Why I Decided to Uncivilize Without Money

In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their basic needs without money. They had developed skills that enabled them to grow barley at 12,000 feet … People knew how to build houses with their own hands from the materials of the immediate surroundings … Now, suddenly, as part of the international money economy, Ladakhis find themselves ever more dependent – even for vital needs – on a system that is controlled by faraway forces. They are vulnerable to decisions made by people who do not even know that Ladakh exists … For two thousand years in Ladakh, a kilo of barley has been a kilo of barley, but now you cannot be sure of its value.

— Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

I have rarely been asked why I want to uncivilize myself, but I am frequently asked why I want to uncivilize myself without money. Answer: I think this is the only way I could have successfully begun the process. I suspect this is true for many others.

I actually had what people would perceive as an opportunity to begin this process in comfortable, stable conditions. When I was homeless, I applied to university, knowing I didn’t have the money to get in. The university I applied to did have a program that promised to pay for everything related to college, but I didn’t technically qualify because I wasn’t going into college immediately after high school. To my surprise, they waived that requirement, accepted me into the university, and enrolled me in the program. University was free. I was, in fact, making money. Extra money from the program was how I survived for the two and a half years I stayed.

But I found my time thoroughly colonized by outside forces I didn’t before have to deal with. The demands of classes, student groups, social life all combined to make living my own life an impossibility. I largely disregarded these demands to a degree most students would not have — and continued to pass all my classes — but the problem remained. I also found that I learned very little at university. Less than I did when I was homeless, actually, since during my homelessness I spent most of my time in the university’s library or reading books I checked out from there. For most people, it seems, university is not four years of intensive learning with the object of getting smarter; it is four years of intensive paperwork with the object of getting a degree. But I had lived without a degree before, and I was just fine. I could do it again, better if I had the time to learn the necessary skills. At university, I didn’t have time. Trust me, I tried very hard to change that.

I suspect that most institutional obligations would have the same effect as the obligations of the university. Constantly people tell me that they admire what I am doing, and that they, too, hope to one day escape the hustle and bustle of civilized life. “In my ideal life I would buy some land…” they begin. But how many of those people are actually going to buy land? That hope for a better future constantly encourages them to sacrifice their life until they get into a situation they can’t easily leave. Then they just despair about that imagined land.

In other words, deciding to do this uncivilization thing moneyless was a practical decision, not the result of lofty ideals. If I thought I could enter into the money economy without weakening my dedication or loosing focus, I would have. It would have been a lot nicer. But if I can get food from foraging, a little bit of panhandling, and dumpster diving; if I have a shelter on my back; if I have clothes on my back; and if I have the skills to hitchhike when I need to get somewhere — what is the use of money?

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