What does it mean to live without money? Is it possible? And how does it change one’s outlook on life and human relationships? I stumbled across a wonderful book, The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead Books, 2012), the story of Daniel Suelo, who, in the style of Henry David Thoreau, decided to live deliberately, and with clear purpose, by giving up money. I’m a bit of a late-comer to Suelo’s story, which captured a lot of attention in late 2009 following a profile in Details magazine.
Suelo made the radical decision that he would not earn, receive or spend any money – his attempt to live life more directly and honestly. In the book, journalist Mark Sundeen’s describes the journey that Suelo has taken over the past ten years in leading an active, productive, socially satisfying life without markets. Just as anthropologists have often searched for the “savage child” raised by animals rather than humans (in order to assess the role of nurture vs. nature), Suelo, now 52, is that rare real-life example of what it means to live voluntarily outside of the market order without becoming a recluse. Here is a real human being, not an abstraction, who does not want to be an employee, consumer or investor.
For shelter, Suelo has lived in a dozen of more caves in the canyons near Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah. He forages for food from the desert – cactus pods, yucca seeds, wildflower and the like – and engages in dumpster-diving for food and clothing. Born Daniel Shellabarger, he took the name “Suelo,” Spanish for “soil,” and decided to have the smallest possible ecological footprint as possible.
To outside appearances, Suelo could easily be seen as yet another homeless or mentally ill person without friends or family. But despite maintaining a minimalist household comprised of discarded items, Suelo is no monastic or hermit. He has many friends in town. He sometimes house-sits and accepts meals from friends. He volunteers for various community projects. He wanders the Utah desert and meditates. While his life is fairly impoverished by conventional standards, Suelo considers it a happy existence.
Naturally, the reader wants to know how and why a person would choose to live this way. Some explanations arise from the Christian fundamentalist upbringing that Suelo fled, before discovering that he was gay as well. It would be easy to stereotype this story as one about a man on the run from himself. But as the author Mark Sundeen makes clear, Suelo is brutally honest about himself and his search for authenticity – which is why this book raises some fascinating issues about what it means to live without money.
After a number of religious and social service experiences, Suelo decided that he wanted to have a life mediated only by direct giving and receiving from other human beings, without the “monster” of the monetary system intervening. As Suelo writes on his blog, Zero Currency, which he maintains using computers at public libraries:
I don’t use of accept money or conscious barter – don’t take food stamps or other government dole. My philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded & what is already present & already running (whether or not I existed). I don’t see money as evil or good: how can illusion be evil or good? But I don’t see heroin or meth as evil or good, either. Which is more addictive & debilitating, money or meth? Attachment to illusion makes you illusion, makes you not real. Attachment to illusion is called idolatry, called addiction. I simply got tired of acknowledging as real the most common world-wide belief called money! I simply got tired of being unreal.
An extreme reaction, perhaps but the way that Suelo has lived out his convictions since 2000 reveals a lot about contemporary market culture. When the local newspaper ran an article about Suelo’s life in the desert, he was criticized as a “freeloader” – the reaction of someone who thinks that value inheres only in market exchange. But a friend itemized the ways in which Suelo “adds value” through his unpaid labor: he watches pets, prunes trees, repairs cars, paints murals for a youth garden, volunteers at the shelter for women and children, and does spiritual counseling, all “for free.” “I’ll let the accountants of human value put a price tag on all of the above,” wrote the friend. “My estimate is that he gave back at least twice the value he received.”
Suelo himself wrote: “I’m employed by the universe. Since everywhere I go is the universe, I am always secure. Life has flourished for billions of years like this. I never knew such security before I gave up money. Wealth is what we are dependent upon for security. My wealth never leaves me. Do you think Bill Gates is more secure than I?”
It is hard to generalize from the lessons that Daniel Suelo has learned from a moneyless life. So much about the man and his history is singular. Still, the insights and satisfactions that Suelo has learned from giving up money have lessons for all of us, no matter that state of our spiritual evolution or personal emancipation from the market order.