Saving the Planet with a Laptop and a Hammer
I believe I swing a pretty mean hammer. Just talking with author James Glave about his book, Almost Green: How I saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet, inspired me to go out to the tool shed and polish up my 20 oz., curved-claw Estwing. I missed it, and I missed the smell of pine sawdust. Glave made me realize something else I had missed through all my years of construction: Everything I had built for the last 20 years, I had built wrong; I had not considered my planet.
For Glave, moving to Bowen Island, British Columbia, raised ethical issues about his family’s carbon footprint. Commuting — and shipping in supplies — from Vancouver to Bowen requires a ferry ride, which by itself substantially increases each resident’s impact on the environment.
So when Glave wanted to build a small office/guest house next to his home, he decided to do it with the least-possible carbon footprint. He chronicled the building of the “Eco-Shed” and its impact on both his family and the Bowen community in his book. I talked with Glave from his home on Bowen Island, to find out more about the man and the impact of his work on his community.
BPGL: This endeavor you’ve taken to bring yourself up to speed on the environment, when did that all start?
GLAVE: It’s hard for me to pinpoint a day. We moved up here in ’05–’06, and in early ’06, I realized that my writing career and the work that I’d been doing wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. I had this conversation with my wife, where I said, “This isn’t going where I want it to.” And she said, “Figure out what you’re really passionate about and excited about, and do that.”
That’s really when I started to dig in and sink my teeth into this whole area that I’ve always been curious about. And then everything I’d heard about climate change was just doom. It’s so easy to just turn the page and find something else to look at or read or what have you.
The more I started looking into it, the more I realized that this was something that I needed to become a part of, and I needed to start taking personal responsibility on some level for what’s happening out there. And so in mid ’06, I began to deepen and deepen my involvement in it, until eventually I decided to take on the project that’s in the book. The [environment] is a complete passion of mine, and I intend to build and build on it.
BPGL: You wrote in your book about your struggles and adventures building what you’ve called your Eco-Shed. Tell us about the Eco-Shed now that it’s finished.
GLAVE: It’s a long story, and it continues. I work in there in the week. It’s my office, my sort of escape place. It’s very, very quiet, from all the insulation in the walls. It’s sort of like a cocoon when I really need to focus on some work. So I’m very grateful to have that.
The way that it’s built, the windows face the south. It’s so well insulated that any sunlight that comes in heats the place up. It works out very well. I have to close the blinds to turn the heat down when it’s blindingly cold outside.
BPGL: I understand you’re renting it out, too.
GLAVE: On the weekends, when people want to come over here, we rent it out as a guest house. We include the full educational component to it, where I give people the mini tour about how it works and what kind of technologies and strategies we put in place in there. There’s a Facebook page that’s sort of a virtual guest book.
We get a wonderful selection of people in there. We just had a couple in this past weekend. He works for a petroleum company. He’s a very quiet force. He’s the only guy who rides his bike to work. He identifies with some of the struggles that I’ve been through, just in terms of reconciling your day-to-day life with your aspirations.
A lot of [our guests] are up from the States. A couple drove up from San Francisco to spend a weekend there. We’ve had folks from Phoenix, Seattle, basically all over California. It’s been a really positive and wonderful experience.
BPGL: For people who want to do the Eco-Shed experience, what other things should they see on Bowen Island that are environmental in nature?
GLAVE: In the summer, as part of the OneDayBowen project that is mentioned in the book, my wife and I do a farmers’ market that we organize and host. We’ve just done one weekend a year so far. This summer we’re hoping to expand to a series, but that’s yet to be determined.
We actually have a small and important agricultural community here. Helping the farmers as much as we can is a sideline passion of ours. So we would direct guests to visit any of the organic small-scale farms here on the island. We’d show them where they are and give an introduction if necessary.
There are also a few other folks who are starting to experiment with other green building forms, and I’m sure they’d be happy to show folks around who came over to stay with us. There are a couple of straw-bale homes. And there’s a fellow, who’s mentioned in the book, who built a rammed-earth home. His house is just about complete now, and I’m sure he’d be happy to show it off.
Also, there’s a couple of renewable energy installations. There’s one fellow who lives on a tiny, sort of knob of rock just off the northern tip of the island. He’s completely off the grid, and every so often he opens his home up.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s not obvious on the surface. You probably would need to have me as a guide or an introduction to show you around. There’s a lot of energy, excitement, and activity, and I’m happy to be a small part of it.
BPGL: When you say that one fellow is off the grid, that makes me wonder, is there a municipal power station on Bowen?
GLAVE: We get our power from the mainland. We’re fortunate as well because in British Columbia, 90 percent of our power is from hydroelectric sources, so there is very, very little coal in the mix. That really helped me guide decisions on my studio — with that electric-fired, on-demand, hot water unit, for example, and the electrically heated, in-floor heat. I tried, and I succeeded in the end — I don’t burn any fossil fuels to run the building.
If anybody wants to come up and see the Eco-Shed and talk with me about it, I’m right here. And certainly, my book is a smash success here on the island, so that’s got to be inspiring a few people.
A lot of people say the real strength of the book is that it peels back the layers to get beyond the baby steps conversation and into the nuts and bolts of how things come together and how they can be built better, and how they can be built to be taken apart better and so forth.
BPGL: Could you swing a hammer before you started all this?
GLAVE: Oh, yeah. We lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I pretty much did everything to that place. I plumbed and wired, pulled Romex and all that stuff. So I had some basic skills. For a lot of it, I worked with a carpenter, who was a finish carpenter. There were a lot things that were beyond my comfort level.
And I’m basically a stay-at-home dad, so while I’m writing the book and running a construction project in the yard and helping out when I can, I’ve got my two kids around. So I couldn’t really kind of chuck out and just go out there and hammer all day.
BPGL: Are your children developing into young ecopreneurs?
GLAVE: I would say that they’re certainly on their way. They’re still pretty little. Duncan’s five, and Sabrina’s going to be seven in a couple of months. But I talk with them about this stuff all the time. They pop up in the book all over the place, about them making these connections in their heads. We talk about all kinds of things. We figured out a way to do a litter-free lunch, without using [plastic] containers — which I’m not wild about — we have very little garbage after eating their lunch at school.
BPGL: How do you do that?
GLAVE: There’s a product out of India called a tiffin. It’s a stainless steel set of trays that lock together, and each of them has a lid. So you could do a bagel in the bottom one, and some carrot sticks and a piece of cheese in the next one, and in the top you could have a little something else — some pretzels or whatever. So you get away from that whole six-Ziploc-bags-a-day kind of thing.
There’s a bunch of companies on the Web that cater to people that don’t want to have Tupperware in their lunchbox anymore.
So my kids use tiffins, and they have a little stainless steel bottle of water that they take with them. It’s a pretty small thing. But it’s the sort of thing that you hope the kids will spread, once the other kids see them and want them.
BPGL: I saw a couple of videos of you promoting your book — including one with you in a gorilla suit.
GLAVE: Yeah. I produced a couple of video trailers for the book that your readers might enjoy. You can see them on YouTube. One of them is about my fumbling efforts to do community engagement work by asking people lining up in the ferry line to turn off their idling engines, and the reactions I get. It’s all staged, but not everybody understands that right away.
BPGL: You’re not just a writer, James; you’re a pretty good comedian.
Part 1: Saving the Planet with a Laptop and a Hammer (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)