Over the past 10 years, Washburn native Rob Greenfield has lived off the grid in a tiny house, traveled with no money, went a year without showering and grew or foraged 100% of his food for a year.
But it was his latest stunt to draw attention to consumerism and its impact on the environment that really turned heads — and stomachs.
Greenfield, who credits his Ashland parents and teachers for encouraging his environmental activism, gathered all the trash he created in a month and wove it into a suit of clothes — and then wore it everywhere as he went about life in Los Angeles.
Living in the metropolis of L.A. and surrounded by 4 million other people helped Greenfield better appreciate his northern Wisconsin home, where he grew up fishing on Lake Superior, exploring ravines and wandering through the woods.
“I am very fortunate to have grown up in such a beautiful place with pristine water and nice people,” he said.
But pristine water and the rest of the environment are threatened by the way Americans live, he said. And he’s on a one-man mission to change that — even if that means wearing yesterday’s yogurt container as today’s outerwear.
“My goal is reaching millions of people with a message of positive change,” the 35-year-old said. “I do campaigns designed to catch people’s attention.”
Greenfield was the youngest of three siblings and always seemed to have a positive outlook, his mom, Cheryl Marsha Greenfield, said.
That free spirit curated his love for animals, especially frogs. And when he wasn’t chasing frogs in the shallows, he often could be found fishing deeper waters. In high school, he once set up a tent on a frozen Lake Superior and went ice fishing before and after school almost every day, his mom said.
Greenfield was born into activism. Cheryl taught her children about recycling and how much waste people throw away before recycling was commonplace.
“I told them that garbage never goes away. It’s obvious, but people don’t think about,” she said.
Greenfield left the Bay Area, as so many other young people do, to seek his riches in California where he started a marketing firm.
But by the time he was 24, he started returning to his environmentalism roots and reading about the impact he was having on the environment.
“I learned that every one of my actions was causing destruction to the earth and animals,” he said. “The car I was driving, the food I was buying, the garbage I was creating — everything I was doing was causing destruction. This was not a life I wanted to live.”
Throwing his life away
Following that awakening, Greenfield was determined to show people the damage they cause to the environment through consumerism.
For 30 days this spring, Greenfield lived like a normal person would, creating trash. The average American throws away 4.5 pounds of trash a day, more than a ton of waste every year, he said.
Rather than throwing the trash away, he gathered it all into clear, plastic bags that he assembled into a suit. The suit grew as he incorporated each day’s refuse, adding about 2.5 pounds per day.
Greenfield wore what grew to be a 72-pound suit for seven hours a day, everywhere he went, whether running errands or on a date.
“It caught people’s eyes,” he said with a chuckle. “Some people were disgusted. The whole idea of a landfill is out of sight, out of mind. It was right in front of them, showing them what a lot of people don’t want to see. It can be painful sometimes.”
Greenfield is perhaps most distressed by the perfectly good food that Americans throw away every day.
To illustrate, he traveled across the country on his bike in 2014, living on food he scavenged from grocery store garbage bins.
“In the U.S., we waste almost half of the food that’s produced,” he said. “Yet one in seven people are food insecure.”
Those are just two of his campaigns. He has no intention of stopping his effort to bring attention to the environment — with his inspiration for it all now his No. 1 fan.
“I’m one of Rob’s biggest supporters. I’m always happy to help him along,” his mom said.
Greenfield now has moved on to Asheville, North Carolina, where he earns about $11,000 a year — just below the federal poverty level — giving speeches about his activism to demonstrate that true happiness, health and freedom do not come from money and possessions. Rather, he said, they come from a deep connection to our surroundings and the earth’s resources.
“I’m committed to not paying fed taxes for life. I eat most food from Dumpsters and grow and forage my food. I have no bills,” he said.
In the water, it looks like nothing so much as an oversized, blaze-orange kayak — but with a 20-foot composite sail towering over it.
That sail is packed with sensors and computers, and a sophisticated sonar device is stored in the hull. There’s no one sitting on deck paddling because the boat actually is a drone — a drone that could be key to assessing the health of Lake Superior and its fishes for years to come.
Two of the drones, piloted remotely from California, will spend the next 30 days tacking back and forth across the waters of Chequamegon Bay and other sections of lower Lake Superior, measuring everything about the water and the life beneath it. One has been sailing near the Apostle Islands since the weekend, and the other set sail from Ashland Tuesday morning.
Data collected from the drones will be combined with measurements collected from another sensor, this one a blaze-orange, autonomous torpedo that will cruise about 40 meters beneath the surface, to give scientists a never-before-seen assessment of the lake’s waters.
That assessment, in turn, will help shape everything from conservation efforts and fishing quotas to measures taken to address the effects of climate change on Lake Superior.
Though the U.S. Geological Survey, Great Lakes Fishery Commission and other federal agencies have been collecting reams of data on the lake for decades, drone technology allows scientists to see things they’ve never before recorded.
A large ship like the 107-foot USGS research vessel Kiyi harbored in Ashland, for example, routinely does sonar fish surveys of the lake. But it has drawbacks, USGS research fisheries biologist Pete Esselman said.
The ship’s very movement through the water likely affects fish behavior, he said. The noise of her engines and the pressure of her hull cutting through waves may drive fish away from sonar receivers, giving an inaccurate picture of fish populations.
And the Kiyi’s keel, where her sonar receivers are located, is 10 feet below the surface, so even under the best of conditions she can’t record what happens in the top 10 or 12 feet of water.
“We’ve always wondered about the uncertainty of some data or the missing data from the surface zone,” said Melissa Treml, a research manager with the Minnesota DNR. “There’s still a lot to learn.”
That’s where the drone and torpedo come in.
Matt Womble, director of ocean data with Saildrone, which manufactured the boats, said the drones are powered 100% by wind and sun. Wind drives their sails, and the sun powers the meteorological, environmental and sonar equipment aboard. So it doesn’t make the noise that a big, diesel-powered ship like the Kiyi makes and it can essentially sneak up on the fish it’s trying to spot and count.
The drones, painted bright orange so boaters can easily spot them and plastered with warnings to keep clear, will travel designated paths, mostly along shorelines from Houghton, Mich., to Grand Portage, Minn., at top speeds of about 3 mph.
Simultaneously, the torpedo developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute will cruise beneath the water with its sonar aimed up toward the surface, counting all those fish that boats might miss.
Brett Hobson, an engineer who helped develop the 8-foot-long machine — he refuses to call it a torpedo, for perhaps obvious reasons — said it cost tens of millions of dollars to develop. It’s completely autonomous underwater, but will surface every two hours to send data to its headquarters and get instructions.
The information collected over the next 30 days, and there will be terrabytes of it, will be analyzed by scientists who will study everything from where prey fish are most abundant and how big they are, to how they might respond to temperature, algae, pollution or other environmental factors and how commercial fish such as lake trout respond.
The raw numbers of fish, their size and species will give scientists their most accurate ever assessment of fish stocks, which can be used by policymakers to guide stocking efforts, set size limits for sport fisherman and quotas or season lengths for commercial boats that take advantage of the $7 billion fishery every year.
“It’s frankly amazing, the amount of data we’re going to collect,” Esselman said. “Even with five or six research vessels operating, they can only sample a tiny portion of the water in a lake the size of Maine. This new technology will allow us to gather much more data, and much more precise data, than ever before.”
The torpedo that’s not a torpedo also could, in future studies, give scientists a glimpse of what Esselman called the “black box” of life under Lake Superior’s ice cover during winter.
“Under the ice will provide the best value,” Hobson said. “It can run all winter long down there.”
Randy Erickson’s 2020 murder of neighbor Michael Kinney has stirred controversy from the moment Bayfield County District Attorney Kim Lawton filed homicide charges against him.
Almost immediately, “We support Randy” signs bloomed in yards across the county. Many of those same supporters weighed in on the Daily Press Facebook page during coverage of his trial. More than 100 comments, most of them defending Erickson and criticizing the judge, Lawton and the Daily Press coverage of the case, have been posted so far.
Erickson, 65, was convicted Aug. 4 of shooting Kinney following a confrontation outside Kinney’s home after his wife, Sue Erickson, told her husband that Kinney had knocked her to the ground and kicked her during an earlier incident. The final confrontation came after years of mutual hostility between Kinney and Erickson.
The Daily Press turned to legal experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marquette University, including former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who weighed in on some of the questions and criticisms raised by readers about the trial:
Did Washburn County Circuit Court Judge Angeline Winton, who presided over the trial, exceed her authority when she sent jurors back to deliberate three times when they were deadlocked?
“The judge has discretion on that,” said Geske. “It is routine if the jury comes back once to ask them to go back and try again, that no other jury is going to be better situated to decide.”
Geske said nothing in the law prohibits a judge from sending a jury back for a second or even third time, if the judge thinks that jurors might be capable of reaching a verdict.
“If they come back and say they are hopelessly deadlocked and are never going to reach a verdict, then it gets to a point where you should stop. But there is no magic in two times or three times,” she said.
Marquette University law Professor Michael O’Hear said he wasn’t surprised to learn that after being sent back a third time, jurors returned a verdict of guilty on a lesser charge than prosecutors filed — second-degree homicide rather than first-degree.
“The fact that the jury came back three times and said they were deadlocked has the hallmarks of a classic compromise verdict,” O’Hear said. “That probably means there was a pretty big split among the members of the jury.”
Like Geske, O’Hear said Wisconsin judges have very broad leeway to keep sending the jury back to reach a verdict. The reason: Cases like first-degree intentional homicide often are complex and take a lot of time for the court, the prosecution, police and the defense to conduct.
“Judges do not like to have to do the trials over again,” O’Hear said. “Once getting the case to the jury has been done, the judge will do everything he or she can do to get a verdict out of that trial so there isn’t a need to do a second trial from scratch.”
O’Hear said sending the jury back to deliberate three times isn’t common, but it’s also not unheard of.
“The key here is that the judge is given a lot of discretion to make a judgment calls about continuing a trial and trying to get a verdict out of the jury,” he said.
Cecelia Klingele, an associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed that Winton likely was trying to avoid having to start a two-week trial all over again.
“Trials obviously take a lot of resources from the state and defense. They ask a lot from witnesses, from crime victims and their families. So when there has been a full trial, there is a real interest in the justice system in trying to get a valid verdict, either an acquittal or a conviction, when that is possible and can be done fairly.”
Can someone claim self-defense after initiating a confrontation that leads to a death?
Geske said the question is similar to the Kyle Rittenhouse case where prosecutors asserted that Rittenhouse, then 17, traveled from Illinois to Kenosha in August of 2020 armed with an AR-15-style rifle and shot three people, two of whom died. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense and was acquitted on all charges.
“It becomes complicated. That is where the jury is told that they have to look at who is exercising self defense and who started it,” Geske said.
Complicating the matter is that the law recognizes what is called self-defense and reasonable self-defense, Geske said. She said that is why a jury is given an alternative sentence possibility.
“The jury can find that you were exercising self-defense but it was an unreasonable amount of force,” she said. “If the defense is able to establish self-defense, which is what happened in the Rittenhouse case, then the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it wasn’t self-defense. It really is a jury issue as to whether it was excessive or not.”
O’Hear said self-defense “is one of the most complicated aspects of criminal law.”
“The law in Wisconsin says that if you provoke the fatal encounter, you lose your privilege of self-defense, except if the confrontation reaches the point where you, as the person who provoked the encounter, you now think that your life is on the line or you are looking at great bodily harm and you have no alternative to protect yourself.”
O’Hear said a person can lose his privilege of self-defense because of his provocation, but reacquire it based on the extreme danger of the threat faced and the lack of any alternative except deadly force.
Klingele agreed that jurors in the Erickson trial had to weigh a complex area of law.
“The basic rule of self-defense in Wisconsin isn’t that difficult to understand. People can only use force that is proportional to the threat they encounter when they respond to someone,” she said. “You don’t get to use lethal force unless you reasonably believe that you are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, a sustained and protracted injury.”
Cut to its essentials, the law says that if a person initiates an incident, they must use less-than-lethal force to defend themselves unless there is no other choice to save their life, she said.
“You have a duty to retreat in that context, unless you just can’t,” she said.
Klingele went on to say that a second-degree intentional homicide verdict could be found if a jury decides that though a person sincerely thought they were acting in self-defense, that belief was unreasonable.
Kinney and Erickson had a long history of conflict, and Kinney had harassed the Ericksons for years. Isn’t that justification for Erickson’s actions?
“We are a country of laws,” Geske said. “When somebody has wronged you, your answer is to call the police. I know they had done that, I know there was a history of that, but that is the answer to it — it is not to take things into your own hands and say, ‘I can’t put up with this any more,’ and then be an aggressor. It was relevant for the jury to hear that history, because it went to how reasonable his belief was that he was defending himself, but it is not a justification that because somebody has done all kinds of horrible things to you, you can then be the aggressor. There are some people who are not the best people because of their behavior, but ultimately they have the right not to be killed. There could have been a call to law enforcement, there could have been something else.”
O’Hear agreed with that assessment.
“The law of self-defense or the defense of others is just not set up to allow people to resort to violence based on a pattern of harassing or unpleasant interactions in the past,” he said. “The law is set up so you can only use violence for protection of yourself or the protection of others. You can only use violence for protective purposes if you are facing an imminent threat of some kind of bodily harm, and that means immediately. It means if you don’t act to use force, to protect yourself or someone else, like in just a few seconds, there is going to be some injury that is caused.”
Klingele said it was up to Erickson’s attorneys to try to prove that Kinney’s past behavior influenced his actions on the night of the shooting.
“Whether that past pattern of interaction or even what happened on that particular day would be considered by the jury would depend a lot on what arguments the lawyers were making in the case,” she said.
Klingele said a provision in law called adequate provocation, which means provocation sufficient to cause complete lack of self-control in an ordinary person, can be used to mitigate first-degree intentional homicide to second-degree intentional homicide. She did not know if Erickson’s attorneys used that provision.
Regardless of the legal points, Klingele said the law was not the most important thing to be taken away from the case.
“It is sad and really tragic for everyone involved,” she said, noting that many issues that provided context to what happened were more likely to be brought up in the sentencing phase of the case.
That will happen Wednesday, Nov. 30, when Erickson faces a 60-year maximum sentence.