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Outlook: Going Green and Living Locally

  Doug Fine
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Doug Fine
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Monday, August 10, 2009; 11:00 AM

Environmental journalist and author Doug Fine was online Monday, Aug. 10, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Apocalypse Later? I'm Going Local Now."

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Fine is the author of "Farewell, My Subaru" and his Web site is Dispatches From the Funky Butte Ranch.

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Munich, Germany: How do you choose the year 2049 for your hypothetical post-oil society? I read somewhere that this is approximately the year when worldwide commercial fisheries are expected to collapse.

But back to the farm: Can you survive without chemical fertilizer which is made from natural gas?

Doug Fine: 2049 was fairly random, but that's interesting (but I hope in reality inaccurate) about the fisheries.

As for your second question: this is one thing I can say (almost) for sure: my goats' manure makes the perfect fertilizer. I do not need chemical fertilizes.

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Doug Fine: Hi Folks-

Doug Fine here, just back from milking the goats here on the Funky Butte Ranch in New Mexico. Look forward to chatting about survival, sustainability and anything else related to my recent Outlook Essay.

-Doug

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Tucson, Ariz.: Considering we passed the world oil peak more than four years ago, do you really believe we have 40 years left in the industrial age? If so, do you think we'll bake the planet beyond the point of habitability by then?

Doug Fine: Well, I'm an optimist. I think things are moving in the right direction. We have an Administration that, I think "gets it" in terms of sustainability. Lots of "ifs" here. If the coal plants worldwide transition to wind and solar, if population stabilizes, we have a decent chance of heading off catastrophe for the species.

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Washington, D.C.: So few of us who grow up in suburban America know any really useful skills. By useful, I mean the skills for constructing a small building, repairing an engine or caring for a semi-serious injury.

What are the skills you had to develop first to live off the grid? What steps are you taking to increase your education in practical matters?

Doug Fine: I'm glad you asked that, because one of the major themes of "Farewell, My Subaru," the book I wrote about this effort, is that I came into it as a child of the suburbs with no survival skills to speak of. I've certainly learned a lot these past three years, especially about animal husbandry, solar power, driving on vegetable oil and agriculture. But I wonder what my first building structure would look like. My message is "anyone can do it," See the afterward to "Farewell, My Subaru" for my anecdote about learning that every culture shares the tasks. No one person has to know how to do everything, thankfully.

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McLean, Va.: One of the biggest ways that people impact the environment is how many kids they have. I'm not talking about parents having 3 kids. I'm talking about nowadays where I see parents have 4-5 kids.

There was a recent article that said that Americans who have 4 or more kids have totally no concern about going green. People in third world countries have a lot of kids, but they don't live as long as Americans do. Thoughts?

Doug Fine: The population issue is one of the main ones that have to be tackled, along with Climate Change, food production and water use. Lester Brown's book "Plan B: 3.0" offers some thought-provoking ideas on this.

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washingtonpost.com: Apocalypse Later? I'm Going Local Now. (Post, Aug. 9)

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Alamo Heights, Tex.: How much of a nest egg would you estimate it takes to get off the grid?

Doug Fine: No more than it takes to create a home in most American real estate markets.

I bought my property like I suspect many people buy property -- at age 36 after working hard for 18 years. I pay less in mortgage payments than I did rent in some rentals, and far less than I would pay for a studio apartment in a bad neighborhood in any city from Seattle to Bethesda. The panels -- for which the tax deduction is 30% -- have already paid for themselves in saved utility costs after three years. Cost/income is simply not a factor in the sustainability part of my life (everyone lives somewhere), and it's interesting to me how many people focus on the cost of solar panels while being willing to spend $40,000 on a car they trade in after two years. My panels are warranteed for 30 years. That means the manufacturer believes they'll last even longer. I challenge anyone to name a consumer product with such durability and usefulness.

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Centreville, Va.: Hi Doug, My wife talk about "living off the grid" often (not that we know enough to do so). What materials did you study before making the leap?

Also, do you plan to home school your child? Having the kids in the good schools seems to be an issue if you live rather isolated (limited access to cars).

Thanks.

Doug Fine: Good questions. So, as I mentioned in an earlier reply, you probably couldn't come into a sustainability/personal independence effort with fewer skills than I possessed. I'm one of those guys who learns by doing, and if you want to laugh at my first year's mistakes and so boost your confidence, read "Farewell, My Subaru," and check out my blog of carbon-neutral misadventures, at www.dougfine.com.

As for educating our son, we are so lucky to live int he Digital Age, where everything from top-notch curricula to videoconferenced classrooms is available. We plan on using a combination of homeschooling, community schooling (pooling parental resources) and traditional schooling.

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Doug Fine: Another issue I wanted to posit is that it is not at all necessary to have a large plot of land to live sustainably and independently. Chickens are being raised on rooftops in Brooklyn. Anyone can plant a garden, eat locally, drive less (or on alternative fuels) and power their home with solar or wind. For goats, I suggest a co-op with a dozen families as members, with goats housed at a local school, farm or community garden. You might have to milk once a week, but each day you can pick up a bottle of fresh, healthy milk on your way home.

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Hmm...: You say your message is "anyone can do it," but I feel the important question is "Can everyone do it?" What would happen if everyone did what you did?

I get it, I get the reasoning and the appeal behind your lifestyle. But for those of us tied to the system (I've got student loans pay off, even if I completely got off the grid... not to mention scraping together the money to buy some ranch and paying that mortgage). My career path that would theoretically pay for this won't really allow me to move to rural NM or even rural Maryland for that matter. I guess I should check the book out of the library to see how you did it.

Doug Fine: I think if you have the desire, you can do it -- in any ecosystem. Do you, for instance, have a small yard which now has a lawn? Tear it up and plant a garden. You'd be amazed how much food you can produce on a 1/4 acre.

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Washington, D.C.: Wow, your article put the bejesus in me, whatever that means. I mean, it made me think if a suburban guy like you is motivated enough to really do this, and his article is featured in the Sunday Post, it's time for me to get crackin'. How did you learn to do all that farming stuff? So many people without experience try and then throw in the towel. Do you have help? Are you living off the land? How do you have time to write and sit by the computer and answer questions?

Doug Fine: So I learned the agriculture and animal husbandry mostly by intuition and just going for it, with some research. For instance, when my goat kids were sick (covered in "Farewell, My Subaru,") I read up on cures. My help is mostly my family (can't wait til my son is big enough to milk the goats). I would say food is the area I need to work at most to become truly independent, although at this time of year, it's quite the bounty: peas, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, kale, with corn beans and squash almost ready, and all the goat milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs I can eat. I juggle my schedule like anyone does: I am a full-time writer/radio guy/journalist, I am a fiance and a dad, and I take care of the Ranch. Somehow I try to find time to exercise, read, and relax as well. It seems to be working out quite well. If only my son would sleep through the night.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Doug,

I enjoyed your article, and your way of living sounds like an interesting (and probably laborious) adventure.

Back in the 90s I heard from an engineer at a solar cell manufacturer talk about the large amount of energy required to produce a solar cell. I think the silicon based cells require heating up to very high temperatures. So, while its great to think of solar cells converting the sun to electrical energy in a post-petroleum world, do you know what the energy cost of creating cells is? And will that be sustainable? While care can be taken to preserve solar cells from damage, they are fragile. I dont know the expected usable life of a solar cell is, but presumably they would need to be replaced at some point.

I dont see much choice in our society other than to go to nuclear energy for some time, until that is also expended.

Thanks.

Doug Fine: I get this question a lot, so I'm ready for an answer: the resource payback time for solar cells (depending on how far they're shipped), is 2-5 years, for panels that are waranteed for 30 years and cause you not to have to use coal power plants anymore. They are ABSOLUTELY worth it. Plus, with critical mass, resource inputs will lower due to scale. You're just letting sun hit sand and move electrons. Very few moving parts. I think solar and wind are much, much better ways to go than nuclear.

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Washington, D.C.: I just submitted some questions, and I see that you answered most of them already -- my bad. I would like to know, though, how you have time to write. Doesn't your work on the ranch take up all your time and more? Is your wife busy all the time with the work of the ranch? Does she have spare time for other pursuits? It all looks so clean and easy, but that just can't be, especially when you're new at it. Also, are you really considering arming yourselves? And won't that take up a lot of time, effort, money?

Doug Fine: Our life here is probably as easy or as busy as any home with a man, a woman and a baby. Sometimes it can get overwhelming, and sometimes we take breaks. We're lucky in that once or twice a year we have a good friend and neighbor who can milk the goats and tend the Ranch for us. In fact, he enjoys being here. As for writing, I make it a priority, about three to four hours per day. That leaves plenty for ranch work, family time, exercise, cooking, etc. My sweetheart and I feel like we're thriving. She indeed pursues her interests, including knitting and possibly offering an online sustainability curriculum in the near-future.

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Hmmm again.: Nope-- I live in an apartment with herbs on the balcony. Take the bus to work and have a CSA. I guess that's as good as it gets for now :)

Doug Fine: That IS good. That's a very low carbon use lifestyle!

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Leesburg, Va.: How would you characterize the social costs of living an 'alternate lifestyle'? Would you please say something about the community that your children are growing up in. I have considered attempting life off the grid for about a decade now. My main reservation is fear that my wife will be my only adult company, and I will drive her totally insane.

Doug Fine: I feel like we're raising our child in the healthiest possible environment. On my back, he pets the goats as I milk. He "helps" us pick peas. He wakes up to hummingbirds outside his feeder. He plays on real riverbanks. There are other young parents in our valley, and especially as our son gets older, we want him to have plenty of playmates around him.

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Washington, D.C.: What is your advice to a city dweller with little to no experience growing her own food or raising animals but who is interested in one day living off the fat of the land in a sustainable way?

Doug Fine: To paraphrase John Muir, who said it before Nike did, "Just do it." I'm amazed how easy gardening is. I mean, you want to read up on what's local and seasonal in your area, and you want to build soil with your chicken or goat poop and compost, but essentially, you stick seeds in the ground, water them (I suggest drip irrigation -- Google it) and up comes food. You don't need much land to live sustainably.

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Manassas: "You'd be amazed how much food you can produce on a 1/4 acre"

The answer to that is - Not enough.

Doug Fine: What makes you say that? Have you done it? In addition to our own productivity in a 1000 square foot garden and the small gardens I saw in sustainable places like Laos as a journalist, micro agriculture is a hot topic. Tons of books about it. There's a family near me (who offers tours) that grows all their food in a tiny, intensive area that astounded me when I saw it. On our end, we want to get a small greenhouse going so we can keep it going year 'round (including talapia farming). We get very cold winters here.

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Cameron, N.C.: For someone who believes in the coming industrial apocalypse, you're sure putting a lot of faith in industrial products with 30-year guarantees. I'm 60 and the only thing I ever bought that lasted more than 30 years is an acoustic guitar.

Doug Fine: I think you make a good point, but first, in defense of the durability of solar panels: have you known anyone who bought into solar during the Carter era tax breaks? I have. Guess what? They all still work. I just gave a talk where a member of the audience, a retired military guy, said a system he helped build in the 50s on his base is still in operation. That said, I believe it is important to plan on survival without Digital Age goodies and gadgets. I'm just not rooting for that, or for any kind of breakdown. I just think it's wise (and fun) to prepare.

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Washington, D.C.: I would like to be first in line (online?) for your wife-to-be's sustainability curriculum. How do I sign up?

Doug Fine: Awesome. I'll tell her. Send me an email at fine@well.com and I'll pass it on to her. Thanks!

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Alexandria, Va.: I am curious about the climate where your ranch is located? How do you heat/cool your house? Is that all done through the solar panels?

Doug Fine: We have astounding temperature extremes here at 5,700 feet. Triple digits at this time of year, single digits in winter. We heat with wood from the ranch junipers (and sometimes surround national forest) for heat, and we cool with solar powered ceiling fans. The house is pretty well temperature regulated, since adobe has been the material of choice here for the last Millennium or so.

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Off the Grid: This is all very good as performance art and to give an example of what could be done. But what do you think would happen if everyone tried to do this over the next 5 years? Or even spread it out over 40 years to get to 2049. My guess is things would not end well.

Doug Fine: Even though I am an optimist, I should say that a common thread for others who are trying to live sustainably and independently is concern about what will happen to all the folks who have become dependent on TV and fast food (did you see the movie Wall-E?). I simply can't predict on that one. But I truly WISH everyone, no matter where they live, would try to live a bit more sustainably over the next five years. I think that'd be a good thing. Maybe even necessary.

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Washington, DC: Much like modern feminism, your movement seems to be confined to middle-class, highly educated whites. Working class folk and people of color seem to be almost entirely absent from this "low carbon" life. And, much like feminism, I don't see the lifestyle you live and preach -- notwithstanding its many virtues -- as becoming mainstream, because it'll get stereotyped as a fad for the Takoma Park set, the liberal elitists who can afford to "live off the grid." I'd like to hear your response to this criticism. Thank you.

Doug Fine: I don't agree. I don't see what skin color and class has to do with it. I worked for 18 years to buy my land. I'm working class. It's the first property I've ever owned. Plus, my lifestyle is much closer to the way indigenous folks are living today in South America, Asia and Africa than it is to modern suburbia. I know: I've reported from five continents, from Rwanda to Guatemala to Burma to Alaska to Tajikistan. I simply disagree that any kind of "ism" has anything to do with it. I live in a Hispanic majority state and county, I have neighbors with dark skin (you would say African American) and women-owned farms are nearby. We have dirt poor Republicans, Democrats and independents in equal measure. I simply could not disagree with the premise in your post more.

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Santa Fe, NM: Re: Milking goats. Aren't the udders tiny? How do you do it? Don't the kids use most of the nanny's milk? How many goats must you milk to get 1/2 gal/day? How often must they be milked to avoid painful teats?

Doug Fine: So you breed a goat in the fall (see my blog Dispatch about Walt the Billy goat at www.dougfine.com). She gives birth in the spring. We gave away the male and kept the female. The kids nurse for several weeks and then you wean them. Then you milk twice a day and get the milk -- more than a half gallon a day for us. Milking is not difficult -- 15 minutes at a time, and, trust me once you eat fresh, healthy milk, cheese and yogurt, it's oh-so-worth it.

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Annandale, Va.: I vermicompost (worms) in my condo with any problems. Done correctly, which is easy, there is no odor, no flies, and no stress. Keeps the methane producing scraps out of the landfill and keeps me from having to buy potting soil and chemical fertilizers for my plants and container garden. Do you also compost in some form or another?

Doug Fine: Sounds awesome, and proof that it can be done anywhere. So our composting has turned into "feeding the chickens," whose manure we use as fertilizer.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mostly I wanted to bring up the point about solar is that it will take some infrastructure to have enough energy to produce solar panels with solar/wind energy alone. It might be wise, using your 2049 estimate, in say 2035 to use all remaining oil reserves to make solar panels and wind turbines.

As a society, we will need a surplus of energy to continue creating renewable energy resources, not just enough to sustain our day to day use.

Not to mention our military use of carbon fuels, which would be nice not to need, but that's not the world we live in, at least for now.

Doug Fine: I agree indeed, that planning now, even using old techniques to create a new, sustainable infrastructure is wise, even crucial.

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Doug Fine: Hi Folks-

Doug here again. I'll reply if any more questions come in, but I wanted to thank y'all for a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion. Here's to fun in the sustainability era, and I invite you to stay in touch with the goings-on at the Funky Butte Ranch via my blog Dispatches at www.dougfine.com. Carbon-neutral or bust!

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Falls Church, Va.: re: wood from the ranch junipers (and sometimes surround national forest)

How long will this kind of wood last if everyone is using it to generate heat? And how will it be transported?

Doug Fine: On my ranch alone, I estimate it is sustainable in perpetuity for my family's use. I think we have about a century's worth of juniper thinning to do, and it grows back like a weed. Every ecosystem is different, of course, but my spot, I believe is sustainable.

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