I’ve previously written about Climate Generosity as a pathbreaker, or a way of doing things which has the potential to open up action, which does not wait for that action to be fair or just to ourselves, and that generosity has the capacity to build social networks of action and help people feel their actions are meaningful.

This is an attempt to look at some of the academic work on generosity and gifting, and see how it fits in, or does not fit in, with what I have been saying.

Despite the length of this blog, it is merely a sketch.


In the course of this blog post I will argue that generosity and gifting:

  • build ongoing relationships and networks, as those relationships are ongoing in cycles of gift and response,
  • distribute goods from places of plenty, to those of less plenty (temporary or otherwise),
  • form parts of other forms of exchange and are embedded in wider social life with the potential to transform that life,
  • are different from transactional exchange (such as money for items exchange), but may help support such transactions, although capitalism may also suppress such actions (directly or indirectly),
  • can be common in times of crisis or risk, although we probably cannot state in what particular circumstances,
  • build social resilience and help societies survive shocks perhaps better than those societies which do not encourage generous behaviour,
  • dampen noise, misinterpretation and disruption between groups,
  • indicate trustworthiness and build trust,
  • make the givers feel good, and gives them more social connections, and possibly more opportunities,
  • require attention to the needs and wants of others,
  • are precarious or risky, and may fail,
  • can be hostile and destructive and undermine themselves without that attention and care,

Secondarily we are left with some remarks:

  • there may be different types of gifting and generosity which require investigation to understand the circumstances in which they are appropriate and effective,
  • the impossible gift happens all the time,
  • ‘generalised’ and ‘productive’ exchange can reinforce each other,
  • extractive exchange can be destructive or harmful when the other has no way of defending themselves from the taking. This seems to be the common mode of exchange in many current societies when dealing with ecology.

I’ll now briefly cover some areas of thought about generosity and gifting: anthropology, sociology, social psychology, social geography, philosophy and ethics.


Anthropologists have since Malinowski and Mauss in the early 20th Century written about how stateless societies often have prestation economies, in which people exchange gifts in return for status and connection with others (both inside and outside their main groups and communities).

This exchange can be motivated by practical issues. If a group gains a sudden and large supply of meat or vegetables, they cannot accumulate it as capital (food rots) and the best way of dealing with the situation is to give it out over the relatively short period of time in which the food can be eaten, and use the giving to build relationships with others, who might respond similarly, evening out the food supply. Groups may also exchange what we might call ‘art objects,’ ‘magic objects’ or ‘persuasive objects’ with little utilitarian value, but which have acquired meaning through being old and exchanged many times with a powerful history.

To some extent the gift demands return, but the return can occur in many ways, such as respect or offering to help in some project etc. In some places gifts can be weapons, and ways of humiliating those who cannot respond equitably, as in the late versions of potlach. No one claims that gifts are inherently disinterested or purposeless.

This position was emphasised by Mauss. One possible objection to Mauss’s position is that he intends:

to isolate one important set of phenomena: namely, prestations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested.

[and he asks]

what is the principal whereby the gift received has to be repaid? What force is there in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return?

Mauss, The Gift 1954: p.1

If he only considers prestations which are obligatory and interested then the gift he will observe is obligatory and interested. By ignoring the possibility of non-obligating gifts, or ‘generous gifts’ which don’t demand return, or equal return, he is limiting the field quite drastically. Blau remarks, less limitingly, that exchange is caught between the polarity of pure calculation and pure generosity – neither of which may exist (Exchange and Power in Social Life, 1964: 112).

However, in general, gifts establish the possibility of continuing cycles of gift and receiving, obligation and acceptance. Relationships do not end when the gift is given.

gifts are in fact used to construct a wide range of possible social worlds as stable arenas for social interaction… it is a formative social process in its own right

David Cheal The Gift Economy: 126

‘Stable’ might be a bit much here, but gifts can form cycles of exchange, like many other forms of exchange, which link people who may never meet, and which can reinforce and continue the relationship.

Gifting is usually contrasted with commodity and monetary exchange, in which the exchange can end with the passing of money and the assumption of vague equivalence of exchange. As Cheal points out, reciprocity is not accounting (op.cit: 2).

Strathern reminds, that:

a culture dominated by ideas about property ownership can only imagine the absence of such ideas in specific ways…. To talk about the gift constantly evokes the possibility that the description would look very different if one where talking instead about commodities.

Strathern, The Gender of the Gift 1988: 18-19.

In reality of course, transactional exchange in capitalism can be complicated as well. People buy from favoured shops, or have relationships with shopkeepers and shop staff, and a good seller knows that keeping and soothing relationships is almost as important as sales, as it can keep sales comming. This may occasionally extend into credit, or favoured person discounts. Even in capitalism, exchange can be about relationships, rather than just rational accounting.

This all implies that climate gifting could act as a way to build relationships and alliances, between people and between groups, especially between people who are not otherwise obviously connected. It also recognises the obligation of those who have to give to those who have not – something which capitalism tends to interrupt, perhaps to help the build up of capital. It also challenges neoliberal modes of common sense, and re-establishes a more open gift economy, in which anyone can give something. In some ways generosity restores equality of interaction, in other ways it does not. However, if new and real forms of connection can be built through gifting, then they have potential to allow new forms of action and social transformation.


What we learn from disasters is that people can pull together and help/gift strangers with relative ease, in difficult circumstances, whatever our fiction tells us differently. See Bregman and Solnit A Paradise Built in Hell.

Mike Davis and Anthony Fontenot tell us about a small town which, after hurricane Katrina, helped found the ‘Cajun Navy’ rescuing people stranded in the floods. And despite a median income of less than half the average income, they provided food and shelter for about 5,000 people: “No Red Cross, No Salvation Army or Federal Funds. . . Just Friends.” This was an intense act of generosity, but people all over the USA apparently offered beds to people in trouble, and presumably did not expect much in return.

Is this unexpected? After all most societies will have experienced disruption, the irruption of weather, flood, drought or movement of earth, and it may not be good for their long term survival if they cannot help people in trouble. Michel Serres (Natural Contract: 51-3) suggests that community may even originate from out of these crises with our physical relation to Earth. This may be improbable, but never-the-less it reminds us that the response to catastrophe does not have to be the war of all against all, or descent into apathy; it can bring revitalisation.

Social Psychology

Klapwijk & Van Lange (Promoting Cooperation and Trust in “Noisy” Situations: The Power of Generosity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2009, 96(1): 83–103) suggest that generosity is important to building trust, especially when signals between people are full of disruptive (“negative”) noise, where noise is defined as “discrepancies between intended and actual outcomes for an interaction partner due to unintended errors” (op. cit: 84) such as accidentally saying the wrong thing, not responding to an e-mail because of a network breakdown, or arriving at a meeting late because of co-incidental problems.

Noise, in sense of ‘unintended’ events which add to the probabilities of miscommunication, or different framing of events, is normal in human interaction – and can lead to progressively hostile escalation, especially when there is a mixture of corresponding and conflicting interest, which is also normal.

In our current world, with the massive politicization of a significant part of the media who promote hostility towards ‘action-against-climate-change’, overcoming noise and deliberate misinterpretation and misinformation, is important to progress. Generosity seem one way of avoiding or bypassing noise problems (perhaps because it implies ‘charitable’ interpretation), even though it runs the risk of being taken advantage of.

Responding to others as you interpret them as responding to you, (tit for tat) can make things worse when noise is present. Generosity can avoid unintended combat, but may leave people vulnerable to deliberately engineered combat, so it depends on a judgement about who you are dealing with, and how generous they have been in the past.

Klapwijk & Van Lange’s experiments show

when noise was present, an unconditionally cooperative strategy was more effective in eliciting cooperation and was perceived as more moral and trustworthy and as being more inclined to make other-regarding transformations (and less inclined to make self-regarding transformations) than a tit-for-tat partner…

in a world where unintended errors (or incidents of noise) are doomed to happen, it is not advisable to adopt strict reciprocity.

[Likewise] acting less cooperatively than the partner— elicit[s] very low levels of cooperation—and fairly rapidly so….

strategies that deviate from strict reciprocity in an other regarding manner—by acting more generously—turn out to be more effective at coping with noise. Such strategies not only elicit greater cooperation levels but also tend to generate more positive thoughts and feelings by others.

ibid: 99, 101

In other words generous behaviour can produce better co-operation and interpretations, than strictly reciprocal, or punishing behaviour, at least in the cultures the experimenters were working in.

While not mentioning the above study Przepiorka & Liebe (Generosity is a sign of trustworthiness—the punishment of selfishness is not. Evolution and Human Behavior (2016) 37: 255–262) come to similar conclusions. “[P]articipants who choose a generous division of money are more trustworthy and are trusted more than participants who choose a selfish division or participants about whom no information is available.” Generosity is an effective way of signaling, and creating, good intent. The “signaling benefits of altruistic acts which accrue in social exchange can ease the conditions under which other-regarding preferences can evolve” (255-6). “[G]enerosity and cooperative intent are positively related and… observers infer cooperative intent from acts of generosity” (261).

So it appears likely that generous exchanges can create social bonds, and further co-operative action. As well they may also help to make people feel good – perhaps because of making those social bonds and co-operating.

This ability of generosity to make generous people feel good, was the finding of a large scale interview research project by the “Science of Generosity Project” at the US University of Notre Dame, reported in Smith, C., & Davidson, H. (2014). The paradox of generosity: Giving we receive, grasping we lose. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. It claims that people who practice generosity (either through volunteering, giving or relating) tend to benefit in terms of psychological and social well-being, irrespective of their incomes. The study defines generosity as the “virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly” (p. 4). It allows for the possibility that people with better lives tend to be more generous, but also insists that it works the other way, that generosity and a good life work together in positive feedback.

Despite the positive effects of generosity the majority of US Americans are not overtly generous, despite these obvious benefits. The researchers claim:

If the top 10 percent of most generous Americans were to stop giving money, the entire sector of society and the economy based on voluntary financial giving would simply collapse”

op.cit: 105

Usefully it gives some social explanations for lack of generosity in terms of perceived economic precarity, a sense of lack of time or time pressures, and from social world views such as think that self-interest is both normal and dominant, and apathy and anxiety as a response to crisis. Neoliberal ideologies could easily lead people to think that co-operation and generosity are foolish. Where the pursuit of ‘worldly goods’ is considered the path to contentment then it seems unlikely people will be generous.

By spending ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own standing. In letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our own lives. By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move toward flourishing. This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching: it is a sociological fact.

ibid: p1

However, as a sociological fact, it seems reasonable to assume there must be recognised ways of giving, and people to give to, with whom some kind of relationship is considered possible – at least at the level that the generous know that what they are giving is useful and valued. So we can assume that building networks of generosity, in which generosity is normalised rather than marginalised or disbelieved, is as important as deciding to be generous oneself. Working to build such networks could also help people to build the habits of generosity; ‘‘repeated behaviors that involve recurrent intention and attention’’ (13).

Generosity expands the number and density of social-network relational ties, which tends to lead to greater happiness and health… Many practices of generosity involve extending and strengthening the ties that generous people have in their social networks

ibid: 78. (italics in original)

At the other end,

By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and mis-fortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’

ibid: 1

This realisation is probably important in dealing with climate change. Protecting ourselves alone can lead to incapacity, and perhaps to withdrawal from the struggle. The capitalist cultural tendency seems to be to:

  • find security in material goods,
  • look after our own,
  • protect ourselves
  • separate from others, especially unsuccessful others as lack of success is contagious,
  • see only competition (perhaps outside family life) and selfishness as absolutely fundamental to human being, rather than some combination of competition and co-operation,
  • claim if people appear generous then it must be hypocrisy, or deceit, (that is everyone is really selfish),
  • want to delete ideas of generosity other than as a commercial transaction – eg buying presents.

This may suggest that capitalist societies (especially neoliberal capitalist societies) are remarkably ill placed to deal with problems that require care for others (human or non-human), or a lessening of material goods in favour of psycho-social goods. In support of this, it appears that, in general, the percentage of a family’s charitable contributions drops as income rises (104).

Finally for this section, Whitham (Generalized Generosity: How the Norm of Generalized Reciprocity Bridges Collective Forms of Social Exchange. American Sociological Review 2021, 86(3): 503–531) investigates the potential for relatively small, anonymous acts of generosity that are not directly reciprocated, or what sociologists call ‘generalized exchange‘, to build social bonds and promote contributions to the group. She concludes that “a strong norm of generalized reciprocity will activate mechanisms theorized to build strong social bonds in generalized and productive exchange systems, and will promote additional behavioral investments into the group.” Productive exchange involves pooling resources and sharing the collective benefits. The gift moves from person to group to person. For my purposes this is clearly relevant to the possible success of community energy.

Her experiments appear to show that a “strong norm of generalized reciprocity, relative to a moderate norm, has a positive effect on giving across time, but only in conditions of high risk” (520). “[P]erceived interdependence has a positive effect on trust, affective regard, and group identity” (522). That is that the more that people see themselves as interdependent, the higher the levels of trust, mutual regard and group identity. The higher the norm of generalised reciprocity, the better the social bonds. This, may again demonstrate the benefit of ecological thinking in which interdependence and interaction is taken as fundamental, and no being can be said to exist by itself.

“[G]enerosity begets further generosity, and greed begets further greed” (526). However, the more people give, the more it may be possible they need to feel they receive to feel satisfied and treated well, as opposed to feeling taken advantage of. I suspect a generalised productive exchange may diminish this side effect.

A strong norm of generalized reciprocity may effectively scale up the bonds-building benefits of productive exchange to the larger collective, such that investments made by individuals will, eventually, flow back to them, thus reinforcing the positive value of community membership and motivating further investments in the community.

ibid: 529.

Social Geography

Climate generosity involves generosity at different levels of distance. The examples of generosity I have given in my writings on climate generosity have been local. They have involved gifts by members of the community to the community. That means there is the question of whether generosity can work at a distance – say between nations, or between a community in one place and one in another.

As Barnett and Land suggest:

The starting assumption of discussions about ‘caring at a distance’ is that the sorts of virtues that people display towards loved ones, friends, neighbours, or compatriots become that much more difficult to sustain over large distances. There is, furthermore, a tendency in these discussions to run ‘distance’ together with ‘difference’ so that the problem of caring at a distance is rendered equivalent to the problem of relating to ‘Others’

Barnett & Land Geographies of generosity: Beyond the ‘moral turn. Geoforum 38 (2007) 1065–1075: 1066

This derives from an assumed common sense that you build up generosity and care in local relationships first, and any caring at a distance derives from these cares. This is pretty much David Hume’s philosophical position on ethics, and it suggests that if a person or group does not have a generous, caring locale, then they are unlikely to extend it care elsewhere – again implying the problem with neoliberalism.

Barnett & Land refer to some earlier work and suggest that care is built on four ethical capacities.

  1. the capacity to be attentive to the needs of others;
  2. the capacity of taking responsibility for meeting needs for care;
  3. the capacity to actually provide care competently;
  4. the capacity to be responsive to the ongoing needs of receivers of care.

This makes the point that Generosity is not random – we can only be generous by giving what people themselves want or need, and that requires attention, responsibility and responsiveness to feedback. It also, I would think, implies being part of a network of care exchange or productive exchange. You may not expect care at this moment, or indeed at any moment, but you are contributing to a habit of care for all within the network, including yourself and kin, should it be needed. Altruism and self-concern are not necessarily opposed [They refer to Mansbridge “On the relation of altruism and self-interest“. In: Mansbridge, J. (Ed.), Beyond Self-interest. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 133–143.] As a result, Barnett & Land suggest that base-line assumptions of “egoism and self-interest” might not be the best, or only, “starting-point from which to approach questions of practical, normative action” and that generosity is is a modality of power through which “the living together of people” is routinely sustained over time and space. Generosity could be thought of as a form of power, but as power implies ‘power over’, it is better thought of as an act of sustaining, forging and re-forging ties.

That is that caring for others, including strangers, is a normal part of life. This would appear to be relatively normal in cities, and in those customs of hospitality whereby strangers are protected and accepted for a time. These are perhaps not universal, but are common throughout the world.

Furthermore a gift, or generosity, usually has some relationship to what is valued by the recipient, or the act can misfire. Any gift can be refused. Gifting, generosity, is a potential hazard. As Mauss remarks “the veritable persona is at stake” (1954: 38). So there is interplay between altruism and self focus. If the receiver’s self focus or self enjoyment is not increased, the act of generosity fails – even though politeness may dictate that an apparently happy response is given, or needs to be given.

rather than supposing that altruism and egoism are opposed versions of selfhood, we might think instead of the co-existence of two different perspectives that go together to make up ethical subjectivity

Barnett & Land Geographies of generosity: Beyond the ‘moral turn’ Geoforum 38 (2007) 1065–1075:

generosity is necessarily a finite, partial virtue, because it is a mundane, ordinary, and everyday practice always undertaken in the company of others.

Barnett & Land Geographies of generosity: Beyond the ‘moral turn’ Geoforum 38 (2007) 1065–1075:


Derrida famously suggests that ‘the gift’ interrupts economic circulation as “it must not circulate, it must not be exchanged” (Given Time 1: p.7). However, the original anthropological data on the Kula gift exchange shows precisely that gifts can travel in a circle. I was once told that in Japan in the 1960s everyone had to exchange gifts, but the gifts were rarely opened and indeed circled on to the next person. There was nothing to prevent a person from receiving a gift they had once given. Derrida continues:

for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I gave him or her, there will not have been a gift….. the gift… is annulled each time there is restitution or countergift

Given Time 1: p12

Derrida implies the perfect gift cannot exist, as it would be a gift which was not noticed as a gift, that carried no obligation: “at the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift: either to the donee or to the donor” (ibid: 14). “For there to be gift, it is necessary that the gift not even appear, that it not be perceived or received as gift” (ibid: 16). If there is a return there is no gift (ibid: 18). So retrospectivity destroys the perfect Derridean gift.

This seems to be setting up an idea of perfection which, in practice, few people may have. There is no reason to assume something cannot ever exist because it can be annulled. Perhaps the possibility of a gift being annulled, or rejected, makes it a gift, and this points, as emphasised previously, to the fraughtness of giving? The gift has to occur within some sequence of events and that includes events occurring after the giving, which are not determined by that giving alone. Derrida continues, by arguing that if the gift is conceptually annulled as soon as it appears then “there is no longer any ‘logic of the gift’, and one may safely say that a consistent discourse on the gift becomes impossible: it misses its object and always speaks, finally, of something else” (Given Time 1: p24).

This is defining something so that it cannot exist and then wondering why people talk about it.

Derrida illustrates his point by arguing that Marcel Mauss:

speaks of everything but the gift: [the book] deals with economy, exchange, contract, it speaks of raising the stakes, sacrifice, gift and countergift – in short of everything that in the thing itself impelled the gift and the annulment of the gift.

ibid: 24

To a large extent this realisation of fragility or impossibility is present in most anthropology. People give imperfect gifts, gifts inherently spill over into, and are affected by other parts of the relationship, other parts of society and custom, and into ‘economic’ transactions. This is not really surprising. It results from social complexity, and is not a failing that denotes unreality. Categories confining complex events are inherently lacking, just as categories such as ‘economics’, or ‘society’, are lacking and incoherent; that does not mean there is nothing to perceive. Categorical purity is perhaps impossible, but that does not mean that things cannot be.

if the gift is another name of the impossible, we still think it, we name it, we desire it. We intend it. And this even if or because or to the extent that we never encounter it, we never know it, we never verify it, we never experience it

What we can take from this is that linguistic categories are approximations; they link things which different – they may slide over difference. They may lead us to false places. Again this is not unexpected. Most human processes have the capacity to disrupt themselves. Generosity, can undermine itself, without attention and without care or if it simply acts as a prestation. Is it, for example, generous to give machetes to people who have never had steel weaponry, even if they want them, and even if you don’t expect a return?

But this is also cultural. There appear to be cultures who are aware of the ‘ungiven’ gift of life, of the gift of food, of the gift of trees and forest. Likewise, the concept of the unequitable and undeserved gift is central to the theology of St. Paul, where salvation is given unearned through generous grace, and in the Calvinist version grace is given unpredictably without regard to human effort or desire. Perhaps Derrida’s idea of gifting beyond response has a theological origin? After all, what can a self-sufficient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient God get back from us?

Where Derrida is useful is in his claim that what we call gifts do not have to form a coherent category to be differentiated from debt, credit, monetary transaction, (although money can be a gift), or ‘economic rationality’. That somehow the impossible gift (of existence with others) may be the origin of values – something that points beyond what appears to be happening.

However, the ideal of generosity, whatever its imperfections, is to give something of value to those being gifted, without claim on a return, perhaps not even the return of recognition, as when one gifts anonymously. Consequently for all practical purposes, generosity can flow.


In most conventional forms of capitalist economics, people work for profit for themselves, or those close to them at best. Nature is officially separated from real humans, but endlessly generous. Therefore if nature is harmed in the making of profit, there is no relevant harm. This indicates another form of exchange which we might call ‘extractive removal‘. If you take from others forcibly, then you may ‘owe’ them nothing, there is no expectation of reciprocity, there is little building of relationship. The other is just a source, a slave, a conquered object, a resource. Even people, workers, marks, etc may be treated in the same way. The extractor perceives themselves, or their group, as far more important and worthy than those who are being extracted from. There is nothing to constrain extractivism, other than the irreversible decline to non-existence, of those from whom goods can be extracted.

This is an anti-generous approach, and suggests that generosity could be subversive of this kind of capitalism in a very human way.

If there is a threshold beyond which climate change threatens to destroy ecosystems beyond recovery, then generosity stipulates that we do not cross these thresholds. This specific implication of generosity is much more demanding compared to existing concepts of sustainability, which only require that we compensate future generations by sufficient man-made capital for the loss of environmental capital to make them not worse off compared to us.

Reyer Gerlagh Generous Sustainability. Ecological Economics 136 (2017) 94–100: 100


While generosity usually seems to be recognised as good, there is no claim that uncaring, or unaware, generosity is always good. Like all human acts in complex systems, generosity can have unintended and deleterious consequences. These have to be watched for, if we wish to be ethical. It is not enough just to give, one has to give appropriately and well.


Looking back to the outline, I would say that the original Climate Generosity suggestion is supported by research. However, acting generously is still not going to be simple.

Generosity is complicated, but it may open doors….