Green up your bookshelf

Green up your bookshelf

We don't usually write in this space about books without a local or regional tie-in, but the two in this week's book bag have a universal appeal. Both speak to efforts to live reasonably on the Earth in the American West in our changing times.

"Farewell, My Subaru," by Doug Fine (Villard, cloth, 210 pages, $24) is an educational (hate that word!) yet funny look at the author's experiment in sustainable living. Is it possible to be green if you're really attached to your car, your computer, your stereo, your Netflix?

Fine is the author of "Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man" and a contributor to National Public Radio. After traveling the world to report from the remote forests and war zones of five continents, he settled in an obscure valley in New Mexico with a few goats he got on Craigslist and a lot of coyotes.

There, on a 40-acre spread he calls the Funky Butte Ranch, he installed Japanese solar panels, cadged waste oil from the local Chinese restaurant to run his ROAT (ridiculously oversized American truck) and defended the goats from the coyotes.

This sounds like a story we've heard before, but a couple of things keep it fresh. One, Fine has absolutely no mechanical or electrical skills. And two, his writing is fresh and funny. In his hands, similes like "as high maintenance as a West LA girlfriend" are easy as pie.

Here he is on learning that a neighbor had also converted his car to run on used cooking oil and was thus a competitor for restaurant grease: "As nice as it was that two veggie-oil drivers in Mimbres probably indicated that the U.N.-fearing clique in our valley was being diluted by the Karl Rover-fearing bloc, I didn't exactly like where this was heading."

For all its entertainment value, "Farewell, My Subaru" is informed by the dawning understanding that there's something deeply wrong with our consumption patterns, and that change is needed.

Courtney White's "Revolution on the Range" (Shearwater Books, cloth, 221 pages, $25.95) may not have the entertainment value of Fine's book, but it offers up similarly clear-headed thinking about the planet.

One of the standard features of environmental stories is heated conflict, with resource users and environmentalists often unwilling to cross lines and talk. White's story is about cowboys and environmentalists working together to save a land they both love. Yup.

In the 1990s cattle ranchers and green groups in much of the West were engaged in a struggle that led not just to arguments and lawsuits but arson, bombs and more. Enter White, of Santa Fe, N.M., a former archaeologist, a Sierra Club activist and a chicken rancher. His story is about some ranchers and environmentalists who decided that cattle and conservation could go hand in hand. Here is the "New Ranch," which respects the needs of nature and still turns a working profit.

After all, both sides love wildlife and have a respect for the outdoors. And both are threatened by urban sprawl (the nation loses 2 acres of agricultural land a day to development).

Here are such characters as a rancher who operates in harmony with wildlife, an environmentalist who brokers peace with a descriptive approach rather than a prescriptive one, a biologist who contends that recreational use of public lands may not always be the best use.

White's main point is his belief that environmental problems will not be solved with purely environmental solutions. Every environmental problem, he believes, has at its core an economic problem. Consider climate change. You can't stop it without confronting the world economy.

Whether this is good news or not — and whether you agree with White or not — he brings a moderation often missing from some of our most important debates.

White is a founder and director of The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others.

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