Lily Cole: What was your upbringing like – did your parents have much money and what was their relationship to money like?
Mark Boyle: My formative years were Eighties pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, where no one – my parents included – had two dimes to rub together. We lived week to week, with no car or phone or any of the trappings that today’s youth would consider to be life’s essentials. But I had the best of parents and the happiest of childhoods, and there was a real sense of authentic community on the street where we lived. Everyone mucked in together, everyone had each other’s back. Only one house out of 80 had a phone, and if you wanted to use it you simply left 20p beside it once you were done. Doors were always open, children’s clothes were passed from one family’s toddlers to the next, and if some one was ever stuck for a few bob others came together and helped them out. The streets and fields were full of kids playing and getting up to no good, and we always had food. I go back there now and everyone is much better off financially, but the doors are closed as no one needs each other any more. People meet their needs through money and the technologies it facilitates, and not through intimate human relationships.
LC: When did you begin to question the value and system around money?
MB: When I was taking a degree in business, I had a fantastic economics lecturer who taught me to question everything, especially the premises underlying different economic models. But my understanding was quite raw then, and at that point I was still more interested in getting a well-paid career than I was in challenging the cultural and economic narratives of our age. I knew something wasn’t quite right with it, I had an inkling things could be a different way. But it would be another five years before those seeds of doubt would germinate.
LC: Before you “lived without money” what jobs did you do and how did you feel about them?
MB: After I finished my degree, I fell into a job managing an organic food company, which put me into contact with lots of weird and wonderful food suppliers – bee-keepers, salad growers, goats cheesemakers and the like. Through meeting them, and listening to their perspectives on the world, I began to see some of the ecological insanity of the world around me, and for the first time in my life I understood real economics – what some might call ecology. The more I questioned the basic cultural assumptions of the society I was working within, the less sense it made to continue working in it.
LC: What was the moment you had the idea to try living without money – was it a specific moment, or a growing feeling? And when was it?
MB: Studying economics, we were obviously well versed in the benefits of money – a medium of exchange to facilitate the specialised division of labour required for an industrialised society, a store of value and so on. But no one ever explained to us the social, ecological and personal consequences of monetising our lives. It was as if money were the only technology in the world without unintended consequences. So I began speaking out about those for about a year, around 2007, at which point a friend said to me, “if you think money is so problematic, why don’t you give it up yourself?” So I did. Within about 30 minutes of the challenge I had put a “For Sale” sign on my old houseboat, the proceeds of which I used to set up a gift economy website called Freeconomy.
LC: Did the idea scare you?
MB: The idea scared the bejesus out of me. Up to that point in my life, money provided me with my sense of security. That security was now going to have to come from the strength of relationships I had with the people and lands around me, both of which felt a lot less predictable than the cold hard cash I was used to.
LC: How long did it take you to decide to really try?
MB: After selling the houseboat and setting up Freeconomy, I set myself a date – Buy Nothing Day 2008 – at which point I would stop using money for what was originally intended to be a one-year experiment. Which gave me about six months to prepare. But as I had come from a conventional background, where I was more comfortable with a spreadsheet than a spade, that really wasn’t a lot of time.
LC: How did you deal with living without money initially? Where did you live? How did you manage for food/drink? How did you manage for heating, clothes, soap, washing, other necessities..?
MB: The practicalities of living without money are almost infinite, many of which I’ve detailed in The Moneyless Manifesto. But some of these were more critical than others. I lived in a caravan I found on Freecycle, and I kitted this out with a wood-burner made from an old gas bottle, which I fuelled using wood I’d gather from the land around me. I cooked my simple fare outside, 365 days of the year, on a rocket stove, and dinner usually consisted of veggies and, being Irish, a pot of potatoes. I gathered up the unused apples from the surrounding area to make cider, and the campfire became my pub, around which friends would sing and dance and make music together. We became participants in life, not only consumers of it. To wash my clothes I used a plant called soapwort which I grow, and washed clothes in either an old sink or the river, where I also bathed. I brushed my teeth with toothpaste made from wild fennel seed and cuttlefish bone. I had a composting toilet and used discarded editions of The Daily Mail for toilet roll – a fine use for it. Sometimes, as I would go to wipe my backside with a newspaper, I would notice a picture of myself staring back – and proceed ahead anyway.
LC: Did living without money alienate you socially from many of your friends? Did it bring you closer to others?
MB: When I began living without money, one of my biggest fears was becoming alienated from friends and society. Being Irish, I was used to congregating in the pub, and this obviously was no longer an option. But the fear turned out to be entirely unfounded. I quickly found that my friends were dying to get out of the city and into nature, and, if anything, my biggest problem was finding some of the solitude that I crave from time to time. My relationship with the people around me become much stronger – for the first time in my life I realised my interdependency on the world around me.
LC: What did your parents think about your decision?
MB: At first, my parents didn’t really talk about my decision – after all, they’d seen me bust a gut to educate myself, presumably on the basis that I would then get a good job. But as time wore on, and they came to understand my motivations for doing it, they got more and more behind it. Dad even grows his own vegetables for the family now.
LC: Were you able to travel much – see family at Christmas, etc?
MB: Travelling was slow. My preference was to walk, but I’d also cycle if I had to go a little further afield. When I wanted to go home for Christmas, I would hitch – a journey that takes most people 40 minutes on an airplane but would take me the best part of two days. This was frustrating at first, as adapting to a new way of being kept me very busy, but I soon came to the conclusion that travelling probably ought to be slow.
LC: Did you ever doubt your decision?
MB: I had a few doubts in the first three months, as it was all so new to me. But as my experience grew, so did my confidence, and before long it became first nature to me.
LC: You say you enjoyed the experience so much in the first year, you decided to do it for longer. Can you explain what you enjoyed so much about the experience?
MB: Like no other period in my life, I felt fully alive. Having spent most of my life worrying about the future or regretting the past, I was living in the moment, day to day – like wild animals do, I suspect. I had a strong sense of connection to the land and waterways around me, on whose health I realised my own depended. Instead of consuming food, music, booze and so on, I was producing them with people who I was in a full relationship with. Life was rich, intimate and diverse – every day I learned something new, often about things that had never even entered my awareness before. I was fitter, happier and healthier than ever before. Most of all, I felt liberated.
LC: Do you think you’ll go back to living without money again in future?
MB: Yes, that is the long-term plan, and we’re currently creating a project called An Teach Saor (Gaelic for “The Free House”) in Ireland, which will allow other people, for various periods of time, to experience living in this way also.
LC: When did you have the idea for your online community, Just for the Love of It? Was it a specific moment, or a growing desire?
MB: I dreamed up Freeconomy (Just for the Love of It) around 2006, having come to the conclusion that our disconnection from life was at the root of many of the ecological, social and personal crises I witnessed unfolding around me – and that contrary to conventional wisdom, money was one of the most disconnecting tools we possessed. So I wanted to help create new economic systems. The problem was, all the existing alternative systems being developed were still based on the premise of “exchange” that was the basis of money. I wanted to go beyond that, and decided to create a system where people would help each other not because they were getting something in return, but simply because someone needed some help.
LC: How did the site develop and evolve?
MB: A web developer and myself built it over a period of about six months, making it up as we went along. If I were to do it again, I’d have done it differently. But somehow it seemed to work, and despite the absence of funds – shoestring would be a euphemism – we had over 50,000 members. In some areas there was a real strong sense of community, in others in didn’t really take off at all.
LC: Are you still friends with/in touch with people you met on the network?
MB: I met many wonderful people through my local group at the time, which was in Bristol, some of whom I’ve been friends with ever since. Doing something for nothing for someone (and vice versa) has a knack for creating strong bonds between people. Through managing the site, I also made a lot of friends globally, and I collaborate on various projects with some of them to this day.
LC: Did you offer your skills much?
MB: Yes, on top of managing the global project, I also ran a freeskilling evening once a week for my local group, where one person in the community would come and show anywhere between 20 and 250 people how to do a particular skill – everything from making rocket stoves to carpentry and clothes repair. I’d help people with gardening or foraging, and – rather ironically – I helped a local charity, who had contacted me through the site, with their accounts. Similarly, many people helped me also.
LC: Do you view it as a success?
MB: I think it served people well at a particular time, and perhaps helped form some of the philosophical structure of the gift and sharing economy projects that have come after it. However, with the pace of technological change and my lack of money, we couldn’t keep up, and in the end we merged with another project who were better set up to serve its members. Projects like Impossible and Streetbank do a much better job now of what I was doing then.
LC: How hopeful are you that the digital landscape will enable us to reconnect to the gift economy?
MB: I think the gift economy is still alive, if to a slightly diminished degree, in places where people know each other well – the family home, groups of friends, rural communities and so on. Where I think the digital world plays a role is in enabling people to engage in gift economies is in urban areas, where anonymity and social norms make it difficult for people to interact in such a spirit through more natural avenues. Five years ago I was very hopeful that the digital world would facilitate the re-emergence of gift economies. These days there is no more need for hope – pioneering projects such as couch-surfing, freecycle, impossible and streetbank are already out there doing it, and the more people see the danger of putting all their economic eggs in the financial basket, the more they are diversifying their personal economies and coming to projects like these in huge numbers.
LC: What does the gift economy mean to you?
MB: A gift culture, I suppose, was originally a generic term used mostly by anthropologists to describe many of the societies that existed prior to the notion of money. In these societies, labour and materials were shared according to social norms and without any explicit agreement about what the giver would receive in return, if anything. Nowadays, it’s often used to describe any way of matching up those who need something – whether it be a skill, a tool, a couch to sleep on – with those who can help, in a way in which nothing is expected directly in return – except, perhaps, for a thankyou and the feeling of helping someone for no other reason than you can.
LC: Do you see a relationship between the gift economy and sustainability?
MB: Yes and no, to varying degrees. I think if a gift economy is localised and low-tech, then it can play a crucial role in enabling us to live in harmony with the Great Web of Life. In a high-tech, more globalised format, I think its sustainability merits are more marginal. That said, even in a global context the gift economy is enabling us to use our resources more efficiently. But it’s a complex issue – in a high technology world, who is to say that the money someone saves by getting their sofa from Freecycle isn’t then spent on some product or activity with an even higher ecological impact? Unless they burn the money they saved, it is going to get spent on something eventually, and in a high-tech, globalised world, that is usually on something I would consider entirely unsustainable. But there are so many other psychological, emotional and social benefits to gift economies that, regardless of their ability to reduce our ecological footprint, they are very worthwhile endeavours on the basis of this alone.
LC: What are your plans for the space you are developing in Ireland now?
MB: I moved back to Ireland last year, where we have set up a permaculture- and gift-based project called An Teach Saor (Gaeilge for The Free House). Here we started plans to produce all our needs from the land around us, and to share its fruits with both our neighbours and the people who pass through it. I’m in the process of finishing a building – made from cob, cordwood, wattle and daub and other natural materials – which will open as a free community event space next year. Here we intend to run free courses and workshop, evenings of music and storytelling, skill-sharing, feasts and even serve up some moneyless homebrew. People can stay there for free too, so if they’ve had a couple of drinks there is no need to drive home!
LC: Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual?
MB: I think we’ve all got a spiritual side, whether we acknowledge it or not. But I am not religious or spiritual in the traditional or New Age sense. I suppose in some ways the closest thing I could describe myself as in an animist, and I see God in everything from the smallest creature to the largest tree.
LC: Do you think our society has got it really wrong?
MB: I think the human experiment took a wrong turn over 10,000 years ago. Agriculture, as Jared Diamond once said, is a catastrophe from which we’ve never recovered. Most of us don’t even know what we’ve lost, because we’ve never experienced it. We’ve designed human societies around toxic technologies that are driving a mass extinction of species, and an ecological meltdown that our generation has no real understanding of – we’re an ecologically illiterate people. We’re laying waste to majesty and splendour of the Earth, and have created a world where belongings are more important than belonging. Yet one can still look around and see so much beauty, in the wild landscapes that still exist and within the most intimate parts of human relationship that have yet to be monetised. I think it’s important to be honest about what we are doing to the Earth, and still love all the wonders that continue to resist the invasion of The Machine.
LC: If you have a kid, how will you try and negotiate teaching them the value systems you believe in, and the contemporary modern world’s systems?
MB: I’ve had a vasectomy, so this is a hypothetical question for me. And not being a parent, I am probably unqualified to comment. But that said, its an important question. Personally, I think providing an example is a much better way of passing on values to our young than telling them how to live. Children are much more honest than adults, and they believe what they see. If they are around loving and generous adults every day, they’re more likely to manifest those values themselves. They’ll inevitably learn the values of the modern world – of which I am not much of a fan – from their interaction with it, and there is not much you can do about that. But teaching them that there is another way of being human, one not based on the social norms of modern culture, is probably the greatest gift you can give them. What they then do with that is up to them.