vita :: Michael Potts
31 May 2001
Michael Potts is the author of the best sellers The Independent Home: Living Well with Power from the Sun, Wind, and Water (1993) and the revised and enlarged The New Independent Home: People and Houses that Harvest the Sun, Wind, and Water (1999). Earth Day founder Denis Hayes described Michael as "a visionary with dirt under his fingernails" and added "if you want to pursue self-reliance seriously, you must read this book." Featured on ABC's Nightly News (April 1996) as "one of America's foremost energy futurists," Michael advises that we use modern technology carefully, "like a chainsaw. You want to plant your feet firmly and hold on with both hands, lest you cut your leg off." Michael is a teacher and builder with a long history of involvement in renewable energy. As a long-time behind-the-scenes consultant and friend to companies in the 'solar ghetto' of northern California, including Alternative Energy Engineering, Solar Electric Specialties, and Real Goods, he offers a unique perspective on energy theory and practice.
Educated as a writer and scientist, and an ardent conservationist, Michael's work during the last ten years has focused on gathering information about domestic energy. Traveling to every corner of the United States, visiting off-the-grid and energy-conserving homes and families for the Independent Home and its revision, he has interviewed and become friends with hundreds of energy hobbyists and pioneers, and formulated strong opinions about energy policies and the power industry. "I am forced to be a futurist; I have children," he says. "In my view, we face a challenging economic future. Our present growth-based fuel-intensive economy leads down a darkening path." In an August 1995 article in Mother Earth News, he suggested that renewable energy's strength comes in part from the fact that it is "proudly unsubsidized. We get where we're going under our own power." Michael remains optimistic about the future; in the 2002 edition of The Farmers Almanac, Michael wrote "As long as the sun shines cleanly and democratically on our planet, we will have abundance."
During the 1990s, Michael traveled to a dozen United States and the nations of Hawaii, Fiji, Ecuador, Panamá, Australia, Costa Rica, and Colombia to deliver a practical toolbox of low-impact, high-value renewable energy tools and ideas for people who live wherever the sun shines freely. He asserts, "fossil fuels have no business anywhere near the place where people and nature seek reunion." Michael notes that "every installation, every location is different, and so repetitive and borrowed designs seldom work well. We must attend carefully to the special gifts of each place, which turns out to be the strength of a village-based economy, and the eco-tourism movement as well."
More recently, Michael has involved himself in community organization of Caspar, his own home village on California's scenic but terribly pressured North Coast. He renovated a historical 1886 structure and built, with his daughters Sienna and Damiana, a new energy-efficient small home on his land in Caspar "for the next hundred years" using green building techniques. "I need to be sure my ideas are practical, and that new-fangled technologies work," he says. With a dedicated group of neighbors, Michael was instrumental in winning $5.3 million from the government to preserve the neasrby headlands and riparian area that give the village its special "natural" qualities. "On the way to making a safe place for the Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Coho Salmon, Burrowing Owl, and Mendocino Paintbrush, my neighbors and I learned important lessons about interdependence, sustainability, and mindful development. But our most valuable lessons have been about neighborhood and friendship. We have been immeasurably enriched by working together for the preservation of the special qualities of the place where we make our homes."
In 2001 Michael and Rochelle began a series of long-postponed travels with a seven month sabbatical to Europe, "where we've never gone. I expect to learn lessons about sustainability over the ages from people who have lived in the same place for millennia. We are especially interested in visiting small coastal villages like Caspar, but where tourists and residents have been cooperating to preserve and enhance the natural experience for centuries." Events cut the trip short, but later travels have been very rewarding (and are detailed here.)
31 May 2001 updated 6 August 2018
relevant experience :: Michael Potts
born 6 August 1944 and raised in Oakland, California AB cum laude, Harvard College, 1966 mailing address: 14992 Caspar Road #88, Caspar, California 95420 phone 707-964-1844 fax ...-8978 email firstname.lastname@example.org Solar Utilities Network: http://www.solarnet.org.
8 April 1998 - 31 May 2001
The foregoing is a substantial portion of my vita, but while doing that work, I also chose a life rather different than many, and in some ways more relevant to my present pursuits than the highlights of my vita might suggest. While the first section posted a few of the positions I have held, this page recounts the unbroken thread that ties them together.
Since late in the 1960s I have been fascinated by the interplay of environment and inhabitants. I grew up the only child of a systematic entomologist and an english teacher in the urban forest of the Oakland hills, which was shared equally then by a non-native community comprised of cars, people, Himalaya Blackberries (an invasive exotic), and pine trees. My parents and I traveled the western United States whenever we had a chance, choosing nature and wildness to settlements and culture. I learned the names of things, and the infinitely elaborate ways in which they inter-relate and depend on each other. By the time I went east to college in 1962, I knew the West well and loved it completely.
In college, as a scholarship student and Californian, I was a fish out of water, but after an intial set-back and self re-definition -- from meteorologist to poet -- I thrived in Cambridge, learned a lot about a tiny topic (Irish poet W. B. Yeats's use of the arcane in his writings), and then was glad to leave the cruel winters with a Harvard baccalaureate cum laude and return to my beloved California.
In the belligerent US, the 1960s were a rough time to grow up male. Most of us were too busy escaping and avoiding Viet Nam to be able to make intelligent choices about embracing and joining. I moved 'back to the land' more to get out of the city than to dig dirt, but I was fortunate to have patience and a solid foundation in observation learned from my father, a gift for working with people and expressing my thoughts from my mother, and a good pair of hands very much my own. I bought a little piece of property on marginal land and finished the cabin on it, making many beginning builder's mistakes and learning that tearing out and redoing was usually better, cheaper, and more satisfactory than patching and covering up. The land proved too marginal for my needs, and in 1970 I moved here to better land in Caspar.
Living intimately with this small (2 acre) plot for a quarter century, I have begun to learn about place. I have renovated existing buildings, moved them to more favorable sites, built my own home with my own hands, and am presently building an independent home on the site where I demolished and recycled the worst of the buildings that came with the land. Within this small environment, I have had the time to test ideas and learn what works and what does not. One absolute truth: what works here might not work across the street – every site has its unique lessons and delights. As developers, we owe it to the land to take time and open ourselves to the particularities which define the genius locii, the spirit of a place.
As soon as I arrived on this Caspar land, I was blessed with daughters, and my life has since been dominated by their introduction to the world. Hence much of my work as a teacher, from pre-school through alternative high school, and my devotion to creating an 'ancestral home.' Most Americans in this century are homeless; having left home, they commute to work, use their houses as nothing more than warehouses for their bodies when they sleep or weekend. Having alienated themselves from the pleasures and comforts of home, they completely miss the traditional pleasures of multi-generational family, shared chores, gardening, preparing for the seasons, neighborhood and community. With every nail I drove as I built my family home, I vowed this would not happen to us. W. B. Yeats, Irish poet and peace-maker, said we must choose perfection of the life or of the work; I want to know, can I escape this imperative by making the life into the work?
With the Caspar land stabilized after almost two decades, my daughters' curiosity and my own took us traveling, Hawaii, the west coast, then around the US, then around the Pacific Rim for a year in 1989-1990. The tropics drew us, again and again; islands: Fiji, Thailand, Malaysia, and Hawaii call us back, and we immediately flee the settlements for places where humanity is held on the fringes by abundant nature. While we are much more house-proud and land-bound that most of our countrymen (who move, on the average, once every 3.5 years), we are all inveterate travelers, and look forward to another year-long trip in 2001-2002.
With my builder's eyes and hands and my alternative energy training, I am constantly aware of the potential for successful integration of tourism and nature, the "repatriation" of villagers to a natural world far from the "Haoliwood values" imposed by commercialism, and the near-perfect failure of developers to take the time to lose their unpeopled House Beautiful fantasies and relax into the potential for interdependent, comfortable, appropriate development for actual humans who might want to stay around for a few generations. I cannot put myself forward as an expert in this discipline, only as a lifelong amateur and advocate of listening to the land, then using the best technology to help it do what it does best.
–- Michael Potts
updated 31 May 2001 : 12:17 Caspar (Pacific) time
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