Unabridged Grist Interview

I was interviewed by Grist Magazine recently. They edited out much of my thinking about what it means to be a bike-ridin’ activist/environmentalist/concerned human, so I thought I’d post the long version here.

What work do you do? What’s your job title?
I’m lead singer of the Ginger Ninjas, president of Xtracycle Inc, coinstigator of the Pleasant Revolution, and co-founder of Worldbike.

What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
The Ginger Ninjas play mind-shaking love groove folkfunk explosive mountain roots music for a pleasant revolution, to open and thereby ready a diverse conglomeration of bodies and heads for the subsequent insertion of a universal and rebellious message of love, hope, pain, and bicycles. As a typically tortured artist, I think it’s fair to say that mission accomplishment is always and never.

Xtracycle invented and makes car-trip-replacing, life-enhancing sport utility bicycles, long bikes, and the FreeRadical Hitchless Trailer—for toting your kids to school, loading up with groceries, or an off-road camping trip to the hills, while diggin’ rather than illin’ your surroundings. Acts like a bike but works like a truck.

People get an Xtracycle for a specific chore, but it makes it possible to live a whole lifestyle that’s more sustainable while getting in better shape and being more adventurous. Marketers try to sell us on an ideal of comfort: “You’ve worked hard. You deserve to drive a leather-interior (eco) car with the air conditioner on.” We’re saying you deserve to experience life more fully by getting in touch with the elements and your own self-sufficiency.

Mission accomplished is when the globally ubiquitous sport utility bicycle enables people to ride more often for more reasons, leaving the car parked for days or weeks, and aspiring entrepreneurs see green-enterprise building as the only worthwhile capitalist endeavor.

We started the Worldbike non-profit to reach the people who most need but can least afford a utilitarian bike. We’re currently working in Kenya, modifying existing bicycles with a locally produced version of our cargo extension. By documenting the increased earning power and improved quality of life of Kenyans with simple load-carrying bikes, we plan to make the case for major investment in this simple technology all around the developing world.

Mission accomplished is when everyone everywhere has access to affordable, reliable, ecological, inspiring transportation, and the developing world has leapfrogged straight over the backs of the 20th-century-oily-military-industrial-greed-fueled-stupid-ass-soulless sprawlfest otherwise known as car-culture that rules the current so-called “developed” world landscape into a wondrous green paradigm of smokestackless factories, broken-down dams and urbanism tailored to the needs and dreams of pedestrians and cyclists, i.e. humans.

The Pleasant Revolution blog wraps all of this into a messy bundle by showing the nitty gritty struggles and triumphs of our own experience with this new way of bicycle-enabled living. It’s an eco-hedonist, positivist take on the work and play that unfolds when we realize that saving the world can become the funnest fun you could ever have.

Mission accomplished is when mass pop culture realizes riding your bike to work is the coolest way to get there and the culture that the United States exports to the rest of the world shows that even wealthy American Baywatch babes like Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff choose to ride bikes for transportation. The next step in this mission will be me giving Cameron Diaz a ride to the Oscars on the back of my bike, passing Leo in his Prius, who’s stuck behind a fustercluck of limos.

What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?

Write songs, ride my bike, make up sticker slogans for the pleasant revolution, talk to distributors, scheme new ways to introduce a new category of transportation to a populace that’s just on the cusp of realizing it needs it. Right now I’m working on a music video for our single “Dick Cheney” and fundraising for our next expedition: My band has plans to tour through Mexico, by bicycle, carrying our equipment on back, bringing a message of North American sustainable development solidarity, and making a film about our attempts to simultaneously organize a Latin American mayoral appropriate transportation summit.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I grew up in the woods with a logger dad and adventure journalist mom. I loved the woods.

In high school I made funny speeches about not using so many napkins at lunch. Just use your shirt sleeve, I said.

In college I knew I wanted to do something big for the world, but what? I wrote my thesis about Stanford University’s voracious energy appetite and its green, cost-saving cure. My friend Ross Evans was thinking about majoring in Product Design, and I wondered to him why anyone who cared about the world would want to make more stuff?

I went to work for Rocky Mountain Institute, entranced by their hopeful, non-confrontational message of have your cake and eat it too abundance. At first skeptical of their close workings with nasty corporations, I eventually realized that a for-profit company could be one of the most effective instruments for affecting the world.

It was right at the time of the internet bubble, and I decided to start an eco-Amazon.com that would combine the current used catalogs of all the indy booksellers in the country. After some research I realized someone already had. I called up my genius college buddy, Ross, to see how his work with bikes was going. He invited me to join him in marketing the new product he had designed in school, called the Xtracycle, and I did.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I have dirty sleeves.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Bike shop owners who won’t step out of the narrow American mindset of bicycle-as-toy to put energy towards championing the bicycle as liberating, peerless transportation tool.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Eugene, Oregon. Currently living in a teensy little town called North San Juan, in the Sierra foothills of Northern California.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I took it pretty hard when early on three of our first four interns all quit on the same day. Since then, I’ve learned to accept the comings and goings of collaborators as a healthy part of a growing organization. I’ve also come to believe that nothing in particular spells “the end of the world,” for any of my endeavors as long as my own desire to persist persists.

What’s been the best?
A few years ago I began untangling my own personal happiness from my concern for the world’s dire straights. I let go of the idea that I needed to spend every waking moment fighting for every conceivable important-seeming cause. It became clear that many of the most intensely committed activists either have no fun or burnout or both and that much of the joy of being human comes from acting like one.

It’s so easy to slip into the savior mindset: “let me just put real life living on hold until the world is fixed and THEN I can start to enjoy it.” I stopped taking every global injustice personally and a great weight was lifted.

I don’t care any less, I just have a lot more acceptance—this is the way the world IS right now. Accepting what is is part of loving what is, and that love feels key to enjoying the world while trying to help it. The strength I get from this love affair gets used in all my work, and is as crucial as food.

What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I don’t support the concept of fury. It’d be a big lie to say I don’t get pissed off at anything, but the truth is I don’t want to feed that state of being/behavior. Am I really going to get angry every time I see a Hummer? No, because the truth is: I don’t like the way anger makes my body feel; I think anger is often a convenient and wrongheaded way of scapegoating someone or something else; anger interferes with the path of becoming a more loving person; and what’s it really going to accomplish?

Who is your environmental hero?

Whoever inspires optimism at any given moment. Past heroes of the day include: Amory and Hunter Lovins, for pointing out that environmentalism doesn’t have to be ideological (read: right-wingers can play, too), we can use the market to solve problems on a grand scale, buildings can be more beautiful, healthy, green, fun, inspiring, and even cheaper, all at the same time; Dana Meadows, peerless environmental columnist, for re-iterating the Seven Sustainable Wonders of the World; Paul Hawken, for inspiring business people to re-think the purpose and potential of their work; my mom for taking me down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when I was eleven and letting me go wild; my dad and his best friend Steve Whatcott, a wild bow-hunting, timber-cutting, Vietnam fighting jack Mormon, for teaching me how to love the woods and proving that loggers vs enviros vs owls vs jobs is bullshit; YES! Magazine for pioneering the idea of good news; Julia Butterfly for inspiring so many hungry-to-do-something kids and grownups with the idea that what you do counts, for comfortably and lovingly speaking truth to powerful men in suits, and for shopping at the thrift store while maintaining a look more cover girl than hippy; Al Gore, whose pre-election book made me rejoice that any politician could so deeply understand, even as the in-office let-down fostered nearly complete political disillusionment; lately Bill McDonough for his mega vision of waste equals food and his mega connections in Chinese government that means his work will likely be implemented, soon and huge (he’s designing several multi-million person cities in China, from scratch, now); and Hayduke and all the other fearless activists who are willing to sit, strike, chain-up, tie-down, throw pies and otherwise disobey in defense of Mother Earth.

Who is your environmental nightmare?

Whoever it was that came up with the creepy idea that consuming creates happiness. In a sense, every human culture that accepts, believes, advertises, or otherwise inculcates the idea that material growth and wealth are the end-all be-all.

Pointing fingers at individuals, leaders, organizations, or even nations has become the most convenient way of denying our own personal responsibility as well as avoiding that sucking feeling we get when we pause to wonder if human beings are just too sick to stop. I guess God did it. But we can re-do it, at least that’s the inspiration behind the Pleasant Revolution.

For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
I constantly find great comfort in knowing that most of the world’s problems are being addressed by a deeply motivated, capable, ambitious, ballsy, driven someone somewhere. There are number-crunching new-millennium global-warming geeks drilling holes in Antarctic ice and animal-loving oceanographers trying to keep the Navy from blasting whales with secret noises and rubber booted volunteers competing to fill the most bags of trash at my local river and spiderpeople dangling Wall Street Buildings with headline-grabbing comeuppances and and and…

Wow, I don’t have to fix everything all by myself! Instead, I can focus my fixing energies on the nexus of two things: what I’m gifted at and what I love to do. (I’m also compelled to work on things that no one else seems to be doing.) Which is to say: The truly pragmatic greenie must put her own well-being and happiness right out in front, proudly. Martyrdom, extensive suffering, and burnout not allowed here! The essential work of political action and lifestyle shifting will continue to be done by lots of qualified folks; the real question is: what are YOU called to do in this world?

What’s your environmental vice?
Air travel. While I think the Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices is one of the coolest and most useful references in years, they got it a bit wrong on transportation. Their error was in comparing impact per mile of different forms of transportation. On the face of it, this seems logical—I need to shop the Galleria, it’s 50 miles away, what’s the most eco way? In the book, air travel breaks out similarly to driving alone in terms of destruction/mile. So if I JetBlue or Suzuki Samurai (alone) to the galleria I get an equivalent amount of eco-destruction points (guilt, footprint growth, Umbra spankings, etc). The problem is, if I’m gonna fly, I might as well skip the poseur galleria and hit the Mall of America. The point being, people go further afield by plane, flying a lot more miles than they would ever drive, so comparing the per mile impact is useful but not real-life.

The average American drives about 10,000 miles in a year—roughly the same distance as one San Francisco-London roundtrip. Cut your driving in half but still fly for vacation? I try not to, doing my damnedest to cultivate a connection to my biking-distance, train-accessible world. Yet, I still flew coast-to-coast twice this year.

How do you get around?
As Sticker Guy at Xtracycle, one of my first pieces of work was “God, grant me the courage to sell my car.” I think that was in 2001. Being a whitewater kayaker, touring musician, agitated social entrepreneur, and traveling salesman, and living 20 steep miles from town, I have plenty of reasons to own and use an automobile. And yet, car ownership felt so inconsistent with my work and values that I wanted to try doing without.

Working on an MTV reality show about my attempts to lead a sustainable lifestyle this past summer, I finally got the courage. The prospect of selling the car in front of millions of impressionable kids—who normally only see car as 4-wheel sex toy freedom machine—put me over the edge.

I have three sport utility bicycles. One is a beautiful laid-back cruiser that I use in the city, often for carrying a guitar and passenger. The second is the trusty steed, an off-road machine I use daily to get to and from work by gravel road and mountain trail. I use it to grocery shop and to carry propane and the occasional chainsaw and for general mobility around my community. When my band tours by bicycle, I ride this one. The most recent addition to the fleet is an electrified Xtracycle that I’m testing out for its assistance in getting me and a load to town in back.

For motorized cultural expeditions and band travels we have a 1974 mid-sized sport utility school bus named Millie the Millennium Van. We converted her to run on straight vegetable oil (SVO) several years ago, and she also runs on bio-diesel. I have come to think of SVO as actually meaning “sometimes vegetable oil,” since it so far hasn’t proven to be the most reliable fuel choice out there, despite all its other lovely attributes. Meaning Millie also runs on petro-diesel. Millie’s loveliest features is perhaps the custom rack that allows any of the seven rearmost bikes to be unbuckled and ridded away in less than 29 seconds. This makes her a multi-modal queen, enabling parking in any corner of a city and expeditioning outward.

What are you reading these days?
McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle; A Single Pebble, a short novel by John Hersey about an American engineer looking for a dam site on the Yangtzee in the 1920s and finding instead the chasm that separates him from the Chinese river people; Byron Katie’s Loving What Is; Bob Dylan’s new autobiography, Ode Magazine, The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruíz; Sounds of Freedom, John Malkin’s interviews with socially motivated musicians; and I try to eventually read every Daily Grist though I sheepishly admit to a mass purge of more than 50 in a recent in-box massacre.

What’s your favorite meal?
Whatever local organic hedonistic feast someone who loves me just put on the table.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Way down in the crack at Deer Creek in the Grand Canyon, and my front porch.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
The movement is great at identifying what’s wrong, backing it up with science, and imagining and designing solutions.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?

We’re too scared to throw out the bathwater and the baby, too eager to replace consumption with green consumption, as if Hummers are the problem and the Prius is the cure.

The entire structure of our built environment and culture needs shifting, and the people who care enough to join the Sierra Club or read Grist need to be engaged seriously and completely in this beautiful work. That is, they must be inspired to make environmental and social change their job, what they do everyday from 9-5 for a living, not just what informs their purchase, transport, and remodeling decisions. This requires shifting the discussion about what it means to be an environmentalist AND what it will really take to avoid global ecosystem collapse.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Require politicians who make anti-environmental votes to get Mohawks. And if they do it again, make their spouse get one, too. And so on, all the way to their grandmas.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Creedence, Jimmy Cliff, Beatles, Bob Marley. Manu Chao, Spearhead, Be Good Tanyas. And of course the Ginger Ninjas.

What’s your favorite TV show?
I think current television is so integral a part of the Wheel of Destruction and breeding the culture of insatiable desire that perhaps this question should not be asked in this forum. It’s like asking who’s your favorite dictator? What’s your favorite way to waste gas? Your favorite exploitative big box retailer? Your favorite SUV for short trips? And in so doing inadvertently using environmental activists to legitimize the very behavior that we think might not be good for the world (tune-in, feel empty, buy, tune-out, repeat).

It’s not that dictators might not have some good personality qualities, it’s that the idea of dictator is antithetical to our (at least my) ideas about open, progressive society. This isn’t a question of whether TV is “bad” or whether “we’re just human” or whether “some of it is actually good,” or about how we all “need some way to unwind,” and I don’t say it from a place of curmudgeonly self-righteousness. But I can’t help noticing that few-to-none of my happiest, least consumptive, most world-changing, fun-having friends even own a TV.

Perhaps it’s possible to imagine a sustainable world with TV, but it’s easier to imagine all that good-TV-watching time being plugged into some groovy cause somewhere. Unplug it and put it on eBay. Even better, get a fifty foot extension cord and some lighter fluid, call your neighbors, plug the TV back in and turn it on, go up on the roof, and just before you throw it off, light it on fire. The taller the building, the better the show.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Read/listen to my spoken word poem “How Much” and order the CD, burn it and send it to friends who care about peace, rivers, or love. It’s almost every idea I ever had about my/your responsibility for our predicament, why, and what to do about it, today, boiled down into an adult nursery rhyme. For the time challenged, skip the poem and just move close enough to your job so that you can ride your bike to work.

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