Daniel Suelo comes from the same state that I do, Colorado. He’s about the same age and background as me. He, too, loves being in nature and being outside. He lives near Moab, Utah, where my wife and I met and hope to retire someday (more on that later!). But he inhabits an entirely different universe with different rules, mores and customs. His world is so dramatically different that it is virtually unimaginable.
You see, Daniel Suelo has no money. At all. Most people consider him to be a bum. In the nicest, least pejorative, most thoughtful sense of the word. About 15 years ago, in response to spiritual, intellectual and personal crises, he gave up money. He refuses to touch it, has no credit cards, works no job, punches no clock. He lives on public lands around Moab, Utah. He doesn’t beg, but eats what he can gather from nature and the dumpsters behind restaurants and supermarkets or what he is offered by friends. He isn’t a hermit or a recluse, but maintains a vigorous social life in Moab. He blogs about his experiences from the Moab Public Library. He works occasionally, but mainly for the experience or to help out something he believes in, never for pay.
And I live in Hong Kong, the most capitalistic city on the planet. This city was founded on trade and business and has thrived on it ever since. Money is
the raison d’être of this town. This city is the shrine to the very notion of money—a medium of exchange or a store of value—as having meaning in and of itself. The acquisition and maintenance of money, the profit motive, is the religion of Hong Kong. The notion that capitalism properly organises itself (supply) through signals of the people’s desire (demand) to provide for efficient provision of goods and services is not mere abstraction here, but rather the very foundation of the city itself. In addition to the undeniable benefits of economic growth, Hong Kong also offers some of the best examples of conspicuous consumption and economic inequality. I’ve given up counting the number of Louis Vuitton outlets and watch stores with strange Swiss names that sell watches for more than my mortgage.
Appreciating both of these world views has, I must admit, taxed my limited intellectual capacity. And, certainly, I am in the middle of the two extremes—though a lot closer to Daniel’s situation than to some of my neighbours in Hong Kong—thus have a foot in both camps. Reconciling these visions of the world, however extreme, is what I do in my day job. We in the environmental movement make the case daily to wealthy people and to captains of industry (and to governments) that they need to invest in the natural world in order to ensure that it continues to provide the clean air, clean water, safe food, and healthy atmosphere that will sustain their children, that, in fact, even their money cannot protect their children from the rages of a frayed climate, a dead ocean and a global toxic miasma.
And TNC also supports people who are in Daniel’s situation, but not by choice. I recently visited Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where a no-cash, barter society exists on coastlines that are already feeling the pressure from sea level rise and coral bleaching. The ocean has pushed their villages back many meters and the rising sea temperatures have impacted their primary food source, fish, which relies on corals as breeding grounds and nurseries. They have organised themselves around these challenges and are zoning their ocean and self-regulating their fishing. They are building dry rock walls to protect their vegetable fields from salt water incursion. They are staring down the barrel of the gun of climate change, without money, with a little help from TNC, and planning their future despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.
My wife and I respectfully disagree about money. I think we won’t have enough to retire until I am 120 years old. She thinks we can retire next week. Perhaps the real truth is that retirement in Moab or on Manus may be a false promise given the threats that climate change pose. And money and capitalism probably will play a central role as signals from the environment, like Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Nargis, drought, wildfires and pollution begin to more directly and clearly impact global markets.
Since the global and national political systems have failed us all on climate (honestly, a global deal on climate is a structural impossibility!), perhaps the market will save us. Otherwise, we may all find ourselves with useless Piaget watches trying to learn how to start anew from Manus Islanders and Mark Sundeen. I suspect that this challenge will require the best from all of us, though. I hope we all rise to the challenge as the Manusians have done.
The salt of the rising ocean has already slowed or killed their sego palm and taro root crops that are critical staple foods. Their freshwater lagoon has turned salty too, but Ndillo villages’ 600 residents are working to restore the mangroves and natural barriers to turn it fresh again. In the meantime they are farming milkfish, mud crabs, clams and sea cucumbers. The 2km by 1km barrier island off the coast of Manus Island, Papua New Guinea was used by the US military as a base in WWII as they fought to evict the Japanese army from the island of Papua (old corrugated metal from that time is still used to build the characteristic stilt houses on shore or over the water).
Their shorelines have eroded many meters in the last 20 years, but they are building rock sea walls to capture the sands and slow the erosion. They are planting the mangroves to buffer the storms. They send their 9th graders to school on Manus, and the parents go to Bougainville or Port Moresby to work mining jobs and send money back, but many of them eventually return and retire themselves. It is a beautiful, orderly place–what they lack in modern conveniences, they make up for in strong culture and community, beauty and integration with the natural world.
I am now a clan member in Ndillo, inducted through a formal ceremony, celebrated through dancing and eating and drumming and laughing. “Urro” is the Titan (pronounced tee-tan) people’s word for welcome and hospitality. I have never felt as welcome as in this simple place: with no electricity, no currency, no televisions, no plastic, bare houses on stilts with only basic furniture, these smart, self-sufficient people are on the front lines of a change in the climate that they had nothing to do with, the causes of which didn’t benefit them at all. They are fighting for their lives and culture. I am always welcome back, but with Urro comes obligation. I have to figure out how I can help their efforts to adapt to climate change. So do we all.