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Whatcom Watch Online
Peter Holcomb and a Gifting Economy

December 2014

Unsung Heroes

Peter Holcomb and a Gifting Economy

by Kathryn Fentress

Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.

Peter Holcomb has lived in Whatcom County for the past 17 years. He was a teacher previously in a rural high school in Wyoming. He taught English, history, drama and his favorite, economics, to kids in grades 7 through 12. Even before he became a teacher, he was interested in economics. In 1974 he wrote a paper on Rational Economics which addressed the topic of Accounting Human Values and was invited to present it at the first International Congress of Technology Assessment at The Hague. He is currently living the values of his philosophy with his wife Lorraine on five acres on the east end of Hemmi Road in Whatcom County. They have two adult children in Seattle. Peter is 73 and physically quite fit. He has given a lot of thought to sustainable living and is an avid reader when not working on projects around the place.

Kathryn Fentress: Did you have any gardening experience before moving here?

Peter Holcomb: No. it’s a new thing, and since I like to find better ways, I often experiment. Next year, gardening will be way different from this year because I read a book called “How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet: The Soil Will Save Us” by Kristin Ohlson. During the last interglacial period, the ice scoured the land of top soil. About 12,000 years ago plants, bacteria and fungi began creating a new layer. That soil built up and then humans developed agriculture about 4,500 years ago. According to Ohlson, plowing released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and global warming first started. Ohlson believes that if we stop tilling the soil, we can take back some of the carbon. It won’t work for the carbon released through fossil fuels, but we can take back a lot of the carbon that has been released through plowing. We can do this by not plowing, tilling, or even spading. She makes such a good case that I am not going to till anymore. When the weeds start over shadowing the plants, I will cut the tops off but leave the roots in place. The tops of the weeds then become mulch. The worms and bacteria in the soil break it down further and make it into more soil. Then I’ll make a small hole in the middle of the weeds to plant the seed. The book says that you don’t get any good results until three years. I need to see if it really works.

So you grow most of your food?

We probably grow 60 percent to 70 percent of our calories, and we grow more every year. We also raise ducks, chickens and goats. And we give away a lot.

Do you barter?

No I don’t do bartering. Gifting is the way I do it. When people want to barter, I tell them I will give you whatever it is. Bartering is commercial, and I think commerciality has led our society astray. Say a person came from another planet to Earth and spent time here and then went back home. His people would have questions. They might ask if earthlings have a religion. The visitor would report that they do have a religion. Earthlings think they may have a god or gods, but the real and universal religion is the religion of magic paper. He would explain that the people don’t provide for themselves. They have a magic paper system of import and export. They export goods and materials, agricultural commodities, coal and oil. They get magic paper from the exports, and they use it to buy stuff from the other countries or other regions of the country. They can’t negotiate without the intervention of magic paper.

What we should be doing is living in a community where we provide for own subsistence and help the rest of the community to provide for their subsistence and leave the magic paper out of it completely. In our current system, the banks and big corporations have control of the economy and the government. To have some control we need to start very locally. For us, the next door neighbors and the ones two doors down are part of our community. We do a lot of giving, and it’s amazing. The giving is not just stuff but labor and not just labor but know how. Every time I work with my neighbors, we are all learning from each other. We are able to provide for more of our subsistence by joining together. My two principles of economics are subsistence and neighborliness.

Things have worsened since then. Something is drastically wrong when the rich are obscenely rich and the poor are really suffering. I think the rich have gone too far, but the more important issue is the completely false accounting system. There is more wealth totally, but our soil is degraded, our forests are degraded or destroyed, the Gulf of Mexico has dead zones in it and our oceans are dying.

People treat the atmosphere as if it is an infinite sewer and the ocean and rivers as infinite sewers. Our current accounting system does not provide payment for the services of sewers. So far, it is still free sewer for anyone. Another obvious thing in the accounting system is that war is a profitable enterprise. How can war be profitable? Incredible, but it is.

What do you do with your frustration about the economy and the degradation of resources? I write long diatribes at times to get the thoughts and feelings out on paper. I read them to Lorraine, but I don’t send them anywhere. And then I go out and work hard. I take the energy stirred up in me and get things done. Sometimes I buck logs for the wood shed.

What would you recommend to others?

One, do whatever you can to sustain yourself; and two, have a backup system for water and sewage. I don’t think people realize how fragile our electric grid system is. It could collapse from entropy, fires, floods, earthquakes, overloading, from a solar flare, lack of repair or upgrading to accommodate new customers. If a collapse lasted even weeks, there would be a pandemic from lack of toilets and clean water to drink. We live as sustainably as we can because it is the best thing for the environment and for the economy, and because it will help us survive if the system collapses in the future.

All that said, you know, I don’t feel like I am a hero.

Kathryn: A hero is a person who provides a model of moral courage for the benefit of humanity. You are a hero in that you are living an example of an alternative economy. You have built a community that helps all of you to take care of the land and each other. I have been inspired by being here and hearing your ideas. All of what has inspired me will ripple even further by being in the paper. Thank you for making the world a better place.

Know of any Unsung Heroes you would like to see interviewed? Please email me at

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