With little idea of what I was to expect, or how I was to go about it, seven years ago I began living without money. Originally intended as a one-year experiment in ecological living, I wanted to explore how it felt as a human being to live without the trappings and security that money had long-since afforded me. While terrifying and tough to begin with, by the end of the first year I somehow found myself more content, healthier and at peace than I had ever been. And although three years later I made a difficult decision to re-enter the monetary world – to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives – I took from it many lessons that have changed my life forever.
For the first time I experienced how connected and interdependent I was on the people and natural world around me, something I had previously only intellectualised. It is not until you become physically aware of how your own health is entirely reliant on the health of the great web of life, that ideas such as deep ecology absorb themselves into your arteries, sinews and bones.
If the air that filled my lungs became polluted, if the nutrients in the soil that produced my food became depleted, or if the spring water which made up 60% of my body became poisoned, my own health would suffer accordingly. This seems like common sense, but you wouldn’t think so by observing the way we treat the natural world today. Over time, even the boundaries of what I considered to be “I” became less and less clear.
What I took from this was that if we want to secure the long-term health of ourselves and future generations of life, we need to start defending these ecological systems with the same fierceness and determination as we would an attack on our own body, an idea I explore in my new book, Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi. While we may be able to detach ourselves from the spiralling instances of ecocide that we are now used to hearing about on a regular basis – after all, it tends to be distant and sometimes abstract things that are under threat, and nothing so concrete as our own bodily sovereignty – these attacks are, in the long run, no less serious.
More than anything else, I discovered that my security no longer lay in my bank account, but in the strength of my relationships with the people, plants and animals around me. My character replaced sterling as my currency. If I acted selfishly or without care for those around me, then in the medium-term my ability to meet my own economic needs would diminish. My moneyless economy was one in which helpfulness, generosity and solidarity were rewarded. Contrast that to the worlds of high finance and big business, in which a healthy dose of psychopathy will often help in making it to the top, and selfishness and ruthlessness are the qualities du jour. When we have plenty of money, we can spend our days exploiting the world around us for our own profit, and the checkout guy will still sell us our weekly groceries, the airline still fly us to the Costa del Sol. Without money, act badly enough for long enough and life would become almost impossible.
On a personal level, I realised I was capable of more than I ever imagined. I say this not out of pride, but on the basis that if I – a man who had been much more comfortable with a spreadsheet than a spade – could live from my locality, then almost anybody could. I quickly learned how to farm and to forage, and how to make things from what I found naturally around me. In essence, I discovered how to take care of myself and others in ways that didn’t inflict systemic violence on people and creatures whom I had no idea I was having such a brutal impact on through my shopping habits.
My greatest lesson, however, was that in all of the time I was out there doing my little thing, species after majestic species were being made extinct faster than ever; forests, oceans and rivers were being depleted at untenable rates; and social injustice was rising exponentially, putting more and more money into the hands of those least likely to use it for the common good. This I could no longer ignore. While trying to “be the change you want to see in the world” is something we might all be wise to try, we cannot sit back and watch industrial civilisation drive the great web of life – ourselves included – over the cliff edge. Democracy is meant to hold power to account, but in a world of spin doctors, time poverty and politico-economic illiteracy, democracies are failing to do so. When this happens, activism has to step in.