‘Hands up everyone who believes that their leg is a part of themselves?’
With the exception of one man who was cheerfully waving his prosthetic limb at me, shouting ‘mine’s not!’, most hands in the audience went up, the others presumably thinking they were too smart for such an esoteric trick. Though the relevance of the question at this point seemed quite unclear, it was one I would regularly ask at the start of talks I gave about my life without money, and the reasons behind why I chose that path. I reassured the crowd that with the exception of our one-legged friend, their legs were, for all intents and purposes, part of themselves. The process of breaking down the modern conception of self, however, was only beginning.
I decided to take it one degree deeper. ‘So what about the bacteria in your gut, life-forms that are entities in and of themselves but which are also a crucial component of your digestive system – are they part of you, or not?’ Chins were scratched, and brows furrowed. Hmm. This time only half the hands went up, and even those were a little less bold than the first time.
‘Not so clear-cut, right?’
‘Okay, what about the water in a stream that you stand beside and from which you’re contemplating drinking – do you see this as part of you, or not?’ The hands raised were now becoming increasingly marginal.
‘No? What about that moment where you have cupped the water in your hands and it’s at the point where it’s just touching your lips and about to enter your mouth? Anyone?’ Some go up and some go down, but I can now count the people who think so.
‘What about the moment the water from the stream enters your body and is absorbed by it? Is it now part of you?’ Suddenly lots of hands start waving enthusiastically again.
‘If not it ought to be, considering the fact that a large percentage of your physical being – you – is made up of, and replenished by, this water.’ Having established that almost everyone considered the water from the stream to be part of their egocentric selves at this point, I continued on the journey towards establishing a more scientifically sound, holistic sense of self.
‘Why, then, did you not consider it to be a part of you in that split second before it passed your lips and entered into what Alan Watts called ‘the skin-encapsulated ego’, that skin-bag of blood and bones that we normally think of as our selves? How is it that the stream suddenly becomes you when it passes the invisible boundary of your open mouth, even though you may have often drunk from that same stream innumerable times before?’
My point was this: the boundaries of our sense of self are delusional and a product of an age-old but incremental journey away from a deep sense of oneness with the rest of life, and towards a sense of individualistic separation from it all. We think of ourselves as a discrete ‘object’, bounded by our skin, but it’s a perspective that is both scientifically and experientially hard to justify when even the skin itself is constantly exchanging atoms and energy with the universe it is a part of. Instead of the fleshy egos floating around in a Cartesian universe that Charles Darwin, Adam Smith and others have taught us is inherently hostile towards us (a worldview seemingly immune to the fact that the same universe freely supplies us with everything we need to live healthy lives), the reality is that we are part of a flow of life – energy, food, water, minerals, radiation and so on – constantly passing in, out and through us, much of which has no respect for the boundary of the skin at all.
We are no more a bounded ‘object’ than a wave on the ocean is. Like a wave, we are a form through which many objects are passing. As Alan Watts lucidly notes, ‘you and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean’. We are not, as contemporary culture would fool us into believing, glorious beings sep-arate from the savagery of Nature, but instead glorious beings inherently part of glorious Nature. We are as much Nature as the grand oak or the humble chickweed is. Therefore the yet-to-be-drunk spring water is as much a part of the ‘I’ as the flesh, blood and bones that you more obviously consist of at any exact moment.
At a fundamental particle level we are all one and the same: different assortments of the same basic elements (oxygen, carbon and nitrogen and so on). On the basis of this, should our sense of self, at the very least, not stretch to the landscapes – the streams, springs, trees, wildlife, plants and atmosphere – on which our lives inextricably depend? It is a sentiment Albert Einstein once alluded to when he said that ...
... a human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Our notion of self plays an entirely underestimated, though central, role in the types of economic systems we create. Our current monetary economic system – at odds with the culture of gift economics which humanity has used in various forms to meet its needs for the overwhelming majority of our time on Earth – was born out of our delusional sense of self. For if we dropped the illusory veil of separation, and accepted that we are part of a world constantly exchanging energy with itself, a world with no respect for boundaries such as the skin (which is as arbitrary as the border between Luxumbourg and Belgium, France and Germany)*, then ‘my self’ charging ‘you’ for the gifts I manifest in the world (gifts, remember, that we have all been given freely) is no less absurd than me charging a tree for the nitrogen in my urine when I pee under it, and it then invoicing me for the oxygen it produces and generously supplies to my lungs. As Daniel Suelo, a man who has lived without money for over a decade in the U.S. once suggested, it would be no less ludicrous than for my hand to charge my face for scratching it.
As I have explained more thoroughly in The Moneyless Manifesto, money is both chicken and egg in relation to this incomplete sense of self. Whilst money originated as a mere symptom of the illusion of separation between ourselves and all other life, along with concepts such as debt and credit (which do not exist outside of the human mind) that stem from that, it has in turn perpetuated and greatly intensified the extent to which we feel disconnected from the rest of life. It does this primarily by increasing the degrees of separation between us and what we consume. Without a technology such as money, we would have to live within a localised economy, where we meet our needs through a direct and intimate relationship with the land under our feet and the people in our communities. Money enables us to trade with far-away people whose eyes we’ll never meet, often by using supply chains which – due to the lack of visibility involved – rely on gruesome and violent practices that we would be hard pushed to witness if we were directly exposed to them and their consequences.
These new impersonal relationships, devoid of the sense of trust and friendship that local economies draw upon, rely on contracts and the armies, police forces and courtrooms required to enforce them. Therefore, to the psychological and emotional discomfort of pacifistsadvocates of non-violence who love using the World Wide Web and who do not want to give it up, the reality is that they cannot have high technologies such as servers and fibre-optic cables without the very things they rail against: armies, prisons and police forces, not to mention the global factory system that is injurious not only to the human soul, but to the entire biosphere.
As much of a shock as this might come to us in the powerful, overdeveloped nations, people like the Ogoni1 do not want their lands destroyed so that we can feed our insatiable desire for tat, no matter how much money we offer them. Unfortunately for them and countless others who have been unlucky enough to live over ‘valuable’ resources, if The Machine can’t buy you with its gold it will destroy you with its weapons. Nowhere is left in peace. For as Derrick Jensen poignantly noted in A Language Older Than Words, ‘Throw a dart at a map of the world, and no matter the territory it strikes, you will find the story of cruelty and genocide perpetrated by our culture’.2
Seeing Ourselves as Nature
This institutionalised separation only serves to create an even stronger delusion, and that is where our problems really intensify. This constricted sense of self – manufactured in stages over millennia by the incursions of language, numerical systems, agriculture, money, indus-trialisation and global-scale technologies into our lives – has critical implications for the way we treat the Earth and its inhabitants. For if we do not see ourselves as connected to, or dependent on, our human and non-human communities, why would we bother respecting them? If we do not see ourselves as connected to, or dependent on Nature – or more precisely, as Nature – why would we defend it (ourselves) from the forces of The Machine which, though born out of Nature also, is an entity more analogous to a cancer which has taken over an organism whose vitality has been dangerously compromised?
Industrial civilisation has developed and encouraged a sense of self which implicitly denies these integral connections and dependencies – implicitly denies oneness – and the results of this have never been clearer: homogenisation of once diverse cultures; the Holocene mass extinction of species and languages; air, soil and water toxification; the rapid growth of cancer, asthma, diabetes, heart disease and obesity rates; rapidly increasing incidents of mental illness, suicide and depression; cults of celebrity, obsessions with physical beauty and a fear of death. All of this makes up an epoch which Charles Eisenstein refers to as the ‘Age of Separation’.3
Beans now come from a tin can, not the soil. Water comes from a tap, complete with chloride or fluoride, and not the spring or the stream. Our furniture comes from a supermarket and not the woods around us. We no longer navigate our way around our habitat by way of the stars, but by gadgets with SatNav. We meet our needs by understanding how to use a piece of software instead of the age-old knowledge of plants, and their qualities, which were once abundant around us. Medicine comes neatly packaged in plastic containers from the pharmaceutical indus-try, and not direct from the world of plants like it still does for some indigenous peoples.
We have become the prison inmate who has been inside so long that he, on regaining his freedom, re-offends immediately, simply because he is dependent on the prison service – his chains have become normal. We are the slave who has become loyal to his ‘owner’, the hostage suffering from Stockholm syndrome, the battered wife who continues to stick up for her abusive husband, the cow who refuses to – or no longer remembers how to – run when the iron gates of her small concrete barn are opened. We have sworn our allegiance to The Machine instead of the Earth.
Resistance is Essential
Jensen argues that, ‘If your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and your water comes from the tap, then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on them. If your experience, however, is that your food comes from a landbase and that your water comes from a stream, well, then you will defend to the death that landbase and that stream.’4 Until a time where we understand that our own well-being is dependent on the health of The Whole, we will not adequately resist a culture that seems hell-bent on pillaging every square inch of the planet, polluting our air, soil and waterways along the way. Unfortunately, nothing stops us from understanding our interdependency with our land better than the troika of industrialism, capitalism and monetary economics. It is yet another chicken-and-egg mess we seem to have gotten ourselves into.
To those of us who are deluded to such an extent that we act as if our lives are dependent on supermarkets, some of this may seem a touch abstract or theoretical. To those – such as the Pirahã, an indigenous hunter-gatherer people of the Brazilian Amazon – whose cultures have thus far resisted The Machine and who have retained a deep understanding of their connection to The Great Web of Life, the idea that human well-being is dependent on the health of the land, the air and the waterways is basic common sense, even if they have no need to intellectualise it.
To toxify their rivers would be to, quite literally, poison themselves. To annihilate the flora and fauna on which their own lives are intricately reliant, would be to annihilate themselves. To pollute their air would be to pollute their lungs, to erode their topsoil would be to directly diminish the vitamins and minerals that make up their own flesh and bones. Native, land-based peoples usually understand (or more commonly now, understood) this to a much deeper degree than those whose lives have been mechanised by industrial civilisation. This is why they are less afraid to defend their lands with everything they’ve got when they come under attack from the incursions of The Machine. They certainly do not bother to constrain themselves with civilised ethics that don’t hold up to even the most gentle investigation.
Age of Separation to Age of Reunion
Despite the obvious truth that if we destroy or toxify that on which our lives depend then we will die with it, we (supposedly) intellectually superior civilised people persist in restricting the inalienable right to an appropriate defence of the things we think we own, and not the things we are, and which are us. If we are to have any chance of survival we need to take this natural right out of the Age of Separation and plant it firmly in the Age of Reunion, a new epoch in which we no longer delude ourselves with such clear distinctions of ‘I’ and ‘other’ and within which we can recreate our systems of economics, medicine, education, science and technology through a lens that ‘seeks not the control or transcendence of nature, but our fuller participation in nature’.5
We need to defend the Earth with the same ferocity we would evoke if it were our home, because it is. We need to defend its inhabitants with the same passion as if they were our family members, because they are. We need to defend our lands, communities and cultures as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
While this more holistic sense of self is something that is becoming more widely acknowledged in both scientific and philosophical circles, my own route to this perspective was an experiential one. Through my adventures living without money, as futile as it was from a political perspective, I learned many lessons. I learnt that if I did not return nutrients to the soil, by means that were not detrimental to far-off places, I would eventually not be able to eat. I gained the understanding that if I cut down all the trees in my habitat to fuel my woodburner at all hours of the day, I would no longer have anything left to use, and the birds who woke me up every morning with their indefatigable, exquisite song would no longer have a place to call home. For the first time in my life I became aware that the fate of myself, the ash tree, the robin, the spring, the stream, the bees, the owl, the badger, the trout and the stag were all one and the same – if they were wiped out or destroyed, myself and my kind would not be long after them. What was true for my little realm, is also true for the planet at large.
Life Gives Life to Itself
I am the land, I am the salmon, I am the holly tree, I am the swallow, I am the earthworm, I am the pigeon, I am the hen, I am the fox, I am the ramson, I am the bluebell. When the robin eats the worm and shits onto the soil from which I eat, it is not violence, but Life giving life onto itself. Likewise, when I die I want to go out with humility (whose linguistic roots are in ‘humus’, the Earth). I want to be devoured by buzzards or, if they hadn’t been exterminated from my landscape, a pack of wolves. It seems only fair.
This is an extract from Mark Boyle’s latest book, Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, published by Permanent Publications available now. Order it direct from us and help supprt independent, permaculture publishing.
Mark Boyle lived completely without money for three years, and is author of the best-selling books, The Moneyless Man and The Moneyless Manifesto. He is a director of Streetbank, a charity that enables people across the world to share skills and resources with neighbours. Mark contributes to publications, international radio and television, and has been featured by CNN, The Telegraph, BBC, The Huffington Post, ABC and Metro. He lives on a permaculture smallholding in Ireland.
2 Jensen, Derrick (2004). A Language Older Than Words. pp.33-34.
3 Eisenstein, Charles (2007). The Ascent of Humanity. Panenthea.
4 Jensen, Derrick (2006). Endgame Volume 1: The Problem of Civilisation. Seven Stories Press.
5 Eisenstein, Charles (2007). The Ascent of Humanity. Panenthea.
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