W riting an opinion is a lot like accidentally running over your neighbor’s cat—the one that has been leaving nuggets in your children’s sandbox.
It makes you feel nice, knowing you’ve made a positive difference in the world. However you can bet someone is going to let you know what a horrible person you are—someone who likes cats, probably, in either case.
Not that I have anything against cats, as long as they practice reasonable personal hygiene. I’ve served several cats that lived in or around my home over the years. I could never decide whether they were my cats, or I was their man, but I fear a cursory examination of the distribution of responsibilities would reveal the truth.
Recent feedback from a reader with damaged feelings reminded me of a column I wrote several years ago about electric cars. That, in turn, reminded me of a book I read almost a decade ago.
The book was called Farewell, My Subaru, by a fellow named Doug Fine. It was the true story of a New York journalist, played by Fine, who decided to find out, first-hand, if it was possible for Americans to actually “live off the land.” He also looked at whether such living, if practiced by all of us, could create what Fine called a “sustainable world environment,” or some such.
Fine quit his job, sold out, and moved to a ranch in New Mexico. He proceeded to fix up an old house, capture rainwater, set up solar panels, and gather his own eggs.
He concluded, after a suitable period, that a sustainable life was definitely possible, but that it required dedication, commitment, and considerable education, for a city boy.
The book, of course, chronicled Fine’s hardships and misadventures along the way. He came up with the title through his decision to abandon his economical, gas-sipping Subaru in favor of a diesel pickup, which he named the ROAT (Ridiculously Oversized American Truck).
He had found that it was impossible to operate his sustainable lifestyle without a vehicle capable of hauling heavy loads and pulling a trailer. The switch was justified by converting the pickup to run on bio diesel.
Of course, the larger vehicle had to be built and, at some point, disposed of, which required more resources than the Subaru. It also had to be maintained.
Anyone who has ever worked on a ranch knows what a constant job that is, requiring replacement parts, costing time and effort, and further depleting resources. Most of the electricity used to build vehicles, and do everything else, in America still comes from coal. Fine may have saved a little bit of the world, and made his experiment feasible, by trading the Subaru for the pickup, but not by a whole lot.
There were other little problems with the practicality of Fine’s new lifestyle, but a couple of points glared brightly. They were conspicuously noticeable, owing to the fact he never addressed them.
To begin with, Fine had made a respectable amount of money in his previous, eco-unfriendly career. As a result, he was able to buy a respectable amount of land in New Mexico on which to practice his world-saving experiment.
Not everyone has that kind of jack, even considering the fact that Fine chose New Mexico because of its cheap real estate. So, to begin with, anyone wishing to become a favored friend of his or her environment must be sufficiently well healed to purchase a pretty good-sized chunk of said environment.
Common sense is also necessary in such an endeavor. Although Fine is a reasonably intelligent person; he encountered plenty of problems building his eco-friendly nirvana. Most people aren’t that smart, and city-dwellers who are capable of such an enterprise would need to work fairly hard to figure out how to do what Fine did. I doubt most would be willing to try.
There is also the question of landmass. If everyone who currently lives in a large city were to undertake Fine’s quest, I seriously doubt there would be enough land to go around. Most of the acreage in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, although possibly available, is unsuitable for homesteading. That’s why it’s available. It takes a lot of water to run a ranch, even a small one.
Then there is the question of employment. Fine was wealthy enough to live off his substantial means, but most are not. Subsistence living sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t pay much. Actually, it doesn’t pay anything except subsistence. Most people, I believe, would rather do more during their lives than not die.
Declaring victory, Fine claimed that anyone, anywhere, could do what he did. I beg to differ.
Few, I think, have the time, knowledge, dedication, adaptability, or most of all—money—to turn their lifestyle upside down. Of those who have all those things, most of them doubtless lack the desire.
Fine deemed his effort a limited success. I regard it as a complete failure. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. As long as he keeps his cats out of my children’s sandbox, I’m happy.
Email Kendal Hemphill at
Email Kendal Hemphill at [email protected]