How can we move towards a society that feels more human, natural and less dependent on money, considers Lucy Purdy, as she spends a week in Devon exploring ‘wild economics’

The day before I left for university – car piled high and mind agitated with excitement – I went walking. The Shropshire fields and trees among which I’d spent 18 years appeared burnished by the late September sun as I traced familiar routes in worn boots I’d left unpacked on account of their bumpkin unfashionableness.

I sat at the top of a hill I’d climbed dozens of times before and said goodbye to the landscape of my childhood, remembering climbing trees, jumping between hay bales; searching for tiny fish as I sunk my jam jar into the cold water of the nearby stream, tongue curled in concentration.

The moment felt intimate and important – as if the countryside felt warm towards me and glad to see me before I left, to wish me well.

From that moment I rushed into ‘real life’, becoming a student, employee, consumer, a member of this heady, incomprehensible beast we call society. I find myself now in London with a mortgage and too many possessions, part of a seething mass that often feels as confusing as it does exhilarating.

The moment on the hill ten years ago has become one I return to at times of crisis or change – a soothing reminder of feeling loved and supported and ready to face whatever joys and challenges lay ahead. The author Robert Macfarlane writes about this comforting connection with nature in his book The Old Ways, describing the “landscapes we bear with us in absentia, retreated to most often when we are most removed from them.”

I was reminded again of this connection recently on the Wild Economics course at Schumacher College in Devon. The course explored the philosophies and practice of gift- and nature-based economics and was led by wild food forager Fergus Drennan, and Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Manifesto, who lived for three years without money.

The week brought flashes of clarity. One came while on a Deep Time Walk with the college’s resident ecologist Stephan Harding, when we paced 4.5 kilometres (one for each of the Earth’s billion years) along the Devonshire coast path, learning about the expansiveness of ecological time. Peering into a rock pool, the mind-boggling improbability of life’s very existence was striking, as was a sense that we’ve all known each other, and the planet, since we were part of the same ancient slime that first coated it.

Lucidity came too around the fact that we’re not really selfish beings, working against each other to snatch scarce resources, but that we’re one and part of the same thing. It made me really question the illusion that a society constructed so overwhelmingly around money is the only way of doing things. After all, it’s something that has come about in such a relatively recent chunk of history.

“We share an urgent desire to find ways of being human, which aren’t dependent on money”

What about the possibility that money only exists in this way because we choose to believe in it and allow it to control us so absolutely? And that we share – despite our wounds, fears and masks – an urgent and poignant desire to find ways of being human, which aren’t dependent on money?

As my childhood connection with nature fulfils and informs me years later and miles away, there are some things we just know, but which we ignore. Earth, knowledge and humanness lie within us, itching to be released. And the competition and endless persuasions that can become bound up with money too often take us away from this.

It’s the kind of conversation that can feel difficult to slip into over dinner, even with the people you love most. Clarity in what to believe can feel impossible in a world where so many influences act upon us. The week with the Wild Economists taught me that fresh thinking can start as simply as giving a gift; whether it be emotional support, spare food or time towards your community, giving in whatever way feels natural will have a positive domino effect.

We need to see interactions as opportunities to help and give, to be citizens rather than consumers, and to place more trust in intuition than just rationality. We need to steel ourselves against the potential hurt that lurks in the gap between the cold familiarity of transactions and the dizzying thrill of giving without knowing what will come of it.

All around, individuals and organisations are springing up in response to this, people reacting to the world being at a point of ecological collapse, of social and political unravelling. Many cultural responses now reflect rather than deny the fact that our lives cannot be happily lived if we continue to feign satisfaction with what George Monbiot calls “the petty liberties of consumerism.”

For me, answers have been found in consciously stepping out of the madness and returning to the quiet intelligence of nature, something I knew as a child, but which was outshouted and misplaced along the way. My week at Schumacher helped give me the knowledge – not groundbreaking, but deeply felt and personal – that we need to shape economic systems around things which feel right and natural to us. In ways that add fertility to our local communities and to the Earth: around nature and around love.

Photo title: Lucy and her sister playing in a river as children

Photo credit: © Lucy Purdy

  • Sara Greenwood

    Thank you Lucy- your eloquent article has touched me deeply. Home truths lying beneath the surface of our material lives awaiting realisation in quiet enlightened moments.

  • Shanna Jones

    Wonderful article. I too have reflective quiet walks when I go back to where I grew up. During them the stresses of the city and modern life melt away and the important things in life take centre-stage once more. It must be a Shropshire thing!

  • Chris Milnes

    Thanks for that great article Lucy. It reminded us a lot about how our own project came about: http://www.thereallifeproject.com/the-long-way-home/. Thanks for sharing!

  • Bryony

    I agree entirely, I love my home county and always feel a sense of relief whenever I return and take a stroll along the places I know so well…Shropshire is a beautiful place.

  • Karen miller Williams

    Beautifully said. This is the understanding behind The Three Principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought as uncovered by Sydney Banks. I think you will really enjoy learning more about this at http://www.threeprinciplesmovies.com or http://www.3pgc.org

  • Concerned womxn

    This is an interesting article, but I am somewhat concerned that the writer is coming from a position of privilege.

    She writes: “I find myself now in London with a mortgage and too many possessions”

    What about those of us who cannot afford a mortgage nor possessions? Would not it have been better to give away some of those possessions and sell her home in London, move back to Shropshire and use the difference to raise awareness for positive sustainability, perhaps something for feminism or a cycling revolution? Maybe something to remove this uncaring government?

  • Paul Colley-Davies

    I live in a wood in Herefordshire fighting planning appeal 2217731 and I say return to your roots Lucy! But only if you are willing to give up the security of that mortgage and are happy to battle the decision makers. I live on very little money but the reality is that most may dream it, few will do it. I am living the dream but I certainly can’t afford Schumacher College fees that are extortionate and for, well, those with jobs in London who can afford them. I love positive news but I am not being negative. .only realistic. ..we don’t need to atttend college to understand that, just read Henry David Thoreau.

  • Mike Abbott

    Hi Paul,
    good to see you are still hard at it. If all goes well, it won’t be as hard as you make it sound – although, as you imply, no pain, no gain!

  • Mike Abbott
  • Jim

    An interesting article for sure.
    Yet written by a young person who now lives in London and writes for a living.
    A child’s view of the countryside is not the reality of rural life.
    Modern rural life is in general, far removed from the idealised portraits of our city dwellers who use the countryside as some sort of outdoor leisure facility.
    Modern rural life is extremely hard.

  • Real Hack

    Well said, Jim – rural poverty, isolation, the attacks on rural areas/jobs under 13 years of Labour etc doesn’t seem to register on Ms Purdy’s radar. Perhaps she should look at those issues rather than how we can all spend £3,000 to listen to a bunch of middle-class people tell us how bad money is?

  • Paul Colley-Davies

    Thanks Mike
    Its time that Herefordshire Council understood sustainability. I remember the comments that the officer made when determining your application..something about not being truly sustainable. They haven’t got a clue but now they have the NPPF National Planning Policy Framework to deal with and this puts the emphasis on sustainability…..I will post more soon

  • Paul Colley-Davies

    Lucy please come to Herefordshire..you can do a further piece on living frugally..I am a living example!

  • Allan

    May I offer a different perspective to the article. I believe we are entering into an era of “enlightened” capitalism, where the bottom line is no longer the only reason to be in business. We need to change the way business is conducted from one of power , greed and corruption to one of ethics, purpose and profits with integrity.

    “At this stage of history, either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of it’s own destiny. And will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity and sympathy for others or alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control.” – Noam Chomsky

    Zentrepreneurism 3.0: The Inner Game Of Conscious Business eBook: Allan Holender: Kindle Store
    http://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0071EPMDI/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk

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  • Brian

    The only sustainable systems are biological ones, the only real capital is natural capital. Even bricks and mortar houses are not truly sustainable, though we’ve yet to improve much on them. If we build soil and grow fruit and nut trees, ie your basic permaculture homestead, then we would not have to worry too much about the future, we have it in the bank :)

    I know you know all of that backwards and forwards, so its a surprise to hear you plumped for a mortage in London! The best of luck with it, I have always enjoyed your writings, perhaps you’re put there to bring some sanity, love and knowledge of nature. Cities tend to be missing those things, though as you hint in your article, they are all words to describe a single unitary state of being.