Reading the runes of my post-money future

candles in glasses

Light of contentment in a night beyond jobs and money. Photo: Mike (Inbet_1979) via Flickr.

Friday night, while strolling downtown after dinner, my wife and I came upon a young man seated on a Mexican blanket on the sidewalk offering instant readings into the future. I would’ve kept walking, as it was hot and sticky and I wanted to stroll off a full belly. But Lindsay, a fan of astrology and street entertainment, pulled quickly aside and engaged the busker.

Runey tunes

With looks like a younger, more emo version of the bald business correspondent on CNN, Ali Velshi (who recently told Jon Stewart that the stock market is like a mood ring), the oracle was offering “Free Fortunes — For Entertainment Only.”

Tea lights and smoke from Nag Champa helped Velshi Jr. lure passersby to join him on his blanket. He then offered a cotton bag printed with Sanskrit letters and invited his guest to reach in and pick out four stones. Each was carved with a Celtic rune (which may not really be Celtic after all).

Naturally, Lindsay went first. The runes showed that she’d faced some challenges, but, that with a long season of planting, she’d soon yield a harvest from her work. Crouched on an overturned 2-gallon plastic bucket, I went next. Though I pulled different runes, the result was much the same — first challenges (either moral or legal), then triumph.

Street soothsayers must know that most people enjoy getting a fortunate fortune.

And we were both entertained enough to engage the rune-thrower in conversation. I’ll call him Jason and, it turned out, he was yet another pilgrim on the journey out of the money economy.

As in a Hank Williams song, Jason had just lost both job and girl.

But he was hardly down and out. On the bright side, he’d just gained 52 acres of Allegheny mountain forest from his mom, who abandoned her back-to-the-land dream and left her son with an unexpected career opportunity as a farmer.

This lord of trees and hills and streams oversaw his fiefdom from a teepee. And when calling at local towns like ours, as he did a couple times a week, he overnighted in the bed of a small red pickup truck that must’ve been safe enough to snooze under the stars while probably getting OK gas mileage too.

Just another word for nothing left to lose

To my wife and me, town-dwellers bound to what Dmitry Orlov has called the money economy’s iron triangle of mortgage, car and job, Jason seemed impossibly free.

He picked up a few bucks from busking and a few more from occasional landscaping jobs. This covered his gas and let him shop for the few things he seemed to need every week. He grew his own vegetables and planned to put in more produce next year, maybe even enough to start selling on the local farmers’ market circuit.

As teepees tend to be, Jason’s was off the grid. He had hooked up a bicycle to a generator and he said that a couple hours of peddling would make enough juice to run a sound system for fifteen minutes. And though I wondered how exact he was being with his numbers, this arrangement sounded like a good fitness program but a poor source of on-site, renewable generation. I suggested that he could use a solar panel. He agreed and said he was clearing some trees for a place to install one.

Guy-on-a-bike-peddling-for-power reminded me of the “energy slaves” — the fuels that run our cars, homes and factories, replacing the muscle-power of yore — that peak oil people like to talk about. Each citizen of an industrialized society has the equivalent of a hundred or more of these hidden workers at our disposal every day. These energy slaves allow us and our fellow commoners to enjoy luxuries like air travel and hot water from the tap that Louis XIV never could have imagined.

The BBC even ran a show about it a couple years ago, “The Human Power Station,” pitting a room of stationery bicyclists wired to a generator against a middle-class British family of four flipping on lights, opening the fridge and sitting in front of the telly. By the end of the day, the bikers were exhausted.

As oil, coal and natural gas continue to deplete in the future, soon we all may be using a lot more muscle power in our daily lives. That will be a practical lesson that burning carbohydrates to move muscle is no match for burning hydrocarbons to run machines.

Busking, odd jobs and barter

We chatted with Jason about how we’d both lost jobs in the last couple years and how it had changed our lives. He listened sympathetically. We had no health insurance or retirement plans and our income was cut in half. Yet, cobbling together part-time work, contract consulting and entrepreneurship, we were still busy all week, though now we took our compensation more in love than money. We had also gained a new appreciation for the domestic arts. We ate out less and cooked at home more. We’d started tending a couple plots at a community garden while becomimg sort of creative about bartering, not just food but also our skills — like donating a website to a non-profit outdoor theater and getting season tickets and an ad in their program in exchange.

After about 45 minutes, we got up to go. But in a post-job ritual that seems to becoming more common and hopefully less awkward with each passing month, we exchanged cards for our own own home-created businesses. Then we wished each other well.

On the way home, Lindsay and I talked about how much we enjoyed the little diversion. Especially what it said about this post-money economy that so many people in the peak oil and Transition movements are talking about these days.

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” asks the gospel of Matthew.

Jason lost his whole world — at least as modern society would define it. But he seemed to be going along and getting along.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    Its a cliche, but it i quite true that Money is the Root of All Evil. Its an abstraction of Obligations of one man to another, and through the abstraction personal responsibility for the state of your community is lost. Some folks collect up lots of “money”, which effectively obligates many people to them. Others fall deeply into debt, and ecome obligated to others past their abiity to make good on such obligations. The larger the system becomes, the more skewed these obligations become, to the point of course where it simply no longer makes sense, and the monetary system must collapse.

    It is close to impossible to function in our current culture without money, but of course in prior cultures before the advent of Agriculture money did not exist. Its an artifact of counting systems used to tally grain in early ag societies, and has persisted as a means for resource distribution, but it has many mathematical problems. I could go on and on about those, but I won’t for this post.

    In this particular iteration of the monetary cycle, because it is so closely tied to the energy econmy based on fossil fuels, money is destined to become quite worthless, so setting yourself up to operate in the absence of money is something everyone needs to prepare themselves for. Very difficult to do in our society of course, and you have to forgo many things if you are to do this effectively.

    “Jason” appears to have been lucky enough to be able to begin the process, but he still does depend on another aspect here of monetary sytems, which is Ownership of Land. If he cannot retain his ownership and control of the land that he inherited, his paradigm will fall apart also. As our Federal, State and Local Goobermints begin to fail, so also will the Property Ownership system begin to fail. Making the leap into a society of non-ownership is possible is th direction we must take, but it cannot happen until the general conduits of energy distribution fail.


    • says

      The difficulty of making the transition from money to an economy beyond money seems to parallel that of moving beyond fossil fuels. I for one was inspired by a talk that Dmitry Orlov gave about the relative proportion of human exchange that was given over to the market economy in the past vs. today. Before industrialism, gift and tribute were much bigger ways of exchanging goods and services than trade for money, which was mostly limited to a few merchants, bankers and aristocrats who needed to pay for wars like the Crusades.

      Of course, the market has now displaced most other forms of exchange for us, but Orlov thinks that things have already started to go back the other way, with money’s portion of the economy starting to shrink. Back in post-USSR Russia, money transactions dwindled in favor of barter, gifts and tribute. Could this be a foretaste of things to come for us?

      • says

        I’m in basic agreement with Dmitri with respect to the utility of money in the post collapse economy. Industrialization and the explosion of “things” certainly has been a main driver for money becoming a ubiquitous transaction mechanism across the world. In many respects, I think the psychological transition necessary to function in a non-monetary based society is even more difficult than weaning off the creature comforts provided by the Age of Oil. For the most part, people in our current society define their entire sense of self worth in terms of money and the status it bestows on the individual. This concept will not die quickly, so there will be a tendency to try to replace the current failing system with yet another iteration of the same concept, without the general understanding that it is inherently flawed and cannot work in a negative growth environment.

        Of course, there are so many other hurdles here to overcome that a lack of functioning money may be quite far down the list of challenges we face.


        • says

          Though I never made much of it, I have to admit that I’ve also been one of the people who’ve used money, from time to time, as a way to keep score. How can we go beyond that, to start with? Should we do like Wendell Berry, and make poverty a virtue? Then, once we start to free our minds, we’ll have to find ways to be creative about meeting our material needs. I’m eager to learn more about it, as this path seems very promising.

          • says

            Poverty is a relative state which is only defined by your position relative to everyone else in the society. Kalahari Bushment aren’t poor measured against each other, they only appear poor when compared to another society with a higher standard of living. “Standard of living” itself is a loaded concept that generally means wasteful consumption of resources. In any event, I don’t think making poverty a virtue is a workable philosophical approach, its been tried by everyone from Jesus Christ to Buddhist Monks and it just doesn’t generally appeal to most people as long as the society itself will reward greed and excessive consumption.

            Rather, you have to try to wrap your mind around not placing monetary value on “things” and not making it virtuous to be an accumulator of things, nor making it a vice not to have many things. In our society, its generally quite a stigma to be poor, so few people willingly impoverish themselves. A few Buddhist Monks,that’s about it these days.

            For myself, I more or less have made it a point in my life to operate at the median level for the society. Early on in my life I made gobs of money right out of college, I am the Son of a Bankster. I was a Risk Analyst at Merrill. I didn’t like the ethics, so I quit this bizness in my 20s and in the years since worked as a Clinical Chemist, an OTR Big Rig Driver, a Chef and a Teacher. As I see it, as long as the monetary system functions in a society, its virtually impossible to completely drop out of that, but on the other hand if you position yourself to commandeer gobs of money in such a system, it quickly corrupts you. As the saying goes, “it would be easier for a Camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to pass into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

            When this monetary system goes the way of the Dinosaur, as it most surely will in due time, most of society will be quite levelled in terms of standard of living, and there is likely to be an extended period of power seeking and power shifting through the society as large and complex power structures give way to smaller ones. In most cases, the new structures won’t be any better than the old ones, other than the fact they are smaller which makes them a bit less monotonic and overarching. The fact that this period is likely to involve an extensive Die Off of the current population is likely to make it a very difficult time to make your way through the world. Its only after the population stabilizes at some lower level that paradigms for living which do not involve monetary structures are likely to develop in most places.

            Generally my suggestions on trying to avoid the “Zero Point” dislocations of society we are likely to run into here revolve around moving to the lowest population zone you reasonably can do. The lower the population and the more remote from the center of Industrial civilization you are, the greater the likelihood your community can evolve a Potlatch economy, which is the Gifting and Sharing economy engaged in by Hunter Gatherer tribes that functioned pretty well right up to the late 1700s in the Pacific Northwest, before the Europeans got a stranglehold on the entire NA continent. So for myself, I live in Alaska, in the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley. You won’t find a lower population zone anywhere else on the face of the earth where you still also can have a full time connection to the Internet :-)

            How it will exactly play out is anybody’s guess, and there is no sure-fire recipe for making it through the Zero Point. Certainly though, you must reduce your dependence on Money as much as you possibly can, but until the system collapses in its entirety, it is IMHO unwise to make a virtue of “poverty”. Neither is it very wise to be outrageously rich either, it just makes you a target in the end of the have-nots present everywhere. Live Small, live Meek, make Connections in your community and encourage others to do the same while building alternative solutions. Practice Bartering, I often will trade my services for nice “things” others here make or harvest, I have a wonderful pair of Red Fox Fur mittens that you could not buy anywhere on the “market”, just for helping a student do better on her SATs. Her dad traps and mom sews up the mittens. This is no guarantee once the primary Conduits fail of course, but its a whole lot better than being stuck inside NYC where I was born when TSHTF.


  2. Jb says

    A very nice piece, Erik. We often see similar types on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville: fortune tellers, musicians, run-aways, etc. Sometimes I pity them and sometimes I envy them. I was ‘free’ once a long time ago; the taste was bitter sweet.

  3. Auntiegrav says

    Thanks for joining in, Reverse Engineer. Good points all.
    To me, the bottom line is whether people are working for their own useful future; acting as though their personal activities will affect their existence in cooperation with a useful world environment. (As Wendell Berry would say, “What are people FOR?”
    As R.E. says, money is an abstraction. It takes away the value of a person’s living actions and replaces them with a price, an arbitrary number in an imagined model of the universe where everyone gets what they want magically through “demand” by virtue of their existence rather than through real physical labors or problem solving.
    Along with that abstraction of money is the inflation of the abstract value of people (humanistic thinking), which elevates the life of a person to untouchable status in a finite resource environment. Farmers used to have dozens of children because they were useful on the farm as a part of the farm environment. Now, people have children because they are simply ‘valuable’ as entertainment or status. The abstract value of high populations (consumers) is supported by inflated currency flows.
    When currency flows collapse, so will the value of people in the System of systems (we already see this in cities and prisons). Beware those who are heavily invested in any -ism, for they will have the most difficult time understanding the process of Descent, and will lead many to cults and genocidal beliefs and totalitarianism.
    In the current American system of capitalism, humans are exploitable cogs in the gears of corporations and war machines. The government still encourages children as “deductions”. The more bodies, the lower the wages and the more profitable the corporations. The more people there are, the more they argue with each other over who should get more government services, and thus, the government gets to build an empire on demand, even without a royal crusade of any particular religion or noble blood.
    Ideally, the people would realize that they built the governments and corporations, and that they could also live without them by doing things for themselves (as they used to do). The information is available, but the mindless life of television/globalization/money isn’t easy to quit. When it becomes easier(mentally or physically) to live without them, then people will do so. Not before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *