Doug Fine took time to reassure his audience that he is not the Unabomber. It was a necessary aside. Given that he was wearing a homemade earth orange hemp shirt, tends a herd of goats, lives a petroleum-free lifestyle, wrote a recent book on ending cannabis prohibition and talks about how he’d survive post-oil civilization collapse we were sure that he must be some kind of radical. But it’s more than that. Fine’s talk “Petroleum Free in One Year,” delivered on Jan. 28 to a packed UH Maui College lecture room, assured us that he’s not only a radical, he’s a radical leader and pioneer.
When Fine walked in, he seemed to wash the room with warm laughter and the content smile you’d expect from a guy who spends hours with goats, grows his own food and “researches” books about cannabis. The impression was validated in the first minutes of his presentation when he outlined the three main points of his talk: First, Have fun with life; second, If he can do it, anyone can; and third, Take things one step at a time.
“It’s much better to have fun,” Fine told us as the screen at the head of the room displayed a 10-foot tall image of newly demolished earth and unsustainable suburban sprawl. There will always be those who resist change and insist they know all there is to know, he said, adding, “let’s not waste our energy on anger.”
And who might we be angry at? “I won’t name names…” he said. But the photo was captioned by a piece of Dick Cheney wisdom: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” The audience laughed a laugh stunted by cringing. (Yes, we voted that guy in office. Twice.)
Fine’s mantra that night was different. “Do what you wanna do, but figure out a way to do it sustainably,” he told us. “And if you can’t do it sustainably maybe you have to let it go.”
But in his striving for a sustainable and petroleum-free life, Fine asserted, he found that he really didn’t need to let much go.
And since Fine’s yearlong book project documenting his journey to reduce his carbon footprint has turned into a seven year ongoing lifestyle, I’m tempted to believe him. Doug Fine is a journalist who has written a variety of articles (and a few books) explaining, with great humor and insight, the benefits of living an ecologically sustainable life. He’s traveled the world, and currently lives in New Mexico. He was on Maui in January, which is when I caught up with him and discovered that his ideas hold great importance for our island’s future.
Of course, how we go about living a sustainable life actually isn’t easy to say. Can we keep our creature comforts and still leave a light carbon footprint? Is the digital age compatible with messages to conserve energy? Fine’s answer is a definite yes, and he has the homemade, locally sourced, vanilla goat milk ice cream and 41-acre solar powered ranch to prove it.
Fine said that if can churn his own ice cream with milk collected from the herd of goats roaming his backyard, then anyone can. He calls himself a former Domino’s Pizza aficionado and latch-key kid raised in a suburban family far removed from the true experience of making their own food. It wasn’t until he began work on his first book, Not an Alaskan Mountain Man, and found himself among a crew of natives with rope and pulleys doing the grueling work of hauling in a freshly caught 40-ton whale, that he seriously faced the reality of moving food from its source to our dinner plates.
“If globalization and Value Meals went away, would I survive?” he asked. “The average American meal travels 1,500 miles between food source and plate.”
When he arrived on Maui, Fine said he hoped that wasn’t the case here. After all, he did visit bountiful farmer’s markets while on tour with some of the island’s clean energy experts. Perhaps he gives us too much credit.
As I write this, I’m sipping coffee from who-knows-where out of plastic (though it does read “Compostable. Made in USA” on the side). As for my shoes, socks, pants and shirt–to say nothing of my smart phone, laptop–how many Chinese children have slaved away for this comfort? How much terrorism-funding, earth-damaging oil was consumed in their production, and how much pollution was emitted, just so I could enjoy the fruits of Malaysian labor prices?
I admit it: I don’t know.
But when Fine puts on his homemade hemp shirt, tends to his herd of milk-producing goats and puts the key in the ignition of his “ridiculously oversized American truck,” which is powered by waste fast food oil, he does know the answers to these questions.
* * *
During his Maui presentation, Fine rehydrated on Smart Water while noting the irony of drinking soda machine-vended, imported water from a petroleum-based plastic bottle during a presentation about sustainability. “One step at a time… you can always take another step tomorrow,” he said, explaining how he was running late when he forgot his usual reusable water bottle.
The rest of Fine’s presentation centered on the joy and bane involved in the establishment of his “Funky Butte Ranch,” from shed battering billy goats to unexpected Biblical floods to the explosion of a hippy-rigged solar water heating system (which, it turns out, actually works great, as long as all your pipes are fused). Fine shared stories of himself as a modern-day Pan, serenading and saxophone soothing once-mischievous goats (as reported in myth, goats love music). As an unexpected messiah, he’s preached from atop a dumpster to incredulous KFC workers the gospel of how free fast food grease waste can power a massive diesel Ford. It’s a gospel that follows Fine wherever he goes, turning heads and whetting appetites at every street corner with the smell of Kung Pao chicken exhaust.
A self-proclaimed progressive driving a full-size American truck with the ridiculously low mpg rating defended vigorously by Republicans as the icon of American freedom and exceptionalism seems like a contradiction, but Fine doesn’t care. He points to the fact that we wouldn’t be the first civilization to die from sprawl, over-development and resource depletion. To him, sustainability is an American issue. It is a truly non-partisan human issue, affecting us all.
Once, Fine said, he visited the mechanic (a devoted Rush Limbaugh fan) who installed a second fuel tank in his Ford, allowing the diesel truck to run on recycled oil. Fine asked the conservative, three-tour Iraq War veteran why he’s devoted to a “liberal” cause.
“I had an epiphany landing my chopper in country,” the mechanic told him. “Time slowed and the bullets flying by on either side went in slow motion and I saw this insane loop: these guys that are shooting at me are getting their financing from the countries that we’re paying to get the petroleum to put in my chopper to land here to fight these guys so we can get the cheap petroleum. What if we just took the petroleum out of the equation? Wouldn’t that be a stronger America?”
In our two-party political system, embracing these contradictions make Fine an enigma. He’s decked in sandals and hemp, but drives around a massive Ford. He supports a green lifestyle, yet proclaims himself a capitalist. He champions subsistence, sustainability and off-the-grid living, while remaining a patriot resisting the advocacy of any kind of overthrow scenario.
“It feels all right,” he said after his talk, impersonating Willie Nelson and answering how it feels to be off petroleum. But what about the fact that half of Maui residents are renters? How can the majority of us, who lack 41-acre ranches or the means to pay for an array of PV panels, feel just as good with that satisfaction of energy and food independence and prudent Earth stewardship?
“Everything I’ve been talking about tonight is modular, meaning it can be expanded or compressed,” Fine said. “There’s a huge movement in micro-intensive agriculture. In maybe about twice this space,” he said, gesturing at a table, “you can probably feed a family of four. It is amazing what you can produce, and here you can do it year-round. And if you really, literally, have zero space, then you can organize and get a community garden going. Likewise, in Silver City, New Mexico, people that don’t have enough land for goats have a goat co-op going.”
Yes, that’s easier said than done, Fine admitted, but he also noted that “here on Maui things get done” by the will of the people.
“My first solar rig was one panel that somebody gave me,” he said. “An old marine battery that I found, and I used that in a shack to run my laptop, some music, a couple of lights: it’s not a huge investment. On the local bulletin board or Craigslist, find an old diesel vehicle and here on Maui I’d say drive on Pacific Biodiesel.”
It’s a fair point. Despite what perusing Whole Food shelves and price tags will tell you, sustainability is not just for the elite. Fine believes that the excessive costs for organic and non-GMO food will not last much longer, though the best solution remains having dinner sourced to your backyard.
But how do we get people to care, I asked. How do we convince the average person, a consumer with job and family and whole lot of distractions, that taking these extra steps to reduce their carbon footprint is worthwhile?
“Structurally and genetically, we’re still the same primates that used to wander around hunter-gathering in groups of 30,” Fine said. “In that situation, not everyone is or should be designed to be a real critical thinker. Not everybody is designed to be all philosophical; they’re just trying to get through the day. And, of course, all the TV and unhealthy food just distracts people even more. Therefore, the people that are equipped to be leaders have to do it. They have to make the decision and the rest of the people will follow. So the short answer to your question is, I advise folks who get it to not worry about everyone else that doesn’t yet get it. Just make the decision, be a leader, and carry everyone else with you along to the right decisions.”
Another area Fine has been trying to lead is survivalism and preparation for the quite possibly bleak post-oil world. He’s been half-seriously and half-light heartedly rallying his neighbors for doomsday drills. He already lives off-the-grid and knows how to sustain life without a WalMart, so I asked him how he thinks Maui, where about 90 percent of food is imported, would fare in such a scenario.
“First, Maui’s isolated enough so that desperate hordes of billions of people aren’t likely to come swarming in,” he said. “Plus, once the tourists are gone, that’s 20 percent less people on the island to begin with. There’s enough drinking water, evidently from streams, so by way of concrete advice, I’d say start storing some good food seeds now and then you want to be a little bit inland. With rising seas from climate change you don’t want to be on low ground.”
I then told him that my plan, should things go bad, was to retreat into Iao Valley. He wasn’t familiar with the area, so I described it. “I’d love to go on a hike up there,” Fine said.
* * *
“It is not enough to fight for the land. It is even more important to enjoy it.”
–Edward Abbey, quoted in “Petroleum Free in One Year.”
* * *
We met in Iao a week later. The sky was grey and off-putting in the valley, but all’s green and Fine was blissed for some stream hopping. We talked of his latest book on cannabis prohibition and the testimony he gave on Feb. 2 to the state House Judiciary Committee regarding now-dead HB699, which would have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
“The will of the people is really clear on this one [but] it was the usual suspects coming out, saying what they’re paid to say,” Fine said. “And so, the Drug War people that are coming out are saying the same things as when they were trying to keep alcohol prohibition going. People were just laughing out loud at the testimony of [cannabis] prohibitionists–they’re just being paid to say what they’re gonna say, saying it. I guess that’s their right but it’s kind of weird, in that we’re the citizenry and we’re listening to someone who doesn’t really know about the issue at all spout ridiculous statements and scare tactics.”
If volume of written testimony is any measure, Doug Fine made an excellent point. Written support for HB699 is overwhelming, composing over 85 percent of testimony from individuals. A recent study also shows that 57 percent of Hawaiians favor legalized, taxed and regulated marijuana. On the other hand, opposition consistently comes from the islands’ police departments.
“I’m a big supporter of law enforcement,” said Fine, and sincerely, too. So it was with some reluctance that he made his next point. “The elements in law enforcement that oppose it have to do with funding. When an organization-a law enforcement organization, a religious organization, a keep-our-kids-off-drugs organization- has their funding from continuing a 40-year, trillion-dollar Drug War, that’s what they’re going to say. That’s what they’re going to testify for.”
In his latest book, Too High To Fail, Fine spent a year in a county with the courage to do the opposite. In 2000, Mendocino County in Northern California decriminalized marijuana, and now distributes permits to cultivators for a fee. These days, even county sheriffs are behind the program, praising the fact that it’s freed up department resources, increased revenue and saved jobs—all while dragging a shady black market into the light and giving quality access to a time-tested and scientifically proven medicinal plant.
Think of the kids, I hear faintly in the wind as Bill O’Reilly has a conniption thousands of miles away. “Patently false,” Fine said. “Study after study: it’s not a gateway drug. In the end, parents have to be parents. Stuff is gonna be out there in the world, that’s what happens. And, even plants that are good plants if used responsibly, aren’t necessarily the plants that should be used by kids. That’s how I feel about cannabis. The reality is you have to be a parent, and try and be honest and discuss with your kids your values—whatever those values may be; this is America, you’re welcome to have whatever values you want. But, pretending that a policy that hasn’t worked for 40 years should be continued because kids will have more access to this plant illegally if it were legal is not only untrue on the ground, but even if it were true it’s still better than keeping the economy underground and in the hands of criminals. Anyway, the only examples we have recently of ending cannabis prohibition have resulted in decreased youth rates—that’s in Portugal and Netherlands.”
I showed Doug Fine a ripe guava, and he picked it. After he ate it, there was a surreal moment as I stood on the river rocks in the light rain. “You’re gonna fucking jump?” the best-selling author shouted at me. I did. He did too.
Fine soaked it all in. Stoned on nature, there were times when he seemed to compliment every bend. And now, as I write this, feeling disappointment in Hawaii’s (Democratic majority, by the way) legislators’ recent failures to lead through reasonable cannabis policy or in same-sex marriage rights, to say nothing of the power law enforcement and agri-business holds over the Legislature, I reflect on Doug Fine’s advice:
Take things one step at a time.
“The journey of anybody that’s trying to do something creative in their life is unique,” he said. “At some point, dreams become reality.”
For more information check out DougFine.com.