As more Americans look to reduce their carbon footprint, author and environmental pioneer Doug Fine has figured out a way to tread on the equivalent of his carbon tiptoes. He's off the electricity grid, but not disconnected from amenities of modern life.
More than 60 people gathered in the Soda Center on Jan. 7 to hear Fine tell stories from Farewell, My Subaru, an account of his 41-acre ranch in New Mexico where Fine powers his home with solar panels, his truck with vegetable oil and produces most of his own food with the help of three goats. The talk marked the beginning of the Jan Term Speaker Series featuring leading voices on topics related to the Jan Term theme "Against the Grain."
Fine is convinced that most Americans can adapt energy strategies he employs at his ranch and start removing fossil fuels from their lives without relinquishing their creature comforts.
"People ask me 'What do you miss in this radical lifestyle - gourmet food, television, the Internet?' But I have all those things," he said. "I didn't have to give them up and nobody has to. Don't believe the hype."
Witnessing consequences of climate change firsthand as a National Public Radio reporter in Alaska motivated Fine to reduce his petroleum usage, and Farewell, My Subaru urges others to do the same.
"This is like the fourth quarter, two-minute warning for the whole planet," Fine said. "I hope there will be a time soon when the lifestyle I'm talking about is not going against the grain but completely mainstream."
One of the best ways people can begin to rein in their carbon consumption, according to Fine, is to examine how they acquire their food. In western states like California and Fine's home of New Mexico, more than 60 percent of people's "carbon miles" - the amount of carbon in petroleum needed to transport something from point A to point B - comes from the energy required to bring food to local supermarkets. That's more petroleum than goes into Americans' automobile driving or home heating.
"In March, you're eating apples from somewhere where it's fall, like New Zealand," he noted. "So you are using 7,000 carbon miles to eat that apple."
Fine praised Saint Mary's campus garden as an example of making food production more localized and sustainable and pointed to farmers' markets and agricultural co-ops as ways for people to cut down on their carbon miles. He also extolled the patriotic virtues of environmentalism, arguing that a more energy self-sufficient America strengthens the country's hand against undemocratic regimes that control much of the world's petroleum supply.
"Environmentalism is not some crunchy, left-wing Birkenstock thing," Fine said. "Look at the wars that are happening over resources. The principal solution for a 21st-century America is to become energy independent."
At the same time, Fine recognizes that he and other Americans are accustomed to a certain standard of living and that attempts to address energy usage need to take those expectations into account. He cited his own love chocolate ice cream - which Fine makes himself with the help of his goats and a little New Mexico agave - as an enriching aspect of life that calls for creative solutions rather than complete renunciation.
"You don't have to get all bad habits all petroleum out of your life at one time," he said. "Take it one step at a time and see what you can do to become more sustainable."
The Jan Term Speaker Series continues on Jan. 12 with Chris Carlsson, a founder of the Critical Mass bicycle protest collective.
Office of College Communications
Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10