The broadsheets, current affairs programmes and British Shadow Cabinet are all saying the same thing: the economy is going to hell in a Prius, and it's only getting worse. Don't sell your house, keep on shopping, and lock away your gold. Boom and bust: it's the economy, stupid. But here's where the sleight of hand takes place – those narrating the story of our time, those honourable journalists and politicians, have been conflating the word 'economics' with the word 'finance' for so long that they can only see one form of economic model: the monetary economy. If they could divert their transfixed gaze from the FTSE100 index for more than five seconds they would notice that another model of household management, the gift economy, is absolutely booming. They'd also find a model where prosperity doesn't mean destruction and alienation, where richness is something utterly immeasurable, and where the boom doesn't have an inevitable bust.
The cultural narrative that is money, manufactured by the subtle propaganda that pervades our media, has such a powerful grip on our minds that we now believe we couldn't possibly live without it. Observing the way we live today, it would appear that we consider living without clean air, fresh water and fertile soil a more moderate challenge in comparison. Yet the notion that we need an abstraction such as money to live is an absurdity. Only a people desperately disconnected from the intimate web of life could think so. A walk in the woods, or a sweeping glance around the human cultures dying on our periphery, would quickly remind us that there are infinite ways we can organise ourselves to live happy, healthy and meaningful lives – and very few of them require money.
Money To Burn?
If you think that the story of money hasn't infiltrated every recess of your mind, think again. Imagine a young woman starting a fire, with layers of apple twigs and finely split ash resting pyramidically over a thick wad of twenty pound notes. She begins setting light to the paper notes, incinerating both the cash and, slowly, the wood above it. Which would you feel a stronger, more outraged emotional reaction towards: the burning of the limbs of some unique and dignified tree that once gave us oxygen, shelter, shade, medicine, soil structure, nitrogen for the soil or food for our plates; or the cold, hard cash, a material with less inherent value than a piece of birch bark? My experience of burning money at the begin-ning of my talks informs me that, unequivocally, it will be the latter.
But why? The only true distinction between the paper notes and the logs is that one wears a symbol. You may justifiably exclaim "but that £20 you just burned could have bought medicine for an Iraqi orphan or food for a homeless person!" In this strange society we live in today, you are of course correct and I often appear to the audience to be flip-pantly depriving them of something that could save their lives. But this is exactly my point – because of one little Smithian or Darwinian symbol (and these symbols are carefully chosen to reinforce the stories of our Age), people either live luxuriously or starve; forests stand proud or are clearcut; and oceans are left abundant with life or have their bottoms trawled. For reasons that have long since become obsolete, this is the power we have granted the story of money.
This delusional worldview hasn't occurred by chance. As Charles Eisenstein notes in Sacred Economics, in order for GDP to grow, money has to convert yet another element of our social, ecological, cultural and spiritual commons into itself, taking something that we once did for ourselves and selling it back to us. Child care. Food production. Music. The result is the 'strip-mining' of our communities, our land, and our sense of relationship with the world. We find ourselves in the peculiar situation where if we charged our parents for bringing them breakfast in bed, or bought heavily processed food from a supermarket instead of growing our own, it would be more beneficial for the ravenous beast known only as The Economy. Growth is the only imperative; the fact that it would destroy our relationships with family and our sense of place seems to have become secondary in importance.
The Outmoded Story Of Money
We need to remember that money is just a story, however omnipresent it appears. Stories are crucial to the fabric of our societies, so we must skilfully and wisely choose those we tell and enact. The story of money may have been useful at one point in our evolution, but as we have moved forward from other technologies in use eighteen thousand years ago, so let us consciously choose stories that make sense for our Age and the challenges we face, instead of mindlessly and habitually carrying on old practices. We have the power to select and design whatever economic model we feel would serve us best, so why not choose one that builds resilience, which connects us to place and roots us in the moment, and which allows us to live meaningful lives full of the things that we passionately love to do, over one that results in the polar opposite?
The Free Economy
The good news is that participating in the moneyless economy has never been easier. As the monetary economy has continued its descent, the void has been filled with new philosophies and the practical solutions that embody them. If you need a sofa for your new place, use Freecycle or Freegle. If you need a hand with your plumbing or fixing the brakes on your bike, or a loan of the tools required to do it yourself, tap into the giant yellow pages of gift economists that is Freeconomy. If you want to eat for free you can utilise Landshare or go foraging in either the hedgerows and woods or the supermarket bins that have sadly come to replace them. If you need accommodation on your travels and want to meet local people instead of the cold impersonal walls of a hotel, then go couch-surfing(.org) or use warmshowers (.org), depending on the mode of transport you use to get there. My ideal in this respect is to go barefoot, not only because it slows you down and forces you to become aware of everything around you, but because the 'earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair'.✝ For others the ideal may be cycling, hitch-hiking or lift-sharing. There is no right or wrong. The key is to make such steps realistic enough in the short-term as to be achievable, yet challenging enough to be considered an appropriate response to the major ecological and social issues of our time.
The departments of the gift economy, of which the above are merely a fraction, have already members numbering in the millions. This is despite the fact that they won't be seen as a genuine alternative to monetary systems by those dazzled by shimmering coins, until the coin's gleam inevitably fades. Freeconomy, the alternative economic system I founded in 2007, has recently flourished in countries such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland, countries where the national currency has become almost as scarce as an honest politician. There are now thousands of ways you can de-monetise every aspect of your life, to whatever degree works for your unique circumstances. In doing so, not only do you drastically reduce your ecological footprint, but you'll also rediscover your sense of interdependency with the rest of your local community and the land under your feet; for if money has come to replace relationships, that's exactly what you'll rediscover.
One of the gift economy's future challenges is to transition from its dependency on the medium of the internet into more 'off-line' models, a process that has already begun. I set up Freeconomy hoping that, because of its reliance on the internet, it would become obsolete within ten years. Whilst that date for its glorious demise seems overly optimistic now, the gift economy is making its own transition to being less dependent on the web and more dependent on face-to-face human interaction, which is the ultimate goal after all. Web-based Freeconomy groups can transform into their off-line, if much smaller, equivalent, known as gift circles. Instead of using ReaditSwapit(.co.uk), we can set up a book-sharing club for our neighbourhood. Freecycle and Freegle can become Freeshops and street freecycling. The economic model we choose should bring us together, not further apart.
Both the Earth and ourselves are long overdue a break, however, for the conveyor belt of industrialised civilisation has heavily overworked us both. Therefore these web-based versions of the gift economy, some of which still rely on the apparatus and detritus of industrialised civilisation, are still vitally important, as long as we remember to see them as transitional strategies, mechanisms that allow us to realist-ically move to more human-scale methods as soon as we can. I used to believe that there was an hypocrisy in doing so, but not anymore; under my old outlook, a pigeon resting in a church steeple, eating breadcrumbs from the asphalt, would also be a hypocrite. I now feel we need to use what we have at hand in ways that create no further harm and which, ideally, heals the damage we've already done.
The Gift Economy
The non-monetary movement's other challenge – or more precisely, the challenge for those of us who are beginning to actively participate in the gift economy – is to transition away from our fixation on barter and the mindset of exchange and towards unconditional giving. As anthro-pologist David Graeber points out, barter – in its more formal, exact and immediate forms – does little more to halt the unravelling of the social fabric than money itself. To give without any consideration of what you may one day receive in return must be the aspiration of any person who feels they want to live in tune with the rest of nature. Our entire lives have been gifted to us, just as our mother's breastmilk was. The brambles you foraged from in the autumn didn't ask what you had to offer in return, nor did the stream when you cupped its goodness into your hands. The tree doesn't send us an invoice for the oxygen it supplies us with, no more than we charge it for the nitrogen we give it when we pee under it. To do so would be as ludicrous as your hand charging your face for scratching it, or your penis or clitoris charging your brain for the experience of an orgasm.
Once you understand the interconnectness and interdependency of all life, charging others for that which you naturally bring into the world is preposterous. What other reason do we need to help another human being than the fact that they need help? What other reason do we need to walk gently on the Earth other than the fact that our very lives are dependent on its health?
We look at the world today through a lens called, 'How much can I get?' But in front of you is an entire array of lenses to choose from. There is a lens gathering dust called 'How much can I give?' Beside it is one called 'How best can I share my gifts for the benefit of all life?' and another labelled 'How many people can I make smile today?' Imagine a world where our raison d'être from the moment we woke up in the morning was to make other people smile. Now that's the kind of world I want to live in.
✝ Khalil Gibran
Mark Boyle lived without money for almost three years. His new book, The Moneyless Manifesto, is out now, published by Permanent Publications under a Creative Commons licence. Naturally, a free online version of the book is also available from: www.moneylessmanifesto.org
The Moneyless Manifesto is available from www.green-shopping.co.uk