An article in the "Lake Country Journal" September 2010.
Neighbor: Simple Living
By Tenlee Lund
“Sustainable” and “renewable” are more than just words to John Weber. A man who lives his beliefs, Weber has actually “walked the walk.”
For thirty years he lived “off the grid,” meaning his home was not connected to an electric utility. Since he was then living near Long Prairie, that meant facing not only daily tasks, but cold winters and hot summers without the convenience of power-on-demand. He pumped his own water and split his own wood for cooking and heating. Most of the electricity he consumed was generated on his own property via the sun and wind.
This was the culmination of a “back to the land” odyssey that began in the late 1960s, triggered by a return to his hometown of Hialeah, Florida.
“When I was growing up there was literally acreage between Hialeah and Miami,” says Weber. “I used to camp in a place that, when I came back on leave from the service, was a shopping center that was bigger than the city of Long Prairie. I thought, ‘Where did everything go? What happened?’
“In 1968, after I had finished a degree in anthropology, I remember looking at the Miami skyline and thinking, ‘This is not the way humans were meant to live and it will not succeed.’ It was an instinct kind of thing.”
Now, after more than forty years of dedicated study, Weber, an anthropologist and licensed psychologist, believes the key factor affecting the human condition is energy—its cost, production, and consumption.
Humans evolved from hunters and gatherers through the agricultural and industrial revolutions. “The major source of energy before the industrial revolution was animal power—horses, oxen, llamas—and humans.” Although he doesn’t advocate turning the clock back centuries, he does believe we can live at a much more sustainable level.
In fact, he’s convinced we are going to have to.
He cites historical data that shows the growth of the human population paralleling the use of fossil fuels—and the fact that current statistics indicate we’ve passed the planet’s peak oil production. As oil production declines and alternative energy sources struggle to fill the gap, Weber foresees global calamity.
“We are facing the biggest dilemma, the broadest dilemma, that humanity has ever faced because, without oil, we can’t keep six billion people going on this planet.”
And, although he supports wind and solar as transitional energy sources, he said they are not renewable because they require non-renewable elements for energy generation and storage.
“An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. But the wind generator and the solar panels are not renewable. It’s incredibly important to understand this because there is this hope being created of continuing ‘business as usual’ and the status quo, and that absolutely cannot be.”
Weber’s main concern is for food, followed by heat in a climate like Lake Country’s. “Food is very serious because we probably only have a thirty-day supply of food and people aren’t prepared. We don’t live like we used to live. If you go back 150 years, people had a larder, they canned food.”
Weber and his partner, Kathy Wagner, have a root cellar. They are building another one that will serve as an old-fashioned icehouse. Their goal is to store enough food to sustain them for a year.
They now live in a modern home near Longville that includes digital clocks and two computers—along with some noticeable differences. Their electrical power is supplemented by grid-tied solar panels, keeping their daily usage at less than three kilowatt hours, instead of the twenty consumed by a typical household. They can also go completely off-grid if necessary.
“If I had to, we could be sustainable within a week. It wouldn’t be fun, but we could do it,” says Weber. They can cook and heat with wood and pump their own water. They also own a forty-acre farm, designed to operate off-grid, where they’ve planted an orchard, blueberry patch, and truck garden. Water can be pumped using a unique bicycle rig instead of “by hand,” and the house incorporates passive-solar heating.
In the 1970s, Weber taught a class on simple living, challenging his students with this assignment: For one week, “as you walk through your world, everything you touch, ask yourself, ‘How much energy is used to create it? Where does it come from? Do I need it? Can I make it myself?’”
Today he teaches an equally challenging seminar, “Let’s Talk Energy,” through Northland Community Schools in Remer.
“I want people to start thinking,” he says. “I’m saying that the world you know will not exist and the change could be overnight, given what goes on in the economy. If we’re going to survive we’ve got to think it out. In order to do that you’ve got to get the mindset that ‘business as usual’ cannot go on.
“We live so ‘high on the hog’ in this country, we’re actually in worse shape than some of the undeveloped countries, because they know how to live without energy. We don’t.”
However, we may soon need to learn. And a talk with John Weber is a good place to start.