I was driving to my office yesterday when I noticed a little boy being escorted by a babysitter across the street to catch the bus for school. I thought about how much the parents probably paid this woman for what was probably less than an hour’s work – in our area, childcare is really expensive – nannys easily get over $20 per hour. I then started to think of all the moms I know who could have performed this service for the family, possibly in exchange for another service. When my kids were really young, I tried to start a babysitting coop with my friends, based on the famous Capitol Hill Babysitting Co Op in the 70’s that my in-laws were part of. In this system, Everyone participated in a service pool, and this way, parents got a date night without having to pay cash for a sitter. None of my moms I knew were interested. They all preferred to hire someone instead of bartering.
Then this got me thinking of all of the things we could be bartering for, yet instead there’s been a cultural shift to pay for it. There could easily be a community toolshed where members each pitch in and share equipment, yet instead I see each family with their own lawnmower, leaf blower, hedge trimmers, etc. My husband and I are constantly trying to arrange for carpools to sports games and other kids activities, yet most parents prefer to drive their own gas guzzling SUV an hour each way instead of piling in one vehicle and sharing the ride. Maybe it’s because times aren’t tough enough, so there’s not much of an economic incentive for people to rideshare, but I wonder if there’s something else going on. In our age of social isolation, I wonder if we just don’t want to be around people we don’t know well, have different religious or political views. I wonder if we’ve lost our tolerance for difference and sense of community. Is it more comfortable for us to pay someone to do something for us than rely on someone for a favor and have to “pay them back.” In a cash system, once you pay for something, it’s done. It’s a clean deal.
The whole idea of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” is very strong in the Andean mountain communities of Peru. The word “ayni” means “today for you, tomorrow for me” in Quechua, the native language. This concept of mutualism is the backbone of their culture. Ayni also means that everything in the world is connected, that there is an important exchange of energy between humans and nature as a whole.
On the farm where I live, we’ve had several interns from this area of Peru. It’s really interesting to learn about their culture, which is highly dependent on community labor. When a farmer needs some work done, the entire village comes over to work. Some are helping in the fields, others are playing flutes to entertain the workers, and a crew is inside, cooking the meal for everyone. Entire families (including young children) participate. Not only does important work get done, but the fabric of the community is knitted closer together by these work parties. This isn’t too different from an Amish barn raising. In the days before a cash society, ayni was critical to a community’s success.
If we don’t need to rely on each other for help, does the community suffer? I wonder if this could be the reason why people overall are less friendly. If you can simply pay cash to someone for something instead of lending your time and skill to someone in exchange for a service from them, what’s the point of being nice? Is it necessary to be good to your fellow neighbor if you don’t even need to know who they are? Think about neighborhoods 100 or 200 years ago. Everyone probably knew everyone else. Today we sit on our computers, driving our own individual SUVs, not needing anything from the person next to us, or giving the person next to us anything. I wonder what that does to a person, a community or to society as a whole. I’m sure you probably have experienced a situation where you’ve extended yourself and your energy was not reciprocated. It’s not a great feeling.
The broader meaning of ayni, of everything being connected to a whole got me thinking about how reductionist our thinking is regarding things like food production. In today’s world of short term profits, it seems that the long term consequences of our industrial food system are not taken into account. The carbon cycle, which is a perfect example of ayni. Many scientists blame cattle for emitting methane. “Methane = bad,” but what they’re not considering is the entire life cycle of grass-fed cattle. They’re only looking at emissions, not the whole picture. When looking at herbivores from a holistic point of view, you get a much different picture.
Grasses feed cows –> cows eating grasses stimulate new grass growth –> hoof indentations on the land help create pockets for rain to collect and cow manure inoculates the soil with beneficial bacteria —> those bacteria are also fed carbon by the plant —> the bacteria and fungus in the soil bring essential nutrients to the plant in exchange for the carbon —> the plant can grow stronger —> the cow eats more grass —> the cow provides food for humans, who are unable to digest the grass, but can very easily digest beef. The more grass-fed beef humans buy, the more cattle are able to help in the carbon cycle.
This cycle doesn’t occur in the production of a food like Soylent. That system looks more like this: we take fossil fuels out of the ground —> burn them to drive tractors which expose soil to oxygen, releasing more carbon —–> use more fossil fuels to plant, fertilize, and harvest the crops —> more fossil fuels to transported to a processing center using more fossil fuels —> the crops are processed and packaged using more fossil fuels into Soylent. Meanwhile, the land is left depleted and tons of carbon has been released during production. Yet, those in silicon valley consider Soylent infinitely more “sustainable” than grass-fed beef. What Soylent is missing is ayni – the connection to the whole.
The same goes for lab grown meats. I wonder why people consider lab meat sustainable, when considering all of the inputs required. These products don’t grow themselves. You can’t get something for nothing. You have to pay back.
The idea of being given something without reciprocity (as in enthusiastic outsiders ‘giving’ aid without expecting compensation) can actually lead to a breakdown of the system, and is shunned in Andean culture. You always pay back. The film, Poverty, Inc. takes a critical look at the entire industry created by “aid.” I interviewed the film’s director, Michael Matheson Miller on my podcast (listen here.) We spoke about the damages of U.S. Foreign Aid and other forms of ‘giving’ can have on local economies. Tom’s shoes was an example featured in the film. It seems like a great idea to many of us here in America; buy a pair of shoes and the company gives a pair to someone in another country that needs them. The problem with this is it actually creates a culture of dependance while destroying local business. What makes Toms think that someone actually wants handouts for their whole life? Have they considered that people don’t necessarily want to be considered beggars needing to be dependent on a US shoe company?
Now before you go blasting me for not caring about anybody, there is a difference between long-term aid and disaster relief. Emergencies like the earthquake in Haiti definitely require some immediate help, however it’s important to realize that long-term aid, like whats happening in Haiti, actually benefit those on the giving end much more than those the aid is intending to help. This Vice episode illustrates just what state Haitians are in right now due to long term aid.
One of the issues with reciprocity, especially in a society with a bad legal system, is cronyism. Paying cash is a clean deal, and can level the playing field so that nobody is treated differently due to existing social bonds. Cash allows for absolution in a deal. Ayni doesn’t work on a big scale. In today’s world of globalization and specialization, you just can’t trade hours for everything you consume. Does this mean that we have to lose all sense of ayni and that a cash-based system is superior? Or maybe, should we consider the fact that humans might not be well suited to such large-scale societies?
As I currently struggle to work my way through The Rational Optimist, a book explaining how great we actually have it today vs. any other time in human history, I’m struck with conflict. While I agree that we humans are living better, and that specialization and globalization have led to improvements in our overall quality of life, I also wonder if our loss of ayni has hurt us as a culture. I don’t know if specialization and globalization have been all good for us. A few months ago when I went to see Wendell Berry speak (author of The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture) he talked about how geographic isolation and small communities are optimal for human culture. I immediately thought of the Q’eros people of Peru.
I just wonder if we’ve taken it too far, and have lost all acknowledgement of ayni all together. The best relationships are give and take. They’re equal. Thinking about all of this has made me realize that it’s time for me to examine situations I’m involved in where the ayni is missing. On a bigger scale, I wonder what things will look like in the future, as our need to rely on each other decreases even further as globalization and specialization further increases. Are all decisions going to be based solely on short term profit? Are we moving in such a reductionist way that holistic thinking is lost? Will ayni simply die? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
PS: Please check out the work of Hannah Rae at Willka Yachay, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping indigenous communities thrive in the modern world, and stay tuned for my future podcast with her. She also has the most incredible instagram feed!