Monday, January 25, 2010

Mark Boyle; A Year Without Money

How do you live without money? My motorcycle broke down recently and I have become much more aware of the trickle of cash that keeps things running smoothly. In New York City we have metro cards. The only way you can see if your metro card is valid is by swiping it through a reader. A lot of people drop their metro cards with a few cents left on them. I pick up a stack of them and swipe them through the reader. Sometimes I find one with anything from 20 cents to a couple of dollars. The best place to look is if someone drops a card away from a bus stop. Those cards almost always have something on them. I found one with almost four dollars that way. I rode once for free and again for about 50 cents.

I have almost stopped buying soda. By getting herbal tea bags, sweetener and fruit juice, I can make two litres of a decent drink for about 50 cents.

Even though I try very hard to stay clothed, entertained and fed without spending too much, there is one man who makes me look like a rank amateur.

Mark Boyle studied economics for six years and lives in the United Kingdom. He has lived for an entire year without spending a single penny. He feeds, washes and clothes himself without spending money. He keeps himself in reading material as well. He even makes his own toothpaste from fennel seed and cuttlefish bones. (I didn't know they had bones)

He did start off his cash free year with a solar panel, which provides him with electricity. This enables him to stay off the electrical grid.By growing food and foraging for discarded food, he lives very well. Of course he rides a bicycle, which keeps him fit as well. Boyle also creates compost with his own waste, and chops his own firewood. Newspapers have served the dual purpose of toilet paper and reading material.

Boyle is very philosophical about his "off the grid" way of life. In the Guardian article, he notes as follows his observations as an economist.

"We were looking at the world's issues – environmental destruction, sweatshops, factory farms, wars over resources – and wondering which of them we should dedicate our lives to. But I realised that I was looking at the world in the same way a western medical practitioner looks at a patient, seeing symptoms and wondering how to firefight them, without any thought for their root cause. So I decided instead to become a social homeopath, a pro-activist, and to investigate the root cause of these symptoms.

One of the critical causes of those symptoms is the fact we no longer have to see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that we're completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the stuff we buy. The tool that has enabled this separation is money."

Could everyone do what Boyle does? It's hard for me to envision that. But I admire him for questioning in a concrete way his relationship to society and to the economy. I benefit a great deal from people who question prevailing norms of the "throwaway society". After wasting a lot of money on motorcycle repair shops that were making too good a living off me, I found a guy who would unbend the rim of my rear wheel instead of selling me a new one. In Brooklyn, computer repair shops are better at fixing computers. The guys who come from the West Indies grew up in a society where you fixed instead of throwing stuff out. After several years of being on line, I have picked up useful skills from my local shop that make my return visits less frequent.

A friend of mine who went to Nepal told me that in that country, there are people who make their living repairing broken dishes. Over there, when a plate drops, they fix it instead of throwing it in the garbage.

I can never get used to the idea of fashion. If a song sounds good this year, why won't it sound just as good next year? What about clothing? Isn't fashion more for the convenience of manufacturers? I prefer my books to be second hand. A good idea doesn't go stale.

Even in New York City you can find edible food growing wild. Sourgrass, with its heart shaped leaves is edible. It lives up to its name and provides vitamin C. Wild onions grow all over the place. There are fig trees growing in Brooklyn that produce fruit that tastes far better than anything in the stores. There was a guy a few years ago who used to give guided tours of the parks. He used to show people edible and medicinal plants.

I could not imagine myself going off the grid and not using money. I withdraw from money one day a week on the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday afternoon to Saturday night. I could not live without that.

Boyle is not alone in his withdrawal from money. There is a man in Utah who lives in a cave who clames to have not touched a dime in ten years. His name is Daniel Suelo and he blogs regularly about it on two different blogs.

Upon closer examination, it seems as though those who opt out of money are ultimately dependent upon those who have not. Boyle does live in a trailer. Suelo does wear clothes that have been produced by wage earners. Ultimately, people with differing philosophies and ways of life are still interdependent. It is important to be in control of money rather than being controlled by it. The real news for me will be the small changes people make in their ordinary lives that came about as a result of reading about those who are a 21st century answer to Henry David Thoreau.

I have no desire to withdraw from the money economy. Tonight, like every night my wallet and change will weigh down my pants as I hang them on the chair. But I am still grateful to people like Boyle and Suelo, who in questioning their own lives have moved me to do likewise with my own.

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