“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!” You have probably heard that phrase, or said it yourself, at some point in your life. It was heard often in the house of my youth; my parents, like most parents, were typically stressed out about money. They argued about the proper way to spend it, how much to save, and whether any given purchase was worth it or not. They taught me from a young age to pay attention to money, to value it, to keep it safe, and above all else, never to waste it.
Although my parents may not have realized it, there is something very profound in that statement about money. Its colloquial meaning, that money is scarce, is most certainly true, but its literal meaning holds the seed of a rather startling revelation: money isn’t natural. Money doesn’t grow on trees, nor anywhere else for that matter; it doesn’t exist in nature apart from the agency of meaning-making human beings. Although it might seem as natural as the air we breathe, we humans created the idea of money, and we continue to reify the concept every time we use it, depend upon it, worry about it, talk about it, or even think about it.
Money is an invention, or we might say, a technology. My own technological definition of money goes like this: money is a set of interrelated concepts, artifacts, and techniques that we have created and adopted in order to reshape our physical and social worlds. As with other types of technology, those who understand it deeply, and know how to use it well, tend to benefit more from its reshaping power than others.
But to say that money was invented and adopted by humans at some point in our past also implies that it might be possible for us to reverse that decision at some point in our future. Could we really “un-invent” money? And more importantly, would we ever want to?
Interestingly, when people dream of the perfect society, it rarely involves money. In most of the utopian literature I’ve read, and in nearly all the utopian experiments I’ve studied, money is conspicuously absent. Sometimes, it is simply never mentioned, as if no one in the utopian society had ever considered such a thing to be necessary. Other times, it is explained to the reader that the society had simply eliminated the need for it by rationalizing the means of production so that scarcity no longer exists. If everyone could have as much of whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it, what would be the point of having money?
Most utopian experiments also ban the use of money, at least within the community. Typically this an attempt to reinforce the mutual reciprocal obligation that underpins truly inter-dependent communities, but which can be discharged by the use of money. For example, if your friend helps you move your belongings, you feel a natural obligation to help your friend move in return. But when you pay someone to move your belongings, you use money to discharge any obligation between you and those you hire. The social link between friends or neighbors who regularly help one another is typically strong and sustaining, while the link between payee and payor is typically weak, and forged only for the duration of self-interest.
Utopian experiments tend to come in waves, the last significant one being the commune movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nearly all fail within a few years, but that never stops the next generation from trying again. As my friend Kit Bakke wrote about her own experiences in the 1960s, utopian visionaries are typically aware of these previous failures, but they also are convinced that they have “found all the right answers that, somehow, everyone else had missed” (Miss Alcott’s E-mail, 100).
A few recent books have made we wonder if a new wave of utopian experimentation is now forming, and one in particular is very relevant to this discussion of money: The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living by Mark Boyle.
As the title suggests, this book is a chronicle of Boyle’s own Walden-like experiment of living without money for a year. Boyle sees money as the central cause of our current social ills, so his solution was to follow Gandhi’s advice, become the change he wanted to see, and stop using money altogether. His book recounts, often in painstaking detail, what it takes to live life without ever touching even so much as a penny.
How do you pay rent? You don’t; you get a trailer for free from a widow who no longer wants it and can’t afford to keep it. How do you heat your trailer? A wood-burning stove powered by salvaged wood. What about electricity? Solar panels and a wind turbine provide enough for his minimal uses. Water? Fetch drinking water from the nearby stream and build an outhouse for your “humanure.” And what about food? You grow it yourself, barter your labor for it, or simply go “urban foraging,” which is a nice euphemism for dumpster diving.
Even if one finds his self-imposed living conditions a bit extreme, his descriptions of urban foraging do raise important points about which most consumers are probably unaware. We in developed nations waste a shocking amount of perfectly edible food, and he is not referring to processed foods that are just past their sell-by dates. Nutritious produce is left rotting in the fields because of minor blemishes, or for being an undesirable shape, color, or size. Wholesalers and retailers begin throwing out produce as soon as it no longer looks “perfect,” even though it still tastes the same, and has the same nutritional benefits once cooked. Although it is difficult to know exactly how much is wasted, various estimates put it between one quarter and one half of our entire food production. At both the start and end of his year, Boyle provided a free meal for hundreds of people using nothing but foraged (both urban and wild) food.
Boyle freely admits that his experiment is not perfect. Most of what he uses to live required money to produce in the first place, and some of it was purchased by him before the start of his experiment. He rides his bicycle on roads created and maintained by tax money. There are points where he realizes that he could not fix or replace certain things he depended upon if they broke. Boyle can’t live as he truly wishes, because the rest of us have not yet followed along. Until the necessities of life are available to all for free, one cannot really escape the need for money.
The real point of his experiment was to spark the imagination. Like Thoreau at Walden, Boyle wants to raise our awareness of current problems and demonstrate that it might just be possible for us to live differently than we do now. But unlike Thoreau, Boyle did not return to his previous lifestyle after the year was over. Instead, he is pushing on, somewhat ironically using the proceeds of his book to form what he calls the first “freeconomic” community. It’s not clear how his community is any different from the moneyless utopian experiments of the past, but it will be intriguing to see if it survives past a few years.