Friday, 15 Feb 2002

UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.

Yesterday I heard a rumor that there’s sap running in some of the local sugar maples. If that’s true, it’s highly unusual for February — sap usually doesn’t run until spring — but we may have had enough unseasonably warm days this winter to confuse the trees. Even the snowstorm that hit earlier this week didn’t drop the temperature as much as expected. People here are accustomed to snow until May, but this morning, the view out my window reveals patches of grass poking through a thinning snowpack.

As I sit at my computer, contemplating the day’s work, I wonder if I should move a couple of climate change-related writing projects to the top of my list. Are this winter’s high temps, sparse snow, and early sap related to global warming? The chance that they are makes solar home offices and car divorce seem even more important.

Again today, my own car divorce has me “traveling” by telephone line: emailing this diary entry to Grist, using the web to research an article, and phoning some folks to set up interviews. Telecommunications has helped me cut my travel tremendously, and it’s helped others, too. More employers now offer telecommuting as a work option; some of these programs have been started by just one person who wanted to telecommute and took the initiative to make it possible. Especially if you have a desk job and like to work on your own, telecommuting can be ideal. Even if you must spend some time at the office, you might still telecommute a day or two a week. If you want to do this but your workplace has no program, try writing up a proposal outlining the benefits of telecommuting — employers’ cost savings, better employee morale, etc. — and your employer may give it a try.

One caution: telecommunications can help if your intention is to divorce your car — research shows that telecommuters do drive less — but it also has the potential to encourage more travel, much as computers have led to more paper use instead of paperless offices. People have noticed that telecommunications could substitute for travel ever since telegraph wires made the Pony Express obsolete. Society-wide, though, telecommunications has complemented travel, rather than replaced it.

That’s why it’s important to combine telecommuting with other strategies for car divorce. I call this playing the field. This week, for instance, instead of being stuck in a monogamous relationship with a car, I’ve traveled on my bicycle, with skis, on foot, and with my spouse in his hybrid. I’m guessing my next trip might be on snowshoes. Things could change, but right now I don’t expect to be inside any kind of car again for about a week, when we’ll use the hybrid to carpool out to dinner with friends. Yesterday it got 55 mpg; when we use it to carpool, it’ll also keep another, less efficient, car off the road.

Living this way in the U.P. has shown me that some level of car divorce is possible no matter where you live. If you aren’t a car divorcee, and want to be, here are some suggestions for a trial separation.

Start by listing the non-car transport options available to you: walking, using the bike that’s been moldering in your garage, taking the local bus, riding the train, using the phone instead of traveling — everything you can think of. This list is your “transportation menu.” Then pick a day — just one, to start — when you can go car-free for the entire 24 hours. Plan ahead for it: get transit schedules, pump up bike tires, whatever. That day, instead of driving, use the options on your transportation menu. Over time, increase your number of car-free days. If you start at one per month, ratchet up to one per week, then two, then more. See how many consecutive days you can go without driving. After awhile, maybe your household can cut down from two cars to one, or you might go completely car-free. At this stage you can save thousands of dollars a year. Car-free folks have been known to do things like pay down mortgages, cut back on work hours, or tear out their driveways to plant gardens instead.

Maybe you live in a place where a car-lite divorce is the answer; you’ll still benefit yourself and the planet with every mile you don’t drive. Car-lite or car-free, who will do this if we don’t? Yesterday’s announcement of Bush’s inadequate climate change plan shows our current leadership certainly won’t.

Enough said. Time for a break. Today I think I’ll go for a quick ski through the woods near the house. Better do that now before the snow all melts.