by Sarah McGowan
- USA -
If you’re one of the millions of Americans affected by the credit crunch – unemployed, uninsured and unsure of your future, or working yourself to death just to live - Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Equal parts condemnation of consumer culture and celebration of human ingenuity, Radical Homemakers offers a surprising solution to a cycle of consumption that has endangered our health, happiness, economy and planet. Hayes has compiled a litany of data on the waning levels of satisfaction Americans have derived in pursuit of the “American Dream” and the quality of life that we could all enjoy if we abandon our focus on consumerism.
Perhaps what’s most intriguing is that “radical homemaking” seems to be a direct response to the seemingly insurmountable issues of social and ecological justice that result from globalization. After interviewing Radical Homemakers around the country, Hayes found that all were living according to four principal tenets: family, community, social justice and ecological sustainability. Her book compellingly articulates the connection between “Think Globally, Act Locally” and provides a feasible action plan for reclaiming family and home life. By localizing food production and focusing on more community-based sustainability, the Radical Homemaker model offers social change on a local level that could very well have a global effect.
In a recent interview with Shannon Hayes, she explains the basic philosophy of the Radical Homemaking (RH) lifestyle, why we need to question mainstream messaging, and why “to lead a life of one’s own design takes courage.”
How did your decision to adopt the RH lifestyle evolve?
Part necessity, part inability to envision any other way of life. I never wanted to leave the community where I grew up. Bob and I were both educated but when he lost his local job and I couldn’t even get an interview upon finishing grad school, we thought we’d have to relocate. When we did the math for how much money we would earn [and spend] at new jobs in a new place, we came out only $10,000 ahead of where we’d be if we stayed home and drew upon our homemaking skills and worked with my family on the farm. And that was before we had kids. Daycare would’ve put us in the red if we’d left our family and community.
Everyone profiled in your book derives a lot of personal satisfaction from eschewing the traditional system – and there’s also a real sophistication and triumph in their problem solving abilities. Is there a common personality trait for those who have embraced RH?
Yes. These folks are auto-didactic; which means that they are self-learners. They do not require a formal teaching/training scenario in order to develop new skills. They are deeply curious about the world around them and like to explore and experiment. They were absolutely not afraid of failure; and often used their failures as opportunities to further their quest for more learning.
• By producing their own food and adhering to the four tenets of Radical Homemaking, Shannon and her family have more time together and she argues, a higher quality of life. Photograph courtesy of Shannon Hayes. •
How does RH translate into social change, or the transition from an “extractive” economy to a “life-serving” economy?
By living a values-driven lifestyle governed by family, community, social justice and ecological sustainability, RHers wind up participating in an emerging life-serving economy. They won’t shop at big box stores; they go without a lot of consumer products that may be polluting. Instead, they grow and process a lot of their own food. What they don’t produce, they buy locally. They don’t spend money on things that go against the tenets. That makes the life-serving economy grow stronger.
Another way they develop the strength of this life-serving economy is through their own entrepreneurial ventures. Some of them start agricultural businesses, others are artists, craftspeople, mechanics, writers, musicians – the possibilities are endless. They have the power of not needing a lot of money, so they develop ventures in line with the four tenets.
A major theme in this book seems to be overcoming the prevailing paradigm of fear – whether it’s the mainstream economy, employment, education, environment or health care. How much was that part of your own process?
There were days I felt like a failure because I hadn’t become a college professor or some other professional. There were nights when I would stay up late perusing the Chronicle of Higher Education job postings. I’d go to bed frustrated because I simply couldn’t bring myself to apply for anything. I would grow angry because I didn’t want to leave; yet I felt like it was incumbent upon me to do so. The same was true for Bob. He always wondered aloud what he’d be when he grew up…
I don’t know when these nagging thoughts stopped, but they eventually fell away. I think that the more we engaged with our family, farm and creative pursuits, the more sustained we were by our own creativity. We were too busy enjoying ourselves and pursuing our interests to worry.
• As Hayes writes in her book, "As we endeavor to put our homes in order, reaching out and building this (social) capital not only helps sustain our way of life and build a more self-reliant community, it keeps us happier in the long run and increases our collective power to bring about national change" (page 252).
Photograph courtesy of Shannon Hayes. •
Do you maintain health care coverage?
No, we do not. We had health insurance and were spending over 26% of our income to make the premium payments. We rarely went to the doctor, but one time Bob got sick and had to go, and the insurance company came up with a myriad of reasons to deny him coverage. We realized that the “insurance” we were paying for was merely a pretend product. We were getting nothing in return, but we kept paying the premiums out of a fear of “what if.” We decided to stop worrying about “what if,” and drew on our community connections and personal research to address many of our healthcare needs.
Most of the RHers profiled in your book had some working capital to buy property as well as at least a minimal income to help supplement expenses that cannot be bartered. Is this mainly a middle-class phenomenon?
I think anyone who met these people would be hard-pressed to identify them with any particular class. If there was something they all had in common, it was a very high level of intelligence and an ability to teach themselves.
One thing that I noticed was that they eschewed the notion of independence that American culture reveres. Folks in this group saw things differently. Some of them had access to capital because they inherited money or had earnings from a prior job. Others accessed it by borrowing money from family. They did not see shame in capitalizing on these resources. Those without money in the bank leveraged their paths through other connections – through collaborative living arrangements, barter exchanges, etc.
You are right in your observation that everyone was using some money to get by. We’ve been using money since the Ancient Sumerians invented coins, and it is a handy tool that isn’t going to go away. The RH path isn’t about eschewing money. Rather, it is about marginalizing its importance in our lives. We typically assume that security is tied to our financial portfolio. By contrast, the RHer has a well-being portfolio – a diversified assortment of resources, relationships, skills, ideas – and some money that enables their well-being. On a conventional life path we assume that money defines nearly 100% of our security. On an RH path, it is maybe 20-50% of our security.
How has RH given you the freedom to do the things that you’re passionate about?
I love to write. Living this way has enabled me to pursue this passion, even in those early years when the things I wrote were not contributing to our household financially. We also love travel and we’ve had some pretty amazing long-term trips every few years. We also like to eat well and spend a lot of time outdoors. That’s all possible.
Though this movement is progressive in its commitment to social justice and ecological responsibility, some might call it regressive for women. Is there a generational tension that you see in this movement or has there been any critique from the feminist community?
Only from those people who haven’t read the book. Those who haven’t read it tend to think that it is anti-feminist because they haven’t seen the arguments and research I lay out. Those who have read it may choose to not personally pursue the lifestyle, but they have a hard time arguing that it is anti-feminist.
Many people might look at abandoning mainstream culture as the “easy way out,” but as you write in your book, “To lead a life of one’s own design takes courage.”
Our culture has told us a different story of success. We pretend that “success” is about being happy but media and schooling often teach us something different - success is holding a job, climbing a ladder, not relying on family and community for support, owning a lot of material goods, having professional labels, being disconnected from all that could sustain us if we chose not to rely on a corporate consumer culture.
We are not taught that success is about staying connected with our families and communities; that it is about having adequate rest, being able to play with our kids, having meaningful marriages and rich friendships; engaging deeply with our spiritual path; questioning and learning constantly; challenging cultural myths; or about organizing our lives and addressing our needs in such a way that we do not infringe on the right of other human beings to experience similar well-being. These things are judged as “non productive,” “valueless,” or, as you say, “the easy way out.” In truth, however, they take time and energy, and they result in sustained natural resources so that future generations can have similar joyful experiences on this earth.
Opting for this path in the face of the conventional parameters for success takes courage. We were taught to behave, to get and hold a job – that a life worth living is in service to an employer, and not to the people we love and feel most connected to. Thus, to reject these teachings takes courage. Those who walk this path give up status and must stop listening to the conventional messages and learn to trust their inner voices that they are living a more responsible life.
In true Radical Homemaking style, Shannon's book is available through her publishing company, Left to Write Press. Click HERE for more information. - Ed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah McGowan helped create The WIP as the founding Features & Photo Editor and is now a Contributing Editor, based in Los Angeles. An avid traveler, photographer and writer, her work reveals a desire to empower the human voice, recognize the complexities of the human spirit and her dreams for a healthier global existence. Her background in social and juvenile justice allowed her the unique opportunity to educate thousands of teens in the San Diego urban area about social justice and how to become advocates for change. She is also the founder of P.A.I.N.T. (Public Art Involving Neighborhood Teens), a mural program that pairs vandalism convicted youth with adult mentors in an effort to transform destructive behaviors into pro-social expression.