10 Oct 2020

Being green to the extreme: Activist Rob Greenfield

From Saturday Morning, 10:06 am on 10 October 2020

Eating roadkill, getting a vasectomy at 25 and reducing your worldly possessions to 44 items. It all makes sense if you follow environmental ethics to their logical end. That's just what Rob Greenfield has been doing.

He embarks on extreme projects to bring attention to global problems and inspire positive change.

Greenfield is an American adventurer, environmental activist and entrepreneur. He has "made it his life's purpose to inspire a healthy Earth, often with attention-grabbing tactics".

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Photo: Sierra Ford Photography, L.L.C.

He tells Kim Hill he believes individuals and communities have the power to improve the world and has set out to inspire action by being committed to living simply and responsibly.

Before transitioning to his new way of life, he was running a small marketing company “selling mostly advertising crap that people didn’t really need.”

“A lot of people when they see my radical transformation they assumed something big happened. That there was some sort of moment of enlightenment, a near breakdown moment. But what simply happened to me is I started watching a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books and started to realise that the American Dream is the world’s nightmare," he says.

“Almost every action I was taking was causing destruction to the world and I didn’t want that to be my life. I wanted a life that I could feel good about, instead of a life where I was causing inequality and injustice.”

He says the profound realisation of being part of an obscene consuming culture of waste was enough for him to push past the passivity and feeling overwhelmed to focus on what he could do

“I’m a very goals-orientated person and what I decided to do was make a list of the changes I wanted to make and tick them off one at a time… one positive change per week.”

His says after two years he made over 100 changes so that his new life looked radically different from the one he had been stuck in.

He downsized little by little, giving up his large apartment to live in tiny house.

His first tiny house in Orlando was too tiny. “That was an experiment to see how far you could go… it was too small, I could hardly stand in it,” he says.

He now has a 50sq/ tiny house he built with reclaimed material and set it up on a property owned by an individual in San Diego, in exchange for works on the land. It cost around US$1300

Greenfield acknowledges he has taken things to the extreme but argues sometimes this course of action is the only way to make people think deeper, beyond the cosmetic easy changes that don’t upset the comfort of consumer living.

“I want to get people critically thinking, looking at their lives and interactions with the world, with humanity and other species. So, what I decided to do was take on these extreme adventures that would take people on journeys with me and would get them to think about all of our daily actions and how they impact the world.”

His first big adventure was 2013, when he took a bamboo cycle from San Francisco to Vermont towing a trailer of items to live self-sufficiently, including solar panels.

“The idea was to have no negative environmental impact at all and by doing that I would personally be learning… 104 days really broke a habit for me.

“But then I’d be able to take people on this journey every day.”

He blogged, took photos and shared content on social media.

One of the more challenging but memorable experiences was getting his bike stolen by a homeless man known as ‘Johnny Guitar’ who he tracked down. He explained how he felt about the theft, but that unintentionally for him, good things had come from it.

“When I met Guitar Johnny I explained to him what he had done was actually set off a chain reaction of goodness. And that good deeds defeat bad deeds, that darkness can’t drive out darkness.

“When I got my bike stolen I felt that feeling, just a punch to the gut, feeling it deep. I live a privileged life, I could get a new bike. But it got me thinking for some people, their bike is their life.”

He set up a scheme for kids who had had their bikes stolen and very quickly he had the funds to buy bikes for 50 children.

“That bike being stolen ended up being one of the most special weekends of my life.”

He says the US criminal justice system can’t solve social problems like theft and restorative justice better serves society.

One of the most inspiring adventures he’s had was a year spent foraging for food.

“It meant no eating apples that were shipped from New Zealand to the United States, when we have plenty of apples in the US.”

During that time he ate a deer that was road kill, an act that lost him some followers on Facebook. He said he found the stigma of eating an animal killed on a road surprising, but that it was no obstacle to him. He says it was simply common sense not to waste the food, if it was fresh.

“I wasn’t able to catch enough fish or grow enough plant material protein. It was a difficult experience so one of the resources I found was deer that was hit by cars… I did post about it as a lesson to talk about and did have a substantial number of people unfollow me, maybe 1000.”

Greenfield says he is focused on the beautiful of the world, but that he couldn’t ignore the social and economic injustice of the world.

“He looked at products that seemed cheap and convenient to use and discovered the labour used to make these commodities involved destruction and exploitation.

“People were forced, often in pretty miserable conditions, to create these things for me. So, what I realised is this thing of convenience is an illusion. Convenience is the outsourcing of the work. Where convenience is the burden is simply somewhere else.”

Greenfield wants to enjoy his life but finds that having children isn’t “in alignment” with how he wants to live. Past partners had negative health experiences with birth control pills and seeing the pharmaceutical industry as problematic too, he decided to have a vasectomy.

“I deeply respect having children and I deeply respect it to the point that if I were to have children I would want to truly pour an incredible amount of energy and time into it as a child deserves.

“I decided that my best strategy was to pour that time and energy into the ways that I feel like I can be an impact in the world.

“You can do that having kids but I didn’t feel like that was my means. So this was my fairly definitive way of saying, ‘this is my mission on Earth.’”