It is with so much pleasure that I get to introduce you to Sam Alexander today … totally inspiring stuff. On the surface Sam is just a regular bloke, writing books and lecturing at uni. But pull back the top layer and you will find a quiet activist going about his business by experimenting and inspiring others to rethink and change the way they live to create a more resilient community.
Sam blogs regularly at the Simplicity Institute and is the co-founder of the Simplicity Collective. My favourite post of his is when he decided to wash is clothes by hand by mimicking a washing machine. Its quite hysterical. I have to admit I was quick to wonder why he would bother doing something like this – I mean are washing machines really that bad? But of course, that’s not the point. He’s experimenting with an extreme to bring to light some of the unnecessary luxuries we have come to think of as essential. And thus, this is the essence of Sam’s life’s work.
Currently, Sam is spending his time breathing life into Transition Coburg, releasing an amazing fiction book based in a post industrial age and reclaiming his curb! His activities to small scale change are so inspiring that an interview here at Reclaim the Curb was just so essential.
Tell us a bit about your background – where did you grow up, what did you study, and what path led you to what you are doing now?
I grew up in New Plymouth, which is a smallish city on the middle of the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It was a nice enough place to grow up, without being particular exciting. It’s developed more character since I’ve left, but hopefully not just because I left. After school, I studied law at Otago University, which is at the bottom of the South Island. I chose law, by default, or by accident. I didn’t want to study science, and people told me I wouldn’t get a job if I studied philosophy and literature. So I studied law, although I didn’t dedicate myself to those studies at first. It wasn’t until I began my masters when I was radicalized and started taking life and ideas more seriously. I was exposed, or exposed myself, to a bunch of thinkers that really woke me up – mostly obscure legal theorists, at first, and then environmentalists. I developed a real passion for philosophy, politics, and environmentalism, so, after practicing law for 18 months, I moved to Melbourne to begin my PhD in 2006. I was lucky enough to have a doctoral supervisor who let me follow my intellectual passions, so my thesis didn’t end up having a very ‘legal’ focus. I got interested in sustainable consumption, limits to growth, and the relationship between social movements and political structures, and wrote my thesis on those subjects, called ‘Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity.’ I taught at Melbourne Law School for a year while I finished my PhD, and am now teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Paradigm’ into the Masters of Environment at Melbourne University. Beyond that formal employment, I am actively involved in Transition Coburg and spend most of my spare time writing, gardening, and experimenting with mad ideas.
One of those mad ideas was living in a shed in a backyard in Parkville for 2 years which seems pretty far out there – what was that experience like? What did you learn, would recommend the experience to others keen to take on the challenge?
About five or six years ago I read, and re-read, then read several more times, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and it changed my life. When Thoreau was 27 he left his town of Concord, went into to the woods, built himself a small cabin, and lived there for two years, growing his own food and keeping things simple. He was experimenting with what he called ‘voluntary poverty,’ and in 2008 I decided to do the same, except without leaving Melbourne. I built a small shed in the backyard of my share-house, and lived in it for two years. It was an amazing experience, and a surprising one, which I wrote about at length here. The main lesson I learnt was that I could live happily with very little. In the final year of that living experiment, when I kept exact account of everything I spent over 12 months, it totaled $6,792. I discovered that, once basic material needs are met, the goods things in life really are free. It is very liberating to discover this, because one is freed from the pursuit of superfluous ‘stuff.’
To some, your activist involvements and projects could seem as quite controversial or at least unconventional. Does this bother you? How do you address this in your activities?
I’ve never really been bothered by people who think I’m weird. I probably think they’re weird, so everything’s fair.
Your career path and place of living seems to be driven out of a desire to bring about change. What has inspired this burning desire to make the world a better place?
Environmentalists used to argue that we should care about the planet because we shouldn’t leave ‘our grandchildren’ a degraded planet. Well, those days are gone. We are the grandchildren, and should be angry. The planet’s trembling under the weight of overconsumption, and yet all we hear about from our politicians and chief economists is how important it is to grow our economies as large as we can, as fast as we can. This is a recipe for ecological disaster, a disaster that is already unfolding. To put it proverbially, ‘if we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are going.’ So part of what motivates me to try to bring about change is because it is perfectly clear to me that ‘business as usual’ is leading our civilization down a dead end. There isn’t much further we can head down this path, due to ecological limits, so we have to come up with alternatives, and fast. Fortunately, I’m convinced that there are ways to live ‘better on less.’ That is, I don’t think living ‘green’ is about hardship. It certainly requires some fundamental and sometimes confronting changes in how we, in the rich world, live, but I’d argue for change even if there were no environmental problems. Consumerism might have been an interesting social experiment, but the results are in, and the experiment failed. In a sense this is good news, because it means that giving up high-impact, consumerist lifestyles doesn’t have to be much of a sacrifice, just a change. A big change, admittedly, but potentially an exciting one, provided we negotiate the changes sensibly. I’m not confident humanity is going to make the changes necessary in time, but we must live in hope.
What is most striking about your work, life and projects is your unending and whole hearted commitment to living more simply. Many people like this idea and a few try it for a short period of time (e.g. my year of growing my own carrots etc) – how do you keep your momentum, energy and passion for this alive?
My worldview is a strange mix of pessimism and optimism. The world is heading in a terrible direction, and unspeakable suffering awaits us if we don’t change direction. So part of my motivation is to help avoid this tragedy. But ‘doom and gloom’ can only motivate so far. My greatest motivations arise from the realization that building the alternative(s) can be exciting and fulfilling. It’s not always easy though. I certainly have my moments when I find myself on the edge of despair. But then I remember, as Bertrand Russell once said, that ‘Gloom is a useful emotion.’ I think it is healthy to remember that.
What project are you working on at the moment that you are most excited about?
I’ve just published a new book, called Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation. It’s a ‘utopia of sufficiency,’ set in the aftermath of the industrial age, in which I envision a culture based on simple living, local economy, and renewable energy.
What are your hopes and dreams for the simplicity living movement?
That it manages the expand and radicalize over the next couple of decades, building into a social movement that has the power to transform the world from the grassroots up. I don’t have much hope that our politicians are going to lead this transition. We’re mostly going to have to do it ourselves. Technology can help us in this transition, but I feel that what is needed first and foremost is a value-shift, whereby people embrace an economics of sufficiency. Without that, all else is lost.
When did you decide to reclaim your curb? What is growing on there at the moment? How extensive is the garden?
I started ‘reclaiming the curb’ two or three years ago. As well as some random guerilla gardening around my suburb, Coburg, I’ve also done lots of work in the cul-de-sac where I live. In consultation with my neighbours, I’ve planted six or seven fruit trees on my street on the nature strips, and helped build several raised garden beds on the nature strips. We’ve eaten limes, lemons, and nectarines off these trees, with mandarins, oranges, and grapefruits hopefully on their way. In my nature strip garden bed I’ve got leeks, onions, lettuce, beetroots, coriander, radish, cauliflower, and a few flowers. I’m happy to say it’s flourishing. I’d encourage everyone to reclaim the curb. It seems silly not to grow local food when there is land available, and I think that it is absurd that many regulations prohibit nature strip gardening. Often the law is an ass, and when it is, we should do what is right, even if the law says it is wrong.
Are your neighbours helpful and involved in your curb gardening activities? Have you inspired a hyper-local change on your street?
Like most neighbourhoods, ours is a mixed bunch. Not everyone wants to be out in the streets building garden beds, but we have a pretty special community. I wouldn’t say I’ve inspired any change on our street. It’s been a collaborative effort. Even those who aren’t interested in gardening on the street with us are happy enough to smile and leave us to our work. That’s the way it should be.
Local Food Questions
+ Most inspiring food activist?
I prefer to salute the quiet, unseen activists rather than the most prominent activists.
+ Most inspiring public garden?
I just love fruit trees on nature strips. Every time I see a fruit tree on a nature strip a little part of me smiles. I dream of day when every nature strip in Coburg (nay, in the world!) has a fruit or nut tree on it. Again, why burn fossil fuels ordering fruit from around the world when we have land at our doorsteps?
+ Most inspiring food project?
I’m not sure if this counts, but I’ve been most inspired by the Cuban experience during their ‘special period’ after the collapse off the USSR. Almost over night the Cuban’s found themselves with vastly less oil provision from the Russian’s, and this meant that almost over night Cuba had to move away from industrialized food production and move toward highly local, organic production. I’m inspired by how quickly this transition took place (out of necessity) and how it changed the urban landscape. Pretty much all soil was cultivated to grow local, healthy food. It was both revolutionary and perfectly sensible. We need to undertake this ‘project’ in our own localities, and if we decide we want to, then it can be done quite quickly.
Note: All images used by permission from Samuel Alexander and the Simplicity Collective.