In 1970, English social theorist Richard Titmuss upended the blood-banking system with his book The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy in which he explained the fundamental differences in how British people and Americans approached the blood used for transfusions. In the British system, all blood is classified as a gift. In the American system, blood is both donated and purchased (or sold). Titmuss goes on to say this profit motive compromises the supply - causing shortages, waste and increased health risks due compromised product (blood sold by desperate people and bought by unscrupulous profit-maximizers).
There has been a fair amount of research that questions the nuances of this work, but the basic questions remain. Lewis Hyde explains, “Medical sociologists have been drawn to questions of gift exchanges because they have come to understand that the ethics of gift-giving make it a form of commerce appropriate to the transfer of what we might call, ‘sacred properties,’ in this case parts of the human body.”
What does it mean to give of ourselves? Our energy, our money, our time are all precious. How do we incent people to want to give more and participate in raising up the public good? These queries are the antidote to ecologist Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Using the metaphor of a pasture “open to all,” Hardin explains that if we, as individual rational actors, seek to maximize our own wealth (or, in his terms, “accrue our own herd”), then we compromise the good/ the wealth/ the herd available to all. “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”
In the face of this tragedy, the gift exchange is a revolutionary act. It is not, of course, without benefit, We give blood because we feel we are making a contribution to another, “saving a life.” This narrative is critical. It raises the stakes. Just like the stakes of feeding people. What are the implications of this for GMOs? For the people fighting GMOs? What role does profit play in incentivizing us to do something? And how can we garner that same level of engagement - or something much deeper by rewarding people with something money can’t buy?
This is our challenge. To frame our work in ways that is immediate and world changing.