Stephen Coghlan is an associate professor of Freshwater Fisheries Ecology at the University of Maine. He gave a talk earlier this week at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions in Orono about homesteading. Specifically, whether homesteading “can provide sustenance and surplus in an age of scarcity.” What’s the age of scarcity he’s referring to? A future plagued by climate disruption and economic shocks and declines.

His primary data source is his own homestead. As we learned when we called him up to talk about his research, Coghlan is not messing around; he was headed out on a multi-day fishing and hunting trip, hoping to fill his freezer for the winter. We also talked about systems ecology, how he wanted to be a Wall Street whiz kid and what it’s like to be an academic whose work is considered “a little bit out there.”

ENERGY EQUATION: Everyone assumes that an off-the-grid homestead represents independence from the “system,” or what you’d call the infrastructure of society. But can it, really? Coghlan’s aim in his research was to answer what the true energy return is on the investment of living off the land, specifically in three areas: lightly mechanized firewood harvesting, ice fishing for sustenance and making artisanal maple syrup. To make the assessment of just how sustainable that sustainable living is, he built energy-flow models using data from his homestead in Argyle Township just north of Old Town, keeping in mind that his efforts were being funded by the very traditional economy (ie, a university paycheck). “I make energy budgets to track the amount of energy that is invested in a process, compared to the amount that comes out of a process.” He could track his own expended energy by using technological devices to track his own movements, but “the simpler way to do it is to just record my time.”

SYRUP SUCCESS: Harvesting enough wood to survive the winter (about five cords) is a good energy investment, with a high EROI (energy return on investment) if you look at it simply as a matter of staying warm in the winter. But factoring in elements like dependence on what Coghlan calls the “industrial-agricultural complex” for food to fuel the human who is collecting the wood, or the light equipment needed, that energy return drops. If the same human harvests more wood to sell, the energy benefit is to the buyer. The energy investment in ice fishing, for both warmwater and coldwater species, is even lower. Maple syrup isn’t much of a food source, but using it to barter in dark times is a major win, with the producer receiving 30 times the benefit as the buyer.

TALK THE WALK: This is not the first time Coghlan has given this talk; he received a second-place honorable mention award for its debut at the International Society of Biophysical Economics (you can watch it on YouTube). “I normally hate going to these conferences. It is nice to be in a room where nobody thinks, ‘you are crazy.’ ” Not in his own department, which is “incredibly supportive.” But elsewhere, not so much. He invited himself to the Mitchell Center for this talk. Is he considered that radical? “First of all, what does radical mean? The system is not broken. It is fixed. And the system is absolutely not sustainable.” We will deplete our resources into extinction he says. (Unless we change, soon.) Coghlan knows he is tied into the system, but his homesteading is a means to extricate himself from it as much as possible.

A FISH TALE: How did he get to the point of studying homesteading while handing out homework? Coghlan was hired to teach at UMaine in 2006. He came to the job with an extensive background in fisheries research, particularly the lives of trout, which he’d focused on while getting his PhD. “Trout are a really neat organism.” In fact, it was probably brown trout that steered him away from his early intention to become an investment banker. “I wanted to make a lot of money,” he said. “I was preparing myself to make a lot of money. And then a long story involving fish is where I changed my mind.” He wasn’t sure we were down for a long story involving fish, but we told him we love a fish tale.

THE LIVES OF TROUT: Late in his teen years, when he was still a student, Coghlan was out fishing. As he remembers it, it was when he was at Cayuga Community College in New York, when he saw flashes of silver in the water and realized the fish were digging their nests. “And the females were spewing their eggs. It was like this National Geographic special going in the stream, right before my eyes.” Thoughts of investment banking began to dissipate. “I knew I wanted to do something with those fish.”

LAW BREAKERS: A pair of professors guided him in an independent study that had him catching lake trout and gathering data on them. “I realized I could do this for my education.” The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) was right down the road and Coghlan transferred there. That’s how he was introduced to systems ecology and a new way of looking at the way economics made no sense viewed through the lens of ecology. “I started looking at economy through natural laws. All this stuff violates the laws of nature.”

THE CAPITALIST CONUNDRUM: He studied with Charlie Hall, who had in turn been trained by Howard Odum. If you don’t know who Odum was (we didn’t), that’s sad, Coghlan said. “In my opinion he is perhaps the greatest ecologist of the 20th century. He was 50 years too early.” He developed the science of systems ecology and the limits of growth. “Howard saw that real ecosystems eventually stop growing.” They have limits. Meanwhile, capitalism puts a premium on fast growth, with no end in sight. “We sort of view it as normal. But we are going to have to invest in a lower energy future.” Or we should, he said, because growth has its limits, even in nature. Instead, “we are investing in more growth.

THE FUTURE IS NOW: Coghlan knew trout feeding patterns inside and out by the time he was ready to start teaching himself. But as he increasingly saw the impacts of climate change on the world, the less significant he felt his trout research was in the big picture. “Increasingly, we as a society spend our research dollars on things that essentially don’t matter and are trivial.” The problems presented by climate change eclipse the problems of how trout get fed, in other words. Scientists should focus less on the mechanisms of climate change and more on ways to mitigate it. “We probably know enough to know that our earth is going to be uninhabitable, sometime in my lifetime. Do we need to understand the mechanism?”

PARTY OF TWO: Coghlan’s email sign-off is a quote from physics professor (and proponent of sustainable living) Dr. Albert A. Bartlett: “It is intellectually dishonest to talk about sustainability without stressing the obvious fact that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for sustainability.” Coghlan is married but does not have children and does not plan to. Morally, he wouldn’t want them to face the “huge problems” ahead in the future. Don’t consider him a martyr though. “I never felt that biological drive.” And even if his own study showed that homesteading isn’t quite the win-win the starry-eyed back-to-the-lander might imagine it would be, he’s still happy to be doing it. “You can’t have 8 billion people on this planet with everyone owning 70 acres and homesteading,” he said. “But I am trying to build up my own personal resilience” while setting a good example for his students, who face a challenging future. “They better have a Plan B,” he said. Like considering what tech jobs in the future might look like, if they even exist. Or the Manhattan financial sector. Speaking of, as dark a picture as Coghlan paints, “I am thankful I am not an investment banker.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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Twitter: MaryPols

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