Bringing Back Reciprocity

Pre-Blog: The blog post that follows was written by myself during 2013 when I was doing some collaborations with the founders of Seedstock Community Currency in Vancouver. Since 2013 the Seedstock team has gone on to work on other projects as they realized that this community currency was a little bit ahead of its time. However, the basic model in terms of the way the currency operated was very well designed and simple to understand. I think that it is an invaluable tool for lessons on how to design our economic communities. I am eternally grateful to Jordan Bober and Paola Qualizza for offering me the opportunity to work with them back in 2013. This opportunity opened my eyes and helped spark my love for the social dimensions of permaculture. Now, onto the blog post!


Upon reflection, I think that many of us will realize that we had the basic tenets of reciprocity imparted upon us as children, but that as we grew up, those values were slowly forgotten or taught out of us. Remember the days of stickers, pogs, baseball cards, stamps, and Pokemon cards?

As a child one of my favourite activities was trading stickers with my best friend on the doorsteps of the housing co-op where we lived in North Vancouver. I knew the rules of sticker trading very well, and I knew that sometimes you had to give away something valuable in order to receive what you needed to complete your collection. For example, all kids wanted the highly sought-after "oily" stickers that swirled with different colours when you pressed them with your finger. I knew that 5 fuzzy stickers equalled one "oily", and even though I hated giving up my fuzzy stickers, I knew that eventually more fuzzy ones would come my way through future trades with other friends.

I also knew that because I was trading with friends, I had to be fair and honest in my trades, because that way they would do the same and our friendship would stay strong. It did happen a few times that I was less than generous with my trading - when one of my lower quality stickers tore shortly after a trade or when I refused to trade just one of a newly bought sticker pack - resulting in a couple of days of the silent treatment from my friends. I quickly learned what to do and what not to do to maintain a healthy sticker trading relationship and friendship.

In essence, reciprocity builds trust networks and keeps greed in check. Although not utilized to its full potential in western society, reciprocity has played a major role in the stability and resilience of the First Peoples of North America. A great example of this is the Pacific Northwest Coastal First Peoples’ potlatch system. The potlatch feasts, at which surplus wealth was distributed amongst houses, neighbouring titleholders and villages, had a multitude of uses. For example, new titleholders were required to hold feasts upon receiving their title and their proprietorship depended on them being able and willing to distribute their land's wealth to others and recount the oral history of the land at these events. In this way, potlatches guarded against hoarding and diversified the wealth gained from the land.

This system also protected against the over-harvesting of resources since many resources, such as salmon, were harvested by a number of different titleholders. If one titleholder got greedy and over-harvested the resource, they would receive less from their neighbours at the potlatch events. This took the pressure off of trying to harvest as much as possible and provided insurance against loss of wealth (which was perpetually cycled amongst the neighbouring titleholders and villages) due to natural disturbances.

"Balance" by Lucie Bardos © copyright 2017

"Balance" by Lucie Bardos © copyright 2017

Potlatches also functioned as dispute resolution meetings, allowing any attendees who wished to speak to be heard. The assembly of chiefs present at the potlatches reached governance-related decisions in public so that everyone present was aware of the resolutions being made. Furthermore, oral histories would be recounted at these events and the environmental ethics (eg. all living things have the right to exist; all living things have souls that are reincarnated over time; animal and plant systems are akin to human communities) that were present in many of these stories became a part of the collective mindset. Since titleholders were required to be knowledgeable about these stories, this ensured that they also had a strong foundation in environmental ethics.

According to Trosper (2002), the Northwest Coast First Peoples enjoyed 2000+ years of sustainability, wealth and resilience, as their communities co-existed alongside natural ecosystems. It is a shame that we, who live in the same area, with all of our amazing technology and "progress" that we have made since the colonial days, are now succumbing to the scarcity mindset. By not placing enough value and emphasis on reciprocity, we have created an environment that encourages over-harvesting, hoarding, stinginess, and leaves us always feeling like we are not getting enough.

Luckily, reciprocity is coming back into style. All kinds of nifty ideas are popping up; such as trade schools in which communities establish a space where teachers come and give lessons on things they know how to do in exchange for good/services that their students can provide. Other great examples include community-supported bakeries like as Loaf in Birmingham, UK and farms like Yummy Yards right here in Vancouver. The way it works is that people pay a fee ahead of time to help get the baker/farmer started for the season by covering his/her expenses and in exchange get fresh local bread/produce every week over a set period of time.

Different kinds of community currencies are also making their mark. Time banks, for instance, are community systems through which people exchange services measured by the time it takes to complete them (eg. one hour of ironing laundry in exchange for one hour of gardening). Another type of alternative currency is community currency; In Vancouver we have Seedstock Community Currency, which cycles through the community as it is exchanged for goods and services at participating businesses. It promotes reciprocity because the businesses that underwrite Seedstock gift it to non-profit organizations, which in turn use it for fundraising by trading it for Canadian dollars with the public or as rewards for their employees and volunteers. Businesses get free publicity on the Seedstock website and perhaps through the non-profits themselves. The Seedstock then circulates through the community and eventually comes back to the business that created it, bringing them more loyal customers.

If you have noticed, all of these initiatives encourage people to take a bit of a risk and trust that the energy they put out there will come back to them; when they see that it does, they are more likely to help others even more. Although engaging in reciprocity does come with a bit of a risk, greed and hoarding usually get weeded out and it seems to bring out the best in us, otherwise these initiatives would not work. Why is this so?

I think there are a couple of reasons: firstly, when we engage in reciprocity there is a degree of public accountability and nobody wants to seem stingy or greedy in front of other community members. Another reason is that many of these reciprocal exchanges allow people to teach, create and participate in things they love doing and are good at doing. While the standard economic system makes it hard for small businesses or individuals such as artists or artisans to thrive, reciprocity-based community initiatives put more value on what these people do and allow them to be in their element. When someone is in their element, they are usually being the person they want to be and are experiencing positive personal growth. Lastly, it feels good to receive a gift and naturally sparks the urge to give back - and it's as simple as that.

Because these projects are community-based, they keep exchange happening within the community. This strengthens the ties between community members and encourages the growth of unique community identities, in the same way as trading stickers helped maintain a balanced relationship between my friends and myself all those years ago, and in the same way as the Northwest Coastal First Peoples' potlatch systems allowed their societies to be stable and resilient for over 2000 years. Reciprocity brings us back to the abundance mindset - what's mine becomes yours or theirs and vice versa. The proof is in the pudding; reciprocity rocks so let’s get giving!

Addendum, written on Nov 22, 2017: That last sentence is super corny, and I thought about taking it out, but I wanted to leave this blog post as much in its original state as possible, so forgive me! In any case, while I still very much resonate with this blog post, I felt that I ended it a little bit bluntly. I would like to conclude this post by adding that since I wrote it in 2013, alternative economic practices such as community currencies, LETS systems, time banks, tool libraries, clothing swaps, wwoofing and others have steadily been gaining traction. All of these practices embody the concept of reciprocity and I encourage you to reflect on that and ask yourself how you could incorporate these practices into your daily life? 

To give you an example, when I was researching my masters thesis I lived in a town with a thriving time bank system. I needed to round some folks up to participate in a focus group, but I wanted to give them something in return and I had no money. Instead I offered to pay them with my time by signing up for the time bank and offering up an appropriate amount of hours of my time to anyone in the group who may have needed a job done.

Further, I would encourage you to research how Indigenous peoples in the place where you live may have practiced reciprocity in their own ways and brainstorm ways in which we can support them in their current efforts to maintain and/or revitalize their cultures.



Trosper, Ronald L. "Northwest coast indigenous institutions that supported resilience and sustainability." Ecological Economics 41, no. 2 (2002): 329-344.