Money. It’s a strange thing, but one that we take for granted. In 2013, I managed to visit the Burning Man festival, held annually in the Nevada desert, a place where virtually no money changes hands. Entering this social structure for four days felt more natural than later getting my head around readjusting to the financial relationships of the outside world.
I had already heard about Mark Boyle in the UK, whose moneyless experiment was covered in parts of the media at the end of the 2000s. This radical form of downshifting involved living in a caravan on an organic farm, and finding ingenious ways to meet all of his daily needs. More recently, he has been involved in setting up a moneyless permaculture community in Ireland that includes a moneyless pub called The Happy Pig. And no, I don’t have its address.
For anyone who wants to try this, there are a few prerequisites. In a society that is increasingly control-freakish, living without money means letting go and embracing the unknown. In today’s climate of fear, the average mental construct of ‘the unknown’ is likely to harbour some scary monsters. But it could also harbour wonderful things too; you just don’t get the chance to keep life at arm’s length.
Other likely concerns are survival issues, a fear of lack and poverty, and insecurity about being on the receiving end of negative judgements from some quarters. It also helps a lot not to have any addictions, as they generally cost money to sustain.
I first read about Jo Nemeth’s North Coast moneyless experiment a while back, in the Nimbin Good Times. Her name seemed familiar, and I later find out that we were in contact a few years ago via the Northern Rivers Timebanking system. Prior to this phase of her life, Jo was working as a community development officer in Casino, and was a coordinator for Casino Community Garden.
At a time when she was ill in bed in early 2014, she was inspired by reading Greg Foyster’s book Changing Gears. It features Greg and his partner Sophie leaving the rat race and cycling up the East Coast from Melbourne to Far North Queensland, looking for people who are living simpler lives. Jo was also influenced by Mark Boyle’s story, and there are clear parallels in their moneyless living arrangements.
Jo’s moneyless plans came to fruition 18 months ago. The plan was to stay on a friend’s farm in the Koonorigan area, just north of The Channon, living rent-free for year in exchange for working in their orchard. She originally started in January 2015, living in a tent while building a small shack, largely from reused materials, but was rained out. When she made a subsequent attempt in March, things worked out a lot better.
One of the most important, and easy-to-overlook, aspects of starting such a life is to decide on a set of parameters on how to approach being without money. People tend to be generous and offer gifts, but this can detract from a goal of avoiding the consumption of new resources. Initially, the biggest challenge was the mental adjustment needed to get into a moneyless headspace. Jo’s life at Koonorigan was largely self-sufficient, with a few inevitable exceptions. In one case, she visited the dentist, but was able to pay with an existing credit. Transport largely involved hitching lifts to and from Lismore.
For cooking, she used a simple rocket stove that she made herself, made from sixteen bricks that she found lying by the side of the road. As these had been smashed up a bit, they had to be reassembled.
A year later, she discovered accidentally while running a rocket stove workshop that where intact bricks are used the stove is far more efficient, and boils water in five minutes as opposed to twenty. Such a stove burns twigs, and requires very little fuel. Jo was loaned a haybox (an ultra-insulated container that enables food brought to the boil to cook with no further heat), but in the event this was never used.
Water came from a rainwater tank, and she bathed with a black solar shower and a bucket. She collected tiny scraps of soap from friends who would otherwise have thrown them away. For toilet paper, she was using lightly used coffee serviettes.
Electricity came from a small solar panel and battery system that is sufficient to power an LED globe and charge a laptop. The shack was blessed with passive solar in the form of large north-facing timber casement windows. Getting by with no indoor heating, she rugged up a lot and turned in fairly early.
For food, she had her own vegetable patch that was established before she arrived. This was complimented by the occasional donation from neighbours, dumpster diving, receiving free unsold vegetables from organic shops, work-for-food exchanges, and foraging for wild food. Before the experiment began, she also purchased some non-perishable food items.
Recently she relocated from Koonorigan, leaving behind the shack for a more coastal existence, and currently she is house-sitting a friend’s place in Byron Bay for a couple of months. With no vegetable garden and café serviettes to fall back on, she has been forced to be resourceful. Through volunteering her time at a local organic vegetable box delivery service she receives produce in return. Another energy exchange is with the Liberation Larder food rescue service, where she obtains free meals and sometimes takes away fruit and vegetables. Recently she has lined up an arrangement with a local café to collect unsold food on a regular basis.
Her criteria involve avoiding the use of new resources, but she is happy utilising waste or accessing spare unused capacity such as space in a car. In this regard, her philosophy is very similar to No Impact Man, a.k.a. Colin Beavan in New York who set out to live for one year with no net environmental impact.
Despite mod cons at her fingertips, Jo has found ways to keep her resource demands down to a bare minimum. As the house has solar panels, she is treating power generated during the daytime as an under-utilised resource, and is trying to time electricity use to coincide with this part of the day. She is currently looking at a slow cooker, which only uses about 100 Watts, roughly the same amount of power as an incandescent light bulb, and occasionally makes use of the microwave.
Jo’s moneyless lifestyle has been inspired by strong environmental ethics, and a desire to minimise her environmental and social impacts. She has concerns about the state of the planet and fossil fuel emissions, and is saddened by the current levels of damage to the planet and its people. She especially fears for younger generations. Witnessing these issues, she has decided that she does not want to be part of such a system and has taken the radical step of turning her back on consumption and the use of new resources.
She sees a need for people to take responsibility at the individual level, by differentiating their needs and wants, and is walking the talk. She advocates a personal responsibility where individuals cut their carbon footprints by buying locally produced, curbing their amount of driving, and reducing their use of plastics. Estimating that she has slashed her own footprint by 80-90%, she feels that if other people could cut theirs by 40-50% it would make a difference. Big reductions in carbon emissions are possible now and we need to be pursuing them.
A little-known fact is that while about 10% of a household’s ecological footprint is in the form of direct consumption of water, electricity, fuel and transportation, the other 90% is associated with the products and services that we consume. This remarkable finding appeared in the 2007 report Consuming Australia, which also correlated every dollar spent in the economy with 720 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and 28 litres of embedded water. Because these figures apply to both products and services, for products alone they are likely to be significantly higher.
I ask her whether she goes to the effort of repairing items herself, and find that her minimalist life contains so few things that this is generally unnecessary. Similarly, she has generally not needed to plug into the peer-to-peer gift economy in the form of online groups such as Freecycle.
She sees most of us working, running around, trying to survive, and having our hands tied. Her lifestyle is the opposite. Removing so much clutter from her life made her time-rich, put her in an expansive mood, and gave her plenty of opportunity to engage in philosophical reflections.
A typical day at Koonorigan would involve spending a fair amount of time in the vegetable patch, plus 1-2 hours cooking, and some reading. Despite this activity, life felt like a constant holiday. Jo has found that being without money has been good for her creativity, stress levels, fun and physical health. This has given her a better quality of life than that of someone working hard to survive. She has become more resourceful and resilient, and is less intimidated by challenging situations when they arise.
Having all of this scope to think was sometimes a double-edged sword. It involved Jo engaging in some soul-searching about her relationship to society in terms of issues such as work and tax, especially after some less-than-encouraging comments when she was covered in the media. Being moneyless also led to different ways of thinking, which she saw as a case of retraining her brain. Having a perspective that was outside the box offered Jo scope to access insights that are even more ‘out there.’ She has certainly become more passionate about climate change since she went moneyless.
Looking at myself, I’ve been able incorporate some of Jo’s principles into my lifestyle by living in a ‘freegan’-oriented way. At a collective level, the 90% of our ecological footprints tied to products and services can be reduced via creative avenues for avoiding unnecessary consumption. These include manifestations of the sharing economy such as Freecycle, Facebook give-away groups, Libraries of Things, tool libraries, and free stores. Or even just by buying secondhand.
The example set by moneyless pioneers pushes us to re-examine our own lives, the meaning of being ‘independent’, what we feel is important, what we think we really need, and what we feel it is acceptable to waste.
Jo has several offers that she could take up when her current house-sitting arrangement comes to an end. Like Mark Boyle, her hope is to continue the moneyless lifestyle while being around like-minded people in an environmentally-oriented community. She plans to write a book about her lifestyle experiment, which she hopes to continue, ideally indefinitely.
Jo can be followed on her blog at https://jolowimpact.wordpress.com