The poverty of environmentalism
In a manifesto too ridiculous to spoof, Mark Boyle argues that we should all live without money to help save the planet. No thanks.
In one of the many eminently quotable scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, two gangsters – Jules and Vincent – are sat in a diner discussing what Jules will do now that he has been the beneficiary of a ‘miracle’: someone shooting at him at point-blank range has managed to miss him completely. Jules decides that this ‘act of God’ is a sign that he should give up being a gangster and ‘walk the earth, like Cain in Kung Fu‘ until he gets another sign from God.
Vincent is unimpressed. ‘No Jules, you’re gonna be like those pieces of shit out there who beg for change. They walk around like a bunch of fuckin’ zombies, they sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away, and dogs piss on ’em. They got a word for ’em, they’re called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that’s what you’re gonna be: a fuckin’ bum!’
Mark Boyle would beg to differ on this assessment of a life without money. Born in Donegal in north-west Ireland, Boyle took a business degree but, having discovered the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, decided that business in its mainstream form was not for him. He then lived in Bristol in England for a few years, running organic food businesses until a conversation with a friend suggested to him that money itself was the barrier to relationships between people and communities. So, he decided to see if it was possible to live without money.
Boyle has already told the human side of the story in his 2009 book, The Moneyless Man, and in a series of articles for the Guardian. He obtained an unwanted old caravan via the Freecycle service, then offered to work part time (for free) on an organic farm in exchange for some land to park his new abode. Before he went moneyless, he bought a solar panel to provide a modicum of power for a laptop and a light. He made himself a ‘rocket stove’ out of old olive-oil cans and heats his home using a woodburner. Finally, he made a composting toilet. So enthusiastic is Boyle about composting his waste that he argues that the compost toilet should be ‘the symbol of the entire sustainably living movement, in the way the spinning wheel became a symbol of Swadeshi [self-sufficiency] in India’. (The fact that India is still recovering from the mass poverty brought about by the drive for self-sufficiency seems to have passed Boyle by – or perhaps he thinks such poverty is a good thing.)
As he explained in the Guardian: ‘I believe the key reason for so many problems in the world today is the fact we no longer have to see directly the repercussions of our actions. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that people are completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering involved in the production of the food and other “stuff” we buy. The tool that has enabled this disconnection is money.’
A few years ago, spiked had a spoof ethical columnist called Ethan Greenhart. However, the trouble with writing the column (and the accompanying book) was that greens are just so hard to satirise. Humour by exaggeration is nearly impossible because no matter what misanthropic and irrational idea one could think of that would be just one notch too far, just too bizarre and anti-human, along would come some environmentalist wingnut who sincerely wanted to go further. Mark Boyle is one such wingnut.
So Boyle has no time for this ethical-living business. Choosing a slightly kinder purchasing option is still to accept our obsession with material wealth, he says. Is a rapist more ethical, he asks, if he uses a fairtrade condom? No. Similarly, being slightly more ethical is not good enough. Nothing less than a total reappraisal of our society – and particularly the role of evil money – is required.
Coincidentally, condom-based imagery penetrates his prose again when he discusses his preference for barefoot walking as a mode of transport. Not only does it require ‘zero resources’ but ‘it fully connects you with the planet. I believe that shoes are like condoms, in a way… They act like a barrier between us and the whole, creating yet another degree of separation.’ His answer is to make flip-flops out of old car tyres or to whittle out a pair of wooden clogs. But then Boyle goes even further: ‘I’ve told friends that when I die I want them to make a pair of shoes out of my hide – willow soles with my bum as an upper would be my ideal.’ I’d like to think that Boyle’s tongue is in his cheek (or better still, that the whole book is a spoof), but the rest of the book is so damn earnest that it seems unlikely.
Money, argues Boyle, reduces social interactions to the exchange of wealth. This is not a concern about the fact that those who lack money are deprived of goods and services. Everyone can recognise that poverty is a problem. No, Boyle thinks that money itself destroys communities because what should be freely given is now the subject of interpersonal bean-counting. Boyle thinks we should have a ‘gift economy’, because giving something freely, while trusting that some reciprocation will come at some point, is a better way to live than putting a price on every interaction.
But clearly, the ‘gift economy’ (people just being nice to one another) and the market economy exist side by side. (Or perhaps Boyle grew up in the company of some really tight-fisted people.) In our personal relationships, we rarely tot up precisely how much one person gives the other. It is also entirely normal to support causes or concerns through charity where we expect no return for ourselves. However, gifts are not a basis on which to organise a whole society.
The market – and yes, good ol’ money – actually enables a far wider connection between people. On a daily basis, my work is brought into connection with the work of people all over the world thanks to the buying and selling of goods and services. In fact, that network of relationships is infinitely complicated and subtle in a way that merely exchanging bits and pieces of work with people in my own locality could never be. The tea-leaf picker that helped to provide this mug of hot drink I’m consuming at some point devoted a few seconds of his or her labour to me, as did the person who dug the coal for the power station that produced the electricity for the kettle and the farmer who provided the milk. They didn’t know they were devoting that time to me any more than I know who those people are. Thanks to money, and the wider social relations that it allows to be expressed, these connections take care of themselves. They are impersonal but they are nonetheless enormously beneficial.
What Boyle expresses in a very pure form is the inability to look beyond material exchange to see the social relations behind it. We are not ruled by money – an inanimate object – but by real human relations. As Karl Marx noted, in a world of commodities, relationships between people take the form of relationships between things. I don’t know the tea-pickers – but my wage is exchanged for their produce. I only see the tea; they only see their small share of the wages of many people. Thus, it is easy to fetishise money as having some unique power, but it only embodies and realises those social relationships.
Celebrating this mechanism does not mean that the market system is unproblematic, far from it. The frequent lurches into recession, the need for the state to step in to fulfil functions that are unprofitable, the way the market can distort production priorities, and so on are all good reasons why we should always be looking to improve this economic system or supersede it. Living in a second-hand caravan on an organic farm – in a cave, like Boyle’s moneyless hero Suelo does in America – is no substitute for the material comfort provided by modern society.
Boyle is entitled to live as he sees fit. Personally, I find his lifestyle choice bizarre and illogical, based on living parasitically on a society that can afford to treat caravans, oil cans and so on as waste. Much more concerning is the way that ideas and stories like his get taken up as inspiring examples of how we should all make do with less. In the face of humanity’s greed, it is argued, we should all be like the Moneyless Man and forego modern conveniences. More gallingly, this is an idea usually put forward by people who are among the wealthiest few per cent of the planet’s population and know nothing but comfort.
In an economy that is failing to move forward materially, dismissing economic growth and material wealth is becoming ever more fashionable among the movers and shakers of modern society. We should aim, we are told, for a ‘steady state’ economy where we minimise our ‘ecological footprint’. Figures like Mark Boyle are useful idiots that allow the elite to dress up this inability of society to provide for the rest of us in the fluffy clothes of environmentalism and spiritual enlightenment. In truth, these moneyless ideas are bankrupt.