Editor’s Note: We are pleased to speak today with David Umling, author of Lifestyle Lost. Mr. Umling is a professional planner, currently serving as City Planner for Cumberland, Maryland. Mr. Umling has been an outspoken advocate for rural communities. His complete bio follows our conversation.
AT Morgan: Welcome to Allegheny Treasures, Mr. Umling!
Umling: Happy to be here! I appreciate what you are doing with your web site.
AT Morgan: You note in your book that, while not born and raised in West Virginia, you share a natural bond with this region.
Umling: Yes. I must admit, I never considered the area where I grew up to be a part of “Appalachia.” Our society has made that label a stigma that embodies everything that people negatively associate with West Virginia and many of her neighboring states. However, now that I have experienced life in West Virginia, I understand that it shares many aspects in common with the area where I was raised, even though most outsiders and even many West Virginians would never expect that. I wanted to explain the similarities to people from rural Appalachia to prove that the “labels” that have been imposed on them by outsiders are inherently wrong. I could only do that by describing the area I am originally from and the lifestyle we lived before revealing where it really was. Only by explaining it that way can everyone see the similarities as they were without the bias of the Appalachia label.
AT Morgan: I was amazed when you revealed where you were from.
Umling: When I left home for college, many of the people my age wouldn’t believe the stories I could tell of how I lived as a child–especially when they learned where I was from. Most times, I avoided discussing it because I didn’t want to be perceived as a backwoods hick. Unfortunately, it was hard for me to hide from it because my lack of understanding of how the outside modern world worked made me look either stupid or out of place. Although I gradually learned how to behave as though I was a product of modern society, I have never been able to overcome the feeling of being out of place. I now realize and understand the struggle I have faced in reconciling the values I internalized from my childhood with the way that modern society measures success and encourages you to achieve it. I have a difficult time measuring my values on the basis of wealth and monetary success. While I understand that money can be a strong motivational force, I have also learned that it can become a greater reward for cunning and deception than it is for integrity and hard work. To me, that’s one of the biggest problems or ironies that our modern society faces. It also might help explain why our society is often perceived by other cultures as vain and materialistic.
AT Morgan: And now, you and your wife have chosen to build your retirement home in West Virginia. Full cycle, perhaps?
Umling: Yes, we have decided to return to a simpler and more traditional lifestyle as the best way we can afford to retire. I would often tell my employees that there are two ways to approach retirement. You can chase ever high-paying jobs in an effort to increase your income in the hope that it will exceed the bloated cost of a progressively higher standard of living or you can reduce your cost of living to a level that you can afford on a reduced retirement income. I understand how to live without all the modern conveniences and I prefer the more traditional lifestyle I lived during my childhood. We have found a remaining piece of that lifestyle in Pendleton County,West Virginia and bought our retirement property there. Now we are working over time to build our own retirement home.
AT Morgan: Your book takes readers on a remarkable journey. I have to tell you, as one growing up in West Virginia, leaving to seek work elsewhere, and then deciding to return to my home, I was struck with the respect you demonstrate for your new home.
Umling: It’s not difficult to have respect for people who work hard to earn their own living. I find it remarkable that people who live a modern life surrounded by conveniences that they have come to depend upon could look down at people who struggle to provide for themselves and survive off the land. They would never be capable of doing that themselves, so how can they devalue people who live that way. Many people who live self-reliant lifestyles possess life skills that would make the average city-dweller look like a bumbling idiot in the woods. Is there anyone who really thinks that any of the Kardashians could maintain their lifestyle or even survive if the modern economy were to collapse? Which lifestyle do you think most people would learn to value then? While many West Virginians do not possess college degrees or high paying jobs, they understand and value what truly matters most in life. I don’t find it very hard to respect that. I’m surprised that it took me so long to finally appreciate that. I guess that proves that a college education doesn’t teach you everything you really need to know about life. I just feel fortunate to have figured it out before I lost the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate it. I hope my story will encourage others to take a more critical look at their beliefs, values, and attitudes.
AT Morgan: I encourage the AT audience to purchase Lifestyle Lost. It is a compelling read, not only for West Virginians and other residents of Appalachia, but for any citizen with an interest in the environment and a simpler, less stressful lifestyle.
Umling: Thank you. I hope readers will enjoy the story I have to tell.
AT Morgan: Now to industrial wind. A focus of the AT blog is industrial wind’s encroachment into the Appalachian Mountain region. I would like to spend some time discussing your views on that topic. Before we do so, I believe it would be of interest to our readers to learn a bit more about your personal journey, as so eloquently described in your book.
Umling: Thanks. For me the wind energy industry is a prime example of how our unbridled greed for quick and easy money–regardless of the cost–has undermined the core values of our modern society and threatens our rural landscape. My upbringing taught me the importance of the traditional rural values of hard work, honesty, and fairness. My experiences have taught me the importance of these valuse as the framework for trust and respect in our society. When they are undermined, diminished, or ignored, the quality of our social relationships and the strength and resilience of our communities are diminished as well. I have tried to show in my discussion of wind energy how I feel the industry and its proponents have undermined these basic values by their actions and tactics. In that sense, I feel that the industry provides a prime example of how many in our modern society have abandoned our basic values to satisfy their greed for money. This is an aspect of wind energy that I think people should consider and scrutinize much more closely.
AT Morgan: I found it interesting that you were inclined to consider wind energy as an alternative source of energy for your retirement home. Without going into all of the details you explain in the book, can you tell me why you decided to oppose it?
Umling: Actually, I approached wind energy as an interesting concept. I was exposed to the possibilities of using solar energy from an Elementary School science fair project I did as a child. The area where I was raised produced no coal, so much more of our local commercial energy was produced by hydro-electric plants. I also grew up only 50 miles north of a small nuclear power plant. These experiences taught me to look for creative solutions to our basic energy needs. At first blush, wind energy looked like a similar opportunity. However, anyone who desires to live as self-reliantly as possible knows that whatever you decide to use to support your lifestyle MUST be practical, affordable, and effective. If it doesn’t satisfy those basic criteria, it won’t help you live more independently. In fact, it could end up being something that only increases your dependency on outside resources and labor. We wanted our retirement home to be powered off the grid so we could reduce our basic cost of living.
So, I simply did the research. I initially assumed that, with the all the cloudy skies we have in our region and the strong winds that blow off the Allegheny Front, a wind turbine could easily out produce a solar panel in our area. Yet, to my surprise, the opposite was true. An ongoing demonstration project by Frostburg (MD) State University’s Renewable Energy program proves it (as I explain in my book). What’s more, solar panels produce electricity during the day when I need to use it, while wind energy is more productive at night, when I’m not using it. Then I had to consider the ease of maintenance. If I built a wind turbine, which has to be between 60 and 150 feet in the air to be marginally productive, how would I be able to maintain it when I’m retired? Solar panels can be mounted on the ground where it is easy to wash them off or clean them periodically. Also, there’s a lot less to break down with a solar panel than with a wind turbine that has so many moving parts. For all these reasons, it made absolutely no practical sense to use a wind turbine to power my home if I could use solar panels at roughly the same investment cost. It was common sense that proved how less effective wind energy is when compared to solar.
What was even more surprising to learn was that wind energy is even LESS effective or useful at the industrial scale. Yet, wind energy advocates market it as the solution to climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, our dependency on foreign oil, and coal mining. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m frankly surprised I haven’t been told it will cook my breakfast before I wake up. If wind energy represents one of the LEAST economical and practical forms of powering a house, how can it be better to use as a source of power for the electrical grid? In my book, I explain in detail how I learned that it doesn’t work the way it is promoted.
Even though I can’t support the extensive tax subsidies that we are pouring into industrial wind energy projects, I think I was most offended by the way its promoters misrepresent the truth and con otherwise well-intentioned and well-educated people into believing in it. Many of the people I have met who oppose industrial wind energy were initially inclined to consider it as I was. I even know some opponents who invested in wind turbines for their homes and discovered only afterwards that they had made a mistake. Most of the opponents I know are offended by the lies and deception in the marketing of it. Yet, instead of answering or addressing the concerns of its critics, wind energy opponents prefer to paint us with a NIMBY label. Instead of offering facts to support their cause and refute our concerns they choose to apply another stereotypical label on us–just like the term Appalachia is applied to West Virginia. Is it any wonder that I find their tactics offensive?
Look, if wind energy proponents have some reasonable, documented, and credible scientific evidence to support their claims, why don’t they just present it? Wouldn’t that be a better way to refute our concerns than calling us names? Maybe the reason that they don’t take the practical course is that they know they can’t. If you believe in common sense and you don’t want to look like a fool, then perhaps you should do the research yourself and apply some critical thought to wind energy. I have heard many people say that incredible claims demand incredible proof. In all my discussions with wind energy proponents, I’ve never heard them present any credible, much less incredible, proof. Yet, I can provide reams of credible support for the concerns I raise. Many of them are based on plain and simple common sense. You can hide from the debate if you wish, as long as you don’t object to paying for it with your tax dollars and your escalating energy bill. Are those good enough reasons to question and oppose industrial wind energy? Well, if you read my book, I will give you more than that.
AT Morgan: So you do see alternative energy sources as a step away from fossil fuel?
Umling: Alternative energy is just another term for unconventional sources of electricity. Sure, I can see a number of alternative sources of electricity that would help reduce our current dependency on COAL. So little of our electricty is generated from oil (much less foreign oil) that developing new sources of electricity would have little effect on that. I think fusion power is an incredible opportunity that would virtually eliminate the radioactive waste from nuclear power–however it isn’t PRACTICAL yet. The problem you need to understand is that we use so much electricity on a daily basis that we need reliable, cost effective, and controllable sources of electricity to serve our needs. Industrial wind energy is not capable of satisfying those basic requirements. It simply isn’t a practical solution to our critical needs.
I’d also like to see a greater focus on energy conservation. So much of our electricity is wasted. How many digital clocks do you need in your house? Do you know that when you shut off a device operated by a remote control that it is still consuming electricity? Have you ever felt a transformer that you leave plugged in and realized that its warm? These are all examples of how we waste electricity in the normal conduct of our consumptive and technologically-dependent lives. If you want a practical solution to our energy needs, why don’t we start first and foremost with conservation? Anyone who lives a self-reliant lifestyle SUCCESSFULLY would tell you to start with that.
AT Morgan: Why do you think that average citizens should be more concerned about the growth of industrial wind energy?
Umling: Well, let’s start from the side of the wind energy supporters. First and foremost, I can’t understand why the Wind Energy developers and advocates are not eager to publicize the electrical output data from all of the projects that have been built to date. My primary point about Industrial Wind Energy is that it doesn’t produce useful electricity, and I gave my reasoning for that in my book. It is the supporters of these projects who assert that the electricity these projects produce IS useful electricity and CAN be used to displace traditional sources of electricity from the grid. They can easily disprove my concerns if they would only make available the NET electrical output of their projects in very discrete periods of time (15 minute intervals). If they are correct and I am wrong, the data would clearly prove that point. However, I can’t find any wind energy advocates willing to release, much less publicize this data. I am forced to ask, why are the wind energy opponents the only ones demanding that this data be released? Why would the advocates allow this challenge to go unanswered? Since the average citizens will be paying for this expensive and unstable energy through both their taxes and their utility bills, shouldn’t the consumers want to see this information, too?
Also, If wind energy proponents are truly concerned about revamping our source of electricity to stop mountaintop removal, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and slow or reverse climate change, does it make sense to pour huge tax subsidies into a form of energy production that doesn’t work? Once those resources are spent, what money will be left to fund the alternative sources that would provide the practical and reliable electricity we need? What about all of the environmental impacts that industrial wind turbines create, such as reduced forest cover on sensitive ridgelines, rare earth mineral mining, and migratory bird and bat kills? Do you understand that between 3 and 4 acres of land must be completely and permanently cleared for each wind turbine and that up to 4,000 pounds of rare earth minerals are needed to construct each turbine? How do you know that you are not simply trading one form of mining operation for another? Perhaps the supporters should be asked these questions.
For average citizens, perhaps you should consider how much you are having to pay to subsidize these projects. Do you understand that wind energy is one of the most expensive sources of electricity and that, based on each megawatt of electricity produced, is one of the most heavily subsidized forms of electrical production? Do you understand that these costs are ongoing and will become exponentially more expensive as more turbines are produced? Do you want to suffer from blackouts and brownouts that have already begun to occur when huge volumes of wind energy are introduced into the grid? Do you want to lose access to private forest lands as wind energy companies deny access to them?
These are just a few of the questions I would have to help people understand why wind energy should be scrutinized more closely. If you read my book, you may learn some more.
AT Morgan: Mr. Umling … we thank you for taking the time to visit with us. As a West Virginian, born and raised, with a long line of ancestors residing in this area since the mid-1700’s, I want to personally thank you for choosing West Virginia as your retirement home.
We were able to obtain our copy of Lifestyle Lost at Amazon and easily download in Kindle format. Do you have plans to publish also in hard copy?
Umling: Based on the early success of the Amazon publication, we are discussing how to approach further distribution. I don’t have any concrete plans at the moment, but will announce once we determine how we want to proceed.
AT Morgan: We look forward to learning more.
Mr. Umling’s Bio: Mr. Umling is City Planner for Cumberland, Maryland, a job he has held since 2007. Over his 25‐year professional planning career, he has worked for regional planning agencies in New Hampshire, Vermont, Georgia and Alabama, and has also served as the Planning Director for Charles County, Maryland and LaGrange, Georgia. He was also appointed in 2009 to serve a three‐year term on the Mineral County, West Virginia Planning Commission.
Mr. Umling earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Certificate in Applied Social Research from the University of Hartford, Connecticut in 1984 and a Master’s Degree in City Planning from the University of California at Berkeley in 1986.
In 2004, Mr. Umling received a Distinguished Leadership in planning award from the Alabama Chapter of the American Planning Association.
Having lived the first 18 years of his life on a dairy farm, Mr. Umling has been an outspoken advocate for rural communities and their special needs within the planning field.
AT Note – Book Notes From Amazon: Drawing upon his diverse life experiences, David Umling carries you on an engaging odyssey as he describes the two lifestyles he has lived—his childhood experiences growing up on a small family hardscrabble farm in the Appalachian Mountains and his adult professional life as a City Planner. He recounts, in loving detail, the influential experiences and traditional folkways from his upbringing (a way of life that is rapidly disappearing) and how they shaped his understanding of the life he lived and the outside world into which he transitioned. David’s childhood stories teach us of the virtues and practical benefits of the self-reliant, homespun Appalachian culture and lifestyle that nurtured him, but that he never fully realized and appreciated until later in life. The story follows his journey into adulthood and the struggles he faced adapting to life in modern society and reconciling it with the core values he internalized as a child. Through his achievements, disappointments and personal reflections, David compares and contrasts the two distinct lifestyles he has lived. His insights reveal how the lessons he learned persuaded him to pursue a simpler and more traditional lifestyle in the mountains of Pendleton County, West Virginia. In the process, he gives us an enlightening perspective on our society, how we live within it and how it ultimately defines us.