After cycling across the United States (twice), environmental activist Rob Greenfield came to a crossroads. He needed a roof over his head and a place to decompress, having spent months on the road acting as an advocate for food waste issues. Rather than return to the workaday world of career and car payments, the former marketer opted for Plan B. He devised a strategy to get off the grid and live rent-free inside city limits.
Greenfield purchased a glorified garden shed for $950. He then found a quiet spot in San Diego to start the next phase of his life, an extended experiment in becoming as self-sufficient as possible without turning into a backwoods hermit. Thus far, he's avoided amassing debt, the need for public utilities and the spending habits that make consumer-driven economies possible.
With no overhead to speak of, Rob is in the business of being Rob. Much like a string of seekers that came before him, ranging from John Muir to Chris McCandless, he's on a vision quest. Greenfield imagined a day when he would be debt-free, not tied down by his possessions or preoccupied with the trappings of success. But rather than retreat to the wilderness like his vagabond predecessors, Greenfield lives in the city (at least for now). His latest gambit is called off-the-grid urban homesteading. I interviewed Greenfield at his tiny 50-square-foot home in the hills of Ocean Beach, San Diego.
MNN: What are your goals at this point?
Rob Greenfield: The main idea is to live in a spot where I can't overconsume resources, to live as simply as possible and to immerse myself in it. There’s no flip of a switch to use electricity, no faucet to run. And by relying on rainwater and by using solar power for my laptop, I can only use so much. Back in my apartment, even though I cared, I'd leave the lights on too long, and I'd put something in the oven and forget about it until the end of the day.
So you're absent-minded?
Well, yes. It’s extremely easy to be absent-minded when resources are so cheap and available with the push of a button.
How big a task is it to meet your needs? After all, you're not working.
People work to pay for the things that they want. Instead, I've found ways to incorporate work into my lifestyle. You could say riding my bike is my work. The average American spends up to $7,000 a year to drive their car.
By riding my bike, that's $7,000 I don't have to earn. Instead, I can work at things I actually want to do, such as gardening. My main expense is food, of which I grow a tiny bit. And I have no bills to pay. I can live very comfortably on $5,000 per year.
You don't lease the land that you're living on. Isn't that a bit of a free ride situation?
I do a work exchange. I built the fence, which cost $1,000 in materials, and I've provided $2,000 in labor. So by the time I'm ready to leave, I'd have put in about $4,000 in labor and improvements to the lot. Although money is not being exchanged, the situation is beneficial for both of us. We don't need to have money involved in every situation. I can do this, you can do this, so let's do something together, and not give each other money.
Do you suppose people want to live in a shed, in exchange for goods and services, in a frictionless, cashless society?
I don’t know if I want to do that either. I know my lifestyle is a bit extreme.
And in no way do I expect everyone to do this. But for people who do want to get out of the rat race, the idea is to provide an example of everything that you can do for yourself to be self-reliant that doesn't revolve around paying bills.
You have a bit of notoriety online. Do you think there's an application for that celebrity status?
Absolutely. I find that people relate to personal stories. They don't typically make changes in their life because of a company doing something. It's more that someone who they like is doing something, and then they are more likely to do it. Or they are affected emotionally because of a personal story. For me, it's about leading by example to show what can be done.
Are you aware that you're the living embodiment of an Internet meme?
What I do is find things that I think are really awesome and I do them. And by awesome, I mean good for the Earth, the creatures on it and the people around you. I find off the off-the-grid living exciting, I find tiny homes and simple living exciting. I think people of my time are excited by the ability to unwind from all the electronic gadgets and the constant competition.
How grounded in reality are you, when coastal Californians have insulated themselves from the rest of the country?
I try to keep a rounded perspective. While biking across the United States two summers in a row, it's impossible to live in a bubble; I’m bombarded by motorists who hate cyclists. I'm constantly passing through food deserts where it's impossible to get healthy food. I spend many nights in the homes of people who watch Fox News, including my relatives.
What’s the next epic adventure?
One idea that I've come up with is a project called "a life of waste." I'll start naked in an alley with nothing. And for one month I have to live solely on waste, so I'll have to find clothes and water. The food, of course, will come from the dumpster. I'll have to build a shelter from stuff thrown away. And I'll create a little spot completely made out of waste, and in doing so provide an example of how to use trash.
Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about switching their lifestyles?
When I decided to switch to this lifestyle, I would have had a really hard time believing that I’d get to where I am today. For me, it was all about taking it one step at a time and continuing that from week to week, month to month, and year to year. The only way that I’ve made it here is by taking it gradually, setting little goals, and building on the momentum and excitement of each success. So I would suggest that anyone wanting to try this write out a list of goals and hang it up somewhere prominent. Start by tackling the easier goals and then build up to the more difficult ones. I also suggest they spend time with people who are doing what they strive to do because I believe that you are your surroundings. Lastly, don't be overwhelmed by where you are today; instead be excited about the journey ahead.