Our Vegetable Sipping Car

posted July 17, 2006

If one defines “religion” as a way of viewing the universe in terms of cause and effect, right and wrong, and involving a set of practices and devotions, then environmentalism is a religion, as much as Christianity, Capitalism or even the beliefs and commitments shared by rabid fans of Star Trek The Next Generation. I grew up among both Christians and environmentalists, and I have to say, I think from a “fundamentalist” or “extreme guilt inducing” aspect, the environmentalists I knew win hands down. My mother worked for the League of Women Voters throughout my childhood, focusing her attention on alternative fuel sources. (Also sludge, but that’s not the point of this blog.) My aunt gives us yearly subscriptions to Co-op America and has been advising me against using anti-perspirant since I was too young to perspire. We bought small cars before small cars were cool (or even that small), and my grandmother referred to RVs as “stink pots.” (Ditto all boats that weren’t powered by wind or muscle.) We composted. We recycled tea bags and aluminum foil, even when they had been used, respectively, as many as fourteen times. I regard recycling as a spiritual path of mindfulness equally profound as sitting meditation or yoga or saying the rosary. We use cloth diapers on our baby, Lila (and gdiapers! They work great! See previous post.) So it’s no surprise that I liked the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. It is a little more surprising that my husband and I have just cashed in all our savings to buy a 2005 diesel with the intention of converting it into what those in the know affectionately term a Grease Car.

A grease car runs on vegetable oil. Yep, the kind you can buy at the Stop & Shop. The kind you put in salad dressing or deep-fry your chicken in. Soybean oil, safflower oil, even olive oil will do. (We’re naming our new car Olivia, by the way; not so much for the oil nor the Popeye reference as for Olivia Newton John from the movie….Grease.) In order to do this sleight-of-pump, one must buy and install (or in our case, have installed) a second tank; the Grease Tank if you will. This tank rests in the well where the spare tire usually is. Then, a fuel line is run into the something or other and you have to operate a switch. You start your car using the diesel tank, and once the vegetable oil is warmed up (a gauge confirms this) you switch over to the grease tank. How do you get the grease, you might ask. If you want it for free (which is part of the point of the whole grease car culture), simply visit a local restaurant, preferably a Chinese restaurant or clam shack where they do a lot of artery clogging deep-frying. Ask the owner if you might have the leftover fryolator oil. They will generally be happy to give it to you since it often costs them to have it disposed of. Then, take home the grease and filter it, since there will be pesky bits of leftover tempura and clam. The filtering situation is a whole other problem, requiring yet another kind of tank. Once you’ve filtered, pour your grease into empty milk jugs. Now, when your grease tank is empty, fill ‘er up. You can even take the milk jugs with you on the road, dispensing with the need to stop at Mobil to refuel; in fact, you can have your rest stop at Starbucks or Whole Foods or Aunt Nancy’s now.

If you haven’t gotten the point already, let me make it for you: this is not for the fastidious. Grease car owners are probably going to get greasy at some point, and even with the best of intentions, so will their car. Said car, when running, will smell like French fries. This is why it’s so incongruous that I of all people am hopping on this particular board.

I’m a girly girl. I like to be clean. Not that you’d know it from the interior of my car, but in theory anyway, I like my car to be clean. Moreover, I know nothing about cars. When I was sixteen, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and while I thought it was a really cool idea—not to mention zen- to get to know your vehicle the way Phaedrus does, I still don’t know the difference between a carburetor and an alternator (I don’t even know what they do, or even whether or not they are in that part of the car that’s under the hood thingy.) I have never changed a spare tire. I kind of know what a transmission is and that it’s bad if it breaks—very bad—but that’s only because I lived for four years in a van that went thorough three of them in rapid succession. In short, I am not handy, especially when it comes to cars.

And, like all good liberals who were brought up to question authority, I notice my passionate authority-busting inner teenager itching to challenge at every turn as I travel this particular spiritual path. So what if I’m using gdiapers? So what, in fact, if thousands of us weirdos are using gdiapers? Landfills are still getting filled at atrocious speeds. So what if I drive on soybeans? If everyone drove on soybeans, we’d run out of arable land in a matter of weeks and the planet would starve to death. And besides, the Chinese are now driving at record numbers which are only climbing; the world’s population is going to be 9 billion in a few minutes. Rather than invent clever ways to get better gas mileage, it remains best to reduce, reuse, recycle—to slow down and do less, drive less, use less, take up less space in the land fills as well as on the freeways. A few weeks ago the New York Times ran a story in their Science Times section called “How To Cool A Planet (Maybe)” about all these crazy ideas of how to stop global warming, including a kind of Star Wars-esque space mirror and a plan to infuse the atmosphere with sulpheric clouds. When are we going to stop overthinking this? When are we going to learn that it’s about doing less, not doing more? So what if I can drive for free, getting 50 mpg? It would still be better to walk into town, ride my bike to Amherst and leave the car at home. Consume less. Live simply so that others may simply live, tread lightly on Mother Earth and all that.

When I am angry and/or exhausted, feeling like my 2 month old in melt-down mode, I want to shut myself in the one air conditioned room in our house and read a magazine. (Not the New Republic either; something really trashing like Shape or People) I have a kind of, “I deserve” mentality that reminds me of the way I used to say “I deserve to eat that sundae since I’ve had such a hard time” when I was an overeater. It’s an adolescent cry of frustration. What I’m really saying is, “Mom, take care of me.” Mom is food; mom is mother earth. To consume is to consume, whether it be food or our precious natural resources.

After we saw An Inconvenient Truth, my husband, Tom said, “We can’t just do things because they’re convenient anymore. That no longer cuts it.” In Walden, Thoreau says, “To affect the quality of the day—that is the highest of the arts.” The reason I’ve always thought recycling was a spiritual path is largely because it forces me to be mindful in a very quotidian way. I don’t put my fruit into plastic bags at the supermarket because I know that if I do, I will eventually have to throw away a piece of plastic, so I’m mindful at the supermarket. When I’ve eaten the fruit, I compost the skin and the pit. This brings me down from my habitual home way up in my thoughts (where I’m doing any one of the following: writing a song, obsessing about my weight, thinking about a client, wondering when I can get back to the novel I’m reading or griping about the messiness of the kitchen sink) and connects me to the earth, literally and figuratively. I pour my water into a glass instead of using a plastic bottle because otherwise, I’m going to have to sort that bottle from the trash into the containers bin. It’s a wonderful way to live, to live deliberately instead of mindlessly. To spend my nest egg on a car, however foolhardy, is to impose a new limit on my finances, reminding me to reduce, reuse and recycle for personal as well as political/global reasons. I can’t think of a better use of my money.

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