The law of the ground is sharing

What does Thanksgiving have to do with an election? This year, a whole lot. The start of the season of sharing follows close on the heels of a season full of not-so-generous attitudes.

I’m thinking of Mitt Romney’s sour note that the election was bought by giving “extraordinary financial gifts” to some voters. “The giving away free stuff is a hard thing to compete with,” he told his well-off donors to excuse his loss. His words were echoed by extreme-right pundits who nearly wept over a nation of “takers,” a country that “is interested in handouts.”

I don’t know what country they live in, but it’s not the one I know.

In my country, people with few resources give gladly of their time and energy. More than 26 percent of people volunteer their time for nonprofits, which amounts to 65 million people nationwide, including people from all the groups of “takers” on Romney’s list: African American, Hispanic, Latino, young, female. They do everything from teaching literacy to feeding orphaned baby birds to preparing meals for the elderly.

The complaints about a country of takers are so out of square with reality that I can only think that the words arise out of deep-seated fear. Does the language of takers appear when privileged people become frightened of sharing?

For my new book I did a lot of research on sustainable societies—cultures that live in balance with their surroundings, not taking from the land faster than it can replenish. The common element in all such societies is that they place a high value on sharing. Different groups structure their sharing in different ways. For Aboriginal peoples in Australia, sharing means giving of their land’s resources to any visitors who ask. The obligation is not just a nice sentiment. It’s not just being good. Aboriginal people believe that nature mandates sharing. It’s built into the law of the ground—and in this way is different from the laws of white people. From chapter 12 of Kissed by a Fox:

“Whitefellow law goes this way, that way, all the time changing,” said Doug Campbell, a senior Yarralin man. “Blackfellow Law different. It never changes. Blackfellow Law hard—like a stone, like that hill. The Law is in the ground.”

A very long time ago, Western societies began passing laws to reward the collecting of wealth with a bonus. That bonus was interest on debt. Charging interest came into use in the ancient Mediterranean empire of Sumeria around 3000 BCE. It helped make empires possible because it aided the collecting of money and resources into fewer and fewer hands. Charging interest was a hallmark of Greek and Roman societies, and it set those powers apart from many of their neighbors, some of whom, like the Jews, called charging interest the greatest possible sin because it split a community into haves and have-nots. Since the Roman era, societies that trace their history to the Mediterranean have rewarded ownership with a bonus of interest or rent.

In other words, we provide an incentive for accumulating more than sharing. In our fundamental system of laws, we enshrine the practice of gathering more than that of giving, the practice of holding over that of releasing.

Sustainable societies, by contrast, offer incentives for sharing. I think of potlatch societies, where people gain prestige by distributing their resources. More lavish distributing results in more prestige. Ronald Trosper is an enrolled member of the Flathead Reservation and a Harvard-trained economist who argues that the potlatch system among coastal peoples of northwest North America ensured an abundant supply of salmon for two thousand years, and he offers mathematical models to show why. A house headed by a chief would accumulate wealth for a number of years, then host a feast and giveaway to celebrate a special occasion such as a marriage or birth. The house provided all the food for the feast as well as gifts for every guest. From Kissed by a Fox:

Because the feasts were public affairs and all the gifts were publicly counted and announced, it soon became obvious if a particular house was not doing a good job of being generous. To keep their positions, chiefs had to meet the communal standard of generosity. And in order to have enough surplus to share lavishly, they had to take scrupulous care of their food territories. Each house was obligated to the salmon to consume the salmon’s gifts sparingly and share the salmon’s gifts generously, or the salmon would fail to return in the future. The society, in other words, set up incentives for generosity rather than selfishness.

People made environmentally appropriate choices because their status depended on sharing. If they depleted the salmon, they would have nothing to share. Failure to share meant a fast trip down the social ladder.

What many indigenous cultures have long known is that resources always flow in two directions—away from as well as toward. For a society to be sustainable, goods must be distributed after they are accumulated. The only sustainable equation is one where gathering and giving balance each other, an equal sign resting between them. Any society that offers incentives for gathering, such as ours, will need equal incentives for giving because dispersal is the other half of the cycle of life. From Kissed by a Fox:

I stand next to a cliff overlooking the ocean. The day is sparkling, warmth radiating from nearby rocks though my jacket is zipped to the chin against a stiff and chilly breeze. A line of pelicans flows low across the water, only a wingbeat away from the waves, taking advantage of the cushion of air that bears them along just above the surface of the sea.

The sky is so blue it hurts. Darkly joyous waters crash again and again into black rocks just offshore. I set out walking along the shore into the wind. My shoes sink into the sand; plowing forward takes effort. Thoughts trail into reverie as I slip into the rhythm of left foot and right foot.

Every wave that flows also ebbs. The water that falls from the sky tumbles and percolates to the sea and is taken up again to sky. Molecules collect for a time into one form and then scatter, only to collect in a different form. Food becomes fertilizer and once again food. One species proliferates, only to be checked by the rise of another. Every striving in summer is followed by resting in winter, every daytime followed by night. Each gathering into birth also disperses into dying.

Taking breath in, giving it out. Left foot, right foot.

To be sustainable, gathering in needs to be balanced by giving. To live by the law of the ground, we have to share.

For more information:

  • About Aboriginal cultures, see the books of Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose: Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness (Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996) and Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • On the potlatch system among northwest coastal tribes, and how it might be implemented among corporations today, see the Ecology and Society article by Ronald Trosper, also his book, Resilience, Reciprocity, and Ecological Economics: Northwest Coast Sustainability (London: Routledge, 2009).
  • About why sharing or redistribution makes good economic sense, watch this talk by Joshua Farley, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont.
  • For in-depth reflection on all these ideas, see the last chapter of Kissed by a Fox.