The TH Interview: Doug Fine—Kiss Your Subaru Goodbye (Part One)


"As I watched my Subaru Legacy slide backward toward my new ranch's studio outbuilding, the thought crossed my mind that if it kept going at least I would be using less gasoline." Thus begins what journalist Doug Fine calls his "epic adventure in local living," an experience chronicled in his new book, "Farewell, My Subaru." Grease-fuel, solar power, homegrown bananas, chickens, and Natalie (a goat purchased off Craigslist) are just a few of Doug's companions down on the Funky Butte Ranch. Join us, if you will, as we step into his world. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Special thanks to Calabash Music for the soundtrack.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: We're talking with journalist and author Doug Fine. Doug is speaking with us from the Funky Butte Ranch in... well, it's the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. He went out into the middle of nowhere to do an experiment on himself in low-impact living. The book that he wrote about his experience, "Farewell, My Subaru," tells the story. Doug, how are you doing this morning?

Doug Fine: I feel like I'm living in a carbon-neutral paradise.

TH: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you the rugged MacGyver-ish type? Is this familiar territory?

DF: I'm a lot of things in my own imagination, but my geographical biography is that I started in Long Island, New York, growing up on concrete and Domino's pizza. I didn't see a real tomato probably until I was 18. I thought supermarket orange baseballs were what tomatoes were. I didn't understand why anyone would eat solid pieces of wax. But I always wanted to camp out in the backyard, and knew that there was such a thing as an ecosystem. We took family vacations to the Yellowstones and Yosemite.

So after college I did journalism around the world on five different continents. That was pretty cool. But, I settled in Alaska for a couple years; extremely rural Alaska. I certainly got a taste of what an ecosystem is. And, I started getting really proud of myself because I caught my winter's worth of salmon every year during the summer fish run.

So, I felt that I was living a sustainable lifestyle, like the natives of old—I was indigenous. So one year, I looked back and noticed that the two-stroke engine I was using was leaking oil into the pristine waters that I was catching my fish from.

So the next step became twofold. It resulted in this book called "Farewell, My Subaru." The first step was a "hypocrisy reduction project:" seeing whether or not I could actually live locally, get petroleum out of my life in a way that seemed to have at least an increasing slope of legitimacy. One can't do everything at once.

And the second major project is that I decided I didn't want to just preach to the converted. "Farewell, My Subaru" is very much a book about everything I did wrong in my first year down here at the Funky Butte Ranch in the southwest desert. And you can laugh at me as solar panels nearly electrocute me, coyotes decimate my chicken flock, and so on. And then in the end, I have, to a degree, succeeded.

But the goal here is to make the sort of person that realizes green isn't a fad, that we do have to take care of the earth, that the climate change is real, all that stuff. To make that person who's like "I'm too busy. I've got a job. I drive a mini van. What can I do?" "Farewell, My Subaru" answers that question by saying actually, you can probably keep all of your amenities, all of your comforts, at least most of them, and reduce your fossil fuel use by 80%.

TH: So at this moment, tell us what you're seeing in the midst of your hypocrisy reduction project. When you look out your window, what's around you? What's the scenario you found yourself in?

DF: Well, it's a 41-acre ranch, and as far as hypocrisy reduction goes, I'd say I've had a lot of progress, but probably a long way to go. I'll give you some successes and then give you some areas where I have to continue to improve here on the ranch.

Pretty much the entire ranch is powered by solar. I've got my amenities —washing machine, fridge, booming subwoofers (which is probably the most important to me—society may collapse some day, but I am going to keep the mp3s bumping). So, that's all good. There are some exceptions: the electric oven is too much for the solar system, so I have to figure out what to do about that.

I didn't want to just call myself off-grid and get a propane stove because propane is a fossil fuel. So I'm leaning towards experimenting with methane, which is, of course, harvesting our own waste. They do it in India. I just don't know if it takes like 150 million Indian villagers to cook one chicken, but we'll see.

So, solar power is really working out great. Then there's driving—that big American symbol, we love driving. A good portion of the book is about saying farewell to that Subaru. I've decided to go over to straight vegetable oil, which is less processed than bio-diesel. Other than the fact that the exhaust gives me a tremendous case of the munchies, and the fact that the diesel truck I needed to get is, for me like driving a Mack truck—it's twice as big as any kind of vehicle I've ever seen, and the only radio programs it wants to play are NASCAR related. Other than that, that project is going really well. I hardly ever have to stop at gas stations anymore.

Then, in the local food realm, I'm making progress. My goat gave birth just two days ago, so when those kids are weaned, big symbol for me—ice cream! I'm an addict of ice cream. I don't want to advocate that people need to go to a cabin and eat only the grass that grows outside. I want to say hey, I'm going to take those carbon miles out of my favorite food. So, I've got a link on my website now soliciting ice cream recipes now and my goats are going to be giving the milk for it pretty soon.

So those are examples of how just pretty easily, without a huge amount of effort, I've been able to get quite a lot of the carbon miles out of my life. But, there's a long way to go. Just to give a couple of examples, like many Americans, I've been taste-bud washed into thinking my breakfast is supposed to be orange juice, bananas, you know, stuff from Central America and tropical climates.

So the goal is to get a sustainable greenhouse going, so I could basically start growing my own tropical fruits, indoors, year-round. And get those carbon miles out of there and stop supporting the banana industry in Central America. That's one improvement.

The other thing is to get the box stores and plastic products completely out of my life. I am a fan of capitalism. I mentioned the journalism I've done around the world. Everybody—Rwanda, Burma, Kyrgyzstan—everybody wants the conveniences and lifestyles that America has.

The question is how do we do it sustainably. So, it's not like any kind of global trade is something that I automatically think is bad, but there are a lot of bad things about, say, constantly buying disposable plastic products. Plastic is made with petroleum. The effluents from producing them is often really bad. God knows what the 8-year-old assembling the handle of my goat's watering bucket is being paid in Pakistan or China or somewhere.

So, I'm trying to get that out of my life, and it's not easy. What do you do at 2:00 AM, when your goat steps on its water bucket. It needs water to survive. The only thing that's open is some box store 30 miles away. But there's ways around it. You go to a thrift store, you buy an old, abandoned sink, which is, maybe, the next step for the water troughs for the goats.

In terms of hypocrisy reduction, I am not a stranger to the box stores, although I am really trying to go there less frequently. That's kind of an update of where we're at now at Funky Butte Ranch.

TH: Well congratulations on the goats. I guess, that makes you a dad, in some weird way.

DF: That's exactly how I feel. In fact, I was just writing a blog post I'm going to put up in a day or two here just about that. About the incredible relief I felt. I'm so delighted that the goat babies are healthy and looking great, and that Natalie (the goat that I've got off of Craigslist, incidentally, and have raised since she was still bottle feeding) that she's now a mom. But, it's more about the relief that she's OK. That she knew what to do, and the labor was no problem. And that's all really exciting stuff for a former suburbanite.

TH: As a former suburbanite, how does this isolation sit with you? I mean, do you ever find yourself having weird thoughts, maybe looking at the goats in a new way, or thinking about turning the ranch into some sort of cult compound? Are you maintaining your sanity, along with your digital-age way of life?

DF: Compared to when I lived, as I mentioned, in Alaska for a couple of years, I feel actually a lot more connected to goings on around the world and in my community than I did when I lived there.

So, it's a real nice balance for me. It's my scene, my world, my close friends, my animals. And then, whenever I want to go into town, I'm on the board of an effort to get a community radio station going and I do volunteering in schools about predator/prey balance and our local national forests. So I actually feel really a nice balance. I feel as connected as I've ever felt and I also feel like I've got as much privacy as I want.

TH: So, as you say, we're faced with this conundrum of trying to get off oil while still maintaining the creature comforts that we love. It makes me think of Colin Beavan, aka No-Impact Man in New York; this guy who rids his life of wasteful excesses that include toilet paper and things like that. You're not isolated out there, but you did choose to take a more rural, one could say "back to the land" approach. Why so?

DF: That's true, but that's really just a preference of my own lifestyle. Actually, probably about 90% of what I write about in "Farewell, My Subaru," anybody could do, suburban or urban, anywhere. Not everybody can raise goats, but I would argue that anybody could have a flock of half a dozen chickens. They're low maintenance, they're great, they're sustainable, they can actually help your garden if you have a small garden.

You can convert a half acre or a quarter acre lawn to growing local foods. You can get a greenhouse, you can have an indoor atrium that grows stuff. Pretty much anybody anywhere can do what I've done. Anybody who gets an electric bill can go solar tomorrow. Anybody, instead of buying a new car, can buy a used diesel. And if they don't have the skills or the kit to do the conversion themselves, they can go to a mechanic as I did and get that converted. You can find one in your area and you can start using waste vegetable oil right in your truck. You never have to go to a gas station again.

So really, anybody anywhere can do what I've done and can immediately keep their comforts and largely, not totally, but largely get petroleum out of their life. I just chose a rural setting because that's just where I'm happiest.

TH: Dick Cheney says the American way of life is non-negotiable. Is this true? You're saying that people can live differently in response to the dwindling oil supply and climate change while maintaining what they're used to. Do you feel like people are picking up on this message?

DF: I do. I don't even just think that it's achievable, I think that it's necessary. I believe that a sustainable society is both the most patriotic political outlook, and the most conservative pro-business approach, that somebody can take if they're interested in a wealthy America. Sweden, over the last five or so years, has reduced its carbon output or emission by something like 11%, and their economy during that period has grown by something like 40%.

Now, we're not exactly Sweden, of course; we have a lot of differences. But basically, I believe that the only reason there's so much resistance— including at this exact moment while the US Senate for the third time now since the Democrats have taken over, is trying to pass a bill that will get the tax subsidies away from the most profitable corporations in the history of corporations ever, which are the major oil companies and move those tax subsidies. I'm fine with their profits, we're not taking away their profits, that's not the argument.

The bill would take away their tax breaks, special tax breaks, and move them to investments in renewable energies and tax breaks for Americans who want to buy renewable resources. And the Republicans in the Senate keeps squashing it. It's on its third time now. The House keeps passing it. None of these bills, of course, would have been raised before the Democrats took control. But Republicans are still listening to their oil overlords for the most part and if you have a Republican senator, try and make that senator the exception and show their independence and respond to the fact that you vote on the sustainability issues.

But I'm a believer in the fact that we are only so convinced and told all the time that we have to stay locked into this because the people who are our policy makers are quite literally invested in the status quo. Their hedge funds and their oil investments, all their allies and everything else, is based on keeping the oil addiction going. And so we, as the consumer, can change that and get a new breed of politicians in that is not married to that.

Now, I am a seasoned journalist of a decade and a half. I'm not so naive to think that we can just roll off and we as a nation can walk away from obligations around the world or simply wean ourselves off of oil tomorrow. In fact, unfortunately, a lot of the quagmires and violence and policies that are going around the world probably have to continue for a while because the fact is, if oil got out of reach in terms of supplier price, that would cause America to struggle a lot in the near term.

I'm talking about planning for the future so that we can wean off this stuff over the next couple of decades.


Tags: Biofuels | Books | Carbon Emissions | Carbon Footprint | Carbon Neutral | Farming | Recycling

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