Mark Boyle believes that money is the root of all evil — so he gave it up.
For more than two years, from 2008 to 2011, the Irishman did not earn or spend any money. He lived in a camper he got for free, brushed his teeth with fish bones that washed up on shores and used an outdoor compost toilet he built himself.
Boyle says that giving up the monetary system would solve some of our most dire problems. As he told The Guardian in 2009,
I believe the key reason for so many problems in the world today is the fact we no longer have to see directly the repercussions of our actions. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that people are completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering involved in the production of the food and other “stuff” we buy. The tool that has enabled this disconnection is money.
If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we wouldn’t waste it so freely.
This separation between our actions and their repercussions allows environmental destruction, sweatshops, factory farming and other horrors to persist, Boyle argues.
The trouble with Boyle’s two-year moneyless experiment is that he could not have gotten through it without money. He spent about $580 on a stove to heat the camper before he got started, as well as a solar panel and a trailer for his bicycle. He used a laptop and cell phone throughout his experiment.
Even more damaging to his theory is his reliance on other people’s money-related activity throughout the two years he technically spent nothing. One example is the way he got food. He foraged for wild plants and grew some of his own, but he also bartered for “food you can’t get elsewhere without money,” he wrote in The Guardian. Odds are that the people he got that food from had themselves acquired it with money. The final source of Boyle’s sustenance was waste that small businesses would otherwise throw away. Businesses wouldn’t have food to throw away if they hadn’t first bought it, or the ingredients to make it, with money.
Boyle’s prescription of giving up money doesn’t cure the illness he has diagnosed. The Telegraph reported that he doesn’t believe many people will give up money, but just spending less is “a sensible approach.” Spending less usually means consuming less, which will reduce the future devastation we inflict on the planet. It will also enhance individuals’ bottom lines. But it won’t reduce the “degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed.” If he were merely advocating simplicity — like Dan Price, who lives on only $5,000 a year but spends his winters surfing in Hawaii — his entire project would make sense, but his aim is much more radical.
Connecting consumers with what they consume would require rolling our economic and political structures back — way back, almost into pre-civilization history. Boyle envisions communities no larger than 150 people, because at that size every resident could know how the local farmer grew lentils, how the cobbler made shoes and how the mobile service provider built networks, like the ones Boyle used to update his blog.
No, wait — that doesn’t work. A customer base of 150 is far too small to finance the development of a cellphone or internet network. Communities would have to come together, lots and lots of them over long distances, to get a job like that done. That would create disconnection between consumers and consumed, because they would not see the repercussions of their decisions, so it would defeat Boyle’s end.
It would also defeat his means. How would the communities split the costs? Bartering among that many people and shlepping bartered goods that far isn’t practical. Instead they would likely turn to a system of currency, just like our ancestors did. Boyle’s vision of a moneyfree society doesn’t work unless people embrace far simpler and locally sustainable lifestyles.
We don’t need to look to the past to find billions of people living pretty much without the benefit of any money. They’re called “the poor.” One blog, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, pointed out that, like Boyle, “they are utterly unburdened by the modern stresses of work, consumerism or advertising.” Unlike Boyle, they are “blessedly free to enjoy their grinding poverty, short life span and agonizing diseases without capitalism getting in the way.”
Boyle “actually has a pretty high standard of living” that he can maintain only because “he was once relatively rich,” and because he lived without money in a society that has lots of it, a society in which people could pay for the manufacture of campers and then give them away. The same blog wrote, “he can live the way he does because millions of productive Britons refuse to live as he does.”
To be fair, Boyle’s experiment, which he discusses in his books “The Moneyless Man” and “The Moneyless Manifesto,” wasn’t intended to romanticize poverty. It actually seems like he cops out on the problem of poverty. “Look, if I’ve got £100 in the bank and somebody in India dies because they needed some money, then, in a way, the responsibility of that person’s death is on me… And if you know that, then you’ve either got to do something about it, or you have to wake up every morning and look at yourself in the mirror.” He opted to divest himself of that £100 and do nothing to help the dying Indian.
I’m all for radical reform and closing the giant gap between consumers and the production of their products. For instance, I’d love to see eggs available for sale only at the battery-cage hells that produce them, so people can’t get away with picking up a sanitary box of eggs from an overlit refrigerator cooler and ignore the torture that went into creating the contents. But the fix that Boyle offers is too simplistic, and even he acknowledges that most people won’t agree to it. It can’t be implemented, and even if it could, it would not last.
So the hunt for workable utopias continues. What would you do to close the distance between consumers and methods of manufacture?
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