Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 2, 2013


Host: Ted Simons

Living off the Grid


  • Former University of Arizona professor Guy McPherson left his tenured full professorship in 2009 to live off the grid. He moved into a straw-bale house in New Mexico and lives a sustainable lifestyle, with organic gardening, and raising small animals for eggs and milk. McPherson’s life has been made into a film titled "Somewhere in New Mexico before the End of Time,” which will debut in Tucson on May 4. McPherson will talk about his life and the film.
Guests:
  • Guy McPherson - Former Professor, The University of Arizona
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: film, UA, grid, sustainability,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: In 2009 Guy McPherson left his tenured full professorship at the University of Arizona to live off the grid in a straw bail house in New Mexico. McPherson's life has been made into a film entitled, Somewhere in New Mexico Before the End of Time, which debuts this weekend in Tucson. Joining us now is Guy McPherson. We talked to you back in 2008 when you still were a professor at U of A. Why did you leave?

Guy McPherson: I went to somewhere in New Mexico, ergo the name of the the film. I left the easy life of a tenured professor after 20 years to the day at the University of Arizona to go back to the land. I left as an act of conscience because the industrial economy is destroying every aspect of the living planet. I didn't want to be part of that any more so I walked away.

Ted Simons: We talked about that in 2008. We keep hearing you're living off the grid. What does that mean?

Guy McPherson: We have solar panels that provide our limited electricity. We also have two goats. I suspect I'm the only person in the room who milked goats this morning.

Ted Simons: Probably.

Guy McPherson: We have several chickens and ducks and a goose that lays eggs. We grow a vast majority of the food we eat as well as using solar panels to get water off the ground.

Ted Simons: The house is heated and cooled with solar energy?

Guy McPherson: It's passive solar heated. It provides almost all the heat we need by aligning the south facing windows and getting the eves right. It's a straw bale house, very well insulated. The thermal mass is a concrete floor. It has a woodstove in it. We burn a little bit of wood on the coldest winter nights. No artificial heating. We just open the doors and windows.

Ted Simons: There you are in the wilds of New Mexico?

Guy McPherson: Not far from Silver city, about feet elevation.

Ted Simons: You did this as an act of conscience. We have talked back in 2008 about your idea that you said at the time by 2015 a depression will seem like the good old days. I don't know if that's going to happen but you still see a collapse, don't you?

Guy McPherson: I see two collapses going on simultaneously. I see collapse of the industrial economy and witness events in the European union. For example, things are falling apart. Things are falling apart everywhere because oil is very expensive. It's hard to maintain a well-oiled industrial economic machine at $100 oil. I see a collapse of the environment as well. We're driving some species a day to extinction. Environmental decline is proceeding apace. We're destroying the air we need to breathe and water to drink and climate change every single day so according to the latest projections it seems we're heading for human extension as early as 2030.

Ted Simons: You mentioned for a first collapse seemed like it was coming up the pike. It's getting closer, but I think critics would say, this doesn't seem realistic that you're obsessed with collapse and human ingenuity always seems to find a way.

Guy McPherson: Human ingenuity so far has managed to enable us to increase the rate of extinctions every single year, to increase the rate of erosion into the world's oceans every year. To increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We're going to blow through 400 parts per million in carbon dioxide. Last time that happened was before human beings walked the planet in any form. It's a big deal. Human ingenuity may get us through and already has gotten us farther than I thought we would in terms of economic collapse, but everything we're doing in terms of ingenuity is making the environmental situation worse. We're conquering nature.

Ted Simons: Right.

Guy McPherson: That has consequences.

Ted Simons: But how do you avoid conquering nature if you are a human being and need -- I imagine there's a duck out there thinking you're conquering him right now.

Guy McPherson: Exactly. We did live in a reasonably sustainable manner for the first two, two and a half million years of the human experience. It was only with arrival of the first civilization a few thousand years ago we went into human population overshoot that we began to contain nature it was ours to tame. In fact I had a visit with a primitivist this morning who lives not far from me who has been living as indigenous people do for the last 34 years of his life. I suspect he would not view favorably me putting those goats and ducks and chickens in every night. He lives literally on the land. He's a hunter gatherer.

Ted Simons: Why, though, back to the idea of adapting, why can't societies adapt? Why can't individuals adapt? Obviously you have adapted in your own way. But is there a way to adapt where you can still have some progress? I think a lot of people think of primitivist, they think of collapse, doomsday type folks. Doesn't sound like a heck of a lot of fun, good way to live for them.

Guy McPherson: Right. I absolutely agree life is easier when you live in a big city. Extract all your materials from elsewhere. Think about what happens in Tucson, Phoenix, any major metropolitan area. You extract your water sometimes as far away as 300 miles across the desert uphill. You import your food in. What do you return? Garbage and pollution. With fewer than 5% of the world's population in the United States produces a quarter of the world's pollution, quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions, a quarter of the inmate population and so on. There are consequences for the way we live. We keep ratcheting up the stakes and losing those species we need to survive, dirtying the water, fouling the air. We need that stuff. We do. We don't need smart phones but we're willing to trade smart phones for a couple hundred species a day. It's a bad trade.

Ted Simons: Can we as a society recycle more or to the point where a sustainable, some form -- is sustainability even possible as you see things?

Guy McPherson: At this point, far into human population overshoot. A problem we ratchet up to the tune of about 217,000 people a day, birth minus death. At this point we are so far into human population overshoot, I strongly suspect the only way out of that is to have happen to us what happens to every other animal that goes into human population overshoot. A decline or crash. Ingenuity got us here. Is what allowed us to keep kicking the can down the road in the name of progress. But we can't have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Ted Simons: What do you see happening?

Guy McPherson: Well, I'm going to give you a couple quotations here. On a planet four degrees hotter than baseline, about one degree ago, baseline is about 1850, or the industrial revolution, all we can prepare for is human extinction. That's from an article in the guardian from 2008. Five years ago. That provided a synthesis of climate change literature to that point. Five years ago we knew degrees centigrade hotter was human extinction. According to an informed assessment of B.P.'s energy outlook 2030, which came out in January of this year. We'll hit that four degrees centigrade mark by 2030 . So it seems that the last people on the planet will meet their end in about 2030 maybe a little later. Those people won't be living here, by the way, in the northern hemisphere. Human habitat will be gone from the northern hemisphere or 10 or 15 degrees earlier than in the southern hemisphere because there's so much land relative to amount of water.

Ted Simons: You're talking 17 years.

Guy McPherson: Yes, I know.

Ted Simons: Okay.

Guy McPherson: I have limited math skills but I worked that one out.

Ted Simons: Me too. I'm thinking years, I can think of years back and that's a huge change.

Guy McPherson: Absolutely. We have triggered 12 self-reinforcing feedback loops. There's been one assessment of one of those, methane release in the arctic. The White House recently admitted today I believe that all the arctic ice will be gone within two years. Actually, that statement was released today but made in June. That's the planet's air conditioner is arctic ice. So somebody has studied scientifically one of those feedback loops, methane release in the arctic. Their conclusion was loss of all life on earth by mid-century. In the northern hemisphere, by about 2030.

Ted Simons: I don't want to go without a quick question. Simple response perhaps. Are you optimistic?

Guy McPherson: I used to be very optimistic. Up until the scientific evidence behind these feedback loops just overwhelmed me. So I'm pretty realistic I think about the prospects for human to be sustained into the future.

Ted Simons: Guy, good to have you here.

Guy McPherson: Great to be back.

Ted Simons: disquieting conversation but good to have you.

Guy McPherson: I'm not depressed but I'm a carrier, apparently. Thank you.

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