Live Sustainably Now – the book (links)

If you are looking for the book Live Sustainably Now,, you can find it here at Columbia University Press, or here at Amazon.

Right now I am sailing as sustainably as possible around the world – follow us at

Or read on if you want to read about the joys and challenges of living a great life with a small climate impact!


What 99% Energy Self Sufficiency in the Northeast US Looks Like Right Now

One of the biggest national challenges posed by climate change is to convert our system of heating and lighting our homes to a zero greenhouse gas emissions. “Electrify everything” is the path . . . but this poses a huge problem in the northeast where renewable solar output is not seasonally matched with heating loads and wind power is not sufficiently reliable to match heating loads. Long term energy storage or long distance transmission will be needed to match output and demand, and both are problematic. Hydrogen from excess solar and wind has been suggested as a possibility, but the inefficiency of electrolyzing hydrogen using existing technologies seems to make it a poor choice.

This winter had been an experiment in my own personal quest for 100% energy self sufficiency. This winter, like last, we have been holed up in our off-the-grid mountain cabin – a privilege made possible by COVID remote work and my phased-retirement teaching schedule. So I am proud to say that from December 20 until this past Wednesday we have been 99.9% energy self-sufficient for heat, transport, lighting, and connectivity using onsite renewable energy.

We have used a combination of the old technologies (wood heat, lead acid batteries, a bicycle) and the newest (solar panels, LED lighting, USB powered electronics, efficient small inverters) to overcome the seasonal, overnight, and cloudy day storage problems.

I know all about the environmental and health challenges of wood heat. Indoor and outdoor air quality suffers even with the best woodstoves. But indoor air quality is not an externality, at least – that’s my own health I put at risk, not others. Outdoor air quality is less of an issue in a sparsely populated rural area like this.

Yes, wood heat has higher carbon emissions per BTU than coal. Even! But these emissions are roughly offset when you can burn exclusively dead and down wood – wood that was going to rot or burn into carbon dioxide and methane anyway, depending on the forest climate and ecology. And some soil carbon.

Wood heat is just stored solar energy from photosynthesis, of course. Wood may still be the most efficient form of seasonal solar storage we have at a not-preposterous cost. Unfortunately.

We burn about two cords of hardwood equivalent in a cold north country winter to keep our tiny 350 square foot cabin comfortable – that’s about 40,000,000 BTUs according to Dirk Thomas’s The Woodburners Companion. Assuming 75% efficiency, that’s about 30,000,000 BTUs of actual heat. An article in Mother Earth News claims that you can count on about a cord of dead and down wood per acre in a mature forest wood lot, which seems slightly optimistic based on my own experience downstate. Up here we have thirty acres of woods, so scrounging two or three cords a year from snags and blowdown is never a problem. Though it’s mostly low-heat softwoods.

The problem, as always, is scaleability – there just aren’t enough acres of mature forest producing a cord per acre of dead wood to heat all the homes in the cold part of the country. Wood plantations are an environmental disaster, with dubious climate benefits.

What would it take to produce and store the equivalent amount of energy using solar panels?

Let’s consider hydrogen electrolysis, first. Modern gas burning heat can achieve close to 95% efficiency, so lets just assume that we would need the same 30,000,000 BTU worth of hydrogen energy. I’ll use 75% as a slightly optimist figure for electrolysis to hydrogen heat value efficiency. That gets us back to needing 40,000,000 BTU of energy. At 3,400 BTU per kilowatt hour – that’s about 12 megawatt hours to cover the seasonal heating needs for this tiny cabin. Using the annualized average daily solar exposure for Rochester, NY of 3.3, one hundred-watt rated solar panel produces about 330 watt hours per day. So 12 mWh annually would require something like one hundred one hundred watt solar panels. At about six square feet and $100 per panel, that’s about six hundred square feet of space and $10,000 to replace our three acres worth of cord wood production. Plus installation. Plus the cost of an electrolyzing plant and hydrogen storage. This piece suggests that a ten kW share of an electrolyzing plant might run £7,000. But an electrolyzing plant is a grid-based utility-level solution, not a form of off-grid energy self sufficiency. Solar panels are much more space efficient than photosynthesis, at least!

What if we tried to get to the same heating self-sufficient place using an electric air source heat pump and lithium ion batteries instead? The good news is that ASHPs have greater than 100% “efficiency” since they suck heat out of the cold air – up to three times more heat than electrical energy consumed. So our 12 megawatt hours of heat might only take 4 mWh of electricity. And lithium ion batteries are much more efficient at storing electrical energy than hydrogen electrolysis.For round numbers, I am going to use 100% battery storage efficiency, though of course no battery actually achieves that. Our 4 mWh of super-efficient LiOn ASHP heat would require only 33 100 watt panels or so, for a much more reasonable $3,300 in panel cost. But 4 mWh of Tesla powerwalls might set you back a bit. At 14 kWh each, that’s about 285 Powerwalls. At about $10,000 each, installed, that works out to a $3 million substitute for a three acre woodlot. Not to mention the space needed for all those Powerwalls (which might be about the same as two cords of wood). I suppose at that price, it might be cheaper to invest in ten times as many solar panels and settle on a few days worth of storage. Then you might have to clear some forest to make room for the solar panels.

Of course, all these back of the envelope musings are just to cover our tiny cabin – you can probably triple all of these numbers for a more typically sized house. Which helps illustrate the challenge of converting to 100% renewable energy for heating in cold regions using existing technology. Heat pumps have a huge efficiency challenge over hydrogen, but hydrogen may solve the storage problem. Either way, it will take utility level transmission, conversion, and storage infrastructure that may be inconsistent with green ideals of distributed, local renewable energy.

Our non-heating energy needs have been much less fraught. Four 100w solar panels on the roof charge three old fashioned deep discharge marine batteries under the floor. The cabin runs on a 12v DC system – there are USB outlets for charging our phones and tablets, auto style 12v outlets for other 12v appliances and micro inverters, and LED lights. Electricity is scarce in January, when on a good day there is only about 45 minutes of direct sunlight on the solar panels and this year it seems the sun did not come out of the clouds for more than three days in the entire month. But there was always enough juice to charge our phones and keep the lights on. We made it to all of our Zoom meetings. It helps that we don’t have to run a water pump (we melt snow camp-style in the winter, and use a composting toilet). I biked into town every few weeks to stock up on milk, eggs, and beer – stuff we can’t economically get delivered to our cabin.

It seems that most people would find this lifestyle too primitive. But we are content – we have thousands of acres of woods connected to the trails on our property for skiing and exploring. There is a great community of like-minded outdoorsy types. And the wonders of modern technology let us be as socially connected as anyone else in these COVID times, and even stream movies until the data hotspot runs out.

But this week I got in the car for the first time since December, since we are now eligible for a COVID vaccine and had an appointment at a clinic 50 miles away, so our near total energy self sufficiency came to a fossil fueled hybrid end.

Why only 99% ? We do most of our cooking on the wood stove – but we have a small butane stovetop we also use. At 10,000 BTUs per canister, that worked out to about 1% of our energy use. So we were only 99% self sufficient.

Voyage to Somewhere

About a year ago, Robin and I made plans for March of 2020 that included stocking up on a month’s worth of non-perishable food and then isolating ourselves with no contact with other people several weeks.

No, we did not prophesy the COVID-19 pandemic. We were planning a sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands – one of many places I have wanted to visit, but will not fly to because of the climate impacts of flying. So we staged our sailboat in Charleston, SC last August, and I signed up for semi-retirement teaching leave this semester to free ourselves up to make an early Spring passage, highly dependent on getting lucky with the sailing weather.

But COVID-19 got in the way of everyone’s plan on the planet, and we are among the luckiest. As Robin put it, we are still on a voyage this month, just a different voyage than we planned. It is true, bluewater sailing is great practice for pandemic isolation with your spouse! Robin and I used to being a double-handed sailing team, and we have made twenty-day passages together. On a sailing passage, you may not know when you will arrive at your destination, but at least you know how much farther you have to go and can map your daily progress in nautical miles made good. On this passage, we really haven’t figure out the destination yet.

I was already at our off-the-grid cabin when the stay-home orders started coming down, since I was taking advantage of my semester-leave from teaching to spend an entire winter in the North Country. At least Johnsburg, and Warren County have been semi-welcoming to their seasonal residents – just making the sensible request that new arrivals self quarantine and respect the limitations on resources in this rural area. And we have a great community of outdoors-oriented friends here, who we can’t see for now. Robin has been up here for three weeks, isolating the whole time. COVID-19 is up here, too- a local man somehow contracted the disease despite taking all precautions, and avoiding leaving his home except for groceries. We are so lucky to have the luxury of both deserted wilderness trails and regular UPS deliveries here, at least for now. Daily life in our mountain cabin seems nearly normal, even as we avoid any trips to town that might empty the grocery shelves or risk making us add to the demand for nonexistent hospital beds.

I am usually captain and cook on or voyages, so I have been planning meals with slow-perishing foods for years. I do not understand the run on canned red beans – dried beans are fine for preppers, I suppose, since they keep for a long time and take less space than canned. But as long as you are buying cans you might as well vary your protein sources (depending on how meat and fish-averse you are).

Here are some main course ideas that are NOT rice and beans or pasta and sauce:

Bean Burgers (I make mine with beans, oats, dried mushrooms, oil, flour, an egg, and liquid smoke)

Spanish Rice and Chicken (canned chicken)

Garbanzos Con Chorizos (dry chorizos will keep a long time)

Salmon With Potatoes and Onions (or Salmon hash, with canned salmon)

Paella with canned seafood

Risotto with Mushrooms and peppers (you can use canned peppers and mushrooms)

Curried yams and chick peas over rice

Crab cakes (made with canned crabmeat and crushed saltines)

Chinese stir fry with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and baby corn over rice.

Well, at least my carbon footprint has dropped close to zero here at our cabin! Here’s hoping that when the world recovers from this crisis, we take advantage of the experience to rethink our relationship with air travel, food, and energy use, and make this a voyage to somewhere.

Steal This Book!

I have been promoting my book Live Sustainably Now by placing free copies in a Little Free Library in the North Woods Wilderness.

Steal This Book was, of course, the title of 60s activist Abby Hoffman’s 1971 bible of underground living and activism. Hoffman is sometimes miscredited as the source of the environmental activist’s credo “Think globally, act locally.”

I suppose some people write books hoping to become famous, others to monetize the fame they already have. But far more authors write because they think they have something worth saying and hope to find readers who will hear it.

I am definitely in the latter category. I have no fame to monetize, and I have a deep ambivalence about fame as some sort of personal goal. If my book ever pays royalties in excess of my out of pocket expenses, I plan to donate them to the relief of global victims of climate change.

I started writing Live Sustainably Now a few years ago because I saw something missing in the literature on climate change: there were plenty of books about the science of climate change and the need for policy measures to forestall its worst impacts, and books on the policy choices and politics of responding to climate change. And while there were some books about the climate impacts of individual consumption choices on climate emissions, there was no book out there about setting a personal carbon budget consistent with global greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals, and living within that budget.

I am one of those climate people who think that individual action on climate matters on both a personal and political level, and the first two chapters of my book explain why. Part of the climate benefit of individual action comes from talking about it with others – so that individual change becomes collective. No environmental leaders seemed to be talking about, much less modeling, the sort of low carbon lifestyle developed world culture needs to adopt to address climate change.

I have for years been sharing my low-carbon lifestyle choices with family, friends, colleagues, and students. Conspicuous non-consumption, if you will. But my social and professional circle is a fairly limited audience. It seemed the world needed to hear from someone about the why and the how of living consistently with one’s beliefs about climate, and I felt the calling to try and fill the gap.

While I was working on my book, Peter Kalmus’s great book Being The Change came out, and helped fill that gap. Given Peter’s book, I wasn’t sure I would finish the project, but Columbia University Press offered to publish it. My approach is sufficiently distinct from Peter’s that it seemed worth the effort. Peter is more Abbie Hoffman radical than me – he lives on a stricter carbon budget and calls for composting all of your sanitary waste, tearing up your credit cards, and refusing to file tax returns. I talk more about getting an electric car, signing up for renewable energy, and flying less approach, while working for the political changes we need.

My book came out (finally!) in December. It was reviewed well in the few places that reviewed it. The publisher was happy with first month’s sales, which they called “very good for a hardcover” book. Still, I was hoping for wider circulation.

In 25 years of teaching, I have touched the lives of perhaps one thousand students. My book has reached well more readers than that already, so I should be “glass half full” happy. But I still am hoping to get the word out to random people who might not otherwise hear about the book.

Hence the Bewilderness Free Library copies. Now, a cross country ski trail in the mountains might not seem like the best place to be promoting an environmental philosophy and how-to book. But our little library is right where the Garnet Hill Lodge shuttle stops to take tired skiers back up the hill. And cross country skiers, who generally love winter and the natural environment and want to preserve them both, are my target demographic. I’ll be giving my second book talk up at the lodge this evening (I’ll ski there in the rain in order to avoid getting in my car, and because I like to ski).

So Live Sustainably Now has been the Bewilderness best seller! I have put about seven copies out by now, and they all have disappeared within a week.

Problem is, as a way of reaching out to new audiences . . . it has not worked so well. Somehow, in this tight little mountain community, I ended up hearing about almost everyone who “borrowed” a copy. They are all friends of mine. And I happened to ski by and talk to the one stranger who borrowed the book (an EPA scientist, as it turns out).

So if you want to steal this book – ski on out to the Bewilderness trail. I’ll leave a copy out for you.

“Individual Change or System Change” Is Not a New Debate (Some 19th C. Quotes from The Liberator)

Anti-Slavery Cause

Just in case you think the climate activists argument about whether individual action reducing or eliminating fossil fuel consumption is a new sort of controversy, here are some quotes from reader letters in The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper.

Here’s one reader taking the “don’t shame me for eating molasses” side of the argument:

Will not the abstinence by a few, irritate the many, without attaining the proposed end? These questions deserve a serious consideration. I know that molasses, for example, is manufactured in the Island of Cuba by slaves— that from the earliest shootings of the tender cane to the carrying of the full hogshead of molasses to the Portland or Boston vessel ready for sea— its manufacture is accompanied by the heavy blow of the slavedrivers whip— by the constant repetition of the many wrongs now suffered every where by the slave. Will my disuse of molasses unbind the captive or lessen the weight of the whip? Nay, will the combination of every citizen of Boston and of Portland effect the proposed end? The effect of such a course might irritate the slaveholder and his government— markets for slave produce would still elsewhere be found and perhaps new rivets added to the chain of the oppressed.

[C.F., December 14, 1833]

Here’s another taking the consumer-choice-creates-the-demand-that-continues-the-evil side of the argument:

It is urged that there is a lack of charity manifested ‘towards those who do not see that duty requires them to abstain from the use of slave products, on the part of those who do.’ To this allegation we would only remark, the same is said of the great body of abolitionists by the slaveholder and his apologist, and they alike prefer the charge of ‘acting with a seal not according to knowledge, however well intended.’

* * *

And this is not all; the sugar, i[n] producing which many of our fellow perish missably, is chipped in great questions to this country. We are the consumers, who stimulate by our demand this cruelty. And knowing this, shall we become [accesso]ries to the murder of our brethren, by continuing to see the fruit of the hard-earned tail which destroys them? The sugar of Oube comes to us drenched with human blood;—so we out to see it, and turn from it with loathing. The guilt which produces it ought to be put down by the horror of the civilized world.’

[Benjamin Kent and Lydia C. Hambleton, August 4, 1848]

No less a personage than William Lloyd Garrison himself actually changed his mind on the subject, echoing many climate voices who now argue that individual consumption reduction is pointless self deprivation, and that system change, not individual change, is what  matters:

Having have requested by several friends in Pennsylvania, to express our views in regard to the use of articles raised by slave labor, we shall endeavor to do so in a very few words, as indicative, on our part, of the comparatively small importance we attach to the discussion of a subject, which is entangled with inextricable difficulties, and which cannot, therefore, he made a test of moral character.

At an early period of the anti-slavery enterprise, we w[ere] led, for a time, to regard the use of slave productions as personally involving a direct support of the slave system; but we were soon satisfied that we erred in judgment on this subject, that it was wasting time upon what no man could strictly reduce to practice, and that nothing would he gained by pressing it upon public attention There were a thousand strong and vital issues that could be made with the Slave Power, and we deemed it far more important to grapple with these, than to raise questions of conscience, which no casuistry could settle like a moral axiom. It is for this reason that we have s[ai]d so little in the Liberation on this subject.

We greatly respect the truly conscientious scruples of those who endeavor to abstain from the use of slave-grown articles; and far be it from us, at any time, either to condemn them for entertaining such scruples, or to prevent them from making as many proselytes as possible. If we have given them as special encouragement, they cannot charge us with waging any opposition against them. We have felt it to be one of those cases, which do not admit of clear demonstration, and hence must be left to the individual conscience. ‘To him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. He that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because be eateth not of faith. One man believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.’

We have not found the same spirit of charity manifested toward those who do not se[e] that duty requires them to abstain from the use of slave produce, on the part of those who do. In the various reports and essays, which have been given to the public by the latter, from time to time, we have seen severe criminations of the former, as though they had little or no regard for principle, were unwilling to deprive themselves of any luxury or confect to redeem the slave, were doing more to perpetuate than to abolish slavery, and thought more of the gratification of their appetites than of principle! To all such unkind, or at least unfounded charges, we have made no reply, but have allowed them to be freely circulated, believing that they have proceeded from a seal not according to knowledge, however well intended, and that they [n]eeded no formal refutation. The non-abstaining abolitionists,— such, for example, as the Jacksons, the Phillipecs, the Quincys the Fosters, the Pillsburys, the Wrights, and the Chapmans,—need no certificate from any persons, that they are as willing as others to bear heavy burdens in the anti slavery cause, and heroically to discharge all the duties they perceive devolving upon them.

The Liberator, March 5, 1947

In other words, Garrison sayeth, “don’t thou darest sugar-shame the Jacksons or Phillipecs.”

I disagree with William Lloyd Garrison, and throw my lot with Kent and Hambleton and the Reformatory Union Free Produce Society. Consumer choice matters. Choosing to participate as a consumer in an economy that causes and will cause human suffering when other choices are available matters. Even more so for fossil fuels, where the harm arises largely from burning them, not from pumping them out of the ground.

The pages of The Liberator were full of advertisements for “Free Sugar” and “Free Cotton” (i.e., non-slave produce). These items were more expensive than slave produce. And, of course, pro individual action abolitionists substituted wool for slave-cotton and maple syrup and honey for slave-sugar – imperfect and expensive substitutes.

So, if you lived in America in the mid-19th Century, would you be saying “I refuse to be ashamed of sugar,” or would you be looking for alternatives to the slave economy?

I put together some more extensive excerpts on the subject from The Liberator a few years back when I was researching this article.  I am linking a collection of excerpts here.


hudson-link-buslrMy goal is to eliminate fossil fuels from my daily life. I like to save my limited budget of carbon emissions for a few life enriching luxuries while making sure that my life would go on just fine if we banned fossil fuels tomorrow (as I think we should, given the #climatecrisis). And it was actually pretty easy to eliminate fossil fuels from my daily commute to work, through a combination of a bike and kayak commute (die-hards only), E-motorcycle (adventurous), and EV microcar (nearly anyone can do this!).

I was hoping to switch to a pure bicycle commute this Fall, without the kayaking part, since the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson was supposed to open its bike path during the Fall months of 2019. While I really get a kick out of paddling across the river on my way to work, it makes for a long commute – about two hours door to door for my 15 mile commute, including time spent uncovering and launching the kayak. The bridge bike path would cut 45 minutes off that commute time. So I didn’t even bother staging my kayak and east-of-the-river bike when paddling season came this year, hoping to have a one-saddle commute by Fall semester.

But a Fall opening of the bike path was not (and is not) to be, so  have been mixing my e-moto, EV,  bus, and paddle/pedal commute options this Fall.

I experimented with the bus for a week or so at the beginning of the semester. The advantage of the bus is that I can prepare for my nine o’clock class on the ride in, so the inevitable rush hour traffic delays don’t bother me.  The new Hudson Link bus service even has a dedicated lane on the new bridge eastbound, but not on the rest of the cross-Westchester expressway (where the worst morning traffic backups occur). And with my #OKboomer senior discount, the round trip on the bus is just $2.70 – less than the bridge toll alone for a car. But the diesel bus is not carbon emissions free – the thirty mile round trip adds about four pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere (assuming  150 passenger miles/gallon and approximately 20 pounds CO2 per gallon of diesel). It’s too bad the new cross-Hudson bus system had to invest in diesel buses, but the 12-year design life for heavy transit buses means that maybe they can be replaced with battery electric buses just in time for the 2030 carbon emissions goals of the IPCC SR15 report.

The disadvantage of the bus (besides its carbon footprint) is the time it takes to get to the bus stop a mile plus from my house, and the half mile from the bus stop in White Plains to my office. I usually end up walking both ends, for exercise, which adds about forty or fifty minutes to the trip each way. Add the thirty minutes on the bus, and five or ten minutes of margin for on-time buses (or late buses), and the one way commute is well over an hour – comparable to what I expect a bike-only commute would take.

The new buses have bike racks, so while I am waiting for the bike path to open, I have a bike-to-the-bus-across-the-river-bike-to-work option. I used this option to get one of my bikes east of the river to set up my paddle and pedal commute.  The $2.70 round trip cost is the same, but five miles each way on the bus is only one-third of the carbon impacts.

With one bike on the east side of the river and one on the west, I could start paddling my kayak across the river morning and evening in mid-September.  Nothing beats the zen of paddling across the Hudson at dawn and dusk and biking over the hills on either side – especially as the leaves turn to a glowing gold in the long rays of the sun. Zero carbon impact and also toll free! My Garmin app tells me that I burn an extra 2,000 calories each day I do this, but I don’t think I eat that much extra averaged over a week where I paddle/pedaling two days. I do tend to buy lunch instead of bagging lunch on paddle and pedal days, which probably costs me about $4 extra.

With the end of paddling season this month (too dark, no docks in the river anymore) I am back to the EV and the E-moto. Motorcycle on nice days, EV on not nice days or when my dog comes with me. They are still the quickest way to work, door to door. For some reason, the motorcycle is faster than the car. The toll for the E-moto is $2.50, but the electricity is about fifty cents, so the bus is still cheaper.  The toll for the car is $4.28 with the green vehicle discount, and the electricity is more like $1.20, so the EV is the most expensive way by far to get to work.


Paradoxically, the bus adds to my marginal direct carbon footprint, but the EV and E-moto do not. I only count direct marginal emissions in my carbon diet – these are the emissions I am inescapably ethically responsible for. With renewable electricity contract, charging at home is zero carbon. And it’s nice to know that according to this MIT Calculator, the embedded emissions per mile of my little Smart ForTwo are far lower than any other motor vehicle on the road. Unfortunately, they are no longer being sold in the US, but used ones can be a great deal.

So, the bus is the cheapest but with a marginal carbon cost, and the electric motorcycle is the quickest. I am looking forward to being able to bike all the way to work on the Mario Cuomo Bridge soon – but until then,  I can still get to work without blowing my carbon budget.




Biking to the Strike: Signs of Change

I rode my bike 32 miles each way for Friday’s climate strike in downtown Manhattan. There was no way I was going to take fossil-fueled transport to get there, so that ruled out the Metro North trains, the Rockland Coaches bus, or (obviously) a gas powered car. I considered taking either the Smart EV or the Zero E-moto, but I figured I would be better off avoiding the combination of protest gridlock and Friday afternoon commuter traffic.

This was my first long ride since I rode from Grants Pass Oregon to Smith Creek, CA on my cross country trip last June. Actually, I have been avoiding long rides while my ulnar nerve recovers from that trip. I have been measuring my recovery in terms of guitar chords – I am up to a C and an F, but I have not gotten to an E-shaped bar chord yet.

I had my first flat before I got to the bottom of the hill on my street, so I went back and switched to my cross-country Trek bike. In under two hours I was crossing the GWB, fueled by anticipation for the climate protest and the crisp peri-autumnal September weather. I got downtown in plenty of time, and after some negotiations with building management, took the freight elevator and stashed my bike at the Waterkeeper offices on Maiden Lane.

A group of about six of us walked from the Waterkeeper office towards the Foley Square assembly place. We got as far as the Municipal Office Building at Chambers Street – the press of the crowds made it impossible to make the last block. The crowd was young, and excited. It helped that the New York City schools excuses students who were striking – as long as they had parental permission. We joined the march on Chambers Street when it began to move.

Many of the placards seemed formulaic – “System change not Climate Change” is getting worn to the point of being meaningless. But there were many really original signs – my favorite was a hand lettered sign with a picture of Earth, saying “I don’t want to live anywhere but here – At least until the Sun explodes.” There were two brave souls holding up “Carbon Tax Now” signs. I yelled “Neoliberal Shill at one of them, then went up to apologize and tell him I actually support a carbon tax, but he hadn’t heard me anyway.

Here are some pictures from the day.

By joining near the head of the march, I ended up fairly close to the stage at Battery Park – it would have been a great place to watch Greta speak. But I didn’t want to stand around for three hours waiting for the program, and I also wanted to bike home before dark. My Waterkeeper friends all headed back to the office. I wandered around in the crowd for a while, reading the signs and soaking up the energy. Then I recovered my bike and wheeled back to Battery Park to soak up a little more of the event, from the edge.

As I headed back up along the Hudson River park bike way, I was struck by how unaware most of he city seemed to be of the protest going on in its midst. The river’s edge was crowded with joggers and strollers on this beautiful September day, and a “Run for the Children” event was taking place completely unaware of the children’s movement organizing just a few blocks away. Friday afternoon traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway was backed up in the usual way, and I was happy to be on a bike.

I realized as I rode that I was a little disappointed with the climate strike. A strike is supposed to be disruptive, like a labor strike that stops production, or a general strike that brings government services to a halt. It is an act of defiance, done without permission – like Greta Thunberg’s original School Strike for Climate. When a colleague suggested last week that we coordinate the Environmental Law Faculty’s participation in the strike, I joked that the problem with law professors going on strike on a Friday is that no one would notice. As it turned out, our department formally closed in support of the strike. And at some level, I was disappointed that the NYC schools gave permission to students to strike, robbing them of the element of disruptive defiance.

In a movement that counts success by the number of people engaged, I was happy to be the 249,999th demonstrator at the NYC march. But the People’s Climate March of 2014 was a bigger event in NYC, and it still did not result in a measurable political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I want to see actual emissions reductions. Now. I know that riding a bike downtown measurably reduces my carbon footprint compared to any other form of transport.

Too many climate activists scoff at individual climate action because one individual’s reductions are vanishingly small in the context of global climate change. But my contribution to a 250,000 person march is also vanishingly small. I will continue to do both — reduce and demonstrate – and vote, and call my representatives, and walk door to door in a swing state in November 2020 (like I did in 2016) because despite the vanishingly small odds, the future of the children who demonstrated around the world on Friday demands every form of action. Individual and political.

If Money is the Oxygen That Keeps Fossil Fuel Burning, Stop Giving Money to Oil Companies

white and pink gasoline station near ocean
Photo by Harrison Haines on

In this week’s New Yorker, Bill McKibben ups the ante in his efforts to ostracize the oil industry to protect climate, now suggesting  pressure on banks that finance fossil fuel extraction projects. McKibben’s earlier appeals for fossil fuel divestment have been very successful politically in motivating climate activism. In the divestment campaign’s most recent victory, the University of California has determined to divest from fossil investments, citing investment risk. Whether the divestment campaign has had a perceptible effect of fossil fuel production or consumption is questionable, however – an economics working paper concludes that divestment has not appreciably affect fossil fuel stock prices or policies.

I have been skeptical of the effectiveness of fossil fuel divestment campaigns as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even a significant decline in fossil stock prices does not seem likely to slow the rate at which oil producers pump fossil fuels out of the ground as long as global demand for their products remains high.

McKibben’s implicit call for a consumer boycott of banks that finance fossil fuel exploration is a form of a secondary boycott – a boycott of those who continue to do business with the entity that is the subject of the primary boycott. Secondary boycotts have had a long and noble history in the Civil Rights Movement (though they are banned under US labor law). But a bank boycott seems to skip right over the primary boycott and go straight to the secondary boycott. Wouldn’t a consumer boycott of the offenders themselves, the fossil fuel companies and their products, be a more effective way to put an end to this harmful industry?

The title of McKibben’s New Yorker piece, “Money is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns” is certainly true. But big oil gets far more cash from sales of petroleum products – $1.7 trillion – than it does from any bank financing of its exploration efforts — $196 billion from Chase over three years according to McKibben. And the industry gets to keep the money from oil sales, unlike the loans from Chase, which have to be paid back.

The average retail customer might generate about $200 per year to a bank’s profits. If about 7% percent gets recycled by the bank into fossil fuel loans, that’s about $14 of the retail customer’s money going to fossil fuel development in the form of a loan. Compare that to the $1,000 or so the average American spends on gasoline each year, or the ten percent of each airline ticket that pays for fuel – funds that fuel oil industry activities directly and don’t have to be paid back. Wouldn’t consumers have a bigger impact if they just stopped buying oil, or at least sharply reduced their purchases? One less $500 airline ticket is three times better than closing out your accounts at Chase bank.

Like the divestment campaign, the campaign to boycott the banks doesn’t have a direct path to reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. But at least an indirect path can be discerned – 1) some banks stop lending for fossil fuel exploration and development because their interest in retail banking public relations and profits outweighs their interest in oil loans, 2) some oil exploration and development doesn’t happen that would have happened otherwise because there are no other sources of financing, 3) five to seven years later (when those projects might start producing) there is less oil on the global market, 4) gasoline prices go up and consumption of fossil fuels goes down incrementally. But this does nothing to slow the current flow of oil from existing wells and proven fields.

If all you want to do is raise the price of gasoline, why wait five years and let the oil companies collect the higher prices? Why not endorse a fee-and-dividend price on carbon, like Michael Mann did in his Time magazine essay, and get the benefits of the greenhouse gas reductions now? Fee and dividend has the added short term benefit of redistributing the higher price to those who can least afford the price increase, and since it has bipartisan support, has a much better chance of adoption in the next four years than the Green New Deal.

So if you really want to deprive the fossil fuel industry of oxygen, a primary boycott works better than a secondary boycott. Don’t buy it, don’t burn it, just keep it in the ground. And if that doesn’t work, then, yeah, by all means switch your checking account to another bank.


Summer of Low Carbon Travel Part Two: Sailing to the Southeast

Sunset over the Outer Banks on a calm day

In addition to my transcontinental bike trip early this summer, we made a vacation trip to Charleston,  South Carolina in mid-August. Actually, it was part sailing trip and part DIY yacht delivery, since we wanted to have the boat staged down south for some Caribbean island hopping next Spring.  As a vacation, sailing offshore is the ultimate escape for me – the one place you can completely unplug and enjoy this beautiful planet without any intrusions, just dolphins and whales, clouds, weather, and the occasional fresh fish dinner.. It’s nice to see Greta Thunberg popularizing ocean sailing as a low carbon  long distance travel solution!

We started our trip with a quick overnight from NY to beautiful Block Island, Rhode Island, which (despite its accessibility) still has some of the best ocean beaches I have seen anywhere. The nice thing about arriving by boat is that you are guaranteed a waterfront room without even making  reservation

After three days of biking and beachcombing,, we set a more or less direct offshore course for Charleston, about 700 sea miles away. I say more or less direct, because you have to get around Cape Hatteras (about 400 miles away) before you can lay a direct course from New England to Charleston. Hatteras is legendary for its monstrous seas, shifting shoals, and shipwrecks, and can be a formidable obstacle. Diamond Shoal extends out nearly ten miles from the beach at Hatteras, while the continental shelf and the Gulf Stream are just another five miles beyond. The proximity of the Gulf Stream means squally weather and an adverse current for southbound boats pretty much all the time. If the wind blows strong from the north (a fair wind for sailing south), the wind-against current seas will be too dangerous to round the Cape; if the wind blows from the south, it will be impossible to tack against the wind and current to make it through the narrow passage between Diamond Shoal and the impassable Gulf Stream currents.

Our forecast did not look great as we approached Hatteras – there was a low pressure system lurking off Hatteras that had the potential to develop into a northern fringe tropical storm, and the forecast for the offshore waters was for a near gale of 20-30 knots from the South. As Robin put it, the Hatteras door might be open for us . . .  and it might be closed. We approach the northern outer banks, with the backup plan of running to Norfolk in the Chesapeake if a rounding looked too uncomfortable.

After a night of fairly spectacular lightning in convection clouds, I now know what the inside of a proto-tropical storm looks like. But by the time we were off Nag’s Head, the wind had died, and we ran the motor for several hours to catch the favorable westerly winds forecast for Hatteras before they turned to the southwest and blocked our passage. We cleared the Diamond Shoals buoy and Cape Hatteras under sail at three am the next morning – my third rounding of Hatterass, and every one of them in the dark! To add to the challenge, the Diamond Shoal light tower is still out there – but it no longer has a light on it (just a dim red flasher).

Entering Charleston Harbor

Three days of mostly pleasant sailing later (and about two hours a day of motoring), we tied up at the Charleston Maritime Center and toured that beautiful city on our folding bikes, had a great southern dinner at Jestine’s Kitchen, and a restful sleep in a quiet harbor. Then we took our boat up the Wando River to have it hauled at the Safe Harbor City Boatyard in Wando, which (as it turns out) is a great hurricane hole. We rented a hybrid (Ford fusion) to drive back to New York, since we had our dog with us, and two people in a hybrid beats the carbon impacts of Amtrak.

So what did the round trip cost us in carbon emissions? We ran our motor more than usual, since I had a deadline to secure the boat and get back to New York for the start of classes at Pace Law School. I am not sure we could have done the trip this year without an engine  – the door at Hatteras is not open for sailing south for very long or very often, so you would probably need an engine to time your rounding just right, or to motor through against the wind and current if you timed it wrong. If we had no motor (and more time) we might have waited for a better window to cross the Gulf Stream out away from Hatteras, then cross back on the other side.

We burned 20 gallons of diesel on the trip south.  That works out to about 200 pounds of carbon emissions for each of us. The return road trip in a hybrid actually had a lower footprint than sailing there — about 15 gallons of gas for the 750 mile return trip, or 150 pounds of CO2 for each of us. So the round trip cost about 300 pounds of CO2 apiece.

Most sailors taking their boat south to Charleston take the intracoastal waterway  to avoid the challenges of Cape Hatteras and other ocean capes. That means several extra days of traveling and many many more hours of motoring, since the canals and the shallow sounds of the Intracoastal don’t allow for much sailing. Taking the ICW down south in a sailboat, I am sorry to say, would likely have the carbon footprint of driving there in a Winnebago. (Under power, our sailboat gets about 8 mpg). Far better (for the planet) to pack your family in a car and just drive there on the highway. But for crossing oceans, like Greta Thunberg’s trip from England to New York, you can’t beat the zero carbon emissions of sail power.

A Summer of Low Carbon Travel: Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Biking Across the Country

I’ve traveled quite a ways this summer with minimal fossil fuels and without leaving the ground – New York to California and Vancouver, BC and back, then, more recently, New York to Charleston South Carolina and back. I managed to hit three of the four corners of this country. So what’s the carbon tab for all this travel?

Followers of this blog know I rode a bike to Oregon an California in May and June. So did I really save on carbon emissions by biking the whole way there? You occasionally see articles like this one claiming that bicyclists emit more carbon replacing the calories they burn than driving a car would have emitted, but that makes the pretty bogus assumption that the bicyclist replaces all of those calories with red meat, and that the car is a fuel efficient hybrid.

For my own direct carbon emissions impacts, I can say pretty confidently that all of the energy I burned crossing the country came in the form of non-fossil solar generated biomass – also known as food. Since all the carbon dioxide I exhale converting this food into transportation energy is being recycled by crop production more or less contemporaneously, I don’t treat these extra calories as part of my direct footprint, except to the extent they are foods (like beef and lamb) which cannot be produced without substantial GHG emissions.

But what if I apply a life-cycle-analysis to the extra calories I burned crossing the country? Does riding a bike really beat taking a bus or train?

I rode about 3500 miles to get from New York to California, over about 45 full days of riding, My Runtastic biking app calculated calories at about 35 calories per mile (though some sites, like this one, suggest a higher figure) . That works out to about 122,500 calories for the trip. That’s a lot of calories. I am not sure I actually replaced them all (I lost twelve pounds on the trip and got very skinny), but let’s use that as a ballpark figure.

What did I actually eat to make up these calories? I did not keep track of everything I ate, but I know did not really increase the kinds of foods or portion sizes for my regular meals (except to the extent that healthy food and vegetables are really hard to find in small towns along the way). I continued mostly to avoid red meat, sticking to chicken, pork, fish and (where available) vegetarian options. Not many vegan options at the Range Cafe in Bassett, Nebraska, for example.

Instead of eating more of my regular food, I ate two extra things: trail mix and junk food. The trail mix was mostly a homemade mix of raisins, peanuts, and chocolate M&Ms in roughly equal proportions. I kept a 12 ounce cup full of it on my handlebars and ate it while riding all day. I went through about one of those cups each full day of riding. At 209 calories per quarter cup, 45 days of this diet supplement probably made up about 47,000 of the 122,000 calorie cost of the trip.

The other thing I ate was the worst possible junk food, since empty calories were exactly what I needed to burn. Also because junk food is the only food you can buy in most the small towns I passed through – if you could buy any food at all. I am talking full bags of Hostess Donettes and fruit pies, or anything else that was full of starch and sugar. Since starches and sugars are both about 4 calories per gram, this works out to about 19 kg of sugar and starch to make up the other 75,000 calories. That’s over 40 pounds of donuts. I find it hard to believe I actually ate 40 pounds of donuts in 45 days, but it is not out of the question.

So what is the carbon impact of this trail mix and donuts (and donut equivalents)? I found a handy food products to life-cycle GHG equivalent emissions here . Based on some calculations, it looks like the trail mix worked out to about 3 lbs of CO2e per day, or about 138 pounds for the whole 45 days/47,000 calories of trail mix. Chocolate was the outsized carbon cost in the trail mix. The junk food was much more carbon efficient – about 20 pounds of CO2e for 75,000 calories. That’s almost an order of magnitude better than the trail mix, though I may be understating the trail mix calorie contribution. In calculating the junk food carbon emissions, I assumed 70% of the junk food calories came from flour, 15% from sugar, and 15% from corn syrup.

So total carbon emissions for the bike trip were about 160 pounds, less than one tenth of a ton of carbon emissions. This is quite a bit less than the return train trip by Amtrak – which was about seven times more, or 1100 pounds. Driving the same 3500 miles in a Prius would have burned 70 gallons of gas for about 1400 pounds of CO2 emissions.

So a junk food powered bike trip across the country works about to about one tenth of the emissions of driving, or one seventh of the emissions of taking the train,