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  • Writer's pictureDavin Hutchins

How I spent my summer sabbatical

I'm so grateful to Greenpeace for many things over the years. I came to the organization in 2015 with a background in international journalism, Middle Eastern affairs, and countering violent extremism. Then I became a global climate campaigner, first staring in our global food-climate campaigns and expanding into forests, oceans, and climate solutions.

One fantastic benefit Greenpeace offers is after five years of service, each employee gets a 12-week sabbatical for personal and professional development. I took mine a year behind schedule. (There's quite a waiting list to take advantage of this perk.) But once that sabbatical was a few months out, I crafted a plan to make the most of it. My time was spent accomplishing four main goals: making my zero-carbon home more efficient, acquiring more technical skills through directed learnings, composing and recording new music, and experiencing nature on a grand scale.

Energy Efficiency and Zero Carbon Homes

As you might have read in a previous post, in 2017, I added 10kW of Tesla Energy solar panels to my new home in 2017 and began purchasing wind power renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset what solar couldn't cover. We also connected every LED bulb, smart plug outlet, and thermostat in our house to the Internet and our Google Home voice assistants. In 2018, my family bought our first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, a 2016 Chevy Volt.

But during this sabbatical, I wanted to install two upgrades: A plug-in charger in our garage for the Volt and a home energy efficiency monitoring system. OK, I'm not that embarrassed to say that for almost two years, we threw a 50-foot cable outside of our laundry room window and dragged it across the lawn to the driveway to charge the EV. Not ideal and the constant switching between EV and dryer was rough on the outlet. So we needed a better solution.

After evaluating several vendors, we decided to purchase a ChargePoint Home Flex Level 2 charging system. We selected this unit because it looked elegant and would work with future full battery electric vehicles (BEVs) we might own. Also, the Home Flex is compatible with the ChargePoint smartphone app which we were already using to find charging stations when we travel. At home, the app allows you to set optimal charging times and durations to align with optimal solar time or just shut charging off at will. Plus we qualified for a 30% tax rebate available for home charging stations.

Second, I wanted to get a real handle on my home's energy usage and work on efficiency to complement the renewable generation I'd be enjoying. So I bought a Sense Home Energy Monitor with solar monitoring. This unit plugs into your circuit breaker box and then wirelessly connects to your router. Then, it feeds information about your home appliances back to your smartphone and desktop for adjustment and refinement. Over time, it guesses which appliances are which based upon the kWh usage. I took care of a lot of the vampire appliances with smart plugs years ago. But I found out that my aging heat, ventilation, and air conditioning unit (HVAC) and my water heater were the new vampires.

As fate would have it, I ended up replacing it with a new unit after it died along with the rest of my home. I got educated on climate adaptation as well as mitigation this year. After several intense rainfall incidents, my basement flooded several times and we had to dig two French drains to relieve a 45-year old foundation that could no longer keep up with modern precipitation events. Plus, my dishwasher and refrigerator broke flooding the house even further. The silver lining is three appliances in my house were all replaced with better EnergyStar models because of bad karma.

Training up with tech

My professional focus for years has been telling compelling stories where humanity and nature intersect and using technology tools to tell these stories in new ways. Once COVID grounded Greenpeace's normal activities, I found I was stagnating a bit with my roles and job load in constant flux. This sabbatical was the perfect antidote to inevitable burnout after six years. But it was also an opportunity to train up.

So I identified about 20 online courses from LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda) and Greenpeace's own Tech Camp that I had been wanting to take but kept putting off. Those courses included: data analytics (Google Data Studio), data visualization (Tableau), video editing and animation (Final Cut Pro and Motion), live streaming (Instagram and Twitch), YouTube Marketing, CRM/Salesforce for nonprofits, project management (Asana, Trello, ClickUp), no-code web and app development and a lot more.

My favorite course was a survey course looking at the disruptive technologies fast approaching us: artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain/crypto, and autonomous electric vehicles. These technologies are already having a huge impact on the future of labor and employment, decentralization of authority over monetary value, and how we think about vehicle ownership.

Exploring the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone

Near the end of the sabbatical, I managed to take nine days off on a multi-sport excursion with Backroads Active Travel, exploring the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. This tour was my first big cross-country trip to the great outdoors since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I found the experience of flying completely disorienting but also exciting, like back when I was a boy. I had also gotten my second vaccination right before the trip so my mind was more at ease. That was until I touched down in Jackson Hole Airport which was inundated with signs to buy or rent 'bear spray.' I thought to myself, just how common are the bears 'round these parts?

Every day was brisk and full of activity. After we strangers from all corners of the globe began bonding over some delicious cuisine and stimulating conversation our first night, we were all rafting the Snake River the next day. Every other day, we got to embark on a touring bike ride from 20 to 50 miles. Because I train every year for a century ride, I was in shape enough to speed ahead and enjoy the majestic expanse in relative solitude, one of my favorite things to do. The best views were the paved trail ride from Jackson Hole to the base of the Grand Tetons to a lodge on the shore of Jenny Lake.

I bonded quickly with a real estate agent from Southern California and his wife, both about my age. We decided we'd ascend the Grand Tetons together and explore the Cascade Canyon trail, about 20 miles round trip. Highlights included drinking glacial water, with purification tablets of course, and befriending a moose from a comfortable distance. We finished the trip biking and kayaking through Yellowstone National Park, mindful to keep our distance from the many buffalo and that the continent's largest volcanic caldera could erupt at any time.

Throughout the tour, an uncomfortable thought kept gnawing at me, namely that we were using inefficient, gasoline-guzzling minivans to transport us, all of our gear, and food. It's self-evident that we're in a climate crisis and I couldn't help to think that we all descended upon Wyoming to admire its snowcapped beauty, but are slowly suffocating it at the same time.

I'm looking forward to the day when we can explore nature with 100% electric adventure vehicles powered by a clean energy infrastructure throughout the country and our national parks. (See Rivian.) I hope that day is not far off.

Rebirth through music

Finally, throughout this sabbatical, I took chunks of time off from the above activities to reconnect with my ongoing passion for music. Two or three times per year, I usually book an Airbnb alone for the better part of a week. I usually immerse myself in 8 to 10 hour days to unpack musical ideas I have been harvesting in my Evernote notepad and translate them to Logic Pro to make home studio recordings.

One of my ongoing ideas was to begin an ambient project. Usually, I play keyboards and sing in cover or original bands devoted to pop-rock stylings. But during the lockdown, I found myself returning to more minimalist compositions to increase my focus and peace of mind. I wanted to begin a project for other people to achieve serenity and that I could pursue in my dying days when my voice gives out. So instead of booking an Airbnb, I took my best canine friend, Ike, to a quiet cabin near the Potomac River.

I wanted to see what it would feel like to compose immersive soundscapes - no beats, no lyrics. Just an interwoven tapestry of vibrations designed to promote serenity, introspection, and oneness with nature. I'm just getting started but the compositions sound like this:

I also managed to wrap up the second album of my solo project which I began when the pandemic hit. I'm amazed at how my experiences subconsciously make their way onto the pages in some mysterious way. There's a song titled On This Rock We Stand about the wisdom of First Nations and their never-ending fight against the exploitation and greed of oppressors. There's a song called Next about shutting down your device and experiencing the real world and real people.

But the composition I'm most proud of on that collection has also gotten the most streams so far on Spotify. It's called Clean. The metaphor is Mother Earth is a woman mistreated and abused by her male companion, in this case, Man. One day, after years of neglect, she says enough and abandons him, banishing him to oblivion. Surprisingly, this song is hopeful because it celebrates Mother Earth's ability to survive and endure after the dominance of so many species. She is a survivor and can survive without humanity in the picture.

We should remember never to take our natural world and the precious little time we have for granted. The sabbatical, coupled with the pandemic, has shifted my thinking on so many things: the nature of work, how we should be spending our time and to live in the moment and eliminate fear. I hope everyone can experience a sabbatical, transition, vacation or extended time-off that can be as enriching as mine was for me.


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