Create an inspiring vision and pursue it passionately
I believe that there is a certain magic to life (though this may just be one of my own personal stories – nevertheless, it is one I find useful), an element that is beyond reason and which packs our experience here on Earth full of mystery and enquiry. Things happen all the time that we cannot intellectually explain, yet we all too readily dismiss them because we can’t scientifically prove them, as if we humans had reached ultimate knowledge and understanding. The fact that we don’t know how certain aspects of life work doesn’t mean for a moment that they haven’t got as much validity as those aspects we do fully understand. When a cat watches a car drive past, the basicreality that the cat has no idea what the car is, or the mechanisms that make it work the way it does, doesn’t mean the car isn’t real or is less valid; it just means the cat hasn’t the capability to understand it. The same applies to us – there are levels of understanding that we have either lost or have never developed, and may never develop. I have found that happiness often comes in the acceptance that there are things that we will never understand in life; instead of relentlessly trying to explain them, we could just sit back and wonder at their majesty.
Passionately and relentlessly following your own beliefs in life, without worrying exactly how it will all come together, is often enough to bring whatever you envisage into existence. That has certainly been my experience, and ever since I have integrated that level of trust and surrender into my life I’ve had the most incredible experiences and adventures.
It was the magic of life that, in the end, led to the creation of an inspiring project in Devon called Embercombe, founded by Tim Macartney. Whilst Embercombe is not a moneyless community, there are very valuable lessons to be gained from its creation that I believe would be of great use to anyone considering setting up a fully localised gift economy.
There is a piece of land out there, perhaps closer than you might imagine, that is calling to you. In your heart you know this to be true, because you have heard the song of that land on the breath of the wind, or in the longing of a child dear to you. Of all the deeper needs that our people have, the desire to truly inhabit our land, find community, and develop meaningful work, matches any. Many of the aspirations we burden ourselves with do not belong to us. They were sold to us and the price bore no relation to the value, but rediscovering kinship with each other and the shared experience of growing food is an authentic longing that belongs to you and me and our children.
It is forty years since I stood in that field of wheat. Transfixed, I experienced a profound sense of knowing. I think I was experiencing a moment of grace. We might call it a vision. In those few hours I saw and felt what I most loved. At some cellular level, I knew that I was being called. It was beautiful but it was also frightening and I had not yet accumulated the knowledge, the courage, the discipline, or the commitment to bring it into reality. I was, like many other young men or women, eager to explore but not yet to focus. Looking back I realise that on some level I agreed to undertake a curriculum of experiences that, providing I kept the vision alive in my heart, would eventually equip me with the means to bring it to life.
I am stubborn and many times over have been my own worst enemy, but early on I also realised that life has no meaning for me unless I know that I am walking a trail towards the things I call sacred. To do otherwise would be to betray myself, and I am too proud to consider that an option.
It took me 28 years to travel the distance between that warm summer day in the field of golden wheat to the moment of true joy when I awoke to my first morning at Embercombe on May 1st 1999. Fifty acres of meadows, woods, gardens, and hills purred and pulsed as the spring sun warmed the moist earth. During those 28 years I lived and loved as passionately as I could. I was lost and found time and time again. I remembered and forgot, went to sleep, had numinous dreams that left me weeping with joy, and nightmares that nearly killed me. Nevertheless, I did not forget. I still walk the invisible path. I still journey.
I was a drama teacher, managed a restaurant, worked as a medic in a mine, picked apples in Washington State, ran a landscaping company, and then trained as a gardener. At the same time I scouted the underworld, and explored trails marked, ‘Danger. Do not enter’, trails that could have left me hurt or in prison. I followed other kinds of trails as well, searching for people who still held the keys to ancient spiritual traditions honouring our Earth. With great effort, a battered pride, and scraped knees I found these people and began what turned out to be a 20-year apprenticeship. My first job as a gardener was at an outdoor leadership development centre to which many of the large corporate businesses sent their aspiring leaders. Interested and intrigued I asked my boss for a day off to watch how our firm went about developing Sainsbury’s deputy store managers. The privilege was granted on the condition I promised to remain silent and refrain from adding in a gardener’s perspective on the trials and tribulations of Sainsbury’s best. Things didn’t go as planned that day and I had to break my promise when tempers boiled and the fragile boundary separating peace and war was breached. While discomforting and embarrassing for some, I emerged with a new career and entered the world of corporate leadership development and entrepreneurship. The field of wheat vision never disappeared but for the first time ever I finally accepted that if I truly wanted land upon which to gather and explore new ways of living, I would have to earn the money and not just hang-out waiting for someone to give it to me. I was right and also wrong. For ten years I applied myself to building a successful international business developing people in organisations, and our team came close to realising this success on several occasions when we nearly sold the business. Then, one day, sat in front of a client, I received a project briefing that eventually placed the field of wheat in my hand.
“We have a very small business and even though the markets we serve are in turmoil and many similar firms are going under, we believe that we have the strategy, expertise, energy and will to create a phenomenal success. We have a set of core values that mean everything to us. We do not wish our success to be at the expense of our values. We’d like you and your firm to work with us, so that we can make this journey and achieve our commercial ambitions with our values intact.”
This is what we did and five years later my client sold the company for a pot of gold. Meanwhile, and at the same time, my training with the First Nation people of North America continued. Two parallel paths. My client and his co-founder came to me shortly after the sale.
“We have achieved our goal and it feels good, yet there is also an emptiness. Chasing this goal has occupied all our creativity and energy. Now what? Do we do it all again but even bigger?”
For the first time I revealed my other life to them. I suggested that their questions were spiritual and deserved their full attention. I offered to take them on a vision quest journey and they accepted. Life spoke to my client as she always had, but in the deep contemplative quiet of the quest I guess he had more time to listen. Later when we returned he asked me what my dream was and I told him of my time, almost thirty years ago, when I stood transfixed and allowed what is most profoundly beautiful to enter my heart and fill me with gratitude. He asked me what I needed and I told him, and he wrote me a cheque.
On the last day of April, just a couple of days after my fiftieth birthday I drove to Devon and began a new life. I fancifully imagined that the hard work had already been done, but it was not so. I have been tested, and along with others many times I have knelt on the earth of Embercombe seeking guidance, drawing deep on reserves, shedding tears of frustration, and doubting my ability to sustain. With each test I have grown stronger, my commitment, deeper. A deep relief that I am walking the path of my calling and in company of many friends, some whom I know and many I have never met, nor will I ever meet. We are a people and we are returning to ourselves and to our land.
Join an established community
There are many landbased ecological and spiritual communities already established all over the UK and across the world. I’ve yet to come across one that has a policy on using zero money, but that is not to say one doesn’t exist. Either way, there is nothing to suggest that a number of these groups wouldn’t be willing to accept you as a long-term resident in the knowledge that you don’t use money. Some would potentially view it in a similar way to WWOOFing, but with the benefits of having you live there long-term. From your perspective it would give you access to all the basic infrastructure you need to live a life beyond money.
If this option interests you, I’d recommend getting your hands on a book called Eurotopia,(121) which lists three hundred intentional communities and ecovillages from around Europe, providing detailed information and descriptions written by the communities themselves in a prescribed and easy to compare format, along with maps and contact details for each one. Before you contact anyone, I would advise you to be clear in your own mind what your needs are, the types of personalities you generally feel drawn towards, what your philosophies are on general living, and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on. Once you know this and have read the book through, you are then in a great position to contact the groups most likely to be a good match, and take it from there. You may have to try quite a few before you settle on a particular community, as in reality the human dynamics of intentional communities are often different to how they seem on paper.
These formerly inhabited villages and towns exist throughout many countries of the world. In some instances they are maintained and managed by the state as tourist attractions, but often they are just abandoned habitats waiting to be reoccupied. Of course many have been abandoned for a reason – either they were the scenes of massacres, suffered epidemics, lost economic activity, had political problems, became depleted of natural ‘resources’ or befell a disaster of some sort. It goes without saying that some of these are no longer adequate to support micro-economies of self-sufficient moneyless people – that is partially why some of them were abandoned in the first place.
However, often there are reasons for their abandonment that are not relevant considerations for people who want to live in a localised gift economy, and many will be packed full of potential as places where people could, with no small amount of graft, transform them from run down old buildings into areas abundant in life and activity that could act as the initial examples of how the economy of the future could work.
There are dozens of known examples of established ‘ecoaldeas’ of this sort in Spain, mostly built from the ruins of Medieval towns. One of these, an abandoned hamlet in northern Navarra called Lakabe, was found in 1980.(122) Fourteen people initially moved in, slowly rebuilding the homes and gardens with barely any money. They now generate all their own energy with a windmill they erected by hand, having carried the iron structure and materials up the hill themselves. They also grow lots of food and, despite the fact they were all urbanites originally, they are now almost self-reliant with very minimal money. Mauge, one of the original people who discovered this ghost town, says there is now a “wait[ing] list of people who’d like to move in,” but that “the answer is not for people to join what they have created, but to try to emulate them somewhere else.”
If you’re feeling like you’ve missed out, keep in mind that there are an approximated three thousand other abandoned villages such as this in Spain alone. As long as you are prepared for a life of voluntary simplicity, and the beauties, joys and occasional hardships that can come with that, there is little reason why anyone could not start a moneyless community within a handful of years.
Depending on your country of residence, this path could require you to cross borders into another part of the world where such abandoned towns exist. This would mean that you’d be setting up in a part of the world, far from family and friends, where you may not have fluency in the language and where support networks are likely to be non-existent in the difficult initial stages. This problematic aspect could be offset by organising a group of interested individuals who are looking to do the same thing, as opposed to trying to start it up by yourself.
If you do form a group to explore this as an option, make sure that everyone getting involved shares a similar philosophy, that they know how to work together in ways that are beneficial to the whole group, and that they are looking to create something positive as opposed to simply running away from some difficulties in their own life. Ideally you’ll have spent some time living or working with them in the past, so that you all know how compatible you are.
Other than that, I would highly recommend spending as much time finding out as much information as possible about the ghost town you plan on reoccupying, and what that country has in relation to laws around squatting and the like, in order to minimise the risk involved and to make sure that your energies are being put to the most productive and positive use.
This is, of course, an absurdly odd option in a book that is primarily about moneyless living and the inevitable negative consequences of private ownership of land. Let me be clear: buying land is a million miles away from my ideals, and it is an extremely awkward and sensitive subject to broach within this context. However, the reality of the legal, political and economic society we’ve all been born into means that every square metre of land is now owned by somebody. An associated reality is the fact that, for whatever reason, people often find themselves with a chunk of money. I’ve found that it is often people who have worked all their lives in well-paid jobs in the City who are looking for a new way of living on the Earth, having witnessed first-hand the intrinsic horrors of the current economic model. Others inherit money (or less liquid forms of it) and want to use it as an escape from the madness of consumerism. Therefore there is an argument for using what we have already got in order to more rapidly put in place the infrastructure and culture of self-sufficient micro-economies, in a similar way that the flotsam of industrialised society may play its part in what David Holmgren, who along with Bill Mollison coined the term Permaculture, refers to as a ‘creative descent’,(123) in this context towards fully localised, gift economy living.
PERMACULTURE AND RELOCALISATION
David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept and author of many books including Permaculture One and Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability(124)
The peaking of global oil supply suggests a permanent decline in the energy available to support humanity. This energy descent future will demand ways of thinking and organisation that are fundamentally different from those that guided the continuous energy ascent era since European cultures conquered the Americas and began to tap fossil fuels. Peak oil promises to make ‘living with less’ a non-negotiable reality faster than the alarming evidence of emerging climatic catastrophe.
Most people who have seriously considered the energy descent future recognise that it will lead to, amongst other fundamental changes, the faltering and reversal of globalisation. A revitalisation, in some form, of local economy, community and politics should follow. This structural change reflects a deeper level of thinking and action than imagining which fuel source or sources we will use in the future.
Permaculture is a design system for living and land use in the energy descent era. It emerged during the first oil shock era (1970s)(125) and has steadily grown into a worldwide movement of practitioners,designers and activists. Permaculture strategies range from using local organic wastes to create fertile food gardens, or making use of microclimate to grow a greater diversity of crops, to natural building heated by the sun, or collecting rainwater and reusing grey water, as well as local currencies and community supported agriculture. All of these examples can all be thought of as localisation strategies.(126)
Permaculture design starts with getting our own house (and especially garden) in order, then making the connections across the back fence, around the neighbourhood and throughout our networks. Instead of a focus on what is wrong with the world and what ‘they’ should do, Permaculture design and activism focuses on what we can do to live more self reliant lives with less dependence on distant and centralised sources of water, food and fuel. Rather than a survivalist strategy for holding onto essential resources, Permaculture harvests wastes and generates renewable abundance that will support the modest needs of self, kin and community.
Systems theory suggests that these micro-scale solutions that grow to modest economies of scale, but spread like weeds, are more likely pathways to successful relocalisation than the contraction and breakup of mega systems, although that may also make a contribution.
While Permaculture solutions vary greatly depending on the conditions and culture, they are all informed by universal design principles that collectively generate localised solutions to ecological, economic and social needs. For example, the design principle Use Small and Slow Solutions demands we look to resources and opportunities which tend to be localised and distributed rather than global and centralised. The principle Use and Value Diversity encourages a variety of solutions from place to place. The principle Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback demands a move to more self-reliant ways of living that take account of natural limitations. The principle Obtain A Yield requires us to extend financial literacy to energy literacy so we know which parts of a system are providing the goods. Permaculture design principles combine the common sense of our grandparents with the latest understandings from systems ecology.(127)
Oil has been the quintessential global energy solution and the design thinking developed in the energy ascent era leads us to believe in the next singular and global energy solution and to dismiss solutions that, by their nature, cannot be applied on such a scale. This apparently self-evident truth from the passing era is now a dangerous mindset that blinds us to the myriad of small local solutions and how they fit together to make for a prosperous way down from the peak of fossil energy. Permaculture helps us find and create those local solutions. At the same time it provides the thinking tools to detect the red herrings, false paths, dead ends and ‘Trojan horses’ we will face while charting our descent off the energy mountain over the next few decades.
If, through whatever means, you find yourself with a wad of cash that doesn’t require paying back, then this is an option that, one could argue, would be silly to refuse without at least some thought. There are a number of potential ways you could use this money to take a piece of land out of the monetary economy to put back into the gift economy.
One option is to buy a sufficient number of acres and design an infrastructure and logistics system that allows you (and others) to grow and produce all your goods without the need for money from that point onwards, enabling you to then give away any surplus the land produces to local people in the same way it was given to you – unconditionally. Ideally, the people you give it to would, over time, want to get involved in collectively producing it.
If owning land is something you ideologically disagree with or are uncomfortable about, this admittedly isn’t a brilliant option. Our dilemma lies in the predicament that all land is now owned, meaning that unless you play the same game as everyone else you have usually no legal right to grow any substantial amount of food, with the exception of limited options such as allotments. To ease your discomfort, there are various options open to you.
First, you could do as the Tolstoyans of Whiteway Colony in the Cotswolds did over a hundred years ago and burn the deeds of the land over a pitchfork as soon as you purchase it, effectively leaving it as owned as the day it was born into cosmic creation. This is certainly more difficult today with institutions such as The Land Registry involved, but as long as you don’t register with them I see no good reason why it isn’t at least possible. The anarchists of Whiteway even went to court to ensure that no one could lay claim to the land, and it was a case which the court upheld. Either way, there’s no doubt it would be a powerfully vivid message to send out to the zealots of the Capitalist religion and a world obsessed with the concept of private ownership.
Another option could involve you buying the land without setting torch to the deeds (thus making a minor reduction to your carbon footprint), with a view to putting as much land as you can into the hands of a community allotment organisation, under a legal structure (such as a land trust) that you and your local community could set up specifically to protect this piece of land from those who would see it merely in terms of its financial value to them. In this way the land would be collectively managed and looked after, again giving local people the opportunity to be moneyless in terms of their food and any of the other basics of life they wish to grow.
The benefits of some of these methods of returning land back to the community are many: getting neighbours together; optimising the economies of scale; the pooling of the community’s skills, knowledge, tools and other resources, therefore reducing duplication of equipment whilst optimising their effectiveness and the potential for learning; the creation of non-financial employment; a sense of genuine community and interdependence with each other; having others to look after the produce and animals if you are on holiday, and vice versa; free, locally produced organic food; and not least making the community more resilient (in terms of meeting its needs) from external shocks such as oil price hikes, hyperinflation and the potential of national or international economic collapse. This latter point will become increasingly important in an age where we may not be able to depend on the current economic model to supply us with our food.
These are just some of the paths available to anyone who wants to use money to create less money dependent (or moneyless) micro-economies, as ridiculous and ironic as it sounds. The irony does fade though when you accept the logic of using what we have available to us now to hasten the transition from this globalised, conditional economy to the one we would like in the future.