A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Like Free by Katharine Hibbert (with which I originally meant to review with this book), The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living is another account of a year spent without spending any money. But where Hibbert makes it clear that she has no ideological problem with money itself, Boyle makes it equally clear that he most certainly has:
Humans are not fundamentally destructive; I know of very few people who want to cause suffering. But most of us don’t have the faintest idea that our daily shopping habits are so destructive. Trouble is, most of us will never see these horrific processes or know the people who produce our goods, let alone have to produce them ourselves. We see some evidence through news media or on the world-wide web but these have little effect; their impact is seriously reduced by the emotional filters of a fibre-optic cable.
Coming to this conclusion, I wanted to find out what enabled this extreme disconnection from what we consume. The answer was, in the end, quite simple. The moment the tool called ‘money’ came into existence, everything changed. It seemed like a great idea at its conception, and 99.9% of the world’s population still believe it is. The problem is what money has become and what it has enabled us to do. It enables us to be completely disconnected from what we consume and from the people who make the products we use. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased massively since the rise of money and, through the complexity of today’s financial systems, are greater than ever. Marketing campaigns are specifically designed to hide this reality from us; and with billions of dollars behind them, they’re very successful at it.
Boyle’s experiment is more complex, as he’s not planning to live on the ‘margins of the wasteful society’ like Hibbert, but outside it, to the extent that it’s possible. Things like skipping, squatting, hitch-hiking and the kindness of strangers – which formed the bulk of Hibbert’s book – are touched upon, but his real concern is self-sufficiency and everything that goes with it: from foraging and growing your own food to making your own compost toilet. (Apparently, tabloids make better toilet-paper than broadsheets. Who knew?)
The Moneyless Man is jam-packed with interesting and startling bits and pieces of information, and great ideas that can be adapted to less radical life-changes as well. Did you know, for instance, that ‘two thirds of all the electricity that is produced and fed into the grid is lost before it even gets to your sockets’? Or that, when it comes to climate change, ‘it’s better to burn wood than let it rot’? To me, some of the most fascinating tidbits included making your own ink and paper from mushrooms (!), or using the birch polypore fungus to sharpen a razor’s edge. This book can also boast of the most lucid explanation that I’ve ever encountered (in only a couple of pages!) of the illusory nature of money. I never quite understood the credit crisis in such simple terms.
There is, in other words, much to inspire, but also much to digest; the big picture of this book sometimes gets lost in the details, but luckily the author’s enthusiasm more than makes up for it.
Because of its structure, The Moneyless Man is a book to dip into rather than read on one go, but I do wonder slightly what exactly it’s trying to be. It’s packed with information and useful tips, but the information isn’t organised quite well enough for the book to work as a resource book. It’s a memoir of the author’s personal experiences, and many of the chapters are of a very personal nature indeed, but the book lacks a narrative arc of Free, and ends up being rather disjointed. In the course of the book, the year passes by, but there’s actually no sense of a year having passed by. Partly, of course, this might be because it’s such a quick and easy but informative read; often it feels like the more effort you put into reading, the more you’ll get out of the book, though the opposite may just as well be true.
I did like The Moneyless Man better than Free – partly because of its more radical approach, and yet more practical nature; as well as its sheer enthusiasm – but it still left me with that nagging little feeling that it might have been an even better book, if…
As it happens, Boyle has another book out (The Moneyless Manifesto: Live Well. Live Rich. Live Free) and, after reading the reviews, I can’t help but suspect that it’s the book this one was meant to be. I will definitely read it; let’s see how it turns out.
Boyle also makes interesting points on the difference between living on very little money and living completely without it. Radical experiments put these things in sharper focus, but I must admit that I would be even more interested to read ordinary people’s experiences of reducing their reliance on money little by little, until they’re as self-sufficient as they can realistically hope to be. As Boyle himself writes:
Activists often talk like they ‘want to save the earth’. The earth will be fine, in time; it’s humanity that may need saving. But who do they want to ‘save’ it for? Only other activists? Only for activists and the working classes? Or for everyone: executive bankers, environmentalists, police officers, human rights activists and politicians alike?
If we are genuinely interested in preventing the worst repercussions of climate change and depletion of resources, we need to engage with and have compassion for everyone, not just those who have similar views to our own. Turning things around environmentally will have to involve everyone, including the police officers ordered, by their bosses, to prevent such change happening but who, for the most part, do a fantastic job of cleaning up the mess that society creates.