Reproduced from an article in the The Sun-Herald, Sunday, August 29, 2010
A young Irish environmentalist found himself facing a storm of criticism after putting his money where his mouth is and swearing off cash, writes Nick Galvin
When Mark Boyle announced to the world he was going to live without money for a year, he was floored by the level of interest in his quirky project.
Immediately, he was flooded with interview requests from journalists wanting to tell their readers, listeners and viewers about the young Irish environmentalist and his bizarre scheme.
But if the media storm took him by surprise, he was even less prepared for the aggression and abuse that followed online and elsewhere once the story went public.
Sure, there have been plenty of supporters but there has been a large number of detractors lining up to accuse him of being self-indulgent, hypocritical, self-righteous, deluded and worse.
“I wasn’t expecting the project to be received with open arms but I have been a bit surprised by the extremity of the reaction,” he says.
He admits he might have been naïve on this point but has had plenty of time to consider why one bloke swearing off cash and living in a caravan in the woods outside Bristol in south-west England should inspire such powerful emotions.
“I feel like money is an addiction, just like booze and drugs,” he says.
“If a friend tells an alcoholic that booze is going to kill him and he needs to pack it in, it doesn’t go down well with the alcoholic and the friend becomes the target of the abuse.
I feel in a similar way that we are very addicted to a fossil fuel economy and a money-oriented society.”
Boyle made his decision to go cold turkey on cash 19 months ago. Initially it was to be a 12-month experiment but by the end of the year, he couldn’t bear the thought of rejoining the money world, so he decided to keep going.
Even before jettisoning his wallet, he was living an environmentally aware lifestyle, managing organic food companies in Britain. But he became disillusioned with the growing commercialism of the sector and more convinced than ever that money was at the heart of most of our problems. Toss in Gandhi’s famous aphorism that we should try to be the change we want to see in the world, and Boyle felt only by going totally off the financial grid could he be true to his ideals.
His experiences are documented in his book, The Moneyless Man (proceeds from which go towards setting up a “freeconomy” community), and in a blog for The Guardian newspaper.
“Money no longer works for us,” writes Boyle. “We work for it. As a society we worship and venerate a commodity that has no intrinsic value, to the expense of all else. What’s more, our entire notion of money is built on a system which promotes inequality, environmental destruction and disrespect for humanity.”
At the start, Boyle laid down rules for himself. He would live as “normally” as possible while not receiving or spending a cent and he would also ensure no new fossil fuels were used in his name. Then there was the “law of pay-it-forward”.
“When somebody does something for you just for the love of it, with no expectation of anything in return, it is very powerful, especially in the 21st century when we are taught to look after ourselves before everything else,” he writes. “…if you spend your time putting more love into the world, then it is reasonable to believe you are going to benefit from a world with more love in it.”
The “law” seemed to be operating well for him from the outset when he was unexpectedly given an old caravan to live in and a place to put it (on a farm, in exchange for some work). He has a bike for transport and food is foraged from the countryside around him, grown or bartered for. A small part of his diet comes from produce discarded in supermarket and restaurant skips.
Boyle is explaining these details when, halfway through our phone interview, his voice suddenly falls to a whisper.
“Oh, hang on. I’ve just seen a little shrew here,” he says.
Then there’s a silence during which I can only imagine him admiring his unexpected visitor, while sitting in the sun outside his caravan. “Gorgeous little thing.” He breathes finally. “He’s a complete baby – he hasn’t hardened to the world. He’s still quite innocent and thinks I’m not going to hurt him – which I’m not.”
This little monologue is delivered quite unselfconsciously in a lilting Donegal accent. Taking time out to appreciate even the smallest part of nature is just one of the lessons Boyle has learnt in his 19 months.
“I’m much more in the flow than I was when I started. I really don’t worry about anything any ore. I just wake up in the morning and do what I have to do and whatever happens happens.”
Everything takes much longer in a world without money. Simple tasks such as washing clothes go from being a 10-minute job (put clothes in machine; turn it on; hang clothes to dry) to something that can easily swallow most of a morning (find wood; make fire; boil soapnuts to make detergent; scrub and rinse clothes for an hour; wring clothes and hang out).
Patience is not so much a virtue as a necessity for Boyle.
He has also used his time to refine his thinking about the corrosive effects of commerce. Prime among these is the way money breaks down communities.
“Money replaces community as the primary source of security,” says Boyle. “When you don’t have cash, your security comes from the relationship you have with people and with the Earth. But when you have cash, you know you can just head off to the supermarket to pick up what you need. You don’t have to build relationships with the people around you or the local environment – you become quite isolated and hence you have social problems.”
He is often asked what he misses from his former life (that and how he washes are the most popular questions he gets). Surprisingly little, is the answer, although he says he still struggles with being unable to buy a round of beers.
“In Ireland you almost fight to the bar to be the first person to buy a round,” he says. “Not being able to buy myself or my friend a drink in a bar brought up a lot of male ego stuff. I really miss that, definitely.”
But apart from that relatively minor inconvenience, he is hard pushed to name much that he misses.
“I’ve gained so much more in the last 19 months than I have lost.”
With the proceeds from his book, Boyle plans to buy a block of land and establish a free community of like-minded people to show how moneylessness can work on a slightly larger scale. He has already run into some criticism for this plan, involving as it does purchasing land with cash but he likens it to a slave buying his or her freedom so their children can be free.
And, in the end, if you don’t like what he’s doing, it’s not like he’s doing any harm, even if he does seem to make a lot of people uncomfortable with his implicit criticism of their way of living.
“It’s not like the masses are going to be moving towards moneylessness tomorrow,” he says. “I think people misunderstand why I’m doing what I am doing. I know I’m not going to change the world but I think everything in the world starts with a thought. What I’m trying to do is to put new thoughts into the world. I don’t really dwell on whether it is having an impact or not having an impact, I just know what I need to do each morning when I wake up.”
The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle is published by Oneworld, $25.95. See www.justfortheloveofit.org