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


The challenge is a rather simple one: set up a life that is local and low-carbon without sacrificing the beloved creature comforts. The kicker is not getting electrocuted, shot, burned, crushed, bitten, or driven insane. Doug Fine has assumed this challenge and actually seems to be doing a bang-up job. He spoke to us from the Funky Butte Ranch, his own low-carbon Neverland. ::TreeHugger Radio

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

You can find part one of our interview here.

Special thanks to Calabash Music for the soundtrack.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Out there in Funky Butte Ranch in New Mexico you are striving for low carbon, low impact living. Tell us a little bit about where your basic necessities are coming from: food, water, gasoline, energy, entertainment?

Doug Fine: Well, let's start with energy. Solar power: I have eight 165 watt panels (the system includes inverters, batteries and the charge controller) that does power almost all the ranch. I have another small, isolated solar system that pumps my water from a well up to a holding tank, which then feeds the house and my drip irrigation area and the goat corral and chicken corral via gravity.

Driving, I power my Ridiculously Oversized American Truck on munchies-inducing vegetable oil. It's a dangerous thing—don't drive hungry on vegetable oil because you'll be pulling over at every Chinese restaurant and really affecting your cholesterol.

Entertainment, it's all about the Internet and Netflix, solar-powered of course.

TH: You're not a self-contained unit, you're still getting inputs from the outside world. But this has been a struggle for you, and learning to dodge Wal-Mart is a challenge. How is this project coming along?

DF: It's coming along pretty well. Here's an example: apples are supposed to be a fall fruit. This is the spring. If you're buying an apple right now, it probably means it came from New Zealand, or some place like that. What that means is, when you simply buy that apple and take a bite of it, you are using the oil, the diesel, or whatever, that it took to get those apples from New Zealand in a tanker or a plane, and then in a truck from some port to wherever you live.

I am raising goats for milk and yogurt and cheese and, most of all, ice cream. I've got chickens for eggs and I've got a thousand-foot planting yard plus an herb garden to try to grow as much food as I can. Plus I go to local farmer's markets and harvest festivals to try and eat as local as I can.

For those who are going to only be slowly moving into their own gardening and animal husbandry, you can save the world by going into your coop or your giant organic supermarket and saying "I'm spending my dollar on local, in-season food."

All it takes is a little discipline; there is delicious in-season food around almost everywhere. There's an option for almost every area. Let's say that one lives in New England and wants to sweeten a recipe with sugar. You don't need to buy cane sugar from the tropics, there's maple sugar from the trees in your backyard. There's options everywhere.

TH: Is this the kind of conversation you have with neighbors around Funky Butte?

DF: It depends. Any place I've lived is extremely diverse politically and New Mexico has people who think that UN helicopters with Hillary Clinton at the helm are about to land in their yard and seize their eminent domain. And it has people who believe that Bob Marley was a little bit too much of a teetotaler. But I will say that I am pretty convinced that the idea of sustainability and healthy local living is now not a left-wing issue anymore—it's not a progressive alternative issue.

An example being the vegetable-oil mechanic that's converted my ROAT, my Ridiculously Oversized American Truck that I write about in the book, is a two-tour Iraq vet who still is active duty in the Air Force and falls politically somewhere to the right of Bill O'Reilly. So, when I asked him, "Why are you helping get Americans off of fossil fuels?" He said, "Because I'm a patriot."

He said, "it dawned on me one day when I was landing a chopper in Iraq that the guys shooting at me probably got the financing for their weapons from the countries that we're paying to buy the oil to put into my helicopter. And it just seemed like a silly, ridiculous loop that we needed to break." So this guy is green for America. I think that's the future.

TH: In the process of doing all this you learned some counterintuitive things about stuff like solar power, for instance: how long it takes for solar panels to actually generate the amount of power that went into producing them in the first place. Also things about organic food: that even the healthy organic food that people are flocking to can have an enormous carbon imprint. Can you share some of these counterintuitive realizations you've had while analyzing your life?

DF: The first and most important thing is that I want to discount any of the disinformation that is going around about renewable energy. For instance, there's three main waves of disinformation that are going around. I'll start with the one you'd see first. There's an Internet thing going around based on a sham study out of Connecticut funded by an oil company about fake researcher.

It said that more energy goes into making a Prius than a Hummer. That couldn't be more false. There's something like 90% or less energy in a Prius based on subsequent studies that have been done. It totally debunked the so-called oil funded researcher, who was doing thinks like assuming that the Prius driver would keep the car for three years and the Hummer driver for twelve years.

Actually, the Feds have done a study on this starting from all materials that went in, shipping from Japan, various parts of each vehicle, then the amount of fuel used and maintenance over the course of the vehicle. It's way less in something like the Prius. Of course, we can do better than the current state of the Prius. We can get real electric cars that use almost no fuel. Or, as I'm doing in my transition phase, driving on straight vegetable oil, which is just from waste fryers with no Alaskan refuge defiled.

Another one is that because the corn-based ethanol, that is getting a lot of hype coming from very wealthy politically connected companies like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. People have started saying that because corn-based ethanol is questionable in terms of the energy that goes into it versus the energy saved, therefore, all biofuels are ridiculous and we should just use gasoline.

It's completely untrue. Corn is just one, and it's the worst, source for biofuel. There are so many other options. If you're looking into cellulose type plants there's switch grass, I've also heard about Jatropha. Then, when it comes to vegetable oil and things like diesel, Algae is looking like a huge possibility, possibly feeding on toxic waste or carbon emissions and basically excreting an oil that we can fuel our vehicles with. This has become a thing we need to get our federal dollars of research into.

Now, the third myth we need to debunk. You're starting to hear a lot of people say "Oh, too much energy goes into making solar panels and so that makes them not worth using." That's completely false, so it's just such a joke that we even are talking about it.

One example came from the president of a nonprofit called Solar Energy International based in Colorado. He said, "Not only are the materials paid back in three or four years, in terms of energy that goes into a solar panel, these things are warrantied for thirty years." So not only is your financial payback probably done (depending on what the Feds assess you in tax rebates) in six to ten years. Not only is your ethical payback immediately complete when you're not supporting wars in the Middle East and horrible human rights violations in the Niger Delta, and idiots like Chavez in Venezuela, and offshore drilling in Alaska.

But, he concluded "when did your power boat pay you back?" Think about that. Yes, there are materials that go into your solar panel, but you stick them up there and no more materials go into them for thirty years. What other products are like that?

Sure, when there becomes a consumer critical mass—where as many people are shopping for solar panels as go to Costco looking for packs of hot dogs—yeah, sure, we should get active in trying to make the materials as sustainable as possible. Why not? We should do that for all products. But right now, you are saving the Earth if you go to renewables like solar or wind at any point, even right now.

TH: Doug, in the end, after being a lab rat in your own experiment, you come to some big conclusions. The first one is the importance of voting for green candidates. What are the rest of the big lessons here?

DF: That's a big one because everything else is tied into it. Sure, you want to have a real efficient, less polluting battery system for your solar setup. We're a capitalist society where venture capitalists fund the researchers, but it's also that federal research does sometimes help this stuff. It's about making sure that your candidates know that you are voting on sustainability. That's a huge swath of issues that they need to be aware of. It's top echelon, number one priority, it's national security that we get better battery technology and better solar technology and biofuel research.

That is a big one. One of the big things I try to get across in "Farewell, My Subaru" is for folks to take it one step at a time. Many of us have busy lives. Maybe the first thing is you're thinking about getting rid of your current car. Buy a used diesel, Google a vegetable oil mechanic; you can do the conversion yourself and you could be driving on waste fuel tomorrow.

Maybe down the road, get a loan and convert your house over to solar and stop paying the utility bills. Stop supporting natural gas, nuclear, coal, whatever your utility uses. Just take it one step at a time and don't beat yourself up about it; that's a big lesson I've learned.

As progressive Americans, we think, Oh my God, we can do more! But we're just people. Everywhere I travel, all over the world, everyone wants the amenities that Americans have. We're no better nor worse than anyone else. We just have more resources, more financial resources, and the opportunity now to make our society more sustainable. I would just say by way of advice: have fun with it. Enjoy it as you're making the transition to sustainable living in your own life.

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