By Clay Evans
For the Coloradan
Daniel Shellabarger Suelo (Anth’84) had no intention of becoming anybody’s guru when he plunked his last $30 into a phone booth at a truck stop in Pennsylvania in 2000 and vowed to stop using money.
For 13 years, Suelo has lived in a cave outside Moab, Utah. He eats food collected from dumpsters, wild roots and berries and yes, even the occasional slab of road kill. He uses household items and clothes tossed away by others. He also bathes daily and really isn’t doing any of this to show anybody up.
“He is as happy as anyone I know,” says Damian Nash (RelSt’86, MEdu’88), Suelo’s roommate at CU-Boulder and a longtime Moab resident who teaches high school. “He brings wisdom and peace and compassion, deep understanding wherever he goes.”
Since becoming a media curiosity following a flurry of stories about him in 2009 and publication of The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen in 2012, Suelo has been a kind of human Rorschach test. He has attracted critics who say he’s just a leech and uses money indirectly, as well as pilgrims who want to learn more about his critique of modern debt-driven society.
“People get emotional,” says Suelo, speaking by phone from his parents’ home in Fruita, Colo. “I think they feel I’m judging their lifestyle by the mere fact that I am living this way. I’m not.”
Born Daniel Shellabarger, he changed his last name to the Spanish word for “ground.” Suelo points out that all people live within a system of nature that’s larger than any economic system. Think of his role — in both systems — as a “detritavore,” just another organism contributing to nature’s system of breakdown and decomposition. He doesn’t pretend that everyone can live like he does, though he strongly believes we should all live much simpler lives.
“People project all kinds of things onto him, their own insecurities and guilt,” Nash says.
Suelo’s decisions have made him one of the most salient — and radical — voices in the “minimalist” movement that has gained traction since the 2008 global economic crash when an estimated $13 trillion “disappeared.”
More than anything else, Suelo’s life today is the product of a long and continuing spiritual journey. Born in Arvada, Colo., into a fundamentalist Christian family, he was raised on Colorado’s Western Slope. He says college in Boulder opened his eyes, and he particularly credits former anthropology professor Davíd Carrasco, who is a professor today at the Harvard Divinity School.
“I grew up very sheltered, but [Carrasco] really challenged me,” Suelo recalls. “He was very concerned about Native American culture and religion… I was a very serious Christian, and it was really hard for me to think about what our culture had done to their culture and other cultures around the world.”
After graduating he served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, worked in women’s shelters, lived in Buddhist monasteries in Asia and learned about the world’s religions before sensing the material world was impeding his spiritual growth. He realized a creeping depression he was experiencing derived from his stress over financially being able to hold on to his stuff.
“Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you,” Suelo told the The Denver Post in 2009, citing the Gospel of Matthew. “Did I really believe that? The only way to know is to try it. I want to be able to talk from my heart and live it, too.”
Despite his critics, many people see his life as a beacon for a world drowning in materialism.
“He found a common thread in all the world’s religious teachers, almost all of whom talk about getting rid of your possessions,” says Joshua Becker, an Arizona pastor and author of the Becoming Minimalist blog.
Suelo is quick to emphasize that he doesn’t have all the answers — or even any answers for anyone except himself — and recognizes that not everyone can or should decide to live in a cave and forswear the use of money.
But he continually promotes and explores new ways of living in his blog, Moneyless World. He uses computers at public libraries to access the Internet.
In contemporary America, the answer isn’t for everyone to live in a cave or eat edible food thrown out every day. Instead, Suelo suggests we might simply become more community-oriented.
“How many lawnmowers do we need?” he says. “What if there was one in the neighborhood and everyone shared it? What if we started growing food on our lawns? What if we started having dinner together and got to know our neighbors? You can really see how absurd our system is when you ask questions like that.”