Putting cash in the trash


A Donegal man has founded a ‘freeconomy’ movement that seeks to encourage a more sustainable lifestyle, and he’s leading by example, managing to survive without any money

NEARLY TWO years ago, Mark Boyle decided he no longer wanted any money, so he just gave it up. That wasn’t all he gave up. He also quit his job as the manager of an organic food business, sold his home – a houseboat in Bristol – and moved into a caravan on a farm outside the city.

The 31-year-old from Ballyshannon, Co Donegal hadn’t lost the plot but instead had decided it was time to rewrite the rules by which he lived his life. He also wrote a book about his experience, The Moneyless Man,which was published earlier this summer.

It makes for an engaging, if sometimes infuriating and baffling, read, as casual readers rather than die-hard advocates of his “philosofree” (sorry) may wonder why he bothered putting himself through so many deprivations and going without virtually all the comforts of modern living just to write a book.

The book is very much a side project, however, and plays second fiddle to a website he set up to promote his “freeconomy”. Freeconomy? Freeloader is what we were thinking when we made contact with him last week.

He accepts that his chosen lifestyle leaves him open to such charges, but he bats them away with good humour.

“Ten years ago if someone told me I’d be labelled a crusty [our admittedly harsh word] I would have laughed. My background is in business and economics. People can call me what they want. I am not arguing in favour of giving everything up, just in favour of designing a better system.”

Boyle’s initial plan was to spend a year living in Bristol without spending any cash, but he has now grown so attached to the idea that he has given up money for good.

So how does he survive? He makes his own toothpaste, using as the main ingredient cuttlefish bone, which washes up on most sea shores, and wild fennel seeds. He uses a compost toilet – or a hole in the ground, the humanure, as he calls it, is used to fertilise his vegetable plot – and washes his clothes with a detergent made from boiled nuts.

He lives in a solar-panelled caravan (bought with the proceeds of his house boat) on a farm, where he volunteers to earn his keep, and gets water from a natural spring. He’s a big fan of urban foraging and barters his skills – he has a degree in business and economics from NUIG – for stuff he can’t get from any other source. He makes his own beer out of hops, pine needles, yeast and malt extract from grains such as barley, and cycles and hitch-hikes everywhere – he has never owned a car.

He grows a lot of his own food, does “a bit of bartering” and forages for the rest of it. “Around five per cent of what I eat is what is called waste food,” he says. “I gather up a lot more of it but I give most of it away.”

By waste food he means the stuff retailers and restaurants throw away because it has passed its use-by or sell-by date. He suggests that anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps should “build a relationship with their local shops” and claims “no human being wants to throw away good food. Five minutes before a lot of this stuff hits the bin it was on the shelves. Back in the day a greengrocer could look at a carrot and see that it had a week or two left but now it has to be chucked out because of the label.”

His idea that no one wants to throw away food is hard to believe when you consider that a third of the food in Ireland and half the food in the US ends up in bins. That statistic is “absolutely insane and really depressing,” Boyle says. He accepts that many people will think that what he is doing “is simply quirky” but he insists it is nothing of the sort and is a “manifestation of my whole philosophy”. He also acknowledges that the whole world couldn’t just give up money in the morning.

“It would be a complete catastrophe if it happened overnight but it could certainly be done gradually. The economic system we live in requires infinite growth from a finite planet, but I think what we need to be doing is creating communities which are sustainable. We have become addicted to a certain standard of living.

“The really big questions are around land and planning. We have taken away people’s ability to house, feed and clothe themselves without money and forced everyone into a wage economy. You need to have access to land to be able to feed and clothe yourself. From the perspective of humanity, life has improved certainly, but from the perspective of all the species who become extinct each year and all the marine life which dies out, the world most certainly has not.”

He makes no claim to have all the answers but insists that since he decided to live without money “my life has improved dramatically. I have never been happier, am fitter and healthier.” This is hardly surprising as he cycles over 100 kilometres a week.

The book is selling well and is in the process of being translated into seven other languages. It is going a whole lot better than his last moneyless adventure. In 2008 he set out on an epic journey from Bristol to India. The idea was he would bring no money with him and rely instead on the kindness of strangers to get him across the continents. He made it as far as Calais before getting stuck, cold and tired and without a word of French, so he came home.

He is presumably going to make some money from The Moneyless Man, although he says he has no plans to spend it on himself. He is in the process of setting up a “moneyless village” with eight members of his Freeconomist movement. The aim of the village will be to educate visitors in the possibilities of living on nothing.

The reaction to his extreme financial crusade has been broadly positive, although he does get some negativity on his frequent blog posts for the Guardian website. “Around 40 per cent of the comments are hostile, but that does not surprise me. We are always told we should look for as much money as we can, so the notion that we can live without it questions an entire belief system.”

The Moneyless Manis published by Oneworld Publications. For details, see the freeconomist website justfortheloveofit.org