Living without money. On first inspection, these three words sound extreme and would seem to involve no small amount of sacrifice. I can understand why. The cultural story that is money has such a powerful hold on our minds today that we have come to believe that we could not possibly ever live without it. Living without clean air, fresh water and fertile soil bizarrely seems a more moderate challenge in comparison. Yet on closer inspection, our reaction towards even the discussion of moneyless living reveals more about the extremity of our own indoctrination, our own conditioning, than it does about the way of life itself. For to see the non-monetary economy in action, one need only go for a simple walk in the woods, cook dinner for a friend or swim in our vast oceans. Every other species on Earth lives without money. Our ancestors had no notion of money, and many peoples still resist it today, even against all the might of the military-industrial complex and the cultural missionaries spreading its Word.
And I myself, after two and a half years of living without money, no longer see it as extreme. Extreme is converting the Earth's splendour and bounty – its salmon, its magnificent ancient redwoods, its rolling hills, its generous soil, its gushing rivers, its gloriously Wild creatures – and the pageantry of life into meaningless numbers with no intrinsic worth. Extreme is not knowing our neighbours, let alone feeling comfortable enough to ask them for help. Extreme is having a spare room in your house while others sleep on the street. Extreme is spending our lives doing jobs we hate, just so that we can repay the bank money that it created out of thin air in the first instance. Extreme is taking what was freely given to us and then charging another part of Nature for it, only sharing that which was gifted to us if we receive something in return. Extreme is walking towards the precipice as we smugly recycle our tetrapaks. Extreme is letting it all unfold before our eyes, as if somehow we were not powerful enough to stop it.
Yet such views go against everything we are taught from the moment we enter school and begin training to meet the needs of the economy. We learn that financial considerations must usurp respect, compassion and the health of our land. And anyway, why would anyone consider co-creating their own local economy when this big one we already have is so convenient?
The reasons are as varied as the ecological, social and financial crises we have created. For some, it is simply because the dominant economic model makes it almost impossible for them to make ends meet without accruing debt. Others want the sense of freedom and autonomy that comes with being completely self-reliant, avoiding dependence on what they abhor as the brutal machinery of the state and capitalism. Some tell me they strive towards it as a deep spiritual journey, living in the moment and trusting that each day will provide. A few have divulged that they are getting prepared for that apocalyptic scenario we all want to avoid. Many want to do it because they want to reduce their complicity in a monetary economy that seems hell bent on destroying all before it, turning the Earth into a hot landfill site that is a viable home for 50,000 fewer species each and every year.
My own original reasons for moving beyond money were simple: I believed – and still do four years later – that until we reconnect with what we consume, there will always be sweatshops, always be clearcuts, always be oil spills. Money disconnects us, and protects us from being fully exposed to the atrocities that we fund, things that if we witnessed we would never want done in our name. Despite reading lots about the social and ecological impacts of fossil fuels over many years, it wasn't until I saw the watery eyes of Iraqi refugees in Calais in 2008 that I decided to give up using oil. I believe that until we feel the pain of the Earth and all that dwells on it at the deepest level, our behaviour will not drastically change. Why would it? I also realised that until I connected with Her, I would not understand my interdependence with Her. We believe we are somehow separate from Nature, above Her, and it is here that all our problems begin. Consciously rejecting money reconnects you and places you amongst Nature once again. You see that the air, the water and the soil are not your environment, they are you.
That was the initial impulse for rejecting it. Today there are an almost infinite number of reasons why I believe that moneyless living (which I prefer to call "the localised gift economy") is the only truly sustainable and non-exploitative economic model available to us. These range from the economic to the ecological, and from the social to the personal, but a short blog is not the place to explore all of that.
Instead, let's get down to the nitty gritty. If you did decide to give moneyless living a go, what would it mean you have to give up? In general, my experience has taught me that it involves the sacrifice of very little of value, whilst the gains have been immensely rewarding. Sure, money can give us a sense of security and independence. But anyone who has experienced hyper-inflation will testify to the illusory nature of that security, and 'financial independence' is simply replacing dependence on neighbours with dependence on more distant people who you don't have to be nice to. Someone is still growing your food and making your products – you just don't meet them. I have come to see living with money as living without full and total relationship with the Earth, without interdependency on our communities and without full awareness of the horrors that are inflicted on Nature (including humanity). Money allows you to live with oil and plastics, but without the sight of the collateral damage that is an Iraqi's tears. Living with money is living without the Wild that currently lies caged within your soul. And it has consequences – the ecological and social mess we see before us today.
Non-monetary economics is not prescriptive – take what suits your purposes and leave the rest. You may want to be moneyless simply for food, or for your shoes, aphrodisiacs or soap. You may just want to travel overland to a cave in Turkey without needing a penny, make your own drum out of a roadkill buck, or produce all your own booze. It was in recognition of this that myself and Shaun Chamberlin, Transition Town Kingston co-founder and author of The Transition Timeline, devised a mechanism called the Progression of Principles (POP) model to help us all on our individual paths. It allows you to make a transition from the economy you live within now (the global, exchange based economy) to whatever economy you would like to be in (which for me is a localised gift economy), progressing with the speed and urgency that feels appropriate to you.
The model is created by you, for you, and there is no 'right' or 'wrong'. For example, my ideal for transport is to walk barefoot, feeling the dew beneath my feet as I tread carefully amongst Nature. But in reality, I'm up to my neck in work. Therefore at the bottom of my personal POP model for transport is where I am now – a bike salvaged from the detritus of industrialised society, in the middle a pair of clogs I made from local wood or a pair of cast-off trainers, and at the top barefoot walking. Using it I can then commit to designing my life in such a way that in two / five / seven years I'll have made my way to a point where my actions reflect my beliefs, and where my spirituality is applied in the litmus test of the physical world.
Practically speaking, there are many ways you can live moneyless. The purest (least dependent on the monetary economy you are trying to replace) of these is to do it Palaeolithic style. This involves foraging, hunting with stone-age weapons, flint-knapping and making your own shelter, cordage and so on. A difficult option in The Age of the Machine, but a beautiful one to strive for. One rung down from that is Permaculture, which I feel gives the best balance between realism and idealism. Finally, there is the mode of moneyless living that is fully embedded in industrialised society. This involves squatting, eating waste food, and using gift economy websites (such as Freeconomy, Freecycle, Couch-surfing and so on) to meet your needs. None of these options are more right or wrong than the others. Your unique situation will dictate what is most appropriate for you both now and in the future. If you crave freedom and complete connection with the land, then learning to live off its fruits completely is the option for you. However, if you're an activist campaigning against the atrocities of The Machine (in which we are all easily interchangeable cogs) by using your laptop in a city, squatting and skipping will mean that you can devote all your time to that without having to get a job to pay rent or buy food. Either way, it will also reduce your complicity in the destruction you see around you by simply not investing in it.
Living without money is not extreme, and it is not a sacrifice, but it appears so if viewed through the lens of the dominant cultural stories, the ones that have led to the convergence of crises we face. We know that we need to change the way we live now, and we need to do it drastically, but doing so will look unrealistic until we challenge and change our thinking. Until we fully understand our interdependence with the whole, and reconnect with what we consume, I do not expect to see the fundamental social, political and lifestyle changes that could make our future not only sustainable, but worth living in.
Moneylessness can be a simple practical tool to help you live the life you want. And by doing so, you'll be an example that there is another way of living, one based on respect, symbiosis and unconditional love, to everyone that you encounter along your way.
Mark Boyle is author of The Moneyless Man and the founder of Freeconomy. His new book, The Moneyless Manifesto (out in November 2012, published by Green Books) explores the entire philosophy behind moneyless living, and offers a complete guide to how to do it yourself.
Photos: Mark drinking tea outside his home (Jose Lasheras), Mark's home, members of Mark's local freeconomy group learn to make their own wild beer, cider and wine (Mark Boyle), Foraging for blackberries, its free to read a book (Jose Lasheras)