The ML Interview: Rob Greenfield. By Ned Morgan.
The English language may need a new noun to define Rob Greenfield. He is an environmental activist, but neither a sign-waver nor a gonzo protester. He is an endurance cyclist, but never a lycra-clad, competitive one. He is an adventure-traveller, but very much in his own class. In the future, perhaps we will refer to a “Greenfield” when describing a focused, selfless individual who – like a secular John the Baptist – ventures far beyond Western conventions to promote earth-centric values and practices.
Last summer, Greenfield cycled 4,700 miles across the US on a bamboo bicycle for his Off the Grid Across America tour. Over 104 days, he drank only water available in nature or from leaking hoses or fire hydrants.
He ate only plant food available directly from the earth, or food from dumpsters. He used only electricity generated from solar panels. He never flipped a light switch. He didn’t shower during the trip, choosing to wash only in rivers, lakes, or leaky faucets, then decided to skip showering for a year – and still he found romance.
To pick one incident among his many brushes with conventional America: for a photo-op he sat, pants down, on an old toilet put out at the curb in a quiet New Jersey neighbourhood, until a resident called the police. A few minutes later, seven squad cars surrounded him.
When he’s home in San Diego, he lives in a 6×6 closet. He’s not home much; between trips last year he spent several weeks on the streets of his home city, to experience first-hand a life without money or shelter.
We spoke to Greenfield recently on the phone as he took a break from his current long-haul bicycle mission.
Mountain Life: Last winter you embarked on Share My Way Home, an ultra-minimalist solo-trek from Panama to San Diego.
Rob Greenfield: I flew down there with six items: shorts, shoes, hat, shirt, jacket and passport. I also had a cancelled credit card as fake proof-of-funds if I needed that to cross borders. And a fake plane ticket.
I did accumulate a few more possessions, all stuff that I found in the streets: a little backpack, a Coca-Cola bottle to use as a water bottle; I had 15 items at one time. I did make a little bit of money by collecting cans on the first day. I found stuff in garbage cans and sold it at pawnshops. I gave an English lesson for $20 and I created a website for $100. I did all this in Panama City and then I hit the road with about $130 so I could take buses.
ML: Did you ever feel vulnerable out there?
RG: I hitchhiked in Costa Rica and got dropped off at the Nicaragua border at night. It was a dangerous border town and there was no bus out of there. There was only a taxi for $40 to go up to Managua – obviously I wasn’t going to spend that because I could eat for 30 days off that. I ended up begging my way onto this bus that happened to be passing through. It took quite a bit of work actually – I had to hang around and talk to the bus driver for 20 minutes before he finally let me on.
ML: Where did you typically stay?
RG: I used social media to make sure I had somewhere to stay in each place I was going to. I was dependent on the help of other people at all times. And I used sharing websites like couchsurfing.org and warmshowers.org. That way I wouldn’t end up in a city where I didn’t know anybody.
ML: Did you ever feel discouraged during the journey?
RG: The whole purpose of this trip was to teach people about the sharing economy and how to be resourceful in order to solve their problems at home and reduce their environmental impact by living a simpler life. My vision was to help other people; but when you have nothing, you have to help yourself, trying to survive. And at times this made me feel kind of purposeless.
And there were quite a few 18-hour periods when I didn’t eat anything. But I never went a full 24 hours without food. For the first week, I only had about $10. I was in Panama City so I went to shopping centre food courts and nobody buses their own trays there – people would just get up and walk away and there’d be a bunch of food on their trays. A lot of rice and beans.
ML: Did people ever think you were crazy?
RG: Yes. The challenge was that a lot of the time I was speaking to people in Spanish. So for me to really explain to them what I was doing was a bit hard. It is a concept that might be hard to understand in the first place. And trying to explain it in another language made it even harder. But most of the people I met were super inspired by the idea of trying to live simply and be at the mercy of people around you.
ML: Not many North Americans would dare to go so far out of the comfort zone.
RG: I look back at the three-years-ago me. What would he have thought about this? He would have thought “that’s crazy.” And I was already “crazy” then, way beyond the average American.
Now these things to me are becoming the norm – this alternative way of living. But I still look at things from the other perspective. But now I don’t even hesitate at the idea of walking out of here tomorrow with nothing but my shorts and not a penny to my name. I know I’d be fine, because there’s so much waste in America, and I understand that. To survive in this country with nothing, totally on the waste that exists – without ever having to ask anybody for anything – all you have to do is look in the garbage bin.
ML: The overwhelming majority finds the notion of eating out of the garbage repugnant.
RG: To my mind one of the biggest keys to freedom is bringing yourself from caring about social norms and from making your decisions based on what other people think of you. The reason I’m able to do all this stuff is I make my decisions based on what I think about myself and if these things match up to my values and morals. If I was still basing this off of other people, I’d be scared to go in a dumpster because I would think it makes me look “poor,” or it makes me look “inferior.”
ML: Do you ever feel like you’re up against society at large?
RG: Yesterday I had to deal with the security at a Co-op because I was eating nuts that had fallen between the bulk bins. Somebody called security because they thought I was eating out of the bin. So I told the security guard, “No, I’m just eating this wasted stuff, is that cool?” And he said yes… And the day before that I almost got kicked out of the Greyhound station because I wasn’t wearing shoes. So, yes, every day is a battle in this country, for doing things that are reasonable and rational.
ML: Does it bring you down when you encounter this kind of resistance?
RG: It almost never brings me down. I just understand that’s the way it is in this country. And if that stuff wasn’t happening, it would mean that I don’t have to do what I’m doing. I realize that anything I do will have resistance. If I was on the other side, being extremely consumptive and wasteful, I’d be dealing with people telling me not to be consumptive and wasteful. Any good movement has a lot of resistance. I see it as positive – a lot of the time those moments of resistance make me stronger or give me a chance to explain myself.