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Is Voluntarily Giving Up Money the Best Way to Help the World?

Is Voluntarily Giving Up Money the Best Way to Help the World?

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock/iStock

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117 comments

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3:31AM PST on Nov 19, 2013

turn on the tv radio web etc and it GIVE GIVE GIVE but nothing get done .did you know all charities don't need to give all the make .
I say get your own county out of poverty first before helping other country .as it piss me off like Pakistan for instance can spend billion of there cash on unnecessary space rockets when they can spend it on their own people . then we get a give give give donation to their people .(it don't make sense )

7:54AM PST on Nov 17, 2013

Society need money to have the basics of life-food,shelter. clothes,education and medical needs. Progress need money to forge ahead . The worst thing that happend to society is consumerism and materialism. There is too much want,want and want. So many have to have high-end everything in their lives, and lots of it. It is no longer about looking good, any less than a high-end product is never good enough, whether they can afford it or not. Extreme consumerism.
Technology is advancing at a maddening pace- thus encouraging a throw-away society. Truly, the gap between the rich and poor is ever widening. Add politics and profit driven entrepreneurs, consumerism is truly encouraged. There is a lot of good filthy rich people do- they call it philantrophy.

It is not about the money- society need to re-assess human and family values which are fast disappearing to the disadvantage of the children of today who are growing up with materialistic attitude/values. Humility is fast disappearing.

1:53AM PST on Nov 16, 2013

In the early day's of civilization under the bantering system people grew veg and harvested their own crops and husband their animals in order to feed themselves.The surplus which was almost nothing brought wars between tribes of those who did not have the skills and raided their neighbors land stealing the food for them selves.It also produced slavery for those who lacked the skills required enslaved their neighbors who did.It is a fact of modern life that now one can exist without having resource to some monitory income to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

2:59PM PST on Nov 15, 2013

I love how people say its hard to give up money. The crap is fake and only has value because you only have a little and you need more in order to get a new i-phone.
Hold that paper as tight as you can. When it disappears act suprised.

4:07PM PST on Nov 13, 2013

Of the world's 7 billion people, nearly 2 billion reportedly live in extreme poverty, with some 920 million people living on the brink of starvation. It is these people who can tell you what its truly like to live without money because they seldom if ever have any. Barter trade is what keeps many of these impoverished populations alive assuming they can find something of value to trade.

10:51AM PST on Nov 12, 2013

Mara P.,
There are several complex reasons why modern civilizations can't do that. For one, our civilization today is a single global capital-based economy, based on the U.S. dollar, which is exchangeable for other currencies. There's no easy way out of this entanglement. Two, the economy is dominated by huge global corporations which are capitalized by shares sold on the world stock exchanges for dollars. Three, whereas pre-Industrial local economies could be largely barter based, that's not feasible in our way of life. What am I to do, bring a sofa and two old TVs to the dentist's office in exchange for a cleaning and X-rays?

9:17AM PST on Nov 12, 2013

I think this guy did not have his act together. What did he do with the money he earned from his book.

By the way, Mayans did have money, just different from Europeans.

4:58AM PST on Nov 12, 2013

the Mayan civilization functioned without money. why can't the modern civilizations do that?

10:28AM PST on Nov 11, 2013

"For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows." -- 1 Timothy 6:10

I believe this. And yet, I don't hear anybody proposing how to live in a Techno-Industrial global civilization without money, or at least some kind of digital credit system -- which I think would be even worse.

5:35AM PST on Nov 6, 2013

Humans have spent so long in societies orientated around money to go back to a time without it. Money was created for a reason and I think we simply need to chose to overcome problems it creates (nothing's perfect).

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