Money separates us from what we consume and hides us from the impacts of our behaviour. But there is an economic model that could not only bring us closer to each other and to the effects of how we live, it’s also booming, says Mark Boyle
Perching on my compost toilet reading the previous day’s discarded copy of the Financial Times – which was imminently destined for more humble purposes – I was almost convinced by the grim news from the City: the economy was going to humanure, and it would be 2018 before it improves.
But there was an invisible assumption underlying all the journalists’ articles. These modern-day storytellers have been confusing ‘finance’ with ‘economics’ for so long that they can now only recognise one form of economic model – the global monetary economy.
While some alternative economists argue for ‘de-growth’, a more positive approach would be to pursue the growth of another, more tried-and-trusted system, which I call the localised gift economy. If economic analysts could wrench their spellbound gaze from the London Stock Exchange, they would notice that this widely unreported gift economy was absolutely booming.
In response to the global financial crisis, people are preparing themselves for a new economy by participating in ways of providing and accessing the goods and services that we require, without the need for money. Ideas such as the freeshop and the ‘gift circle’ – regular meetings where people offer or request skills, tools, lifts, advice, stuff and time for free – are flourishing, while online communities such as Couchsurfing, Freeconomy and Freecycle now have membership in the millions, and are growing by the second.
“In response to the global financial crisis, people are preparing themselves for a new economy by participating in ways of providing and accessing the goods and services that we require, without the need for money”
In this emerging economic model, richness is a quality utterly unquantifiable, prosperity doesn’t mean the flat-packing of the Earth and the breakdown of authentic community, and the boom doesn’t have an inevitable bust. In contrast, the more it grows, the more resilient and connected communities who participate in it become.
But most of us have lived under the tyranny of the story of money our entire lives. Its introduction into human history is relatively recent, and we are the only species that seems to believe it needs symbolised paper in order to survive. Yet the global monetary economy’s relentless drive to convert our social, ecological, cultural and spiritual commons into cold, impersonal numbers has almost been so complete, that few of us can imagine a way of being human where money doesn’t mediate the relationships through which we meet our needs. Almost.
Since the financial crisis became publicly apparent in 2008, the rapid re-emergence of the gift economy has helped shed light on the simple reality that money – like strikingly similar myths such as Santa Claus – is just one story of how we can meet our needs. While stories constitute the fibres of the yarn that is society and their true purpose should be to serve us, money has long since robbed meaning and connection from our lives, and more besides.
Why? The reasons, unsurprisingly, are complex and many. Money has never merely been a unit of account, medium of exchange and store of value, as contemporary economists insist on believing, despite much evidence to the contrary from anthropologists such as David Graeber.
As the modern numerical manifestation of our notions of credit and debt, money originally performed an exceptional range of functions, usually related to tax, death, marriage, sex and war in a lot of societies. Consistent with all other technologies, however, the law of unintended consequences eventually came into play.
When immediate-and-exact exchange instruments started to develop across the world, many cultures didn’t foresee the bottom-trawling, the mass extinction of species, the wholesale deforestation, the epidemics of obesity, cancer and depression, the breakdown of community, or the homogenisation of cultures that would ensue. Yet that is what has happened, and the concept of money – a tool with the power to transform naturally occurring optimum levels of economies of scale and division of labour to fatally efficient maximum levels – has been largely responsible.
Money’s ability to vastly widen the degrees of separation between us and what we consume gives us the illusion of independence and conveniently hides us from the carnage and abuse our economic behaviour causes. It has slowly come to replace community as our primary source of security, and because we no longer need to rely on those nearest to us, our attempts to build local community can feel desperately inauthentic.
None of this means that the old misquoted adage, “money is the root of all evil,” is correct, or that greed and selfishness is at fault. In fact, Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, insightfully remarks that with a more holistic, less egocentric sense of ‘I’ – one that encompasses the entirety of life that your physical body is constantly interchanging molecules with – selfishness could be a fine thing.
“Considering how central a society’s economy is to the way any people live, it would be foolish to believe that we can create the significant changes we need without significantly changing our economic system”
The deeper root cause of the crises we face is modern humanity’s delusional sense of self. Our sense of self is integral to our behaviour and the way we decide to build our lives. It is reflected in our institutions, our social values, and our power structures. If we do not see ourselves as intimately connected to the web of life, why would we bother preserving its splendour, diversity and bounty?
Here is where money comes in: it is both chicken and egg in relation to this delusional sense of self.
Our current monetary economic model works partially on the basis that we will act in what the philosopher Ayn Rand and economist Adam Smith describe as our rational self-interest. But what if the boundaries of the self are not as clear as Smith and the rest of us first assumed?
‘Selfishness’ takes on a much different understanding under a more holistic sense of self. If a person perceives their self to be connected to the entire whole, then to act in your own self-interest would involve making decisions where looking after yourself would mean protecting the rivers, atmosphere, soil and forests that provide the hydrogen, oxygen and minerals that make up the physical elements of what you presently define as ‘I’.
Not only that, but redefining the boundaries of the self would make charging others for the gifts that you have to offer no less ludicrous than charging a tree for the nitrogen in your urine, and it subsequently invoicing you for the oxygen it supplies to your lungs.
The great news is that you don’t have to wait for forces beyond your control to change to begin participating in the localised gift economy, and it has never been easier.
Considering how central a society’s economy is to the way any people live, it would be foolish to believe that we can create the significant changes we need without significantly changing our economic system.
These are extraordinary times, both traumatic and exciting. As an adolescent species we stand on the verge of ‘adulthood’ and a new way of relating to each other and the Earth, with our initiation ceremony at hand. Whether we go off to the wild and come back as women and men, or go the way of the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon and countless other species, is yet to be seen.
So, let us connect with all that we have been gifted, using what the poet Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life” to enter into a new way of relating to the world around us.
Ways to take part in a localised gift culture:
1. Join Freeconomy (justfortheloveofit.org), an online directory of gift economists and the world’s largest skill- and tool-sharing website. Better still, use it to organise a weekly/monthly ‘gift circle’.
2. Learn new practical skills – such as using a bow drill for fire creation – by setting up a local freeskilling group (freeskilling.org.uk). Each week one member shows the others how to do a useful skill. The teacher becomes student the following week.
3. If a neighbour is letting their fruit windfalls go to waste, offer to convert them into cider. Remember to drop around a few bottles to say thank you – or organise a street party (streetparty.org.uk) and get everyone nicely lubricated.
4. You can find anything from bicycles to children’s clothing on ilovefreegle.org or freecycle.org. Take the idea offline and start street freecycling – putting stuff out for others to take – or by setting up a local freeshop. For books, launch a book-sharing club in your area. For clothes, organise a swishing event (swishing.com) and swap your pre-loved clothes for other people’s.
5. There’s no need to pay for accommodation when you’re away from home. Instead go to couchsurfing.com or warmshowers.org hosts. For extended holidays, check out stay4free.com.
6. Optimise your garden’s growing potential by using forest gardening techniques – with minimal space and effort you can have fruits, vegetables, eggs, honey and more. For other food needs, try foraging or ‘bin diving’.
7. Grow/forage your own soap and shampoo. Soapwort has more than enough saponins to make a great soap. For shampoo, add herbs: fennel for greasy hair, chamomile for light hair, sage for an itchy scalp.
Mark Boyle lived without money for two years and is the author of The Moneyless Manifesto, published by Permanent Publications under a Creative Commons licence and also available free online at www.moneylessmanifesto.org
Photo title: Money to burn? Mark Boyle speaking at University College Cork, Ireland
Photo credit: © Emmet Curtin