Dale Howey needs to take a deep breath before he introduces himself as an "eco-evangelical, spiritual, atheist, dirt-worshipping, tree-hugging, hyphen-Unitarian." OK, exhale and consider a more lung-friendly moniker: the Dean of Green landlords.
A dozen years ago, the Air Force veteran originally from Chico, Calif., was chugging along in a Dodge Dakota on his way to Duluth.
"I was driving like a granny at 55 miles per hour, with people honking and flipping me off," he said. "And I was still squeezing only 12 miles a gallon out of a vehicle designed by Exxon."
That's when he volunteered with Al Gore's presidential campaign, studied up on environmental issues and was jolted into changing his ways. In a big way.
Fast forward to today. Howey has grown from a building maintenance man to the owner of several rental properties totaling 100 units. As "gardener, accountant and leasing agent," he's so committed to trying to shrink his carbon footprint and reduce his waste to zero that Howey pays the electrical bills of the eight tenants who consume the least juice that month.
"It's just a little incentive," he said, "because your utility bill is basically a mortgage payment for Armageddon."
So he's sealed up all his buildings as tight as they'll get. He's changed every light fixture to the lowest possible wattage. He boycotts plastic bags and just installed a motion detector in his garage.
"Instead of 60 lights on 100 percent of the time, they're off 90 percent of the time until someone opens the garage door," he said.
At one of his buildings, an 1883 restored brick warehouse at Washington and 11th avenues near the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Howey harnesses 1,200 kilowatts of solar power. He converted a strip of paved parking into a zucchini patch. He has eight "different waste streams" at each property and five compost bins in his Roseville backyard, into which he tosses just about everything.
"Kleenex, paper towels, pizza boxes," he said. "Anything that was ever alive can be composted. I don't know if I'm doing it right; I'm just doing it."
That old Dodge Dakota? Replaced by a Prius that he had converted to all electric. "I got 2,800 miles on my last eight gallons of gas," he says. "And two summers ago, I put an electric motor on my bicycle and rode 60 miles a day to get my car mileage down to 400 miles."
His daughters, 8-year-old Arianna and 5-year-old Rachel, squealed in delight from the extension off the back of the bike. The other day, he and his wife, Alana, visited the polar bears at Como Zoo with their girls. They were aghast to read that 70 percent of the bears' arctic ice has melted away since 1989.
"For all my neighbors who don't believe in the threat posed by climate change, I ask: What cave are you living in? I think we can live in concert with the whole and not just be hedonists here for ourselves with no consideration for future generations."