While Occupy Wall Street is morphing into Occupy Everywhere, railing against the rich and powerful I thought I’d feature what might prove to be an alternative to this failed capitalist experiment. In 2008 Bristolian Mark Boyle decided to not buy a thing for an entire year, he’s been living by the principles of freeconomics ever since.
Originally Mark was a businessman working in the organic foods industry, but became increasingly frustrated with the rampant consumerism he saw around him. He looked at the world and saw countless problems destruction of the environment, killing off endagered species, sweatshops, industrial farming, wars over oil, the list goes on. But eventually he came to realise that these were just the symptoms rather than the underlying problem.
The real issue was people living far beyond their means. As he saw it, by divorcing ourselves from the source of our food and the products we buy we become willfully ignorant of the effects our consumption has on the environment. The agent that allows this is money. By using it we can distance ourselves from the harsh reality of consumerism, the child labour that produces our clothes, the wars that put the petrol in our cars, the rainforests felled to raise our meat. Globalised companies are well aware of this disconnect from the source of our goods and so will exploit other people and the environment to cut cost, forever chasing infinite growth in a finite world.
So on the 28th November 2008, on World Buy Nothing day Mark moved out into the woods near Bath and vowed not to buy anything for a whole year. In preparation he had sold his houseboat for some start-up money, and bought a solar panel to deal with his electricity needs, for lighting and charging his laptop and mobile phone (no contract, he can only receive calls). He lived in a caravan that he got for free when the owner wanted to get rid of it, it was parked up on an organic farm and he worked a few hours a week there for the privilege.
Cooking would be done on a rocket stove, designed for maximum efficiency to provide the greatest amount of heat for the least amount of fuel. The wood itself was coppiced from the nearby woodland or scavenged. Water is drawn from nearby streams and heated in a black binliner in the sun if Mark wants a shower. Transport is by bike, the 18 miles into Bath provide the necessary exercise too. Although at first Marks plans were nearly ruined by the number of punctures he was getting, replacing his tyres with solid ones donated by a specialist website in return for a mention on the blog Mark runs to document the experience.
His biggest challenge, if it can be called that, is finding food. There are four major sources for getting it for free: foraging from the wild, growing your own, bartering your own goods and finding “waste” food. The project began in winter so any prospect of growing his own food was out of the question, very quickly however Mark realised quite how much food is thrown away at the end of every day. 17 million tonnes of food are sent into landfill each year in the UK as it is far easier and cheaper for supermarkets to discard it as waste rather than give it to those who might be in need. In fact on his first day of the project Mark catered a three course meal for 150 people using food he had foraged and retrieved from bin-diving expeditions. By the end of a year he was so proficient at gathering food he set up a festival for 1000 people providing food he’d grown, foraged and scavenged and beer and wine he’d fermented himself, with a little help from his friends of course.
His project has drawn a certain amount of criticism, some think it hypocritical of him to be using a laptop at all as it is a product created by someone else’s money, even if he got it off a friend who would have thrown it away. Mark is very open about the hypocrisy, he said that he always knew it would be contentious, but if he had simply disappeared off the radar then his efforts would have been entirely self serving, if by promoting the cause he can convince a few others to think about their own consumption then he can face a little abuse. Although he’s written a book about his experiences the advance and any sales will go towards a trust which will pay for a plot of land on which to create a whole community living for free.
It’s a noble idea, and certainly one that attacks a major problem with our society. Realistically Mark’s vision is not one that could be embraced by the world as an alternative to our current lifestyles, largely he survives by extracting the waste in the current system, just like any ecological niche as more people become attracted to it competition will increase and it will be further in someone’s interest to make a profit off of it. As one of the first to exploit this resource Mark has done well out of it, but as more people try to adopt the lifestyle it will become more difficult.
Also although money and over-consumption may be a major cause of some of the more damaging aspects of human life on the planet, I’d say that these things only become a problem now there is so much more human life on the planet. The counterpoint to advances in hygiene, medicine, agriculture and the rest are a massive population boom, one that is quickly outstripping the natural resources available to us. If we’re going to abandon money for a better society, we should also stop at two children.
Freeconomics might not work for the whole world, but a world revolution was never quite the aim, Mark appreciates that it’s a lifestyle that wouldn’t suit everyone, not even most people. All he would like is for a couple more people to really think about whether they need to buy that new “must have”. I think Mark himself sums it up best “All I am trying to say is that I believe money is like oil: if we are going to use it, let's at least use it to build sustainable infrastructure for the future, and not meaningless tat. And I just wanted to show that you can live a really happy, healthy life without so much money or stuff. That's all.
I also want to encourage people to reconnect with what we consume and make more sustainable choices. Paul McCartney once said: "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarians". Well, if people could see the state of war-torn Iraq, we'd all be cyclists.”
And a little extra reading:
Photo by Flickr user retorta_net