Grease-Car Odyssey

Dana Rubin ’12 and Hannah Blackmer ’12 Hit the Road, Seeking Sustainable-Living Ideas

Dana Rubin ’12 on bicycle

Dana Rubin ’12 tries the bicycle-powered trash-hauling method used by Florence, MA’s Pedal People.
Photo by Ben Barnhart

On Labor Day weekend, a white Mercedes pulled up in front of the Pedal People house in Florence, Massachusetts. The car, a 1991 model that runs on alternative fuels, disgorged Dana Rubin and Hannah Blackmer, a pair of environmental-studies majors from the class of 2012. They had come to interview Alex Jarrett and Brett Constantine about their worker-owned, bicycle-based hauling-and-delivery business, but were excited by everything they saw at the house, which abuts a rail trail: A solar panel! A clothesline! Rain barrels! Compost! A garden! These were exactly the sorts of small-scale, practical, and cost-effective solutions to living sustainably that Rubin and Blackmer were seeking to highlight on their “Search for Convenient Resilience,” a cross-country road trip that had kicked off twenty-four hours earlier in their home state of Vermont. Interviews with ecological innovators were at the heart of the project.

Rubin set up the pair’s videography equipment near a picnic table in the backyard, explaining that the Canon video camera and other items were on loan from the Regional Educational Technology Network in Burlington, Vermont, which broadcast their interviews on public-access television stations across the Green Mountain State. As bikers, joggers, dog walkers, and others made their way down the rail trail, Rubin filmed while Blackmer peppered Jarrett and Constantine with questions about how Pedal People collect trash and recyclables using bikes outfitted with cargo trailers. Afterward, Jarrett invited the two to take a Pedal People bike—complete with loaded trailer—for a spin. After a few wobbles, Rubin got the hang of it. “Oh, it’s not that bad at all!” she said. “I’m gonna become a Pedal Person!” Blackmer, up next, flawlessly executed a tight turn. “This,” she said, smiling, “would be an awesome job.”

When “Wacky” Works

The Search for Convenient Resilience website says Rubin and Blackmer’s friendship was forged over “good cheddar, good brews, good humor, and passion for environmental awareness.” Good books also played an important role, especially Frances Moore Lappé’s EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, which the pair read in Professor of Environmental Studies Lauret Savoy’s senior seminar. “The book was incredibly inspiring and encouraged us to really take a leading role in the next phase of our lives—to lead with intention,” Rubin says. So, during the spring semester of their senior year, they teamed up to do an independent study under the supervision of Professor of Geography Thomas Millette. Weekly meetings with Millette helped Rubin and Blackmer turn a nebulous concept having something to do with the environment into the Search for Convenient Resilience, a full-fledged project with a logo, website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel, ambitious itinerary, and $15,000 fundraising goal. Although Millette was involved in the project from the beginning, he gives Rubin and Blackmer all the credit. “They really made this happen,” he says. “When you’re as old as I am, you’ve seen lots of students come into your office with wacky ideas, and they never amount to anything. This was a wacky idea that really did mature and turn into something.” Rubin and Blackmer raised funds the old-fashioned way—asking family members, friends, and MHC professors for money—as well as the newfangled way—creating a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowd-source-funding website similar to Kickstarter. They also secured the financial support of corporations and nonprofits. EcoMind author Lappé’s Small Planet Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chipped in, as did Mount Holyoke’s Miller Worley Center for the Environment, whose director, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Timothy Farnham, calls the Search for Convenient Resilience a “great, inventive project.”

Driving “Princess Frywalker”

Dana Rubin ’12 and Hannah Blackmer ’12 Hit the Road, Seeking Sustainable-Living Ideas

Dana Rubin ’12 (right) and Hannah Blackmer ’12 with “Princess Frywalker” and her fuel

Rubin and Blackmer’s single biggest expense was their car, a 22-year-old Mercedes-Benz 300D with 135,000 miles on it. It runs on filtered waste vegetable oil and other biofuels, and they filled up the tank at biodiesel stations whenever possible. “Back in the day, diesel engines were designed to run on vegetable oil,” they wrote in an email. “Old diesel engines are perfect for biodiesel/diesel cocktails and don’t require conversions. We pour our alternative fuel into the tank just like you would gasoline.” The car, which Rubin and Blackmer named Princess Frywalker, ferried the pair across the country. They stayed with friends and relatives, and conducted interviews with people who model small-scale sustainability. They planned to fashion not only blog posts but also webisodes and podcasts out of the interviews, in hopes of inspiring others by example. “‘Monkey see, monkey do’ is really what we’re built on,” Blackmer says. Their travels came to an abrupt halt on the forty-eighth day of the project, when Princess Frywalker was stolen outside Rubin’s cousin’s suburban home in Sacramento, California. In addition to the car, which hasn’t been recovered, and its supply of grease, the pair lost their videography equipment, laptops, wallets, camping gear, and other personal belongings. “We are still so shocked,” they wrote in an October 19 email, “but are doing our best to stay positive.” In the end, they decided to return to Vermont and continue the project from their home base. “We do not feel defeated,” they blogged on October 24. “Rather, we feel empowered and motivated to begin the next branch of our work. Days one through fifty were a phase of amazing research and development, and now we move on to application and outreach”—specifically, expanding their website into an educational resource, and writing a book about their project. If their supporters’ enthusiasm is any indication, Rubin and Blackmer are already a success. “What Dana and Hannah learned and shared with the rest of us will no doubt nudge us all toward a more sustainable way of living,” MHC Professor of Geology Al Werner says. “To be sure, having their car stolen halfway through their trip was unfortunate, but here too they remind us to not give up when things get difficult. We were very proud of them as they launched their trip, and we are even more proud of how they faced this adversity and are moving forward. Their journey is far from over!” UPDATE: On new year’s day, Rubin and Blackmer’s blog jubilantly reported that Princess Frywalker was back! When asked how that happened, they replied, simply, “miracles.” —By Christina Barber-Just

This article appeared in the winter 2013 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

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5 responses to “Grease-Car Odyssey”

  1. very good, nice blog, thanks

  2. Hasan Ali says:

    very good, nice blog, thanks…

  3. emily weir says:

    Thank you for the entertaining and timely “Grease-Car Odyssey.” One typo: on the Odyssey map, Atlanta, Georgia, was plunked squarely into northern Alabama. [Apologies for our “creative geography.”—the editor.]

    I’d like to suggest more items for Sustainability 101:

    -Low-flow toilets, which use barely one-third the water of a standard flush. Composting toilets are even better, but expensive and hard to retrofit into most dwellings.

    -Tankless or “on demand” hot-water heaters. These heat water only when needed, rather than keeping many gallons hot even when no one is using hot water.

    -No clothes dryer! I hang my wash on the back porch on a rack—a wooden frame suspended from the ceiling, strung with multiple lengths of clothesline and with two pulleys so it can be raised out of the way. In persistent damp weather I use a wooden rack indoors, but clothes will dry even in freezing temperatures. Dryers consume enormous amounts of energy, forming a large, and unnecessary, chunk of most people’s carbon footprint.

    Individual efforts are important, especially if they set examples that others emulate, but larger-scale changes are needed at least as much. We should use public transportation and advocate for more of it, especially rail, the most energy-efficient way to travel. Political efforts to mitigate global warming are also necessary: e.g., there is no such thing as clean coal, and the military probably uses, and wastes, more energy than any other sector.

    In Cambridge, and surely elsewhere as well, composting is done privately and publicly. Yard waste and kitchen scraps should be part of the natural cycle on which we all depend, organic matter nourishing plants of all sorts.

    Finally (in more senses than one), there is the ultimate in composting: green burial, in which our bodies—encased only in biodegradable containers and without the pollutants of embalming, costly caskets, and vaults—return their nutrients to the earth, which makes our lives possible even as we continue to abuse it.

    [Posted on behalf of] Eva Steiner Moseley ’53
    Cambridge, Massachusetts

  4. oyun says:

    very good, nice post, thanks…

  5. oyun says:

    very good, nice post.

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