Living Without Money: Self-Sustainability in Britain

9 Nov

One of the fundamental criticisms of my generation is that we don’t understand the value of money, and I suppose that’s probably a fair statement. All around me I see my contemporaries leaping gleefully onto each and every techno-gadget bandwagon that trundles by our metaphorical front doors; regardless of price, they must own the latest iWhatever, the high-end computer, the chic fashion.

icrap mac

But it’s not really their fault.

As children, my generation was spoiled by their baby-boomer parents who, with every swipe of their credit card, assuaged their guilt over their divorce or their dedication to their careers (which translated into a whole nation of “latch-key kids”) or whatever other contributing factors for which the Dr. Phils of the world told them they should be remorseful. Somewhere along the line, money – and by extension, the reckless purchase of The Next Big Thing – became a suitable substitute for good parenting, time well spent and quality products.


Not all of us were raised that way, of course. My family had very little money when I was growing up, so my parents taught me early on the difference between a necessity and a luxury. Learning to budget and prioritize served me well later in life when I was once again in the grip of poverty – being a student with no government subsidization isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, believe me. I was lucky in that my tuition was covered by my grandparents, but the rest of my necessities were up to me – while my classmates were living it up on residence with full meal plans and no need for a job, I was working full-time to support myself while attending classes concurrently.


Before I fall too far into the “whose life is more miserable” pissing contest, the reason I bring this up is because my life experiences taught me in no uncertain terms the value of money: others were not lucky enough to have those experiences, and are therefore caught in the web of mindless consumerism.

I don’t think this is an issue strictly reserved for the children of the early 80s. I’m not going to pontificate on the extent to which the desire for “stuff” has permeated our culture, because it’s been done by far more intelligent writers than me. But I do have a nifty little story I discovered today, ironically in the Toronto Metro on my way to the Compound, that speaks to this issue.

Ever wonder what life would be like without money? I don’t mean being poor – I mean living without relying on exchange of currency as the primary means of survival. For a lot of people this concept conjures up images of a “primitive” lifestyle – stone knives and bearskins and the like. People are afraid of this concept, for some reason – I guess it’s because our technology has become so inextricably linked to our lifestyle that people can’t fathom life without a cell phone, an iPod and Facebook.

cell phone user

Philosopher Daniel Quinn postulates that living without money – or more to the point, living outside the established grid that requires us to work forty hours a day just to qualify for the privilege of being sheltered and fed – doesn’t necessarily equate to reverting to some kind of ancient lifestyle, and it appears people are finally starting to latch onto that concept.

There have been movements away from consumerism in the left wing for years, the most obvious of these being the British-born “Buy Nothing Day”, a yearly event held on November 28th in which participants…well, buy nothing. The project is designed to promote the very tenets of necessity versus luxury I talked about before, and it has a devout following the world over. Perhaps the most devout of these is Briton Mark Boyle, the founder of the Freeconomy Community. Last year’s Buy Nothing Day marked the beginning of a renaissance in thinking and living for Boyle, who decided to extend his personal Buy Nothing Day into an entire year.

mark boyle

Since last November, Boyle has been living in a caravan, volunteering on an organic farm and maintaining the Freeconomy blog from his solar-powered laptop. This is one interesting cat, my friends – he has a degree in economics, believe it or not, and he’s used that knowledge to work towards making a sustainable, money-free community a reality.

no money

In fact, he’s recently gone through a serious test of faith – the book he is writing about his experiences in sustainable living has been optioned by several publishers, all of whom want to offer him greenbacks (or silverbacks in his native Britain) for the rights to publish the story. You can read Mark’s account of his dilemma here, but the thrust of his decision revolves around using money one last time to see his dream become a reality.

What’s his dream? A self-sustaining community open to any and all comers in which money will not be the lynchpin around which human interaction revolves. The idea isn’t all that dissimilar to the communes of the 60s where individuals contributed unique skills to the betterment of the community-at-large: the community grows or forages for their own food, cooks their own meals, makes their own clothes, and generally reconnects with the fundamentals of the basic necessities of life by eliminating the corporate middle-man and going directly to the earth for their needs.


Some of my readers, I know, will balk at this idea: Julian at Comedy Landfill already weighed in with his opinion that Boyle sounds like “some kind of God damned Socialist”, and I suppose that opinion holds some water. Clearly, on a grand scale a system like this is doomed to failure: read your history books and take a look at how quickly the Marx/Engels Communist philosophy has fallen apart the world over. But could it work on a smaller scale? Boyle thinks so, and frankly I tend to agree with him.

If I can be permitted to reference a far better writer once again, Daniel Quinn has always put forth the notion that there is no one right way for people to live. Certainly there are people out there (and I count myself among them) who are much more comfortable living in an urban environment where our necessities are accounted for, provided that we work to earn money. Nothing wrong with that. But there are also people who are much more suited to living “off the grid” as it were – and contrary to popular belief, this does not require the use of stone knives, nor does it require attire composed of bearskins. My friend Melissa over at Living Lime has been working toward that very goal for years now, and I’ve never seen her wear anything made out of animal flesh, nor have I seen her use anything other than stainless steel to cut up her lentils (that she grows herself, I might add).

knivesMy point is, if there’s no one right way to live, I think Boyle might be on to something. The longer I write this article, the more people around the Compound are chiming in about this issue – most of them seem to have a problem with the inherent “hippiness” of the concept, to say nothing of their innate fear of losing out on indoor plumbing and – more importantly – electricity. But I think Boyle is illustrating how you can have the best of both worlds: like I said before, he’s running his laptop on solar power, and realistically, the technology exists to develop a self-contained plumbing system that works to purify water for reclamation. What I’m trying to say is that it’s entirely possible to combine the best elements of technology and non-invasive living in order to create an environmentally low-impact lifestyle.


Think about it this way: imagine a series of small communities spread out across a country the size of Canada. Each community is completely self-contained; each member of that community contributes equally to the tending of high-tech, environmentally-friendly hydroponic gardens that provide for the food necessities of the group; a combination of green-energy alternatives supplemented – supplemented – by a constant energy source like a miniature nuclear generator (assuming we do our research, such technology could very well be feasible), providing what little electricity would be needed (lights come to mind); and the best part: nobody has to work.

Now, I’m well aware that upkeep of food necessities and the like would require work. I’m not suggesting that everybody would just lounge around doing nothing all day. I’ll admit I used to be opposed to the idea of having to work hard to make food; why would I do that when I could just go to a typical job and be handed money to go buy cheap, mass-produced, convenient pseudo-food that isn’t particularly nutritious to begin with?

mcdonalds fat kid

Well, I think I just answered my own question. Why would you choose to eat Kraft Dinner if you could be eating pasta you made yourself from grains you grew?

Let me illustrate it this way. After the New Quarterly launch, I stayed a few days with Melissa and her boyfriend, where they cultivate a lot of their own food, both at their home and at a local community garden project. I spent an afternoon helping them harvest and tear down their part of the community garden for the winter, and while I was initially reticent about doing so (the weather was really bad that day) I came away from a few hours’ worth of gathering soybeans and carrots with a profound sense of accomplishment. Some of what we harvested went into the fantastic curry stew Melissa made for dinner that night, and the sense that you’re eating something you helped produce – even in as small a way as I did – actually made the food taste better (to say nothing of the fact that it was far better for me than anything I could have bought at the store).

community garden

Melissa’s boyfriend told me a story about how he used to work for a giant, faceless corporation as a career. He spent his days under neon lights in a sterile environment, doing a job that essentially involved paper pushing – there was absolutely no connection between what he was doing “for a living” and what he needed to survive. That disconnect forced him into a deep depression, the cure for which only became apparent to him when he and Melissa started working towards self-sustainability. The way he described it to me was this: he felt an intrinsic connection between the work he was doing (i.e. gardening and harvesting) and was the benefactor of its immediate outcome (i.e. eating the food he worked to cultivate): that, he said, was the kind of satisfaction he would never feel working in an office all day. I’ll admit the idea sounds like wishy-washy New-Wave-crystal-wearing-tree-hugging rhetoric, but after getting a taste of what he was talking about, I have to say I agree wholeheartedly.


So all in all I think Mark Boyle might just be a visionary. Am I going to go running off to England to join his commune anytime soon? Not likely – I’m fairly certain a culture based on working towards a common goal doesn’t have much use for a blog writer with acerbic wit and very little in the way of survival skills. But his story has piqued my interest, and in the interest of Doing My Part, I’m going to continue covering his efforts periodically, because if I can’t support such a cause directly (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t accept a money donation even if I had money to give – which I don’t) I’ll do my best to get the word out. In case you missed the link before, go check out Freeconomy’s website for more information.

Now how’s that for a public service?

alex james

2 Responses to “Living Without Money: Self-Sustainability in Britain”

  1. Zee November 10, 2009 at 11:58 PM #

    Nice writeup Alex. The newer generation has come to a state of materialism. I was actually shocked that my 2 nieces (11 & 12 years old), requested for an iPhone. And gues what? They got it… The last time I was that age, I was playing with my own home-made finger flicking soccer game. And parents tend to give in to these kids’ demands. And what to do, I was one of that parent too… :(

  2. Shayla November 11, 2009 at 3:17 PM #

    I too am attracted to the idea of living off the grid, but don’t think I could ever give up the city lifestyle. Still, it’s cool that there are smaller initiatives going on around the city that aim for a similar goal (for example, )

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