Want to fix the world? Everything you need is at home, says Shannon Hayes

The home should be a centre for social change, says US ‘radical homemaker’ Shannon Hayes, who speaks in Dublin this week


‘Ecological sustainability, social justice, family and community are the central tenets of our philosophy,” says the American author, farmer and “radical homemaker” Shannon Hayes, who will be in Ireland next week for Dublin Climate Gathering. The three-day event, which starts on Monday, is the result of a meeting of leading international climate experts in the Burren in February this year.

In 2010 Hayes published her book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, a provocative work about men and women across the US who focus on home and hearth as a political act. The artwork on the cover includes a to-do list: “Hang out laundry; quit job; can tomato sauce; weed garden; drain lifeblood from multinational corporations.”

Shaped by feminist ideals and the ecological movement, Hayes’s argument is that, faced with climate change, dwindling resources and potential species extinction, there are fundamental steps each of us needs to take in an effort to solve the global crisis. Home, rather than being a place of refuge, should become “a centre for social change”, she says.

She argues for “interdependence rather than independence” and for a “redefinition of pleasure as something created rather than bought”. She believes that autonomy and self-fulfilment do not necessarily have to be pitted against society’s need for nurturers. Her creed is not a throwback to the pinnied housewifery of the 1950s, or indeed a paean to any religion or sect. Her hope is that humanity can “create an ecologically viable existence, a pleasurable, sustainable and socially just society”.

“This is epic, what the world is going through right now,” she says from her home at Sap Bush Hollow Farm, in upstate New York, where she grew up and where she lives and works with her parents, her husband, Bob, and their two home-schooled daughters, Saoirse and Ula.

The family produce natural grass-fed meats, which they sell at local farmers’ markets. They pickle and preserve, they chop and render, they knit and weed, and they encourage the children to be “autodidactic and entrepreneurial” in preparation for a creative and sustainable life.

The issue of climate change, I suggest to her, can cauterise people into inaction; it’s too big, too unwieldy, the predictions too dire. Many of us quietly bury our heads in the sand and hope that some bright spark will invent a solution before the seas boil over. Is her homespun philosophy, which empowers people from the bottom up rather than from some ideological system down, too little too late? How many home-grown cucumbers do you have to pickle to have any positive impact on an injured planet?

“I don’t think we have time to focus on despair, on guns and bodyguards and Armageddon. We’re on the cusp of a great challenge for humanity to build a beneficent society.”

It might be tempting for some people to dismiss Hayes as a knit-your-own-muesli type, all organic cotton, sustainable sausages and solemn proselytising, glued together with blueberry yogurt and a trust fund. She does not, however, conform to the cliches.

A PhD graduate in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University, she is also the author of four books and myriad articles. She’s funny, she’s articulate, she acknowledges that, in the past, small communities and stagnant values may have driven minorities out of the countryside. She wants people to come back – artists, craftsmen, workers – and believes there is no security in a pay cheque from a global economy that continues to shudder from crisis to crisis.

And what about Irish people bruised and battered from boom and bust, servicing unsustainable mortgages and staggering from week to week, from creche to car?

“Rely on community, cultivate friends and family, share resources,” she says. “People are starting to build within their communities, turning backyards into food-producing gardens, bartering skills like child-minding.”

But are these ideas just solipsistic tinkering by a bunch of well-educated hippies? What are their immediate practical benefits? “Money isn’t happiness,” Hayes says. “Even prior to the housing crash, chronic illness and depression were endemic. I don’t watch TV, my wardrobe is small; I’m focusing on what I want, not what’s being promoted to me.”

She admits, however, that she’s not averse to a little home-made potato vodka and a chunk of fair-trade chocolate.

Dublin Climate Gathering is a collaboration between the Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and the Climate Gathering; greens-efa.eu.
Shannon Hayes will speak at a free public event at
Mansion House at 6pm on Wednesday, June 19th. See also radicalhomemakers.com.