Book review: Farewell, My Subaru
Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living by Doug Fine.
There are a number of books now by people who set out to live a more local, more sustainable life, and wrote a book to document their experiences. Most of them approach the problem with the perspective that living a lower-carbon lifestyle is going to entail giving up some of the things that modern Americans have come to expect. Doug Fine, though, would rather not. Especially not ice cream.
There's a fundamental trade-off that you can't really escape. All that carbon gets released producing energy, so if you want to release less carbon, you've got two options: You can make do with less energy or you can find a way to get the energy without burning carbon. The first option requires sacrifice; the second typically requires either doing large amounts of hard work or else spending large amounts of money. Unlike some of the other authors of recent books on low-impact living, Fine is inclined toward the second option--going to great effort and spending large amounts of money to get his modern American lifestyle with less carbon burned.
The book is basically a series of funny stories of Fine's first year or so trying to live more sustainably on forty-one acres of rural New Mexico. The humor is largely of the self-depricating sort--Fine bumbles about making beginner mistakes, but through a combination of perseverance, help from friends and neighbors, a modest amount of good luck, a lot of hard work, and the expenditure of a whopping amount of money, manages to set himself up to be successful.
The book actually ends before we see a lot of pay-off from the hard work. It would have been nice to hear about the ice cream that he was going to make from his goats milk. But that doesn't make the funny stories about his hard work any less funny.
There are two things this book isn't.
First, it isn't out to convince you that living a low-carbon lifestyle is the right choice. The audience for this book is largely people who have already decided that--but are daunted at the prospect of the changes involved in living in accordance with their values. (People who don't think low-carbon living is necessary to save the biosphere could possibly be amused to watch Fine go to all this trouble for no good reason that they can see, but I doubt if they'd really be interested.)
Second, it most definitely isn't a how-to manual. Although the author talks about raising goats and chickens, and installing a solar-powered pump and a solar hot-water heater, and getting his truck converted to run on used cooking oil, he just tells the funny stories of his mishaps. It may give you some ideas and it may make certain choices seem more (or less!) reasonable, but this is not the book that's going to tell you how to do any of those things yourself.
Probably the best thing about the book is the way it provides a worked example that doesn't seem too daunting. Instead of trying to achieve sustainability through the sort of extreme simple living that amounts to a repudiation of the modern American lifestyle, Fine tries to achieve it through a large investment of time, effort, and money. Where the other books leave you thinking that their writers are capable of superhuman feats of self-deprivation (admittedly alleviated by the opportunity to eat lots of great, local food), Fine's book gives you nice crisp stories that emphasize his foibles and leave you with a sense of "If this clown can do it, I can certainly do it."
Sometimes his tone bugged me. One example was in talking about trying to go hunting. His other stories sounded like the efforts of someone trying (and eventually succeeding) in some endeavor despite a certain amount of ineptitude--which make them fun to read. The story of his hunting endeavors, though, ends in failure. His ineptness is great enough in this case that it seems almost willful. That, combined with giving up right away, makes it less interesting to read about than the endeavors where he perseveres. That's a minor complaint, though.
If you're interested in living a lower-carbon lifestyle, but you're not quite ready to make the leap yourself, Farewell, My Subaru packs a nice mix of inspirational and cautionary tales into one funny little book. I enjoyed it a lot.