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Hope and honesty fuel local man's fight for sustainability: Bruhl changes his daily life and shares big picture ideas

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Posted on August 21, 2017 |
By Gaen Murphree



n Bruhl SolarFamily1389.jpg
TABORRI BRUHL STANDS with the electric chainsaw he used to cut firewood harvested from his New Haven property. Bruhl heats his home with wood and powers his home with solar energy. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

NEW HAVEN — Taborri Bruhl’s world changed four years ago on the day he learned the African western black rhino had gone extinct.

“It just struck me as, ‘That’s permanent.’ You can’t undo extinction,” said the 50-year-old New Haven resident.

While many grieved as part of the collective tsunami of sadness, Bruhl decided to act.

A former U.S. Marine and son of an Air Force serviceman, Bruhl enlisted himself in a new battle — for sustainability.

“Right then, I made this decision. I’m going to figure this out: How can humans live on the planet without ruining it for our grandkids?” Bruhl said. “Right then, I said to myself, ‘This is going to be my thing. I see it coming. I don’t know if I can stop it. I don’t know if I can make a difference. But I want to change my life — to try.’”

Thus began Bruhl’s personal mission to take a long, hard look at the human collision course with planetary devastation.

Bruhl’s first step was to simply pause and ask, “What is the problem? And how can an ordinary person live their life to be a part of the change?”

To better delve into those questions, he started a blog: “Sustainable Us. Seeking a better path forward for the planet.” Since his first entry in May 2013, Bruhl has written about everything from using a solar chain saw to how to redirect market economies toward a sustainable future.

As an ordinary person sorting his way through a complicated issue, he’s been aided by his own wide-ranging interests.

A high school history, government and economics teacher for 22 years, Bruhl spends a lot of his professional hours not just wrangling kids, but thinking about societal-level systems. He’s also a self-proclaimed gadget guy, who loves building and tinkering (he built the family’s barn, and he installed all the homestead’s solar arrays). Before he became a high school teacher, Bruhl spent a couple of years as an auto mechanic and served in the Marines as a motor transport officer.

After three months of blogging along and re-examining his own lifestyle, Bruhl hit a wall. He calls it his “second rhino moment.” And in many ways, he feels it’s even more important than the first.

“I got really daunted,” said Bruhl. “I’m writing blogs about picking asparagus or something and I’m like, ‘What do I know? I’m not a nuclear physicist. I’m not a wind tower engineer. I’m not a transmission specialist. What do I know that can make a difference? I felt almost like a pretender.”

He came to two important realizations.

One: Nobody knows. Nobody.

Two: It takes a generalist to look at the whole system and ask these tough questions — so ordinary people have got to engage.

“The guy who’s a wind tower engineer, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t understand the whole system. The nuclear engineer doesn’t understand the whole system. Nobody understands the whole system.

“You need common sense. You need a wide background. You need to understand mechanical and electrical systems. You need to understand political systems. You need to understand government. You need to understand economics.

“And I was like, ‘Oh. I’m that guy.’”

So Bruhl pressed on.

Ironically, one of the most difficult steps for many Vermonters — creating an energy-efficient home that runs on renewable energy — happened long before Bruhl’s life-altering commitment to sustainability. The Bruhls built their New Haven home in 2003, and decided to go off the grid with wind and solar because it cost less. They could pay Green Mountain Power to run electricity the quarter mile to their house or for the same initial cost they could install wind and solar — and never see another bill.

The Bruhls opted for wood heat because it was essentially free.

“We had a hand-me-down Vermont Castings stove and lots of wood,” said Bruhl, who loves being in the woods with a truck and a saw and loves the peacefulness of splitting wood by hand.

Even the passive solar aspects of the Bruhls’ home — large, south-facing windows, good insulation, few windows on the north — happened almost by chance. Bruhl’s dad had built his own house using passive solar design, and he gave his son some really useful advice.

As Bruhl educated himself more about sustainability, he reached out, took his show on the road and began giving sustainability presentations. Topics included electric vehicles, energy-efficient home building, a kids’ presentation and a larger overview. He joined the ACORN Energy Co-op as a board member.

And he continued making changes at home.

ELECTRIC CARS AND MORE

One of the most important was buying an electric vehicle. When the family first moved to Vermont in 2003 (the Bruhls have three children, now age 13, 17 and 19), Bruhl commuted to Rutland in a full-size, four-wheel-drive Ford pickup, getting 18 miles per gallon, driving 80 miles a day. He bought his first Leaf electric car in 2013.

   TABORRI BRUHL AND two of his children, Martha, 17, and Harrison, 13, stand with the family’s electric cars that they power, along with the rest of their household, with solar panels. Not pictured are Taborri’s wife, Susan, and oldest daughter Amelia.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Two years ago the Bruhls bought a second Leaf and upgraded the homestead’s solar generation so both cars could be fully charged at home. Thirty-six panels on a south-facing barn and one large standing array now generate 14 kilowatts. With the increased generation, Bruhl tied the family’s solar power into the grid to sell excess power to the GMP.

It’s more efficient, he explained, which is part of his overall approach to sustainability.

Bruhl spearheaded other changes around the house, many of them already everyday activities for many Vermonters:

•  Using cloth bags at the grocery store instead of paper or plastic.

•  Eating grass-fed, local meat only.

•  Keeping bees.

•  Composting and recycling.

•  Eliminating pesticides and herbicides.

•  Using only LED light bulbs.

•  Giving away as much stuff as possible.

TRIAL AND ERROR

Bruhl admits there’s been a lot of trial and error along the way. His scheme to grow the family’s own grass-fed beef ended just before he purchased his first herd, when he realized that growing beef part-time wasn’t entirely logical. He’d already built a barn and harvested a season’s worth of hay, so he gave the hay away to a neighbor whose barn had burned down and moved on to the next idea.

A more challenging impediment came up when his zeal to eliminate stuff crossed into the family kitchen, his wife Susan’s domain. Wisely, he said, he backed off.

Despite this and other compromises with his wife and kids, Bruhl emphasizes that thoughtless consumerism is one of the main culprits driving human’s self- and nature-destructive lifestyle. This means that each person (or at least each person in Western, affluent societies) has to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

“We see the world getting torn up. And we wonder who the evil destroyer is,” Bruhl said. “Who’s doing this? Is it the big, nasty corporations? Is it Exxon? Is it —

“And when you look at it, there is no evil destroyer. It’s just a function of 7 billion people living their lives. And so there’s good and bad there. Good — there’s no evil destroyer. But the bad news is: Suddenly it’s on us.

“This is us eating our cheeseburger and turning on our lights.”

Gulp.

Part of Bruhl’s effectiveness as an advocate for radical change is that he’s at once pragmatic, hardheaded, optimistic and cheerful. He says humanity now has the technology it needs to change course, it’s just a matter of committing to these changes both as individuals and as a society.

A measure of hope, he says, are the ways his own presentations about sustainability have changed over time. Bruhl said he used to spend most of the presentation convincing people of the extent to which current lifestyles are damaging the planet. Then at the end he’d add a quick list of “10 things you can do.”

Now the balance has flipped, and audiences no longer need to be convinced the way they did even a few years ago, he said. He presents the devastation but quickly moves on to enumerating solutions.

Among Bruhl’s key points in the current version of “Here’s How We Fix It! Solving the World’s Sustainability Problems” are: Live in smaller, energy-efficient homes, attain zero population growth worldwide and teach kids about environmental stewardship. (See full list in the box above.)

Fortunately for those who read his blog, attend his presentations or engage in neighborly conversations, Bruhl believes in the power of our large brains to solve this problem. And like a good high school teacher, Bruhl believes that people are basically good and that we can learn to be better.

We just need a little leadership, a little encouragement to do the right thing.

Lest the road ahead feels too daunting or the evidence of environmental devastation causes too much despair, there are plenty of steps that people can take, Bruhl encouraged.

Want to reduced your carbon footprint by half? Buy an electric car.

If that’s too drastic? Do one thing to make your own car more energy efficient or try purchasing Cow Power.

Small steps matter too: walk to the store, hang out laundry, compost.

“Oh,” he adds, “and stop buying stupid stuff.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]

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