Living Simply in a New Way: An Interview with Robin Greenfield

[Editor’s Note: Robin Greenfield has been challenging people to think about their environmental impacts, their relationship to other animals and plants, and their enmeshment in economic systems for over a decade. Through YouTube videos, TV appearances, books, articles, public speaking, and other cultural work, he shares personal challenges he sets for himself and how he accomplishes them. For example, he has lived only off of food he foraged, hunted, or grew himself for an entire year. He has built his own tiny house. And since 2015, he has been a war tax resister, earning less than the federal taxable income level. Former NWTRCC consultant Erica Leigh spoke to Greenfield in November 2023 about his work, which she’s been following for several years. This interview has been edited for readability and length.]

Rob Greenfield in New York City (2016) during Trash Me Campaign. Courtesy of JJRam86 on WikiCommons.

Erica Leigh: Can you tell me how you learned about war tax resistance and how you were led to start doing that?

Robin Greenfield: 2015 is when I officially committed to not paying federal taxes for the rest of my life, for however many decades that is, which is eight years ago now. And as far as where the idea came from, it was numerous things, but it was part of the overall decision to no longer support oppressive and exploitative systems. That includes government, corporations, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex.

It was 2011, so four years prior to that, that I had started to wake up to the truth of what we call the United States of America. It’s when I realized that what we call the American dream is actually the world’s nightmare. And I just learned that almost everything I was doing was causing destruction and was part of oppression and exploitation of people, of the planet, and of the plant and animal relatives that we share this Earth with…

And then I made over the next years, hundreds of changes in my life, including money… I was running a marketing company, I saw money as actually a way to have my freedom, and also to prove my self-worth. So my actions did not catch up with my moral values immediately. It takes time to unravel the web of consumerism and materialism that we’re in.

Erica: Are there people in your life, like mentors or people who inspired you in that practice of not paying for things that you oppose?

Robin: Many inspirations in the long line of standing up to oppression and exploitation and resistance to oppressive governments. One of my earliest inspirations was Mahatma Gandhi. I know he did multiple things to resist taxes to the British government on a very large level, including the salt tax for example. Martin Luther King was one of my early inspirations and influences as far as just standing up to these exploitative systems.

Today some of my inspirations are Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Vandana Shiva, and a lot of people that would be considered radical by our mainstream society. I mostly gravitate towards people who are quite radical, and the reason why is cause we need radical change – we don’t need just a little bit of change.

But as far as the exact [influence for] war tax resistance, I have nobody in my life. My contact with people who discuss war tax resistance has been so little, and that’s one reason I was excited for this interview is just to talk about it! Probably about eight years [ago], a guy reached out to me through email and we exchanged emails back and forth. He had been a war tax resister for decades. I don’t remember his name, but I remember having that communication with him. I’m not tied into any of the organizations…

For most people it’s a pretty big step… Now the way that I manage it is through voluntary simplicity. I don’t know what most war tax resisters do, but mine is done without any risk because I have committed for life to earning less than the federal poverty threshold. So I don’t owe any taxes. And I’m not under any risk by not paying them.

Erica: Have you ever heard anything from the IRS?

Food Freedom, a book by Robin Greenfield.

Robin: No, I’ve had no communication with them whatsoever to my recollection.

And I’m quite sure that to the uneducated eye, it could very much appear that I am hiding money from the government. You know, as a public figure who’s had TV programs and books, it’s very likely that people would assume that I have a whole bunch of money. And in fact if you type in “Robin Greenfield net worth” into Google or any web browser, most of the websites that talk about my net worth say that I’m a millionaire…

But my net worth right now is nine thousand dollars. I have five thousand dollars cash, and all of my possessions are valued at about four thousand dollars. And that’s literally everything. I have no life savings, financial savings. I have an incredible amount of life savings: relationships with the earth, with people, with plants and animals. I have no retirement fund, nothing of that sort. And so I’m sure there’s people that assume I am hiding money. My five thousand dollars is not very hidden. If someone came to find it, they would find it. And that’s all of it.

…I know that technically if you exchange resources that you’re supposed to report that and even pay taxes on it. Now that, I will outwardly say, is just absolutely unreasonable and absurd for you to say that I grow apples on my tree that are a gift from the earth, that have never been monetized prior to a very recent time in human history, and I simply eat that apple or simply give it to my neighbor, and then they give me some sochan, some leafy greens that they grew, and we are required to report that to the government as taxable income? That is absolute absurdity.

The only way I would do that is if I was willing to live in a state of delusion and oppression and exploitation, which I’m not. And so I do a lot of exchanging, and I’m willing to have that be publicly stated even though that would be technically something the government could come after me for. If the government ever comes after me for sharing my apples with my neighbors, I will be happy for them to knock on my door, because that is a conversation I would love to have and I would to love to take that publicly.

Erica: Have you ever had discussions with people in your life or with people that you’ve met about war tax resistance, and what kinds of questions or responses do you tend to get from people?

Robin: Most people haven’t looked that far into the truth behind our taxes. Or just in general the truth behind our monetary system. So when they hear of me doing that, it’s generally like, why? And of course, why for me, it’s not just war of course. It’s all the ways in which our money is going into systems of destruction, systems of oppression and exploitation. So that includes war, the military-industrial complex, police brutality, the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline. And also just generally the disproportionate distribution of taxes, where the communities with the least get the least and the communities with the most get the most.

And so for me it’s real simple. I’m not saying I don’t want to contribute. I’m saying I want to contribute more… If the government isn’t going to proportionally distribute the money, then I’m going to proportionally distribute the money. I’m simply going to give my money to the organizations that represent the people that are not represented by our government.

…Seventy percent of all money that comes through me in any way, shape, or form is distributed back to the people in an equitable manner. That’s more than the government is asking for, saying that we need to.

My main method of this more equitable distribution is that I’ve committed to life to donating 100% of my media income directly to the people.

And so when I did a TV show for Discovery Channel, it was $30,000 that would have gone to me. And instead in the contract, it said no money is paid to Robin whatsoever, and the money is directly donated to these organizations.

Erica: For your living expenses otherwise, the money that you do need, where does that income come from?

Robin: Public speaking. I speak about being the change I wish to see in the world and how others can as well. I charge universities or corporations for me to speak to make the little bit of money that I need, which for the last, well, since 2015, has been less than $10,000 a year.

And then this year I actually taught foraging schools… This year I made $9,900… Ideally I would rather not have charged for that…

At this point what I’ve found is that I feel comfortable with charging some people who have money, who want to give, it’s their way of exchanging and sharing their gratitude. And then just offering so much of what I provide for free, and continuously offering scholarships.

Erica: I have had people say about certain choices I have made about war tax resistance, that there’s no personal purity. “You can’t fully extract yourself from the system. You can’t extract yourself from complicity.” People are seeing it as trying to be pure or the most unplugged from the system. Have you heard that sort of critique and how would you respond?

Robin: There’s definitely a lot of people who say it’s impossible to be pure. I agree! Okay – is that going to stop me from doing the best that I can? No! Anything that we’re doing in life, we’ll never be perfect at it, whether it’s sports, musical instruments, our education, being a parent or a lover. None of us believe that we have to be pure in any of this. So why would we have to be pure in our resistance to oppression and exploitation? …It’s a way of deflecting from the fact that they could be doing something, and having constructive conversations about what we can be doing.

So, am I on a quest for purity? In a sense, yes. But only with the very large asterisk that I will never achieve it. But I’m going to pursue it. I’m going to pursue removing myself from oppression and exploitation, and replacing that with systems of equity, justice, and regeneration to my best ability, and be transparent about where I’m not able to be successful in that. And I’m transparent with myself, first and foremost, honest with myself, and honest with others at the same time. And I think that’s important. And I think potentially one area where we as resisters could do better is being more honest with ourselves and being more honest and open about it with others, because maybe others would meet us with less resistance if we were able to do that… It can be challenging to talk about our weaknesses because it’s very possible that the dominator then focuses on that weakness. But the truth is that the strongest thing we can do is know our weaknesses, understand them, and be able to discuss them openly and transparently.

Erica: Is there anything you want to say or share or add?

Robin: One area where we have an incredible movement in the United States is with defunding the police, with resistance to police brutality. And I think that’s an incredible window for tax resistance. I don’t know if a lot of those people have made that connection that by paying taxes that they are contributing to police brutality through their money.

Learn more about Robin Greenfield at robingreenfield.org. He recently wrote a piece about his war tax resistance at robingreenfield.org/tax.

4 thoughts on “Living Simply in a New Way: An Interview with Robin Greenfield”

  1. Larry Bassett says:

    Amazing story and thanks to Erica for putting it out there. And to Robin for being so open about his life and thinking. Being a liberal is relatively easy compared to being a radical. But many of us don’t just want to change the system. We hear in the media regularly these days that many people in the US don’t like the direction our country is headed. But what people want instead is not particularly clear. The MAGA movement Is not one that most of us would probably endorse. Would we even consider that that movement is revolutionary? Our thinking on the subject seems mostly to be very muddled. We might do some thinking about the difference between the radicals on the right and the radicals on the left. Robin has done and is doing some things that most of us would never consider. We might consider him something of an oddball. Is that what war tax resistors ultimately aspire to be? At the age of 77 after more than 60 years of trying to cut the military budget, maybe I need to think of some new things to do. Robin is way ahead of me in that thinking!

  2. Sue Barnhart says:

    Wow!!How inspiring! Thank so much for sharing w

  3. Sandy Yadav says:

    Awesome and inspiring me to also be the best I can be! Bravo,Robin!

  4. Jim Allen says:

    Thanks, Robin and Erica. Interesting. Thoughtful. Persuasive. But I (and I think others who might be considering the simple living form of WTR) would like to know more details about how you manage to “make a living” anyway. There are so many ways, eh? I’ll share my example (just the basics, the “Vine & Fig Tree” community story is way too complicated): Quit my comfortable professional Job effective April Fool’s Day 1985, at age 49. Spent the next almost 30 years as a mostly self-unemployed “communications consultant,” able to charge embarrassingly high hourly fees but keep billable hours below taxable level and free up time to do unpaid peace-building work. Chose (impurely, yes) to keep paying the Social Security taxes, so I’m now getting at least a minimal “retirement income.” No regrets. Living happily ever . . . You?

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