Extreme Cheap: Daniel Suelo

The Bag Lady recently posted about Daniel Suelo, a man who has “quit using money like a bad drug“. I always find people, like Charles Long, Don Schrader or the Freegans to be interesting in their ability to opt-out of the Western economic and social system and chart their own course, living how they want.

Much like the others, there’s a very specific philosophy behind Suelo’s life. He was doing development work with Ecuadorean tribespeople and saw that as they became more prosperous, their health declined. He took the view that, counter-intuitively, money was impoverishing them. He spent time with the sadhus (“the revered ascetics who go penniless for their gods”) and decided that it would be easy to be a sadhu in India along with others doing the same thing, but how much harder (and more worthwhile) it would be to do the same thing in hyper-consumption America?

nobody_past_30The “noble savage” has been a particularly obnoxious idea that glorifies living primitive lifestyle close to nature. I think Suelo is buying into an illusion that money is corrupting a society that he would rather see continue to live as subsistence farmers. Some people will make unhealthy choices, when they have the option to make them. To keep a group poor (or hope for their continued or future poverty) so they can’t access these choices is short-sighted and patronizing.

A quote I love from a Danny Devito movie (I never saw the actual movie, this was just from the trailer) was “a million dollars is a motive with a universal adapter”. This is true about any amount of money. If someone has desires in life, money can assist them (directly or indirectly) in fulfilling them. Money can help you find love (ask any guy who has taken someone out on a date or any woman who has bought makeup or a push-up bra), food, knowledge (bookstores, internet connections), or pretty well anything else you might want.

Money is the ultimate symbol: it can be anything. As Suelo (and the Bag Lady) point out, money only has meaning in the context of the marketplace it is used in. They say if you gave an alien a trillion dollars it would be meaningless to them. This is true, but so what? Money is incredibly useful WITHIN this context. It’s like saying computer software wouldn’t be anything other than long strings of 0’s and 1’s if there wasn’t any hardware to run it on. This is true, but it doesn’t make software useless (it’s just part of a system).

Heidemarie Schwermer (also mentioned by the Bag Lady) apparently has lived without money for about 12 years, by bartering within “exchange circles”. I can’t understand for the life of me why she feels this is a more noble lifestyle than bartering with the global exchange circle that money makes possible (I guess I’ll have to watch the documentary). Similar I don’t understand why Daniel Suelo will accept a winter jacket from a friend, but he won’t accept money from the same friend to go buy a jacket.

In each case, people (including Mr. Suelo) are able to adopt their lifestyle because of the excess from Western living. He uses a library provided free computer and internet connection to maintain his website, and often receives food and goods from friends in the nearby town. I don’t have a problem with this, but some may attack a lifestyle that is so completely dependent on the society it rejects.

For retirement, Suelo plans to die in the canyon he has been living in instead of in a geriatric ward. I respect his fortitude to live his own life in such a manner that is radically different (and far harsher) from the society he exists in. I don’t completely understand (or agree with) his outlook on money, but I admire his resolve and the courage of his convictions.

Mr. Cheap is on vacation this week but eagerly looks forward to reading your comments when he’s back in town.

12 replies on “Extreme Cheap: Daniel Suelo”

Interesting look at Suelo – for the record, I think he’s nuts.

The other thing that people like him have is a giant safety net nearby called “civilization” where they can go for health care, shelter and food. In other words, some help if things get too rough for them.

Like Mr. Cheap, I respect people’s right to live how they see fit (without harming others of course), but for the life of me I can’t understand why some focus on money as the symbol of all that is evil. Money is simply a catalyst for the “trade circles” mentioned above.

Make no mistake, in a world without paper currency it is still human nature that the majority of people would try to improve their dwellings, their clothing, their tools, their food, etc., by ‘upgrading’ using the quantity & quality of the tradeables at their disposal – and greed for those things would STILL exist. If anything, money allows those who who are at a ‘tradeables’ disadvantage the promise of at least some value for what they happen to hold. Plus, as any farmer will tell you – money doesn’t go bad! (but it may fall victim to inflation however!) 😉

I think it’s important for people like Mr. Suelo to realize that the very reason people in places like India or Thailand can choose to live as holy ascetics is because people who do have money (or goods or something) and who work for a living choose to support them. It’s a system of giving and blessing. Putting down the people who make that sort of thing available is hypocritical as long as you accept their handouts.

I don’t know if I’d give to someone who chooses not to have money for the sake of not having money. Now, if the person chooses not to have money and devotes his/her life to doing something I approve of–peacemaking, activism, volunteerism, etc, then I’d be more likely to give. Or a person who chooses to do one of those things and (while not eschewing money) accept that that they’ll live a comparatively ascetic lifestyle.

Weird, I was just reading about Suelo today, too – elsewhere…. I guess the article reporting on him must be the source of all this. I was saying that I wasn’t surprised he was an anthropologist – for some reason even before finishing the first sentence of the article, I had the sense he was involved with anthropology somehow:) Great story. I could never be that extreme, though. Letting mice bite you while you’re sleeping is gross and unhygienic.

oh, p.s. – as an ex-anthropologist I can pretty much assure you that Daniel is fully conscious and definitely not buying into any illusion about money or noble savagery…. his head is definitely above such caricatures, however we find the “yuck factor” of his lifestyle (or not).

I could never do what Daniel is doing but I have far less problem with his views than those on the other extreme, ie. those whose purpose in life is to make money at all costs.

To answer your confusion about Heidemarie and the used-jacket example, one reason it makes sense is because they are using secondhand materials, rather than buying new and encouraging increased consumption. You say that their lifestyle is dependent upon the society they reject–I think that’s the whole point. They “live off of Western excess” to diminish the amount of waste we produce and to illustrate that we consume and produce far, far more than we need (or even want).

I actually admire Suelo and the others who live alternatively. Obviously it’s not a societal solution–if everyone decided to live like them, we couldn’t survive. But to personally opt out of the consumption-crazy world of the US is a valid response to many of today’s problems.

Frugal New Yorker: Well, I never said he’d buy a new jacket with the money. It could be used just as easily to buy a used jacket. Ain’t money grand!

Similarly, as I said in the paragraph about living off of Western excess, I don’t have a problem with that either.

As I also wrote in the post, I admire him too. That doesn’t mean I have to think he’s 100% right in everything he says and does.

I just recently learned about this man’s exploits of “living the the natural way.” I respect, admire, and I seek to be able to do that myself. I don’t totally agree with him, yet, through his actions he has proven his point. As a “societal solution” I think it could work. We came from that but, our desire for an “easy lifestyle” drove people to what was proposed as “progress” and technology which led to convenience and now complacency.
How does one just walk away? For those that want to criticize him I ask have you done this? And do you have the confidence to do so? In “society” fear drives the machine and whether by design or not we have let ourselves become “interdependent” on too much. I say the earth is not over populated at all; I think it could sustain billions more, but it is overpopulated with those that want something for nothing. It is possible too live very simply and it starts with the individual gaining the courage to do it. I am no different than anyone else when it comes to these inner fears as well as the outside. I have, however, learned that it is within me to figure out what I need to do and how to go about doing it.
As Mr. Suelo said the biggest difficulty in beginning what he has done is getting over what others will think of him. Yet actions speak louder than words and as for money, I have found that it is the virtual whip along with fear creation that keeps us in this “slavery without slavery” illusion. We have but ourselves to blame. I could say more but, its alot.


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