By Randy Swaty with Jeannie Patton, The Nature Conservancy
This summer, my two boys and I spent a few days with a couple who live off the grid in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 17 miles from the nearest paved road. Victor and Claudia build canoes by hand for museum collections, using local cedar for ribs, birch-bark for the covering and a mix of spruce pitch, charcoal and bear fat to seal the seams. The boats are lashed together with spruce roots. Except for cutting the cedar, they use four tools in the whole process.
Victor kindly volunteered to help us build our own canoe. It has an ash frame lashed with artificial sinew that is then covered with “space-age textiles,” as Victor put it (it’s Dacron®). The ash is in danger due to the exotic emerald ash borer. I have no idea how many tools went into making the half dozen or so materials that we used while just building the frame.
Other than building canoes, Victor and Claudia spend most of their time thinking about how to get what they need to survive. They mostly eat food they can grow, salvage from dumpsters or trap, and they heat their small log cabin exclusively with wood. Their way of life looked to be about as earth-friendly as it gets. At our first meeting, Victor greeted us with a shot gun nestled in his arm and served venison stew for lunch (woodchuck was on the menu for dinner).
All of this made me wonder: could my family follow Victor and Claudia’s example, living close to the bone and to the earth, using as few natural resources as possible? What would be the consequences in terms of health, energy expenditure and general well-being?
I started by calculating my family’s carbon footprint. Nursing a cup of Guatemalan coffee (made with water heated by propane) I fired up my computer, clicked on The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator and entered my best guesses regarding the family’s carbon output.
The results indicated that we emit 65 tons of carbon annually, or roughly half of that of the average family of four in the U.S. I, alone, contribute almost half of our family’s carbon emissions. My personal tally is 27 tons annually, with 10 of them coming from work-related plane flights. Therefore, almost a third of my carbon emissions are due to travel for my job.