Seashells by the shore

I once visited a beach deep into Mexico along the Gulf of California.  I encountered a group of young girls as I was walking the shore collecting seashells, as I love to do.  We neither spoke each other’s language.  The girls were probably as interested in an American on their beach as they were in what I was doing in particular.  I showed them the pocket full of shells I had collected and then oddly enough they did the same.  It seems a universal habit then to pick up shells along the shore and show them off.  Humans the eternal collector and showoff!

One of the girls pointed to a particularly nice shell in my hand and I interpreted her expression of sounds/words to mean that she wanted to know if she could have it.  I sat down on the sand, spread out my shells, and invited her to do the same.  She immediately did so.  Amazing how much we communicate without words!

I saw a shell in her pile that I wanted, I drew two lines in the sand between us with a space in between.  I then reached over to her pile, picked up the shell I wanted, and placed it in the middle space.  I motioned with my hand that she could select from mine.  She grasped the idea quickly and did so, but selected a shell with which I was not willing to part.  I shook my head no, removed it from the middle, and invited her to pick again.  After she had chosen again I felt the one she selected was ‘worth’ more than the one I had chosen from her pile.  I made the sound of “hmmm” to indicate I was thinking about it and then I reached over and selected a second shell from hers and placed it in the middle.  I looked at her to see if she understood.  She shook her head yes and added a big smile, and we each took the shell(s) we had selected from the middle.  Our trading was completed.

We both seemed happy with our transaction, perhaps she was simply happy to have had interaction with an American.  Difficult to know!  But for me it was a  pleasant experience because we had done something as complicated as make trade decisions even though we did not speak each other’s language.  Later I reflected on trade deals and economics.  I realized that in our exchange we were both free to decline.  We both agreed to what we exchanged.  Neither of us had any power to force the other to trade unfairly.  We both knew what we were getting and what we were giving up.  We traded fairly.

So what does this have to do with the complex economic system we currently call our global economy?  The values of the seashells were arbitrarily chosen and what was valuable to me was different from what was valuable to her.  There wasn’t an intrinsic or objective value; we each decided what we were willing to exchange.  If it had been food or water and one of us had been hungry or thirsty the other could have held out for more because of the other’s need.  I tend to think of this as economic blackmail.  Supply and demand would also affect our trade decisions. If the beach had been covered with shells perhaps we would have seen no reason to trade for each other’s.  We all individually decide the value of the things we want and need.

Economics is a give and take, exchanging things we value; except we exchange dollars for cartons of milk, or pairs of shoes, or a package of meat.  And since we trade with dollars or some unit of currency it creates an intermediary, the ‘job’ where we acquire the dollars.  But economies are still about trading.  I trade my labor for the dollars you agree to pay me.  If you have more power than me I have less position to bargain.  The store owner trades dollars for products they then trade for more dollars.  The more intermediaries, the more complexity of the trading, the more difficult it is to see all the levels and ramifications of our trade.

Wages earners seem less able to negotiate the value of their labor making us less satisfied as employees.  We know less and less about the products we buy.  I go to a store and trade some dollars for a bottle of weed spray.  I don’t see the factory where it was made.  I don’t see how the factory affects the environment around it.  I don’t see the number of people who handled the bottle from manufacture to arrival in the store.  I don’t see the person who unpacked the container and placed the bottle on the shelf.  After using the spray in my garden I don’t see its effects on the microbes in the soil, the insects that visit the plant that was sprayed.  I don’t make the connection between the spray and a skin rash I develop later.  All of the things we don’t see or don’t make connections to are part of the reason why we’ve lost transparency in the trading system we call our economy.  And as trading has become more complex transactions are even less transparent.  Our purchases are increasingly affecting people around the world.

Trading seems to me to part of human nature, and it certainly has been important in the development or our civilization.  Rather than obsess about what we buy perhaps we should simply pay more attention.  Read labels and insist on good labeling and transparency because the more accurate the information the better informed we are as consumers.  We should do our best to find out about the product’s effect on users, producers, and the environment.  And we can start to think about how trade and economy work, how it affects the world. This is the power of the market; we are the market, we are on both sides of the market because we trade labor for money and money for goods.

We should keep in mind that across every ‘line in the sand’ is a another person.   It is much nicer when both parties have some power to trade or not, to walk away satisfied with the bargain.  And it never hurts to remember that every resource we trade comes from the earth.  We might dig it up, melt it, process it, make it into something with our hands or machines; but we still need the earth to supply the raw materials.  Ultimately, everything we trade is traded with the earth itself.

4 Replies to “Seashells by the shore”

  1. Hi Jody, I enjoyed your tale and the accompanying picture, but I think what you really traded your shell for was the girl’s big smile, and she yours!

    This week a colleague brought a bag of red chillies from his greenhouse into the office. We all took some home, and I had one in my stir-fry this evening. A simple and non-transactional thing, a humble gift of friendship.

    Another random association: a character in a book I read who loves reading and practically inhales the weekly stack of sci-fi and fantasy books she gets every week through the public library system, contrasting what she sees as the brashness of the bookstore, gaily hawking its wares for reward, with the humdrum local library, disbursing books week after week “out of the goodness of its heart”.

    I believe that we’re raised and adapted to a transactional code, now more than ever before – though it probably goes back hundreds of generations. We fetishize the “deal” and honour those who live well by the fruits of trade. There are surely good reasons for this in a world of zillions of strangers jealous not to be crushed by others who are better-off. But I wonder how deep that goes. In the substratum of our nature it seems we’re happier to give and share.

    There are still plenty of cultures around the world holding fast to traditions of hospitality of the kind that cannot and must not be recompensed. And all moral codes, the true ones going back to the dawn of time, have a horror of extracting something in exchange for life necessities, when someone is in need.

    Maybe as you say there’s virtue in our trading culture. There’s pressure to be fair when it’s a fellow human on the other side of the transaction. But when the other side is a forest, a river, an ocean…

    Maybe that’s where our problems begin?

    1. Chris,
      You may be right! I have long forgotten the shells but I still remember the smiles and laughter. I also remember how intriguing it was to come up with this way of trading. It made me think about explorers meeting new cultures and people. Trade was the main reason for most exploration. It had vast impact on both of the cultures. Explorers might have first struggled to understand each other and to build trust.
      I think our culture has lost the simple enjoyment of barter or trade. The “transaction” has become more of a gamblers addiction. My experience on the beach reminds me of the enjoyment I feel when I play games such as backgammon or cribbage. It can be enjoyable to compete for fun. I think bartering can feel that way too.

      I agree with you on the value of libraries. I still enjoy visiting ours. I enjoy having a library in my home, which has always been a dream. I’ve collected books since high school and it was always frustrating to have to leave many in boxes for lack of shelves. When I first looked at the home we now live in and saw the office, a room with many book shelves on the walls, I knew I could make a home here.

      I’ve seldom shopped in large commercial book stores but prefer the library book sale each year. I must admit, I do enjoy the ease of searching for and buying books on Amazon.

      I also have been thinking about the way we conduct business. I want to avoid the guilt complex that one can feel about buying things once we realize how much damage our consumption can cause. I have come to see that all life exchanges something with the world around it. It is simply the flow of energy from the earth’s biosphere through the food chain for most life forms, but humans have created something much more complex. I continue to study human evolution hoping to find answers that might point towards a future on our planet.

      I don’t believe we can ever fully understand the complexity of our system because we live within it and only see a fragment of it. But my goal is to be more aware of my actions and what I am exchanging with the world I inhabit. I think our impact on the world can be minimized if we simply pay attention.

      Hospitality seems to be a lost art today. But I agree, we’re happier to give and share.


  2. Sweet story about trading sea-shells – the interaction itself can be a a kind of pleasant and stimulating game. Imagine if we approached more of our economic transactions in that spirit instead of the more hostile or competitive spirit that is usually considered necessary and proper!
    I used to sell our ranch beef at the local farmer’s market and the most fun part about it was the trading that went on between the vendors at the end of the market. It had a little bit of the feel of the transaction you described on the beach. Nobody took it very seriously and the last thing you wanted was to be seen as a stingy trader.
    I was just thinking about the point you make about transparency earlier today: how if we actually had to see what kind of environmental degradation happens in order to mine for the metals – in a new smart-phone for instance – would we still be so eager to get the latest version? Would we still go along with the planned obsolescence that seems to be built into so many of the products we buy?
    That is one of the most compelling arguments for economic re-localization – if we have to live with and look straight at the waste and degradation generated by our consumerism maybe we will make the necessary connection between the two? And on the flip side, if our economy is localized enough that we can see the positive effects we can make by choosing our purchases carefully that could set up a virtuous cycle of careful consumerism?

  3. Michelle,
    Your comment made me think of the teachings of Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh on the topic of “interbeing”.
    In his book “The Heart of Understanding” he writes:
    “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ”

    I still struggle to really see and appreciate all the linkages. Some days we must hurry to eat our breakfast and get started on the day’s work. We do not always have time to think as we eat our breakfast of all the connections that made it possible for us to have this food. But once in awhile we may find a moment, perhaps on the weekend, and we pay attention to what is present in life right at this very moment. We might begin to see all these connections that flow through this thing we call ‘life’. For me, this is when I feel the most thankful and I often think this was the whole meaning of prayer before meals.

    your friend,

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