Daniel “Suelo” Shellabarger gave a TEDx talk in Grand Junction, Colorado, that is available to watch for free on YouTube. [Courtesy photo]

A former Moab resident gave a talk on “the gift economy” for TEDx Grand Junction, which is now available on YouTube — for free, of course.  

As of press time, the TEDx talk had been viewed nearly 2,400 times.

TED began in 1984 as a conference on “technology, entertainment and design,” though it has grown to encompass ideas of all sorts. According to its website, TED is “a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.”  

TEDx events are independently licensed through TED, but organizers and funding are local to the event. The TEDx event in Grand Junction that featured former Moab resident Daniel Shellabarger was held in January 2018, and posted to YouTube in October.  

Shellabarger is commonly known as Daniel Suelo, or just “Suelo.” But perhaps he is best known as “the man who quit money,” after a book by that title was published in 2012 by author Mark Sundeen. The book covers much of Suelo’s life, and the pivotal moment that occurred in the year 2000 when he left his life savings — all 30 dollars of it — in a phone booth, and walked away to live an entirely moneyless life for 15 years, until he returned to the use of currency in order to take care of his elderly parents.  

Much of his time living without money was spent in Moab, often outside — using a cave for shelter, foraging from nature and dumpsters and bathing in a creek — all of which is chronicled in the book.

In an interview with the Moab Sun News, Suelo said someone told him months before the event that there would be a TEDx talk in Grand Junction, and he should apply to be a speaker. Suelo said he applied, but did not hear back. Then, less than two days before the TEDx talk, Suelo received a phone call from a TEDx organizer that another speaker had canceled and they would like him to speak instead.  

“So I did,” Suelo said. “I didn’t have a whole lot of practice, but then I went and did it.”

It wasn’t the first time that Suelo had been invited to do a TED talk. He had previously been invited to do one in Salt Lake City, and another in Budapest, Hungary, but with his caregiver obligations and travel limitations he could not attend those events.

“So when it happened in Grand Junction I got excited about it,” he said.

The title of Suelo’s TEDx talk is “The Gift Economy.” A main theme is the contrast between civilization, with its hierarchies and hard currency, and wild nature, which Suelo says follows a true gift economy.

“Basically, it dawned on me that the whole foundation of our civilization is domestication,” Suelo said. He said this holds true for people, for animals that are pets, as well as farm animals and plants via agriculture.  

“Domestic animals can’t live by themselves, they need us to help them along because they are all perpetually immature,” Suelo said. “Our garden plants need our help. We even breed ourselves to be perpetually immature; we need an authority to tell us how to live, how to eat, and that’s not the characteristic of wild creatures.”

He said this is all part of the “money mentality.” 

“Domestication and money and linear thinking … they are all part of the same mentality, the same package. It’s not cyclical,” he said, adding, “You plant an investment and reap the rewards. It’s not a pay-it-forward system, whereas wild nature is.”  

During his TEDx talk, Suelo illustrated this point with an image on a screen of lions feasting, asking “These lions hunted this wildebeest, are they taking something or giving something? Are they benefiting the herd, or depleting the herd?”

He asked a similar question with another picture of a fox defecating in a field. “Is he giving something or getting something? And the grass, is it giving a service, or getting a service?”

Speaking to the Moab Sun News, Suelo acknowledged that living without money and entirely following a gift economy is not within the reach of many people.  He encouraged others to simply do what they can, and notice when they are doing it.

“Take note of when we do things without expecting reward,” Suelo said. “Family members, strangers on the street that we help even though we will never see them again. Look for that in everything we do. Those are the things that we do outside of the rat race, in spite of the rat race of making money and commerce.”

Online comments on YouTube and other social media platforms show the talk to be well-received and thought-provoking to listeners.

James Jonson, who watched the video on Facebook, commented, “I think more people would ‘buy into’ the gift economy concept if they had faith, and were more willing to bear with a loss of ‘control.’ Sadly, money gives the illusion of control, and doesn’t require any faith; so most people put their trust in it instead.”

Suelo is not without his critics. In 2009, shortly after Suelo was featured in an article for “Details” magazine, The Guardian did an article on him titled, “Daniel Suelo: Free spirit or freeloader?” that critiqued his moneyless way of life and the value that is, or is not, intrinsic within it.  

Suelo also writes a blog, zerocurrency.blogspot.com, on which he has detailed his philosophy (including responses to the more frequent criticisms he receives) and his experiences living a moneyless life. And, over the past few years, he has written about his return to the use of currency in order to care for his elderly parents.

Suelo said that giving up his moneyless way of life to be a caregiver has been challenging but rewarding. He said at first he thought of it as something temporary before he would “get back to (his) old life.”

“I’ve found that it’s been better for me to completely embrace that this is my life,” Suelo said. “Your heart has to be totally in what you do, or you’re not going to be happy. That’s where I’m at now. I would like to go back to living without money and being footloose and fancy free. But this is what I’m doing now.”

Daniel Suelo has ‘The Gift Economy’ talk available on YouTube

“I would like to go back to living without money and being footloose and fancy free. But this is what I’m doing now.”