1. The Money Delusion

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Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.

— Noam Chomsky

Recently I was at a dinner party where the paper napkins were printed with the image of a ten pound note. Oddly serene, disturbingly familiar, the Queen’s face stared back at all of us, daring us to wipe our grubby faces on what has become the most sacred of symbols. Not one person did; each napkin lay as smooth and undisturbed as it was when it was laid out. There is something that feels very wrong about using a ten pound note, even its image, to wipe icing off your mouth.

Take a minute to think about that paragraph, and you’ll begin to see how absolutely stark raving mad the concept of money is turning us. Had those napkins been the plain white kind that we’re force-fed with every coffee, burger, cocktail and slice of lemon drizzle at your nan’s cake sale, the kind that float in the background of every outdoor culinary experience, then I would wager that we wouldn’t have thought twice about using it once, before throwing it away. We’re only too happy to churn a countless number of trees through our convenience food sector, yet we hesitate at wiping our face with something with the mere image of a ten pound note.

Money – that soulless, empty, arbitrary concept, subject to the fickle whims of markets and inflation, in itself good for neither feeding us, sheltering us nor loving us – has become more meaningful, more valued and more sacred in our lives than trees – providers of oxygen, water, food, shade, shelter and soil structure. We are in Alice’s wonderland, where nothing is what it seems, and nothing is as it should be. We are completely delusional about what we need in order to live nourished, meaningful lives, and our delusion is destroying not only our ability to do that, but the ability of every other species on the planet to do so too. As the Cree Indian proverb goes, it seems that “only when the last tree has died, the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught, will we realise we cannot eat money”.

Considering its power over us, you would wonder why in 2008 I decided to abandon that course of action and try something different. When I originally decided to start living without money – or as I prefer to call it, to start living with the types of local gift economy that I will examine in chapter two – I did so on the basis of one major realisation: much of the suffering and destruction in the world – factory farms, sweatshops, deforestation, species extinction, resource depletion, annihilation of indigenous peoples and their cultures – were symptoms of a much deeper issue. From what I could see, only a people desperately unaware of their own intimate connection with the rest of life on this planet could behave in the ways we do, and only a people surrounded by powerful distractions could not feel the deep scars that this behaviour was causing. Not only was money enabling us to remain shielded from the horrors resulting directly from our consumption habits, it was also the most powerful distraction of all.

As time afforded me ever more experiences and lessons in living beyond money, the reasons for doing so took on an almost infinite scale. Embedded in the use of money are distractions and disconnections that I could not have imagined. The list is endless, and I could not include them all here. In the following pages I have picked out what I feel are the most important points, looking at the consequences of money on our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves, and the subsequent effects on the state of our society and our planet. What it all seemed to boil down to, however, was one simple point: living without money changed my way of being. Existing outside the monetary economy enabled me to sit inside the organic flow of life and recognise the interconnected oneness; it enabled me to experience a different sense of self.

We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.

— Thich Nhat Hanh