The Australian food movement is full of wonderful characters all bringing to life in their own ways the importance of local healthy food choices for planet and people. Today I get to introduce you to another: Greg Foyster is a wonderful passionate journalist inspired to tell the human side of the sustainability story and eat his way through many great local meals as he goes.
I met Greg while he was working at The Age for the Melbourne Magazine, studiously researching and interviewing, recording and writing. He has a gentle manner and an easy conversation style. A few months after our meeting he decided to hit the rode with his partner, Sophie to see Australia and find that human side of the sustainability movement on his bike. His journey has been published in a booked launching this week. Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race is inspired by living a life more simply.
Today he shares with you his personal story on how someone who once thought writing catchy ads for kitchen condiments was a worthy pursuit, decided to care more for the environment – and pedal 6500kms around Australia!
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 Drysdale on the Bellarine Peninsula, and in high school I had eclectic interests – writing, drawing and business studies. I figured advertising was the one career that covered these three areas, so I enrolled in ‘Creative Advertising’ at RMIT University. While my peers took classes in history, philosophy or law, I spent my years of higher education staring at Vegemite jars and tomato sauce bottles, trying to write a snappy slogan that captured the emotional essence of a kitchen condiment. If it sounds trivial and silly, that’s because it was.
After graduating, I worked as a copywriter for about five years, and I was very self-interested and career-focussed. Environmental issues weren’t really on my radar.
Then, in 2008, I started writing for a youth literary magazine, and I ended up researching climate change for a column. I realised that high levels of consumption in rich countries were the cause of many ecological problems. As someone who worked in the advertising industry I felt personally responsible for this overconsumption. My inner conflict eventually boiled over at an advertising industry award night and I broke down in tears. I had to leave my job because my actions weren’t in line with my values.
For the next few years I worked as a freelance journalist for publications like The Big Issue, Crikey and The Age (Melbourne Magazine). My main interest was environmental issues, so I spent a lot of time criticising the high-consumption lifestyle I once promoted.
Back tracking for just a moment, it’s not every day that an acclaimed Melbourne journalist decides to jump on his or her bike and head around the country. What motivated you to do this? What were you hoping to experience and share? Is ‘pedal power journalism’ something you will continue to do?
The reason we wanted to go on the bicycle trip was to explore alternatives to a ‘typical’ way of life. If you look at the Census data there is a very distinct pattern in Australia: most people invest a lot of money in their family home, work in a different location from where they live, and travel in a car to get there. And once we’ve identified that pattern, we can look at the incentives that drive it: government grants and tax exemptions for homeowners, jobs clustered in central locations, investments in roads rather rail.
In late 2011 my partner Sophie and I were getting a bit fed up with private rental and were considering more permanent accommodation. The ‘typical’ option seemed to be buying a house in the outer suburbs and commuting to a full-time job to pay it off. That probably would have involved a departure from our low-impact lifestyles in the inner city. So before embarking on this next phase we decided to go on a trip to explore simpler and more sustainable alternatives. In keeping with the ethos of our mission, we figured we should do the trip in the simplest and most sustainable way we could – by bicycle.
That was how, in March 2012, we found ourselves about to set off on this 6500 kilometre bike trip up Australia, living in a tent and visiting communities along the way. We always had the intention to turn it into a book, which has now been published as Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race.
Having said that, we really didn’t think we’d make it to Cairns because we weren’t fit before we left! Prior to the trip, the furthest I’d ridden in a single sitting was about 50 kilometres, and I had practically zero experience of cycle touring. The first few months were gruelling – a real baptism by bum blister.
A lot of what you write about is advocating for a different than usual way of living. Do you feel like you are an advocate for this movement of living more simply?
Coming from a journalism background, I’m not comfortable with being thought of as an advocate. Advocates can be dogmatic, sticking to a fixed position even when presented with evidence to the contrary. I’m much less set in my views. I like to sit on the fence and facilitate the debate, rather than taking sides.
However, in the book I have become an advocate for living more simply, but that position comes from years of research into climate change, peak oil and a host of ecological issues, all of which point to the fact that people in rich developed nations are going to have to learn to use less energy in the future, and probably less natural resources overall. If we want to preserve wild spaces and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, then we are going to have to live more simply, and there’s a wealth of evidence to support that argument.
There is a fine line between advocate and activist. Which side do you think you sit on?
As mentioned above, I’m more comfortable being an observer, but I think it’s important to acknowledge your subjective bias – and with this book I’ve definitely become an advocate for simple living. But I don’t consider myself an activist.
Journalism is an area going through a huge industrial shift at the moment. For someone who is referred to as an ‘environmental journalist’ how do you feel about this? What are you anticipating to be your contribution to this field?
Let me begin by dealing with the term ‘environmental journalism’ because it can be a fraught area. As self-confessed advocacy journalist Michael Frome writes in Green Ink, there is a double standard in the mass media: business journalists can write from a pro-business perspective, sports journalists can write from a pro-sports perspective and health journalists can write from a pro-health perspective. But as soon as an environment journalist writes from a pro-environment perspective, he or she is considered biased.
Kathie Durbin, an environment journalist with the Portland Oregonian, has been quoted as saying that reporters covering environmental issues must be careful not to be associated with any green groups or to attend any gatherings organised by environmentalists, except in a professional capacity. Environmental journalists cannot afford to be ‘causists’. They must hide their passion for the environment.
However, Frome argues that bias is inescapable. He quotes Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly: ‘Objectivity is in the eye of the beholder. Every journalist must decide personally what’s important and less important to humanity. In making these choices, you’re selective, no longer objective. Journalists who don’t think they do that are fooling themselves.’
So as an environmental journalist, Frome writes, you need to remain passionate about the issues you cover. But your passion must be grounded in investigative research, and you must always let readers make up their own minds.
This is my approach too. In a long feature article it’s okay to take a side, as long as you consider the opposing arguments and choose your stance by weighing up the evidence, not by coming to a pre-determined conclusion based on your personal or political ideology.
In terms of my contribution to the field, I want to tell the human story of sustainability. Australian media coverage of the environment generally consists of a) doomsday reports on climate change or other global catastrophes b) dry statistical analyses of government policy and c) strident opinion pieces. Yet these approaches can alienate readers, many of whom feel paralysed by apocalyptic scenarios, confused by technical jargon and offended by moralising lectures telling them how to live. Very few stories about the environment have likeable characters or a strong narrative to engage readers on a human level.
One of the ideas behind my book Changing Gears was to talk about climate change, peak oil and biodiversity loss through personal narratives, rather than through dry statistics or self-righteous sermons. I also like to inject some humour – in the case of climate change, perhaps gallows humour – into my stories.
Now, although you’ve been on the road a lot recently, it’s time to declare what you are growing on your curb?
The book features an interview with Costa Georgiadis talking about his verge garden, and this inspired me to start growing food at home when we returned. Since being back in Melbourne we’ve lived in a small apartment in Footscray, and I just set up a portable vegie patch of kale, silverbeet, coriander, lemon thyme, rosemary and parsley.
But actually, the exciting thing was discovering an olive tree down the road! It was right outside an apartment block, and none of the residents wanted to harvest it, so Sophie and I collected enough olives for about 15 large jars. I downloaded this excellent document that explains different curing techniques, and we’ve now got enough olives to last us for at least six months.
A few weeks ago we moved into Murundaka Co-housing community in Heidelberg Heights, which has a lovely big vegie patch out the back.
So what’s next? What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to going on the road again! From September 20 until November 20 we’re going on a ‘pedal-powered book tour’ from Melbourne to Sydney. I can’t wait to get out of the city and back into the landscape. I really miss living outdoors.
Local Food Questions
– Most inspiring food activist?
Footscray resident Nick Ray is the director of the Ethical Consumer Group and recently started an initiative called Local Harvest, which makes it easier to find more sustainable food sources.
– Most inspiring public garden?
CERES is a sustainability stalwart here in Melbourne, and always worth a mention.
– Most inspiring food project?
Gosh, there are so many! I have to say the Bemboka Banquet, a twenty-dish gourmet dinner for about 150 guests held at the Bemboka community hall. The twist was that the ingredients came from the local area – at the 2012 banquet, the boundary was a 10-kilometre radius. We’re not talking bangers and mash pub fare either. Guests were treated to ‘game terrine with micro herbs and quince’, ‘Boer goat curry with rice-filled cucurbitaceae flowers’ and ‘mascarpone and poached beurre bosc ice-cream’. It shows that local food can still be gourmet. We visited the chef, Patrick Reubinson, on our bike trip.