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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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Sustainability journalist Doug Fine talks about carbon footprints, creature comforts and cannabis cultivation
Into the green economy
Fine with his goat-guarding heeler, Sadie.
Fine with his goat-guarding heeler, Sadie.

Doug Fine is more than just the jocular guy who wrote a sometimes tongue-in-cheek report called Farewell, My Subaru, about going back to the land and off the grid, raising goats at a ranch in rural New Mexico. Fine is serious but not solemn about ecological sustainability issues, from decreasing our fossil-fuel consumption to increasing industrial cannabis production (the subject of his forthcoming TedBooks ebook). Fine is also the author of Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Revolution. His work these days straddles journalism, activism and motivational speaking.

Fine will speak at Isthmus Green Day, the environmental expo at Monona Terrace, on Saturday, April 20, at 2 p.m. Isthmus reached him in his ranch's goat corral, via cell phone.

Do you see yourself as being a motivator?

It is a mission not to preach just to the converted on any issue. In every project I pick, I am trying to nudge the cosmos in what feels to me a positive direction. I feel that by being very clear, I am not preaching, nor is it propaganda. I stand by the truth of everything I've written. One of the big lessons of my work and life in the sustainability realm is if I can do it, anybody can do it.

Is it better to start small with sustainability lifestyle changes or go large from the start?

One person's small is another person's large. Most people think I did something large [by going off the grid], but I did not construct the old adobe house I moved into. I did not manufacture my solar panels, nor did I install them.

I have a cell phone, email, I could have watched the Bolshoi on Netflix last night - of course I chose Family Guy - but I am not giving up any comforts. Still, one step at a time is the best way, I think.

I can tell from talking to you that you're a pretty happy guy, but are you happier now that you have made these changes and increased your sustainability?

Oh yeah. That's something I'm applying to do a TED talk on. Of course it's just another plateau. Once you get used to it, you're trying to get to the next thing - healthiness, productivity, career health, personal health...all of it.

Have you ever tried to figure out what your carbon footprint actually is?

It is 80% less than it once was. And I would go so far as to say a magnitude lower than the average American's energy use. If everybody got 80% of their fossil fuels out of their life, we would buy a couple hundred years to figure something else out.

Your current work has dealt more with the legal cannabis industry and its contribution to a green economy. Is there some aspect of cannabis cultivation itself that is good for the environment?

It can be. Outdoor, locally sourced cannabis is much better than indoor cannabis [for the environment], though there are exceptions on both sides.

On hemp, basically, for 4,000 years or more, humans have utilized this plant more sustainably than any other plant - to the point that [journalist] Michael Pollan believes we may have co-evolved with it. We have cannabinoid receptors in our bodies that are hard to explain otherwise. On the industrial side, I've just completed a book about its uses, most importantly as a potential energy source but also as a sustainable building material. That's important because construction uses a huge amount of global carbon output.

Moreover, hemp can be grown without herbicides or pesticides. It has foot-long taproots that grow in a month that can help damaged soil recover from long use in monoculture.

Do you have advice for people working toward hemp-legalization legislation?

The drug peace era is going to be really good for America. I was on Wisconsin Public Radio last year (At Issue with Ben Merens, 8/9/2012) for an entire hour, and asking openly, yet unable to get a caller to express support for continuing the drug war. If a poll were taken, Wisconsinites would want the drug war to end. That's true everywhere from Missouri to Arizona. It's true in very red states.

I suggest people contact their legislators on all levels with a simple message: Remove cannabis entirely from the controlled substance act. Do not reschedule, do not decriminalize - remove it so it is not even there, and allow states to regulate it like alcohol.

Secondly, see if there is a grassroots drug peace organization that is active in Wisconsin, find out what it is doing and volunteer. Get a phone chain going and put unrelenting pressure on politicians until legislation is drafted. Legalization of industrial hemp production was passed in Kentucky this March. Now is the time; it's working.

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