CLIQUE TALK: we meet Benjamin Lesage, who has decided to live without money
Unlike the Earth Liberation Front fanatics or the Johnny-come-lately hipster eco-warriors, Benjamin Lesage is looking for happiness, is very down-to-earth, and wants to tell us about his odyssey and his Eotopia project: “creating a vegan eco-space based on a gift economy in order to find the path to a simple, harmonious life.”
Who are you?
A human being trying to lead a happy life (laughs).
What’s your background?
I was born in Besancon in Franche-Comté. After studying for a Management degree I went to the Netherlands to study for Communications for three years. Just before I finished I went to Mexico for an internship in an environmental NGO. It opened my eyes to the impact of our consumption habits in France. It was there I started a thinking about consuming less and becoming a vegetarian, then a vegan.
I came back to France to write my thesis, and I hitchhiked for the first time to get back to the Netherlands. It was a turning point for me. I found myself stranded at a petrol station, where I spent the night.
It was an amazing evening. I felt more than ever that I wanted to live. I wanted to sleep everywhere, freely following my destiny wherever it took me.
So two of my best friends – Nicola and Raphael – and I travelled back to Mexico in January 2010. We wanted our journey to be an ecological as possible. We left without any money, and without consuming anything.
I want to build my life around this idea today, and I want to share it with the Eotopia eco-space project.
Did other things inspire this journey, like the story of Daniel Suelo (who has spent 15 years living in a cave with no money or papers)?
Yes, absolutely. At the time he’d been living without money for ten years. We spoke to him and he really motivated us. The film Fight Club also made me think a lot, about the financial system in particular, and the idea that “what we possess, possesses us”. My other influences include the great Jack Kerouac, and Philippe Labro for his roaming travels and expression of freedom. When I ended up at the petrol station, everything came back to me and I thought “Oh right, that’s what they were talking about.”
This experience set things in motion, but was it leaving Europe that really made you realise everything?
Yeah, in Morocco. It was more a revelation than a realisation! When we were there we met people who were far more generous, simpler, more humble, and who had limitless trust, as if they weren’t scared of anything. It shocked me. They had a sort of trust that can be explained by religion.
They have Allah. They don’t need to be afraid because their destiny is already written. It’s not just on paper, they really apply it to their lives.
How did you manage to cross the Atlantic afterwards?
Most skippers who want to cross the ocean make a stop in Las Palmas, a large port in the Canary Islands. The trick is really to be accepted by the people, to take part in port life, hang out in the bars…
People need to recognise you. They need to trust you.
We went there every morning for a month, and finally met two Italians who agreed to take us on board.
The deal was that we helped with cleaning the boat and the cooking. We also gave them Spanish, English and French lessons. They wanted to speak other languages so they could travel. And three weeks later we arrived in Brazil.
Did you ever want to give up on everything?
I can be scary, but it’s mostly magical and beautiful. Things were kind of hard in Brazil. Nicola decided to stop. Waiting is definitely the hardest thing. Raphael and I were stranded twice in petrol stations in Brazil. The first time lasted three days, and at the end I got all of my stuff stolen. The second time lasted five days, and that was really tough. We ate the leftovers from trucker’s plates. They would eat the meat and leave the rice and beans. It was definitely one of the hardest parts of the journey. It really taught me what it was like to live without money.
Was it hard to find things to eat for three years?
We mostly ate bread, especially while we were on the road.
I think someone with a gluten intolerance would find it much harder to travel without money!
We also ate fruit and vegetables left over from the markets. Sometimes we went to restaurants to try and get the leftovers. And there were always the bins…
There’s so much food thrown away every day. The USA are the worst.
But the fact that religion is more present there has a real impact. If they feel like you need help, they will help you.
One day, in California, with everything we’d found and that people had given us, we actually ate better than if we’d had money!
That’s the second time you’ve talked about religion to explain a certain generosity you’ve experienced with people. Are you a believer?
I’m a believer, yeah. I was forced to become one! I believe in life more than anything, and in a certain order of things that can be summed up by “if you give freely, life will be generous to you.” Every day that passes is proof this is a universal law!
Before the USA, you were in Mexico, where you ended up on your own. But you also met people who changed your life.
I met Yazmin, my wife! It was love at first sight. We hitchhiked up to the USA together, and met Daniel Suelo in his cave. We spent about 10 days there. It was incredible. He’s an exceptional person, very humble, very calm. Meeting him was really important, because I was faced with a possible future for myself. That’s when I had the idea of opening an eco-space where no one would need money: Eotopia.
When we got back we realised what we wanted from our futures. We wanted to live without exchanging money, but if you’re alone you can only do that in a cave or in a forest, like Thoreau and Suelo.
We wanted to go further, to do it as a community, and maybe even see society embrace it one day.
Did you launch the project as soon as you got back to France?
We went and saw our families first! I’d been gone so long! My mum had seen Into the Wild and she thought I was going to die in a forest. It was a really emotional time for her.
Then in June 2013 we started meeting up with Raphael and his wife, who were in Berlin. We launched a site to spread the word about our ideas, to share them and see if other people wanted to take part.
We met up again in October 2013, then in March and August 2014, with new people coming every time.
And this was when you did the first Eotopia experiment?
In February 2014 we met André, a farmer in Hounoux, in the Aude region, who agreed to give us a section of his land.
I moved onto the land, and spend most of my time there from May until December.
We dug a well and made a garden. We tried to start the Eotopia project at the same time.
There were usually between 10 and 20 of us depending on the people who came. It was really nice to work together with people we didn’t know, to experiment with this life as a community and find ways of living together. It really confirmed that everything it simpler when money is no longer a question, a condition or something that defines status.
But you weren’t able to live there definitively?
The problem is that André’s land, like most of the land we were offered, is farming land, and so we couldn’t build on it. Or we could have to put forward a farming project, and send and application to the DDTM, which might not even accept it.
And if we create a project to build on André’s land, even if he wants to give it to us, it’s not certain the town hall would agree to give us the building permit… There’s no security.
And even if everyone accepted our project, we would have to deal with creating a Community Supported Agriculture Association, which inevitably implies a commercial aspect. Whatever happened we wanted to make food baskets and give them away for free, that’s the foundation of the Eotopia project. But to do that we would need a financial balance.
We would be forced to use money. You need to pay the MSA around 3,500 euros a year, and we didn’t want to be tied into anything with the State or the MSA. It’s supervised, there’s loads of paperwork and obligations, and we just wanted to do it freely. And aside from using money, even if we could definitely rely on our gift economy, farming work requires a lot of labour, energy and time.
Did you feel any reluctance from inhabitants or government bodies during your search?
People don’t generally like it when things change, and even less so when it’s near where they live. They were a bit reluctant as they didn’t know us, we hadn’t had the chance to prove our good intentions and that our project was something that could benefit everyone.
We don’t want to be just a hippy camp for alternatives. We want it to be a beautiful project that attracts people who aren’t anything to do with it, but who want to discover something new and do something serious. We can’t do it completely for free, there will always be taxes, etc.
But we want it to be a gift economy, so we want the land to be given to us. We don’t want to ask for money or look for donations.
It might seem like a bit of a whim, but the idea is that when something is given, there’s a subsequent gratitude. It creates a much different energy than when something is bought.
How many people want to take part in the project today?
There are about 1,000 people signed up to our site. We didn’t expect so much enthusiasm!
People write to us every day, and that’s something to deal with as well. We’re a bit overwhelmed, but without anywhere to use as a base, or just meet them. There must be a third-party who would want to work full-time, but it’s just an idea. We’ll need to see afterwards how it works in practice. Other people want to help, take part in different ways, come for workshops, etc.
I think everyone knows that giving is amazing, and that through exchanging and sharing we can achieve something. It’s just there is a mindset that makes people think it isn’t serious, that it’s a utopia, and that we can’t manage without money. While this idea is stuck in people’s minds, we cannot progress.
Our idea is also to prove that a group of people can live happily without a system based on money.
Are there other projects like yours?
There are lots of projects underway, but so far we haven’t seen a project offering the same freedom with regard to money, in which everything is free, or where you don’t have to pay into something. That’s another reason we decided to launch our idea.
The projects that are the closest to our idea are a little more underground. If they’re free, they go against the law. The problems is that these places are still really exclusive. They’re open to people who are already part of the alternative circuits. We’ve visited a few of them. There are great projects with amazing people, but they’re always either living in fear, or always on the lookout as their space can’t risk becoming too well-known. So they can’t be too open, as they can’t welcome many people, or be too known.
Other than building without a permit, what is illegal about it?
If we open an eco-space, and want to put build a workshop, for example, we’re not allowed to invite people to help us. It’s not really legal, it’s considered as undeclared labour, even if it’s unpaid. The law is harsh on lots of things. If we dig wells and collect the rainwater, even if it’s just for the garden, people can get to us because it’s not drinkable.
If you open an eco-space and the mayor doesn’t like your project, or if it bothers the police, they’ll find a way though some tiny law to tell us it’s illegal, and then it’s shut down.
Even if we manage to build Eotopia, we would need to count on the kindness of the mayor and the inhabitants…
We just want to be transparent, and it’s not for nothing that we’re present in the media. Today we think we should have the right to carry out projects like this, and that the law should be on our side.
We count on media support, and on people to get behind us in order to gain credibility. When the inhabitants of a place support something, the mayor agrees as well, because the most important thing is to get re-elected.
There’s also the idea that we want to be a little pebble in the shoe of society, to bother the current system while being a part of it. We want to follow the rules as much as possible, bring right on the limit, to show we can go beyond and how good it would be.
Do you still live without money today?
No… I’d like to, but Yazmin and I had a daughter two months ago, so we’re having a bit of a rest. Things are a little calmer now. We’re living with my both our mothers, who pay the rent on a small house.
Since our daughter was born, everything that was important for me has been put to one side. The main thing for now is that she is healthy, and that she has everything she needs.
What advice can you give to people who want to do the same thing as you, or who feel bored of a life of consumption, who want to change their lives?
Travel. There are loads of ways to do it. You don’t need to go to the other side of the world. You can do it in your own country, even in your own region. You need to leave your routine, and leave yourself. Traveling to another country is even better, because a different language forces you to surpass yourself, and discover things in a different way by using other words…
Woofing is a good idea as well – volunteering at a farm or just for a charity. The more you completely separate yourself from what you are, the more you can see if you’re happy, or, in my case, see that the identity I can created for myself was just a reflection to make others like me… We all tend to create an identity: we’re like this, we love that sort of music, we have a these type of friends, we go out in those sorts of places. We create a little world around ourselves.
When you’re bored, it’s usually because this little world is suffocating us. You need to be with other people as well. It’s really difficult on your own, especially if you’re in the deconditioning stage. There are lots of people who will tell you that it’s stupid, and that you shouldn’t do it. Everything is harder on your own. You should either do it with friends, or go and meet people who want to do the same thing. I would never have travelled alone. And neither would Raphael.
Do you sometimes think what your life would have been like if you’d continued your studies? Are you ever torn between the two?
Not torn, no. Yazmin and I have actually spoken a lot about it. It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t think my life would have been different. It might just have taken longer. If I hadn’t been on this journey, I might have had to wait 50 years before discovering who I was. Today I really think I’ve found my true self. I think I would always have found it eventually.
I had a lot of doubts during and after the journey. I sometimes still have them, but it’s been almost a year that I’m sure there are no other alternatives.