Know Your Money Editor
There is a tendency within our society to treat our economic systems as a natural progression of human development, and though many criticise such flawed assertions, the vast majority of us rarely question the economic structures by which we live.
There is, and always has been, however, a small proportion that choose to embrace lifestyles, practices and values that are at odds with the wider consumer capitalist society. Though largely overlooked by the popular media and conspicuously absent from mainstream economic discourse, in these times of global economic uncertainty, when unrepentant financial fat cats have gone back to business as usual and party political wrangling stymies large-scale creative solutions, perhaps we should look to these alternatives for inspiration...
Share and share alike: Sharing networks
Like the parent who actively encourages their children to share their toys but would never dream of lending a neighbour their brand new hedge trimmer, our society implicitly commends the magnanimous spirit of sharing yet is fundamentally opposed to it in practice. Indeed, as demonstrated by ongoing file-sharing feuds, for an economy based on consumption, the concept of sharing is seen as a serious threat.
What sets sharing networks apart from established consumer-capitalist systems is that they run on a magnanimous "pay-it-forward" philosophy, by which everything is offered completely free with no expectation of remuneration or reward. This munificence means that, aside from the obvious financial and environmental benefits, sharing can also be a politically empowering practice that encourages community-building interactions.
A good (and legal) example of this philosophy in practice is Freeconomy. Set up in the UK in 2007, it provides a resource for sharing tools, services, skills, land and office space while, according to founder Mark Boyle, promoting the "transition from a money-based communityless society to more of a community-based moneyless society". The Catalyst Award-winning, non-profit site now has a burgeoning community of over 10,000 members in over 100 countries.
"What a bunch of tree-hugging hippie crap!" you cynics may cry in your best Cartman voice. Well, maybe, but the movement has certainly gained momentum and relevance since the economic downturn and the increasing popularity of all types of sharing networks - not just the illegal ones - has established it as a practical alternative to the consumer capitalist model.
Create your own cash: Alternative currencies
Living at the whim of abstract flows of numbers and an unbalanced debt-based monetary system over which we have no control is, to understate matters somewhat, a massive pain in the arse. However, the recent explosion of alternative currencies around the world has shown that people are wising up, empowering their communities and strengthening their economic resilience.
Also called community or complimentary currencies (since they are not designed to replace official currencies), alternative currencies take many forms which arise to fulfil various needs, from the traditional Tabu shell money that operates alongside official currencies in areas of Papua New, to the various LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) which allow people to exchange goods and services via a mutual credit system, to time-based currencies like New York's long-running Ithaca Hours which promotes local independent businesses.
Don't let their Monopoly money appearance put you off - alternative currencies offer definite advantages over their official counterparts. For example, they give communities more control over their monetary system, local industry and resources thus diminishing the power and influence of centralised banks and supranational corporations. By limiting the acceptance of a currency to a certain geographical area or group within the population they promote community interaction and keep money circulating within that region aiding small business development and, similarly, by removing the accruement of interest, local currencies can discourage the practice of hoarding money and boost regional economic growth during hard times. A more comprehensive rundown of benefits can be found at the Alternative Currency Overview from the research group, The Arlington Institute.
Grow your own: Self-sufficiency
An obvious way to avoid economic vicissitudes is to reduce your reliance on the goods and services that the economy provides. Which brings us to self-suffiency and all that it entails: growing your own food, making your own clothes, fulfilling your own energy requirements and, of course, the best part - Felicity Kendall in dungarees.
Self-sufficiency was the standard model of existence for millennia until the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the 20th century. Over the last few decades, however, mounting concerns over environmental issues, depletion of fossil fuels, increasing global populations and worldwide food shortages have lead to a resurgence of self-sufficiency in the public consciousness.
Obviously, complete self-sufficiency is difficult to attain since it requires knowledge and skill in various fields such as permaculture, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and autonomous building design. Furthermore, successful self-sufficiency also requires a great deal of commitment, time, resources and space that is beyond the means of most people.
Some degree of self-sufficiency is available to most, however, and the countless websites devoted to the movement offer practical tips and advice that can help us curb our pathological dependence on the economy. Heeding this advice, I, for one, will no longer rely on the economy to fulfil my cress requirements.
Strength in numbers: Intentional communities
Despite my newly acquired cress-cultivating prowess, I must concede that living self-sufficiently seems like a hard slog. But why go it alone? Pooling knowledge, skills and resources with like-minded people offers a much greater chance of success.
This is the thinking behind "Intentional communities", the rather prosaic umbrella term given to the myriad types of consciously-created communities whose members live and work together co-operatively towards, in most cases, economic stability, self-sufficiency and egalitarianism.
The mainstream press often dismiss intentional communities as the sole preserve of cults, weirdos and tree-hugging hippies (yes, Cartman writes for the Daily Mail); but they come in all shapes and sizes, rural and urban, from ecovillages and communes to land trusts and housing co-operatives, and though, in some cases, residents may share social, political, religious or spiritual beliefs, such blinkered popular myths overlook the sheer variety of people and lifestyles that are represented in these communities.
The degree to which such communities operate outside of wider society and the economy also varies significantly. To meet the needs of modern living such as health care, transport and other necessities, many communities incorporate money-earning capabilities into their self-sufficient operations (like producing artisan crafts or organic produce to sell at local markets).
George Monbiot's description of the difficulties faced by the founders and residents of Somerset's Tinker's Bubble indicates the further concessions that must often be made to bureaucratic legislation and the intrusive interference of our corporation-appeasing government.
Nevertheless, if you long to escape the rat race, rediscover the circadian rhythms of nature, reduce your eco-footprint and find an economically sustainable life outside of the mainstream, then you may still find the answer lies within an intentional community.
Money-less living: Freeganism
Self-sufficiency is all well and good, but why bother growing your own food when others throw away huge quantities of perfectly edible produce? A question that Freegans, at the more extreme end of the alternative lifestyle spectrum, answer with a complete boycott of our economic system.
Emerging from the environmental and antiglobalisation movements of the early 1990s, freegans are driven by various social, environmental and political motivations to engage in a variety of alternative practices such as resource sharing, squatting and wild foraging. However, the defining element of the movement involves salvaging discarded food (and other goods) from the refuse of others - most often the bins of supermarkets, grocers and restaurants.
Freegans don't "bin-dive" because they need to; rather, it is an overtly political practice in protest to the appalling wastefulness of modern capitalism. This lifestyle might be a step too far for a population weaned on convenient consumption and readily available food, but there's no ignoring the shocking statistics that motivate it. As recent figures show, UK households throw away an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food a year, most of it edible, which equates to about one quarter of the food we buy. A shocking figure indeed, but the biggest wastage of food occurs long before it reaches our bins. It has been estimated that up to 50% of worldwide food produce is wasted by the inefficient mass production, distribution and retail practices of the global food supply chain.
Mainstream media coverage clearly demonstrates wider society's ambivalence to freeganism. A recent US magazine profile of Daniel Suelo - an educated and principled freegan who has lived without money in a Utah cave for nearly a decade - exhibited a supercilious streak that seemed more interested in his bathing habits than his refutation of a wasteful society and its unbalanced economic systems (an ambivalence that was discussed in a Guardian Money blog entitled, "Daniel Suelo: Free spirit or freeloader?")
British freegan poster boy and author, Tristram Stuart, seemed to have had more success recently as a spokesperson for the movement due, no doubt, to his tidier haircut. However, as he is well aware, it will certainly take more than glowing book reviews from sympathetic commentators to make people lift their heads from their KFC buckets and pay attention.
If you would like to share your thoughts on alternative economic practices then please post a comment in the thread below.