‘I didn’t want a benefit’

Sustainable living, long a goal of those concerned about the environment and climate change, is now also great for your wallet. The raging inflation and sky-high bills are therefore making more and more Belgians dream of a self-sufficient life. But how realistic is life without a water or electricity grid? Can you manage with vegetables from the garden and trade with the neighbors? Is rainwater healthy? And won’t you stink if you never use soap? Six experts by experience have each perfected their own variant of an environmentally friendly life. Today: Peter Clerckx.

Louis Geuens in Katia Vlerick

“If you think the economy is more important than the climate, try counting your money while holding your breath.” There is a lot of truth in that climate slogan, but what really works without money? Peter Clerckx chose to live in poverty ten years ago. He lives as a nomad in a historic building in Bruges, drinks rainwater, lives off food surpluses and set up a social project.

Why did you want to live without money?

Peter Clerckx: “Ever since I was a child, I was taught that I had to get a good diploma and earn a lot of money. I’ve always had mixed feelings about that, but I thought: first get rich, then I can invest in ecology. And so I worked as a self-employed person in construction and lived with my wife and children in a large house. I felt guilty.”


Clerckx: “I saw my four sons grow up in a world that we are destroying, and I met many young people who did not find their footing. I realized that money couldn’t solve those problems, and that I had to turn my life around. When my wife and I separated a few years later, I decided to stop working as a self-employed person and commit myself to an eco-social society. I did not want a benefit, so I was not allowed to spend any more money.”

How do you do that in practice?

Clerckx: “I live for free in a historic building that we can use for Ecoliving. That’s a thrift store that I founded to revalue waste and surpluses. We collect clothes, books and household appliances, but also half-empty bottles of soap and toilet rolls from hotels. We sort and recycle, repair appliances, make garden candles from old tea lights and transform old umbrellas into flag lines. Anyone who comes to help receives 60 ecopoints per hour. In our store you can pay with both ecopoints and money, and this is how we give value to discarded items. With the money we receive, we pay the electricity and water bills and buy electric cargo bikes to pick up stuff.”

The building is barely insulated and there is no central heating. In winter it must be very cold.

Clerckx: “I’ve been living like this for ten years, so I’m used to something. I wear a thick sweater, and when I get cold, I start dancing (laughs). On my dining table I have put thick blankets that reach down to the floor. If you put a small electric blower under it and everyone puts the blanket on their lap, you don’t have to keep the whole room warm.

“Recently, I occasionally use a small tent stove. I use discarded pallets that have not been treated with toxic substances. To have as little impact on the environment as possible, I light the fire from top to bottom, with the fine wood on top. This way you char the large logs at the top, so that you reach a high temperature faster and emit less particulate matter.”

You have a water connection, but you hardly use it. Why?

Clerckx: “We import our drinking water from the Ardennes. Then we pollute it with soap, it enters the sewage system and ends up in the sea. At the same time, the groundwater level is dropping noticeably. To avoid that, I collect rainwater in large barrels. I use that to wash myself: in the summer outside with a camping shower, in the winter with a washcloth. Because I never use soap, the micro life on my body is balanced and I have no sweat smell. My clothes don’t smell either. I wash them by soaking them in a bucket of rainwater for a day. I use fresh rainwater as drinking water, which I collect in a small barrel and pour through a filter.”

Have you never been sick of that?

Clerckx: “A good immune system needs a little work. In all those years I have had mild diarrhea once, after drinking a liter and a half of cold rainwater. But mostly I cook it for coffee or tea.”

How do you get food?

Clerckx: “Years ago I started collecting food surpluses from supermarkets and bakeries. We used it to cook meals in the Brugse Soepcafé, where you could eat in exchange for a free contribution and a helping hand. At first the shopkeepers were suspicious, but soon I was riding around on my cargo bike with 200 kilos of food. In the meantime, the city of Bruges has largely taken over and set up a distribution platform. I still collect surpluses there for myself and for Ecoliving.”

Can you eat what you like to eat?

Clerckx: “Certainly. I usually have a wide choice. I often eat fruit and salads, and I make a big stew every two days, in which I always add fresh vegetables and meat.”

You don’t have a kitchen. Where do you prepare your food?

Clerckx: “Outside in the courtyard. In the winter I use a small rocket stove, but as soon as the sun shines I cook with a solar oven. A reflective parabola bundles the sunlight into a single focal point, which heats up to 350 degrees. On it I can cook with a black pot that does not reflect light. That oven doesn’t work as well when it’s cold, so I have a second solar oven with a glass vacuum tube. In it, the sun’s rays heat up the food.”

Are you never going to the store again?

Clerckx: “Very rarely. Six months ago I spent 16 euros when a friend came over for dinner and I didn’t have enough leftovers. And occasionally I get a can of beer. I exchange clothes, furniture and other things for ecopoints at Ecoliving. The only new things I’ve bought in recent years are my stove, the solar ovens and a Fairphone (sustainable smartphone, ed.).”

Do you consider yourself poor?

Clerckx: “I sold my house for 200,000 euros at the time, so I do have savings. But I feel rich because I don’t need it. I have a network of people who help and support me. That connection, that is real luxury.”

© There

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