Can economy be “sacred”? Charles Eisenstein and the “Gift Economy”

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Charles Eisenstein in Gothenburg (Göteborg) and also to see him during the conference “Beyond Green Economy” in Copenhagen. I have been asked to share some of the impressions of these events and I will happily do so as I think his thoughts are very worth sharing.

Charles had come to Gothenburg directly from the US and it seemed a miracle that he made it on time – after his flight was cancelled, he was told there was no “possibility” whatsoever that he would be in Gothenburg by Saturday evening. Well, the airport staff did not know that they were dealing with someone who asks himself the question every day, “how is possibility defined”? ;)

By telling us the story of how he did finally make it to Sweden on time, he gave an example of how he believes we can help ourselves in times in which our conventional approaches to life are not working anymore. He called this the “old story” of our culture. In this old story, individualism has been promoted to an extent which has led us into the many crises we are facing today. This story makes us think that we are separate from each other, which in turn makes us strangers and competitors. The desire to give is innate to every human being, and it used not to be in contradiction to self-interest, as it is today. “Economy”, which used to be defined as “household management”, has developed into what it is mostly associated with today – competition and the need to apply “force” in order to succeed. People are looking for security in material things and addictions since they cannot find it in relationships anymore – which is, however, the only place where true security can be found.

He also raised the issue of the value of “activism” – which can be “right” if it comes from the “right” place. In Martin Luther King’s words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” This topic was discussed more extensively in Copenhagen. Charles was saying there that the idea of “conquering evil” was dismissing the fact that there is no separation between all human beings, and there is a consciousness which is affecting everyone. People are not “bad” by themselves, but made so through the situations they find themselves in, and the way of thinking they are exposed to.

And this is at the same time where our most powerful tool lies – in order to change people’s thinking, we have to change their experiences – “disrupt” their old stories, as Charles calls it. Offering them a new story they can step into is a much more powerful tool than using rational arguments. I experienced something like this only recently – in Swedish student accommodations there is a “rule” prevailing that everyone has to do their own dishes. By now I have got so used to it that I have not questioned it anymore since long (which is, I believe, exactly what is happening to most people in this world.) Recently, a friend of a housemate was doing dishes in the kitchen, and when I came with my plate and waited for him to be done, he just said “give me your plate, I’m doing dishes anyway”. Wow, what a “disrupting” experience! ;)

One example of how a totally wrong way of thinking which has been cultivated is what children and even grown-up students are taught in school / university: That producing the “right” answers is equal to success. This is probably the worst place where wrong mindsets are produced, as it happens from such an early age and it is hard to even become aware of it at an advanced age.

Charles shortly touched upon solutions to the problems of today’s economy, which he describes more extensively in his book “Sacred Economics”. I found it interesting to hear someone of the audience who seemed to be German to mention that in German language, the word “debt” is the same as the word “guilt”. What does this tell us about our way of thinking of money? In Copenhagen, Charles outlined the history of humanity as a “journey of separation from nature” – from the invention of tools via the invention of language, the domestication of plants and animals (invention of agriculture), the setup of industry and the monetisation of communication – all these steps of “making the world ours” have been happening with increasing acceleration. Also, he pointed out that the main growth areas of economy are based on the monetisation of things which once were free – communication, entertainment, food preparation, friendship (it’s easier to pay a therapist ;)) and stories (people know more about celebrities than about their own neighbours). Many of these things are closely correlated with an increasing “delocalisation” of services. While things which cannot be measured have become very scarce (hugs, real intimacy, knowing the stories of the people surrounding us), our material consumption has increased all the more – indeed, it seems that we prefer consuming more to working less (consider how many hours a week a hunter and gatherer may have spent doing something which people nowadays do in their “leisure time” ;)).

Another interesting thought for me to hear was that one of the things which make money problematic today is the fact that it is not “decayable”. Imagine someone who hoards 200 loafs of bread, all for himself. If he doesn’t want the value of this bread to simply dissolve, the only option for him is to share –  if it was the same for everything, we would always just give whatever is needed to whoever needs it in the very present moment.

The question raised by the audience, “so, where do we start?”, had in a way already been answered by his story of how he had made it to Gothenburg against all odds. The first step in everything for us has to be belief and trust in the “new story” – which he described with different terms such as “gift economy” or, on a more personal level, “interbeing”. Many times in our lives we get into situations where we can choose between two options – re-action out of fear and hatred or the trust in something which we can’t know yet to be true before we have trusted our inner feeling that it will be true – and this trust takes a little bit of courage. The truth is that we all are one – and that is why the selfishness which we see in others is only a mirror of our own selfishness. If we already have the option to see in others (and ourselves!) whatever we wish to see, then it may be worth paying attention to everyone’s (including our own) desire for giving and “interbeing”. And this is, at the same time, why it will never work out to be “good” in order to show others how “bad” they are, as many people have tried as well.

Finally, a question was raised about the title of the book “Sacred Economics”. What does “sacred” actually mean? For Charles, it has to do with “uniqueness” – when we look at a single tree in a forest with all its unique features, we consider it as “sacred”. When we, however, come across the same tree in the form of a four-by-two plank on the shelf of the hardware store, it has lost its “sacredness” – it is just the same as many others. In Copenhagen, he elaborated that it seems that science and religion have actually agreed on the fact that matter is not sacred – rather than seeing the “sacredness” in what is in front of us, we search it in something “higher”. But why should “high” be better than “low”? In our society things which do not bring money have been “devalued”. It is considered a “progress” that women work and earn money instead of taking care of their children – does this mean that a salary has a higher value than childcare? In fact, through this development the female role has been devalued, not strengthened.

These were the main themes which were touched upon by Charles and I could write much more. :) I recommend to anyone who is interested to check out his website and this beautiful explanatory video. Keep sharing! :)


Gothenburg Central Station


One of many “trams” of Gothenburg


Chris & I painting the town B)


Bikes for renting


Gothenburg has got many parks


A fountain representing the different continents


Charles Eisenstein speaking in S:t Johanneskyrkan in Gothenburg


The ferry docks of Gothenburg


Windmills in the Southern Gothenburg Archipelago


Has this kanelbulle (cinnamon roll) had Red Bull? :)


Audience at the conference in Copenhagen


Charles and Ole Bjerg from CBS (Copenhagen Business School)


“The grain required to fill a 95 liters tank with bioethanol can feed one person for a year”





Dhanesvara Das, author of the book “Lessons in Spiritual Economics from the Bhagavad-Gita”


Charles in action


Concluding panel with all speakers


3 thoughts on “Can economy be “sacred”? Charles Eisenstein and the “Gift Economy”

  1. PS. I was (justifiably) asked how Charles managed to arrive on time. He didn’t tell the story in detail, but what seemed important was that at one airport, he was told that he could only take the flight if someone else would give up their seats for him and his companion – and in this very moment, an elderly couple turned up and said “we will do this”. He also mentioned that being friendly with the airport personnel instead of complaining made a big difference. I hope this answers the question to some extent.

  2. Sounds like he was using possibility manager core skills!

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