Author: Melanie Rios
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #137
A few months ago, I received an email telling me that ABC television was looking for an eco-village family for an episode of a reality TV program called “Wife Swap.” I had never heard of the show, wasn’t married to my partner, and had only one 15-year-old son left at home. But I thought to myself, “Here’s an opportunity to sing to a new audience—and how many ecovillage families are there, anyway? We might have a shot at being chosen.” I was growing bored with discussing Peak Oil, imminent economic collapse, militaristic government, and global warming with the same already-aware people in my town, and wanted to reach out to folks who don’t share my views. I wondered if I would be able to connect with them and influence their ideas and behavior through the mass medium of prime-time TV.
So last April, I found myself on board an airplane heading to a home in North Carolina to trade places for a week with a woman who was heading to my home at Maitreya Ecovillage, an urban community of 30 people in Eugene, Oregon. My intention was to intrigue some of the millions of viewers of this TV show with the idea that one can live a more ecologically sustainable life while becoming happier. I also hoped that if I could get the word out about “the runaway greenhouse effect,” where the greenhouse effect can become self-accelerating, people would be motivated to do something about reducing their carbon emissions.
I did feel some concern about how our family might be portrayed on TV (as film editors can affect how viewers perceive what was filmed), but we figured our reputations were worth sacrificing for the opportunity to potentially help shift the consciousness of so many people. I also comforted myself with the thought that our family and friends would still love us no matter how the show turned out.
I had thought I was pretty familiar with mainstream America and wouldn’t be likely to experience culture shock in my new home. I was wrong. Upon arriving, I cautiously negotiated through several concentric circles of fences surrounding the home with signs posted declaring “Don’t worry about the dogs; beware of the owner.” Stepping over the threshold, I was hit with the stench of dog poop and greeted by six well-dressed tiny dogs.
The family members were not yet there, so I had time to read the manual describing the life I was to lead for half my weeklong visit, before I would change the rules of the household to be more compatible with my own values and lifestyle. The manual described a situation that seemed too bizarre to be true. “I am top dog in this family,” wrote Sheila. “Next come my six babies [referring to the dogs], then comes my son, and then my husband. I spend $100,000 per year pampering my babies with clothes, filet mignon for every meal eaten off of china plates, trips to the beauty salon for their manicures, and cameras for taking their portraits. My babies sleep with me in the master bedroom, while my husband sleeps downstairs. My son and husband eat fast food off of disposable plates every evening, so don’t worry about preparing meals for them. Tell my husband to pick up the dog poop from the living room when he’s home, which is rarely, as he works two jobs to support the family. You will have to do it when he’s not here. Tyler is required to play football to turn him into a man, and he’s not allowed to play guitar because that’s a sissy thing to do.”
Soon I met Sheila’s husband Ray and 15-year-old son Tyler, both of whom confirmed with downcast eyes and hunched shoulders that the manual I had read was a largely true description of their lives. They were resigned to this setup, convinced there was nothing they could do to improve the balance of power or increase the amount of love expressed in their household. They said they believed their situation was normal.
For the duration of my stay with this family, I felt like I was juggling multiple concerns. The cameras were on us all day, so I was monitoring how I might be coming across to viewers. At the same time, I was focused on creating personal connections with Ray and Tyler, so that they would trust me enough to participate in healing work for themselves and for the planet once it became my turn to organize our time together.
During the first half of my week there, I was thinking ahead to what rule changes I wanted to offer to the family, and during the second half I negotiated with the director how to frame the messages I wanted to communicate. I was also conscious of using emotion to highlight the issues most important to me, as I figured emotional scenes were most likely to make it into the show. Through all of this, I was concerned about staying healthy, which was especially challenging during the first half when the only food available was the greasy, processed, sugary fare the family normally ate. By the time I was done and had returned home, it took about a week of eating a normal healthy diet again to recover my usual level of energy.
An example of the healing work I did with the family was helping them express their resentments out loud, so that they could later negotiate with Sheila for what they wanted with more calmness. They took turns holding onto my clasped hands and shaking me, shouting what they were angry about. “I don’t want to pick up any more dog poop!” Ray shouted. Tyler broke out into hives as he yelled, “I don’t want to be forced to play football!” Then it was my turn to vent, and I shook Ray’s fists, shouting out my pain over the destruction of our planet. At the end we all felt exhausted and emotionally released, collapsing into the grass to rest. Several weeks after returning home, I learned that Sheila agreed to let Tyler quit football and take up guitar lessons. That alone made the whole week feel worth the effort.
In the meantime, of course, Sheila was learning about ecovillage life back at Maitreya Ecovillage in Oregon with my partner Rob and my son Skye. During the first half of her stay, Sheila complained about eating “food that comes from dirt” (meaning vegetables grown in our garden), riding a bicycle to the local health food store, and our Maitreya community, which she referred to as a “cult.” She would get up and walk away if someone approached her to say hello at a potluck. Most of the people here met her well-defended personality with grace, especially my son Skye, who connected with her well enough that she invited him to visit her in North Carolina. Rob bore the brunt of her anger, but he managed to keep calm for her entire stay.
When Sheila changed the rules, she rented a Hummer, brought three puppies into the home, installed an intercom system to keep visitors at bay, forbade Rob to meditate, and brought into our home a microwave oven, processed foods, and disposable plates. Though she continued to present her “tough girl” image to the cameras, by the end of her stay her demeanor softened when the film crew went home for the day. Before leaving, she wrote a note to one of my housemates thanking him for opening her mind to new ideas, increasing my hope that an attitude of friendliness, if not unconditional love, can create healing beyond the folks in our small sustainable-living subculture.
So how did the show turn out? Better than I had feared, and worse than I had hoped. I had hoped that our ecological ideas such as the concept of “closed loops” would be eloquently expressed, the idea that we can provide for our needs where we live without importing resources or exporting pollution by using “waste” products to produce food and other necessities of life. The show focused on the toilet and the trash, however, without putting them in the context of our larger vision. The fact that we use a bidet to clean our bottoms at Maitreya instead of toilet paper received a lot of air play, without mentioning that we do it to save paper, which saves trees, or mentioning the important role trees play in sequestering atmospheric carbon. The program included the idea that we add our pee to compost piles at Maitreya without including our explanation that we do so because urine contains nitrogen and other important nutrients, replacing the need for fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. The program’s narrator said that we Maitreya residents get 80 percent of our food from dumpster- diving. However, this isn’t true. While we do collect old organic vegetables from the local health food store for our compost piles, and occasionally eat a vegetable from that source if it still has vitality, this accounts for only a fraction of our diet.
On the other hand, good things have come out of our family’s participating in the Wife Swap show. It was fun laughing with friends when we viewed the episode. We’ve received dozens of emails from folks thanking us for inspiring them to make further ecological changes in their lives. Strangers are stopping us in the streets to give us hugs and thank us for representing Eugene in a good light.
More opportunities are brewing. The Science Channel, for instance, is considering filming us making solar food dehydrators. We received front-page coverage in the local daily paper, giving us local name recognition that is likely to be helpful for whatever we do next, such as bringing in an audience for the musical we’ve been writing about global warming. I gained confidence in my ability to connect on a heart level with people with whom I disagree. I enjoyed befriending the film crew and learning how a TV show is made.
For example, I wanted to teach them that our planet’s atmospheric carbon is kept in balance by algae in the ocean that absorb carbon from the air to make shells, and the algae then sink to the ocean floor when they die. The more atmospheric carbon, the more these algae populations grow to absorb more carbon, stabilizing the atmospheric carbon. But once the oceans warm up to a certain level as a result of human-influenced global warming, these algae die, and are no longer available to pull carbon from the air, exacerbating the problem. Ray and Tyler understood all of this and more at the end of their lesson, and repeated what I told them about this in their own words. They also agreed that what I was teaching was likely to be true, but they were not convinced enough by this knowledge to change their habits.
When I asked them why they weren’t willing to trade one of their family’s five SUVs for a car that gets high gas mileage, they replied they liked their comfort and the big sound of their engines. I asked Ray if his comfort and enjoyment of big engine sounds were more important to him than Tyler’s children having a healthy planet to live on, and he replied, “Yes.” So much for my idea that all reasonable people will be willing to change if they only understand the problem! My current interpretation of his answer is that folks are not going to modify their behavior on behalf of others until their basic needs are met. My guess is that Ray’s SUV is where he turns to experience joy in the absence of a satisfying relationship with his wife and larger community. His only human bond in the world appears to be with his son, and it would help him so to open his heart to caring about people and other creatures of the Earth.
My conclusion is that my life’s work is as much about helping people learn to be happier as it is to encourage them to reduce their ecological footprint. The work we in the communities movement and beyond are doing to help people love and cooperate with each other better are essential steps in helping our planet survive.
Would I participate in the “Wife Swap” TV program again? Yes. Would I recommend that others do it? That depends on who they are. It’s way more work than one would imagine. But if you are passionate about sharing your ideas with others, and you believe you can stay calm under stressful conditions, I’d say go ahead. Participating in this show allows one to reach a much broader audience than normal because the producers make the shows entertaining, while including people from a wide variety of lifestyles. Their target audience are viewers who aren’t even aware of some of these choices, and the producers don’t try to be comprehensive in their approach, like a PBS program would. But “Wife Swap” reaches a much larger audience than a PBS program would, and likely has much more impact. If you do decide to go for this approach to sharing ideas, welcome the adventure without attachment to the results, and see what happens. And let me know how it turns out!