Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Property Ownership, Resource Use, and the 'Gift of Nature'

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Property Ownership, Resource Use, and the 'Gift of Nature'

Article excerpt


In his seminal description of the culture of exchange in premercantile societies, Mauss (1990) posits the root of social power in the value of the gift handed from one person to another and the indebtedness of the other until the gift is reciprocated with interest. Since reciprocation demands further reciprocation, Mauss argues that, eventually, only the wealthiest--the most powerful--can survive, by gifting all wealth in the knowledge that it cannot be bettered. The immense significance of this deceptively simple theory of the gift for understanding both society and the individual has been emphasised by Moore who, in a recent study of the influence of the writings of Mauss on 20th-century philosophy and especially French post-structural theory, claimed that:

"In place of the pre-social, metaphysically individuated essence, or residual soul, of the modern subject, Mauss's study of gift exchange suggests the very opposite: a complex network of obligations, commitments and blurred identities from which there no more emerges a concept of the individual than there does an isolable market place" (2011, page 5).

While other work, by Testart (1998), Laidlaw (2000), Hyde (2006), and Hird (2010), for example, has questioned the nexus between gift and reciprocation (on the basis that a gift is not a gift if it depends on reciprocation), Mauss's underlying theorisation of the gift relationship is now well accepted, although we argue in this paper that it has considerable potential for further development in order to theorise nature-society relations. For Hyde (2006, page 8), for example, the gift relationship is about the dynamic required to maintain the balance between depletion and renewal in social and ecological systems. Using the analogy of the gift as a constantly flowing river, Hyde (2006, page 8) argues that the duty of the recipients of the gift is to keep the river flowing. Failure to do this will lead to flood or drought, neither of which offers a sustainable basis for maintaining local ecosystems. As Hyde (2006) goes on to argue, constructs such as the 'gift of nature' have long been part of common culture, suggesting not only that the nonhuman 'natural world' provides us with 'free' goods and services, but that we have a duty to reciprocate by respecting and replenishing these gifts that are so freely given.

Yet, despite this established understanding of the nonhuman dimensions of gift relationships, there remains considerable uncertainty about what Hird (2010, page 3) has depicted as gifts between "humans and other-than-human bodies", largely on the basis that such exchange does not lend itself to the supposed calculus that underpins the conditionality of gift and reciprocation (Clark, 2005). While accepting the argument that humans and nonhumans can enjoy what Haraway (2003, page 9) has termed, with respect to relationships between humans and dogs, a "deep kinship", Hird (2010) argues that the human/nonhuman issue goes beyond this, to question how we might understand gifts that are not mediated or interpreted by humans. In particular, Hird (2010, page 4) reminds us that "the earth's own agentic and volatile gifting" is given, apparently, without any allowance for reciprocation, implying that we are still some way from developing what Hyde (2006, page xviii) has termed a "comprehensive theory of gifts".

This paper seeks to contribute to a more comprehensive theory of the gift by extending theorisation of gift exchange to the understanding of nature-society relations as a means of developing a new relational understanding of how the nonhuman can be understood in conceptualisations of gift exchange. This theorisation and an empirical case study will be used to offer new insights into the deeper questions raised by Hird (2010), about the dynamics of gifting relationships originated by, or exclusively involving, nonhumans. In framing our arguments we start with the premise that, in contemporary capitalist societies, aneconomic gift relationships involving the nonhuman coevolve with, and are inseparable from, the incorporation of the nonhuman in economic exchange. …

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