"I just did things the way I wanted to." A conversation with Rob Greenfield
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Rob Greenfield. You might know Rob for his extreme sustainability projects like carrying all of his garbage around New York City for an entire month, riding across the United States on his bamboo bike using no electricity or municipal water and fueling himself primarily by dumpster diving, or for his current project eating only what he can grow or forage for one year.
As a white male there is no doubt that privilege plays a role in Rob's being able to conduct his extreme projects to begin with, and Rob is the first to acknowledge this. For instance, Rob reports digging through over 2,000 dumpsters across America. On the rare occasion police were called they largely turned a blind eye to his work, sometimes even helping him circumvent the directions of grocery store employees to return food to the dumpster. One has to wonder whether black or brown person in America would be received as benignly. Both Rob and I tend to doubt it.
Rob has gained a significant following among activists, particularly from Millennials and Gen Z and it's no surprise why. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that the majority of American teens are afraid, angry, and in stark difference with adults, motivated to do something about climate change. Rob's message, that they should be the change in a messed up world, resonates.
I've had mixed feelings about the efficacy of individual actions, especially when it comes to responding to the climate crisis. In my initial foray into the world of climate change education, I felt the messages in formal curriculum about how youth should respond to climate change -- namely in what I call "ten easy steps" format -- ran the risk of conveying individual, "light sustainability" efforts would suffice to address the deepening climate crisis.
While working with community members since then, my stance has softened a bit. In fact, I think small individual actions are vital, not because they make a notable difference, even collectively, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but because those actions send signals to others that serve to normalize climate action, they help relieve eco-anxiety, and they serve as stepping stones to larger actions and perhaps advocacy.
Though Rob makes a name for himself by undergoing extreme sustainability projects, he doesn't expect others to, nor does he think its right for everyone to follow his lead. Rather, he considers his projects as vehicles to promote discussion. Can I live in a house smaller than 2,000 square feet and be happy? Where does my food come from and do I take it for granted? How much garbage does my lifestyle create?
If posts on his social media sites are any indicator, Rob's projects are doing precisely what he set out to do: help people question the status-quo version of "normal," western-style resource-intense living and inspiring them to "be the change."
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Casey: Your projects typically bend, if not break, social norms. It seems like you're not afraid to do your own thing. Have you always been like that?
Rob Greenfield: From the age that I could get away with it I just did things the way I wanted to which can be a pain for some people. Like in my last long-term relationship, I look back and it was unfair how much we did things my way. So doing my own thing works great on my own but as far as my close relationships it can be unbalanced.
I think that you taking such a non-tradition path through life so far is interesting because when right out of college--and even in college--that wasn't the case at all. Some might have called you a bro.
That's exactly what I wanted to be doing at the time. Actually during university I sold books door-to-door for between 84 and 90 hours a week in the summer. So that was very independent. I mean, it was part of an organization but I was on my own six days a week from 6 AM to 9 PM. Even back then I had a note that said "Don't get a mortgage. Don't get tied down." Even in college I did have the values that would allow myself to remain free.
I guess it's always been there but I was more wrapped up in mainstream society, thinking that that was the way.
There's part of me that and looks back and sees the time they changed as 2011, two years after college when I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books. But then if I actually look back further, you know, I remember my senior year I was going to cooking classes at the People's Co-op, so I had some elements of being interested in eating healthy and cooking. After I graduated I went on a five month trip, mostly through Southeast Asia and Africa and I was trying to go to places where there would be no white people and experience raw culture and experiences raw nature. Even before I got into sustainability I was still trying to get out and really see the world. I guess it's always been there but I was more wrapped up in mainstream society, thinking that that was the way.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now. I mean, there is a big change from you 10 years ago to now. Do you see yourself jumping back to a more mainstream lifestyle with a mortgage or a family?
What would be successful is if I'm mostly the same in 10 years as I am now. If I can maintain where I am today for most of my life that would be a success because it's harder to not go backwards. Most people talk to me and say "I used to do that sort of thing." I'm not getting married. There's no question about that. I can spend the rest my life with someone but I'm not going to put it on paper and the government won't be involved. I'm not going to have kids because I got a vasectomy eight years ago, so that was something I decided a while ago. I don't personally believe in ownership of many things, and I've been commitment for life of making less than the federal poverty threshold so I would never have enough money to buy land or a house. So all of those things will remain relatively the same.
My intention is to eventually start a sustainable living center that would probably be under a community land trust of sorts or joining forces forces with an already existing intentional community. Maybe I run a portion of it and implement the sustainable and simple living aspect of it. In the long run my basic plan is that I'll have a location that I will be able to have people from anywhere come and visit and stay for one day to weeks, months, or maybe even years. My thought is that I would spend half of my year there in order to live out exactly what I believe in--growing my own food, etc. But then I'd be able to spend half the year traveling, doing activism, speaking, telling stories as needed. That's a bit of the framework and then within that it would just be a continuation of exactly what I'm doing now, trying to reach millions of people and get them to think more deeply. That's what it's really about.
Some of your projects are admittedly extreme, right? I mean, 99% of population just physically can't do what you do. They might want to, but I just can't. But you say the idea of doing these extreme things is just to get the conversation going. Say more about that.
I guess I don't even know if humans have a free will, so don't even know if I'm choosing the things I'm doing... I just look at myself as a vessel to bring different messages. And I just use what I have given to me, or I have created. I just have the ability to do these sort of crazy things that other people wouldn't do and they come to me pretty easily. What might be insanely challenging for other people is hard for me, but really not that big of a deal.
At the same time, I'm meeting my own needs. It's not like I'm doing any of this in a selfless manner because I enjoy all of these adventures and campaigns. I'm not in anyway a martyr who is standing up for a cause and suffering. I'm standing up for a cause and making my life better and creating a network of people who care about each other and I'm living with purpose and passion.
In all the talks that you do and the thousands of people you interact with, what is it that people want? What is it that they're searching for that draws them to you?
I would generally say that people just want to belong. They want to feel loved. They want to feel desired. They might want to be happy and healthy. Why would they be drowned I me? I guess I'm interesting. I think people look at what I'm doing and they have a lot of questions that they want answered. And I usually have the answer for them because I've pretty much thought about everything I do.
Another reason people are drawn to what I'm doing is that I'm an excellent marketer. I ran a marketing company for multiple years and I know how to create stories that people are drawn to. I've designed my entire life as a story on purpose. It's like Gandhi said, "Let your life be your message," and that's exactly what I'm doing. I've designed my life as a form of demonstration. I've designed my life in a manner where I think about how people well perceive it not because I care what they think about me, but because I want to make them think.
What have you found makes people think?
I do things very differently than most people around which feels a little weird for me to say that. My life is so normal to me that it's hard to even see that I'm different but I know that most of my ideals are not what the average person living. People have these questions - what about health-insurance? what about when you get old? Most people, even people who are forward thinking , still buy into needing health insurance and needing a retirement plan.
If my 23-year-old-self met myself now, my 23-year-old-self would have a whole lot of questions for me and how I'm making all this work.
I have gone way past that. I have zero health insurance. I have no bank account. I have no savings, period. I got rid of all of that. I had a Roth IRA, I had life insurance, you know, I was setting myself up for that and I don't do that one bit. If I die tomorrow there is almost nothing for anybody to take care of. I don't have any bills, no credit card car, no driver's license. I could pretty much disappear tomorrow for the most part just be memories. That's the opposite of what most people do.
I think the reality is I've designed my life in such a different way that people look at it and all they can do is often wonder well, "how do you this? And how does that work?" That makes sense because if my 23-year-old-self met myself now, my 23-year-old-self would have a whole lot of questions for me and how I'm making all this work.
Another big part of [what makes people think] is we do live in very confusing time. Very complex and intricate, and I do think a lot of people are searching. A lot of people are not exactly living out their purpose. I think the average person probably doesn't love their job but they can rationalize why they're doing it, whereas I am actually doing exactly what I want to be doing. I'm not always happy but I'm an exceptionally happy and purposeful person and that's not really what you get in mainstream Western society.
Actually, this conversation is not one I've had too many times, so this is kind of coming off the top of my head. I almost feel a little out of place talking about myself.
Speaking of purpose, you're planning a tour in 2020. Any any spoilers you can throw out there about what you're looking to do or where you're looking to go? What is the essence of this tour?
I'm calling it the World Solutions Tour, which I just came up with last week. I don't know if I'm going to stick with that name, but the idea is to travel and show people the solutions that exist in the world. Every problem we have there are solutions to. I want to show those solutions.
Most solutions today aren't real solutions. So much of what we see in the environmental movement today is green washing, you know, run by companies with multi-million dollar advertising budgets. And it's also run by small businesses that just actually don't know what they're doing. They just got a passion about sustainability a year ago and now here they are thinking they know what they're doing. But most of the time, us humans don't know what we're doing.
So the idea is to show real solutions. For example, the great ocean clean up...I don't consider that a real solution because if we just keep putting trash into the ocean then the great ocean clean up just needs to keep going on.
It's a band-aid, right? It doesn't get to the root.
Yeah. And the problem is yes, the clean up is needed but if they put the same amount of money into preventing it from getting to the ocean in the first place that would be a much better usage. But people love this idea of the great garbage cleanup so millions of dollars get put into it and it's already popular so people and businesses get behind it. My goal of the trip is to focus on what I consider as true solutions that are generally replicable around the world and that you don't need to wait on government and corporations to do, that individuals can do that affect life in a positive manner around them nearly immediately. It's not solving climate change where you're doing things that hopefully will pay off 10 or 20 years now. It's actions where, now your neighbors aren't hungry, now you've got fresh, organic growing food growing right there for your community, now you've got improved air quality or water quality within a few years type of stuff.
The best environmentalists aren't environmentalists at all.
And also solutions where you're not robbing from one area to improve quality of life in another area, which a lot of technology does. You take from countries that don't have a lot of power like the United States does, for example. You steal their resources and you improve the quality of life of us. Which is not what you see focused on. Mainstream environmentalism today so much of it is these extremely excited new inventions. For example, a solar panel that you can put in your window to charge your phone. That's not a solution at all. The good thing about is it raises awareness about solar, that's what I see as the biggest benefit. But actually you will never offset the creation of that solar panel by the amount you charge your cell phone. It would be better to plug into the wall. My focus is going to be on solutions that are real.
Are you familiar with Drawdown?
Yeah, they're my favorite!
So like, providing access to education for women and girls around the world and providing family planning for women who want it, those two things combined are the biggest climate action we can take as a globe.
Yeah. The best environmentalists aren't environmentalists at all. Planned Parenthood is one of the greatest organizations in the United States when it comes to the environment but that's not in their statement at all. That's definitely part of the goal for 2020 is to focus on family planning, educating women and girls. But it's challenging because more complex issues like that are harder to get to go viral. That will be a big part of the challenge of showing the true solutions.
And of course I'll be learning a lot, visiting communities. I intend to stay at a lot of permaculture centers and intentional communities. And of course, I'll be enjoying it, too. I'm going to visit beautiful places and meet amazing people.