If you are genuinely interested in a solution to Technological unemployment and even more concerned with climate change, you will eventually stumble on the book with the title “The Money-Less Man: A year of Freeconomic Living,” a bestseller from the author Mark Boyle.
During a period of one year, Mark tried to live without money. He realized that, as a civilization, we cannot continue like this any further, so, instead of just talking, he decided to do something about it. He decided to take one year “off” by living completely without money.
In order to live without money, one has to resolve basic existential needs, such as shelter, clothing, energy, hygiene, transport, and most importantly water and food supply.
As Mark explained, he did not start living without money immediately but he used a minimum amount of money (£265 to be precise) for the initial setup. That included obtaining a trailer to live in, creating a rocket burner stove, fixing his bike, buying the sun shower (black bag with hosepipe), and a solar panel for energy. Everything else he needed was mostly earned in exchange for food or goods, swapped, or salvaged from leftovers and waste from other people or shops.
The obvious question that arises is: is it possible to live this way? Is it possible to live without money?
The short answer is yes, it is possible, but it is not scalable to a larger population.
Mark’s way of life is possible only because there is so much waste around us; it becomes possible for a certain number of individuals to live this way. But, the more people who abandon the usual way of living and the less waste we produce, the less will be there for that kind of lifestyle.
Let me start by explaining one-by-one all the needs Mark was sustaining:
For shelter, he found a trailer that (as it was more than 10 years old) someone just wanted to get rid of, so he got it for free. If we would scale this concept to a larger population, we could easily calculate that there are not enough old trailers waiting to be picked up or donated. On the positive side, there is no need for that, as a number of houses and flats are already large enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, with the “small” caveat of ownership being unevenly distributed and imposing a fee someone needs to pay to live in them. According to the March 2011 census *1, only 30% of people own houses, while the other 70% has to pay for a rent or mortgage installment. So, in the case that tomorrow everyone decides to live like Mark did, we would need to find trailers or shipping containers that will accommodate 45 million people as present population of UK numbers around 64 million people.
Clothing, our second “skin” necessary to keep our bodies warm, can be easily forgotten, as we already have so much of it. Even if all production would stop, as Mark mentioned, we would still have enough clothes for at least the next 10 years. The interesting fact is that, if we would actually do that — stop production of cotton — that would allow soil to recover. Cotton is a monoculture that uses a huge area of land and also accounts for 25% of all pesticides used in the world. Most of us have so many clothes that large amounts of them were worn only once or twice. The same goes for shoes. There are many web sites where you can find clothes for free or swap with other people, and that is a good thing.
What about energy?
We use a lot of it, but what’s more concerning is that we waste more of our energy recourses than we actually use. Greenpeace research has revealed a mind-boggling number, showing that 2/3 of all the electricity produced and fed into the grid is lost before it even gets to our sockets! *2
If everyone would use just bit less, it would surely help. In order to deal with this, Mark reduced his usage of grid electricity to zero, and for heating he used rotten wood. We could argue that by burning woods, he increased carbon emissions, but the truth is that rotting wood usually releases methane during its decomposition stage, and because methane is 25 times more potent than carbon-dioxide, collecting and burning fallen trees and branches is actually beneficial for nature.
Transport is definitely important, and Mark quickly realized that he could switch to a bicycle and walking. Although both of those forms of transport are great for your health and short distances, anything that involves long distances can be time-consuming. For long distances, crossing water, or transporting a large quantity of materials or goods, these are not feasible.
Is the more frequent usage of a bicycle scalable?
Scaling this habit would actually work, for congested cities and towns, creating a network of roads for bikes only would significantly improve commuting times. *3 *4 There are some comparisons between bicycles and the London underground, and the bicycle was the winner in every instance. *5 Additionally, we should keep in mind that driving our own cars in London, because of frequent congestion, is significantly slower — even after excluding the time needed to find a parking spot.
Communication can be quite difficult if you decide to live without money. With the exception of a few WiFi spots here and there, most communication channels cost money. Additionally, computers and phones exist only because of money, so scaling Mark’s moneyless way of life would not work well for a modern way of communication, unless we change something dramatically, like providing free-fast-no-strings-attached Internet for everyone.
What about drinking water and sanitation?
Most of our rivers and the air we breathe are already heavily polluted, so taking water directly out of streams and rivers or collecting rain would not be acceptable. We would still need to be attached to the grid. Regarding waste water as a result of washing and cleaning, using natural, biodegradable “detergents,” it would be possible to use that water for crops; otherwise we would just pollute the soil even more.
Regarding sewage, human excrement can be used as manure, in order to fertilize our fields. Although it can be good for land, human waste is terrible for water. In small quantities, nature is able to handle it without any special treatment, but large quantities of human excrement can severely affect health by spreading a variety of diseases.
Speaking of health and diseases, it is worth mentioning that Mark has not received any medical care, nor did he have any health insurance during the time of his experiment. Scaling up that to a larger population would be simply unacceptable.
Last, but not least, is food.
In order to grow your own food, you need land. If you own land, you have to pay taxes, so growing your own food makes it impossible to escape money entirely. So, if you do not have space to grow your own food, you would need to turn to skipping (or dumpster diving, as some people call it), a trend where people use waste food thrown into bins by stores, because it has expired or the product has been damaged in some way.
Keep in mind that there is no such a thing as an "expiration date" for food. These products do not magically become unusable from one day to the next, just because of a number written on the package. This is why many companies use different labels, such as “Best Before Date,” “Best By Date,” “Use By Date,” “Sell by Date,” etc.
The amount of food we waste is staggering: *6 in the UK alone, 18 million tonnes of food end up in landfill, approximately one-third from producers/supply chain, one-third from retail, and one-third from households. Annually, that is worth £23 billion. In America, that amount is significantly higher, exceeding $161 billion. *7
This landfill waste is a huge environmental danger; like rotting wood, it produces methane in large quantities. In total, 10% of all methane emissions come from landfill waste.
The most important question is whether large numbers of people can live using that food. It all depends on what you perceive as a large number. Mark has prepared perfectly healthy three-course feasts for 200 people in just one day out of disposed food. However, more people living on food waste means less demand from stores, less production, and less waste.
Let me clarify this with the example:
This means that 25% of the total population could live off of the food waste, which is still a significant number (for the UK, that would mean 16 million people — for comparison that is a population of Greece and Denmark together), but you have to keep in mind that 100% efficiency is not possible. Not all of the food would be appropriate for use; neither would it be possible to retrieve all of the food. Regardless, with a few fresh ideas and a few policies, waste and carbon footprint could be significantly reduced without the need for a large part of the population turning to dumpster diving.
What is the conclusion? Can this be a solution for technological employment and climate change?
The answer is both “yes” and “no.”
If you would like to give up the modern way of life and slide back a few hundred years, this would probably work. If you want to take action individually, yes, it would be beneficial for the environment. Best of all, you will gain a kind of freedom people nowadays do not experience very often, and that is priceless.
In order to resolve the real problems of technological unemployment and climate change, this is not enough. Although Mark’s way of life can be good for those with a free spirit and strong will, and it can have a huge impact on the environment, the truth is that the current system and the people in it are largely resistant to change. Convincing people to do this wouldn’t give results in a short time; and in this particular instance, time is not on our side.
At the end of the book, Mark’s final thoughts are:
“We cannot have fast cars, computers the size of credit cards, and modern conveniences, whilst simultaneously having clean air, abundant rainforests, fresh drinking water and stable climate. This generation can have on or other but not both. Humanity must make a choice. Both have an opportunity cost. Gadgetry or nature? Pick the wrong one and the next generation may have neither.”
I strongly disagree with this one; we can find solutions without the need to revert our existence to the Stone Age.
Technologies and science do not need to be harmful for the environment, and that is not part of their nature. They are neither good nor evil; we are the ones who decide what are they going to be. What science and technology make harmful are shortcuts — where companies and individuals ignore ethics and responsibility, in order to maximize profit or gain power. Nature and technology are not mutually exclusive; they can coexist and work together. We just have to set some boundaries and prevent harmful impacts.
We can have both! In the future, I will write how to get there.
If Mark ever gets to read this text, please remember
Mahatma Gandhi also said something
about the Seven Social Sins:
“Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice,
Politics without principle.”
Notes & References:
1. Home ownership and renting in England and Wales – Detailed Characteristicshttp://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/detailed-characteristics-on-housing-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/short-story-on-detailed-characteristics.html
2. Two-thirds of energy wasted by antiquated systemhttp://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/two-thirds-of-energy-wasted-by-antiquated-system
3. A year of your life is wasted commuting: Average worker pays more than £50,000 for the privilegehttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2614573/A-year-life-wasted-commuting-Average-worker-pays-50-000-privilege.html
4. The cost of commuting – train vs car vs motorcycle | Steve Bakerhttp://www.stevebaker.info/2013/07/the-cost-of-commuting-train-vs-car-vs-motorcycle/
5. Bike vs London Undergroundhttp://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/bike-vs-london-underground/
6. UK food wastehttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24846612