Six years ago, Jo Nemeth felt an overwhelming need to to give up money and has since lived comfortably without the one thing many of us rely so heavily on. If that’s not enough, she’s now turning her attention to becoming fossil-fuel free by 2023.
In 2014, Jo Nemeth lived a regular life; she rented a house, owned a car and had a great job. She lived with her adoring partner and her teenage daughter and worked as a community development worker in her local neighbourhood centre, but something was tormenting her conscience that she felt an overwhelming need to address.
‘I was reading a lot about the impacts of things I was buying,’ she begins. ‘I’d read about overfishing, about cobalt mining in the Congo, about the emissions involved with shipping and transport and about neoliberal politics.
‘It was so hard for me to hold that and then go shopping and justify spending money on stuff, and knowing whatever I was spending money on, there were negative impacts on other beings on the planet.’ It was a book from her parents for her birthday that same year which set the now 52-year-old on her path of living without money.
‘It was called Changing Gears,’ she says. ‘And it’s written by an Australian couple who rode their bikes up and down the east coast of Australia looking at how different people were living sustainable lifestyles. They mentioned someone who was living without money and as soon as I read that my whole world just flipped on its head and I realised that that was my answer.’
With six months to go until her daughter turned 18, Jo started planning. She wrote a list of all the things she truly needed to survive and then worked out how she would meet each of those individual needs. During that time she became aware of her practical and understandable desire to start hoarding, but made a clear decision not to allow that to happen.
Her daughter Amy moved in with Sharon, Jo’s best friend, and after making sure Amy was established and safe, did what she still describes as the hardest part of her journey so far.
‘Giving up my partner was the hardest thing – I really did love him,’ says Jo. ‘But we realised we couldn’t find a way through it together because we wanted different things. I still get sad about it today, but it was the right thing to do.’
Jo explains that the physical, day-to-day living was easy compared to the negative self-talk and guilt she would face because of the value society puts on earning a living.
‘It’s tricky, because it’s based on what we’ve been socialised with, right? This message that you’re only valuable if you contribute financially. And I was raised like that, too, I have that message embedded in me, so it was hard for me not to buy into it and to remember that I’m still being a valuable contributor to society, even if it’s not financially.’
Carving An Existence
For the first couple of years, Jo lived on friends’ properties, helping them on farms and pitching in around the house in exchange for food they’d grow together. She house-sat at another friends’ cabin – after disconnecting the gas and only using the solar through the day – making a deal with the local organic farmer to trade her labour for a box of vegies. Next was an unused tiny house her parents had built, which she’d move to various backyards where she would grow food for people.
‘I’d help out at the organic vegie stall at the markets to get some vegies and when my birthday would roll around I’d ask for a bag of local rice or oats, so that’s how I’d supplement that part of my diet,’ she says. ‘I’d also glean, forage, or I might be gifted some local honey for helping someone out. And I survived quite well like that.’
In 2016, something terrible happened which shaped the next phase of Jo’s journey. Her friend Sharon’s husband died unexpectedly, an experience in their lives she describes as ‘horrific’.
‘But because I had time, I was able to be with Sharon and her kids, and I made sure everybody ate and I just took care of everything in the household for three months.
‘Sharon has a great network of friends, but nobody had the time, and that’s where I felt so fortunate, so privileged, because I had that time to give her.’
After helping Sharon sell her house and helping her buy and move into where she lives now, Sharon asked Jo to move in with her and her kids and, of course, Jo’s daughter Amy.
‘I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that if we hadn’t been able to come to an arrangement where we were going to decrease the footprint of the household,’ Jo explains. ‘So Sharon and I workshopped some ideas and decided we would aim to be fossil-fuel free by 2023.’
Jo is quick to point out she’s still moneyless, despite living in a household otherwise dependant on it, but says she’s careful not to push that burden onto anyone else.
‘Nobody is spending any extra money because I’m here. In fact, because I’m here, the bills are going down. I’m making sure that we’re really careful with our water use, I’m really mindful to ensure our electricity use is going down, I’m making household rules around when you cook your food and when you do this or that – I’m a pain in the butt really. But everybody’s on board.’
And this is where the story becomes intriguing. Because even though Jo has chosen to live without money, Sharon hasn’t, and their individual paths towards being fossil-fuel free by 2023 should look very different.
‘Sharon is living a regular life, she wants to be earning money, she’s got a career, she’s got a mortgage and she’s really happy with her lot,’ explains Jo. ‘For me, this fossilfuel free thing is not too difficult because I’ve kind of gone most of the way anyway. But Sharon has been starting from scratch and she’s finding it really challenging.
‘Especially when we’re realising the things that we’ll have to give up – because it’s not just the primary uses of the fossil fuels, it’s the secondary uses, which is everything – absolutely everything.’
Named after Sharon’s late husband, the plan is for their so-called Montague House to become a real-life example of how sustainable a home can be, with or without money.
‘We want to open the house and have people come and see that just because we’re living without fossil fuels, it doesn’t mean we’re living in the dark ages.’
The pair has replaced the gas in the kitchen with secondhand portable induction cookers that are only used when the sun is shining. And while the instant gas hot-water system is still connected, Sharon and Jo have realised heating water during the day and storing it in second-hand insulated flasks is the way they will wash themselves of an evening that will have the least environmental impact.
‘It’s about thinking about the industrial system and the negative things inherent in that system, and as much as possible we want to withdraw ourselves from it,’ explains
Jo. ‘And that means not even replacing the inverter for the solar system when it dies.’
Jo and Sharon’s fast-approaching reality compared to the pair’s current and very different circumstances adds pressure to what’s already a huge and challenging commitment.
‘Sharon’s response is generally “but I can buy that, Jo.” And my response is “I know, but we need to look at the footprint of that thing”.
‘I witness Sharon’s struggles – and she’s so brave. She’ll say “why do I have to make this sacrifice? Why isn’t anyone else doing this?” And that’s a really reasonable thing to be upset about, especially if you’re used to your creature comforts and you want to go on living like you always have.
‘But unfortunately we’re not living in that kind of world anymore, we’re living in a world of resource depletion and so we’ve got to change the way we do things. Sharon is very emotionally mature, so she’ll say those things and then say “but that’s just one part of me and there’s another part of me that’s bigger and stronger that says I want to do this for my kids, I know that we have to do this, and I would prefer to do this out of choice rather than be pushed in 10 or 20 years time when everybody’s going to have to do this”.’
Based in Lismore, NSW, Sharon and Jo’s climate means they can grow food year round and, while it’ll drop as low as zero on some winter nights, it’s relatively comfortable.
‘The wood heater in the kitchen has been a bit contentious,’ she giggles, suggesting contentious might be a nice word for some pretty robust conversations. ‘It’s just beautiful when we have it on, and I admit that, too, but I’m really conscious of where the timber comes from and where the smoke’s going. I resist turning it on unless it’s really cold and overcast – then we can cook on it as well.’
An outdoor kitchen is the next priority, which will be based on low-emission rocket stoves or top-lit-updraft stoves, depending on the results of efficiency experiments.
‘It’ll mean in winter I don’t have to have dinner cooked by 3.30 pm to catch the sun, and eventually when we don’t have any electricity in five, ten, 15 years, then we’ll have a kitchen. We want to show people there are alternatives to cooking with grid-powered electricity and gas.’
According to Jo, an integral part of realistically making this work is community.
‘I need to strategise about still having access to certain things,’ Jo says. ‘I’m going to do a letterbox drop to everyone within walking distance of the park across the road and say, on a particular Sunday morning that’s where I’ll be, and I’ll ask people to come and hang out.
‘I’m hoping that our community can connect with one another and I’ll get to know people in this area a lot more. They can be a resource for me and I’ll be a resource for them, I can take seeds and seedlings and food. And that’s the answer to so many of the issues that are going to come up. Not just for me, but for this climate emergency.’
Here And Now
Jo’s decision to live in a way most would deem unappealing is commendable not just for what she’s trying to achieve but also for her unwavering commitment. But she’s intelligent and she’s realistic, two attributes which add weight and relevance to her and Sharon’s plight.
‘We’ve accepted we’re going to make mistakes, we’re not going to get it right – we’re pretty sure that being 100 percent fossil-fuel free is probably impossible in this world at this time,’ she concedes. ‘But it’s good for people to see there are other ways of living, especially if it’s a low-impact way that’s actually, hopefully, properly sustainable.
‘People say I’m extremist, and fair enough, but that’s no reason not to do what I’m doing. It’s important that we do have people on the edge so that the centre can move.’