darwin emphasized competition, but later researchers have come to realize that evolution is coevolution, driven by relationships. As has been elegantly summarized by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis and her like-minded son, writer Doron Sagan (yes, his daddy was Carl Sagan), “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”

Which brings us back to humans. Sigh. Thanks to whatever evolutionary forces put us at the top of the apparent food chain, at least until we die and give it all back to the bacteria, we seem to have largely gotten stuck in the competitive mindset. We’ve struggled for at least 12,000 years to keep track of who owes what to whom.

Metal and paper as symbolic currencies got started and took hold during the 1000 years, more or less, leading up to the transition from BC to AD, as many humans grew increasingly disconnected from the previous (to borrow from Margulis and Sagan again) “Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination,” which is the subtitle of their co-written treatise Origins of Sex.

And indeed, even sex itself has fallen deep down the rabbit hole of the human impulse toward scorekeeping and commodification of absolutely everything. Men alone clearly couldn’t make entire new people emerge from their bodies; once upon a time, that capacity got Her share of respect. Sometime between Stone Age Venus and the Virgin Mary, things got twisted. Instead of standing in awe of their mutual creation of new people, (which still, in and of itself, doesn’t cost a dime) humans, in the process of building settlements and fences, put this process too into the category of currency, to be hoarded in the pursuit of power-over rather than power-with.

Some humans managed, for a time, to stay in touch with the original instructions, maintaining gift cultures, which more closely mirrored the reciprocity seen everywhere else in the biosphere. This gentler lifestyle baffled anthropologists from market economies. Studying Trobriand Islanders, Bronislaw Malinowski emphasized reciprocity and argued that gifts were solely given with the expectation of getting in return. 

He was missing something, and another anthropologist, Annette Weiner, put her finger on a big piece of it: the Trobriand Islands’ society was traditionally matrilineal and deeply sex-positive. Much was under the control of women, and Malinowski had devoted all of his attention to exchanges among men, as if the women were irrelevant. Sigh.

Yet another anthropologist, Marshall Salins, delineated three kinds of exchanges in his 1972 book Stone Age Economics. A gift economy means scores aren’t kept. “Balanced reciprocity” involves an expectation of receiving something of equal value in return. In a negative, or market exchange, both parties expect greater profit than they’re prepared to give. Salins suggested that gift economies exist only within close-knit kinship groups. 

Well, we know where all our market economies have gotten us. The blind drive to profit at another’s expense and the commodification of absolutely everything (“Every kiss begins with Kaye,” as the jeweler’s ad goes, and that kiss-generating offering had better be worth three months of your salary, Jack) has laid waste to so much that humanity is staring down the barrel of a very difficult future.

The Trobriand Islands became a state within Papua New Guinea in 1975, and efforts have been made to “restructure” their economy, not without resistance. Sigh. 

Our current mess can be traced in nearly every way to negative exchange, profit elevated over relationship, and the only solution is to acknowledge what we actually are, a large, close-knit kinship group in a far grander scheme. Commodification and hoarding are a literal dead end. 

Generalized reciprocity—giving freely, secure in the knowledge that your needs will be met—is still in practice in our poor, battered ecosystem among all sorts of creatures that market economy oriented humans consider “lesser”. It seems entirely possible that a paramecium understands what’s going on better than the average politician. Siiiigghhh.

Gift exchange and collaboration aren’t just the way to abundance. They’re survival, and It’s down to those of us who understand that to be the living proof. Let’s thrive together.