Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
— Henry David Thoreau
We were crunching our way through the fresh January snow one blue-skied afternoon, my little hand in hers, when my mum gently told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. She was being kind of course, a pinch of tough love to save me the ignominy of telling the more streetwise kids what he had brought me that Christmas. But I was seven and a half, and I had already begun questioning the credibility of this rather portly gift economist for myself. My suspicions kicked in when I was about four.
Up until then, Santa gave to me unconditionally, just like my own mother’s breast had once done, regardless of whether I was naughty or nice. As my fifth Christmas approached, I remember being told that things weren’t so easy with the big guy after all, and that I wasn’t deserving of his kindness any longer unless I was a good boy. Santa’s love, and life with him, seemed to be slowly turning conditional. But us little kids knew that conditionality was not the way of Nature (the bramble never asked me if I was naughty before giving me its blackberries, nor the stream its water), so I smelt a rat. Yet voicing such doubts, I feared, could have resulted in a sudden drought of new toys, so for two and a half years I blanked out the thoughts, shut up and went along with the fanciful story. Little kids can be cunning too.
Despite my strong suspicions, I remember experiencing various emotions as mum confirmed my doubts. Most of these feelings manifested as questions. If Santa wasn’t real, but just a myth that all us kids believed – or chose to go along with because we perceived some benefit from it – then where on Earth did all the toys under our noble fir tree come from? Who made them if not his little helpers?
Feelings of hurt quickly abounded. Why did those I loved lie to me for so many years? Why did they believe that telling me that some strange, fictional entity had brought me the toys would serve me better than telling me the truth: that those I loved had given them to me? Was it a case of my parents wanting to give me what many religions believe to be the purest of all gifts: the gift which seeks no gratitude or recognition, in the mindset “that the only true charity is anonymous”?(1) Or had our culture long since twisted this most life-affirming of stories into a gradual lesson in conditionality, an incremental acclimatisation to the economic sphere my schooling was already preparing me for? Was it now being used to accompany me on that lonesome modern journey from the unconditional to the conditional, a precursor to a life where everything I received would be conditional on what I gave in return? A life where I would only give, or behave in a certain way, if I received something else. Or was it more simple than that: a society of people mindlessly passing down and reliving an old story, one long since manipulated by corporate marketing departments, with little thought about whether this revamped myth was actually serving them well or not any longer?
Like all big girls and boys, deep down I wanted to know the truth, as disconcerting as it was. The truth is always better than a story, which is partially why I felt compelled to write this book. The truth I needed to face back then was that Santa Claus wasn’t real. He was just a myth we made up, passed down from one generation to another, just like leprechauns, the concepts of good and evil, and the belief that licking goats’ testicles is a remedy for impotence.
Just like money.
It was this last truth I wanted to face up to in my late twenties. Believe it or not, the concept of money – that modern numerical manifestation of our ideas about credit and debt – is no less of a story than that of Santa Claus and his previous incarnations. When questioned about the extremity of his decision to live moneylessly, Daniel Suelo,(2) who has been living for over twelve years in the US without a dime, once said:
… to say that I live without money isn’t saying anything, really. That’s like saying I live without belief in Santa Claus. Now, if we lived in a world where everyone believed in Santa Claus, you might think I am stepping out on a limb to live without Santa Claus.
Why is the need for money a myth? Take a minute to look around you. Try to find one thing you believe hasn’t been provided by money. My guess is you can’t. Even if you’ve grown your own food, I would imagine you’d be thinking ‘well, I paid for the seeds, and I paid for my tools’. And that is the power we have granted money – we have come to believe that we need it, that we depend on it to survive. The fact we’ve designed this impersonal and destructive economy of ours around it only serves to perpetuate such delusions. The cultural narrative that is money has such a powerful grip on our minds today that we have come to believe that we could not possibly ever live without it. Through observing humanity’s actions, it would appear that living without clean air, fresh water and fertile soil is considered a more moderate challenge in comparison.
We grown-ups strangely believe that money provides for us when it is actually Nature (which includes humans) that does so. That we must rely on money is simply another delusion, given power only by the fact that we collectively agree to believe in it. Even Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, said that “all money is a matter of belief”.(3) We believe in it because experience has taught us that we can get things in return for it, and every time we enact the various rituals (cheque signing, credit card purchasing) of this story, we strengthen that belief and its grip on our minds.
Fiat currency,(4) money’s most common form today, has no intrinsic value to set alongside its use as a medium of exchange, meaning that unless we believe the socio-political, cultural and economic stories that go with it, it can become almost worthless overnight, as countries who have suffered hyper-inflation have miserably realised. If our culture stopped believing the myths that back money – and the converging ecological, social and financial crises are forcing us to do so – the notes in the bank (which in a fractional reserve system, aren’t many) would have no more worth than their value as a fire-starter. Which, believe me, is much less than a piece of birch bark.
One myth that backs money is that our bank balances will always be redeemable for goods and services with intrinsic value, such as vegetables or a table. However, in a world where almost all of our natural and social capital has been melted down into numbers, with increasingly less of our physical and cultural ‘assets’ left to be liquidated, such beliefs must soon be questioned. When the rivers are devoid of salmon and full of pollutants, when the invasion of our forests and oceans is complete, when our topsoil is fully depleted and we’ve laid desert to much of the Earth, “all that will be left is cold, dead money, as forewarned by the myth of King Midas so many centuries ago. We will be dead – but very, very rich.”(5)
Another such myth is that you and I are separate. When the illusion of this myth also fades (and one of the aims of this book is the dissolution of this myth), me charging you for the gifts I bring to the world (gifts, remember, that I have originally been given), is no less daft than me charging a tree for the nitrogen in my urine when I pee under it, and it then invoicing me for the oxygen it produces and supplies to my lungs. Nature, like me, abhors bureaucracy and administration, so it simply gives unconditionally, wastes no energy on accounting and surveillance, and instead gets on with doing what it was born to do. In fact, its monumental efficiency is down to the fact that nothing – not the bacteria, not the birds, not the algae – is keeping count. And we should be thankful for that reality – there are so many million interactions going on in every square inch of soil alone, at any given moment, that our entire world would collapse if it ever tried to.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with stories in themselves as long as they continue to serve us and our habitat well and we can remember one thing: they are just stories, and we can create better ones if we feel they’d be more appropriate for the world we are confronted with. If believing in the myths of Santa Claus or money or licking goats’ testicles helps us live more fulfilling, free and healthy lives in a way that affords the rest of the community of life the same opportunities, then I’m all for it. But if not, would we not be a little wiser to start creating new cultural stories that serve us better?
At this point you’re probably thinking that money has actually served us well thus far. It has facilitated the ‘civilisation’ we have before us today – the televisions, the cars, the World Wide Web. Yet how many of us feel utterly enslaved by it, always feeling that we need a little more of it to survive, be happy or feel successful? As I once read on the back of a toilet door, freedom disappears under the dominance of a bad habit.
What if the cultural stories (such as the narrative of the separate self, which I’ll be exploring throughout this book) that gave rise to money in the first place turned out to be based on nothing less than the destructive delusions of humanity? What if you realised that the very concept of money, despite its supposedly functional beginnings, would inevitably lead to the Earth and its biosphere becoming uninhabitable for humans and many other life forms in the process? Would you continue to go along with such a destructive story, or would you want to create a new one, a story that worked for your Age and for the unique challenges that your people faced?
Throughout this book, I am going to question the myths that laid the foundations to the birth of money, to highlight the damaging consequences that were inevitable since its very creation but which only hindsight has made evident, and – most importantly – to ask you to help humanity come up with new stories, different ways of doing things that makes sense for the world we’re all faced with today.