2010 ~ Getting out of the car with Patrick Keaney

Looking over his fence into neighboring yards one can see perfectly squared hedges, untouched carpets of cut grass alongside paved driveways and individual trees, grandfathered into residency, standing tall and considered a leaf-pest in the fall.  Weeds are whacked, extraneous limbs cut and seedling plucked from unplanned existence.  For Patrick Keaney these residences are eye-sores and representative of a larger problem.  He’s pretty sure the feeling is mutual.

After being investigated for storing used lumber on his premises without a building permit, written up for over-grown weeds and fined for having multiple unregistered cars in the driveway, Keaney began to get the hint: the neighbors aren’t too keen on his lifestyle.

But he wasn’t surprised.  “You lose all the time.” said Keaney “You’re marginalized completely by public opinion and the mainstream press.”   Many people solicit his knowledge and experience with converting vehicles to run on vegetable oil, but as soon as he explains the anti-war values initiating this technique; “they want me to shut up.”

Political values are the framework of Keaney’s lifestyle.  Everything he owns, everything he does and everything he can influence becomes an opportunity to “walk the walk” of pro-democracy activism.  This overwhelming task for some, sounds easy to accept as he explains it laying back in a porch chair, hands laced together relaxing on his stomach.  His efforts rely on two supporting ideas; live closer to the limitations of our finite world and rely more on self-sufficiency to avoid dependency on that which you cannot influence.

“Even in an urban setting like this we have to maximize the use of our resources.”  His astute countenance sharpens his jaw line, but his furrowed brow is softened quickly with the simple gesture of a woodpecker alighting on one of his resident trees.  “We have quite a healthy habitat here” he explains of his single plot, two story residence in Brighton.  Beyond the clothes drying naturally on the railing, hanging pots of vegetable plants utilize every post above the garden where worms were recruited to compost putrescible garbage into grade-A soil.  This residence used to house his alternative fuel operation as well, including gallons of vegetable oil, vehicle conversion tools, materials and the regular workshops, until the whole outfit was moved to a more fitting garage in Allston.

Keaney has converted 120 cars throughout the last six years with the help of Dave Staunton, fellow ‘Green Grease Monkey.’  Together they continue to serve their Boston community of ‘grease cars’ with filtered oil, technical education and a general list serve to connect the community.

They regularly appear at public rallies, festivals and relevant social gathering where their message can be realized; there is an alternative to our dependence on foreign fuels.

Now with an online presence, Keaney has been invited to discussions for high school earth-week curriculums and college courses regarding sustainability.   After starting with the disclaimer that he currently has gotten “out of the car” and rides his bike, he relishes in these introductions as a chance to present his ideas and challenge the conventional system that goes unquestioned in the minds of many. “Its about planting seeds.” Recently, one such engagement gave him the opportunity to spread these seeds to other continents.

Catadores (trash-pickers) in Sao Paulo, Brazil operate trucks that carry reusable garbage and oil out of dumps.   These professional scavengers were the focus for “The Grease Project,” a prize winning proposal to fight poverty and pollution.  $3,000 was awarded from MIT’s IDEAs competition and with additional fundraising, Keaney was flown to Brazil with the group.  Two trucks with operators were successfully converted and trained in three days; a venture that was “just short of miraculous.”

The reaction Keaney usually gets is shock.  Curious pedestrians, eager students, concerned environmentalists and gas guzzler owners are in awe of their recent discovery.  He explains that in the 1893 World’s Fair, Rudolph Diesel displayed his invention, the diesel engine running on peanut oil.  That same year, Rudolph’s book claimed that it would replace the 10-15% efficiencies of the steam and combustion engine’s with Diesel’s improved thermodynamics.  The diesel engine is conventionally run on petroleum oils, but is capable of using agriculture based oils such as peanut, vegetable or hemp oil.  So, how could this technology be 100 years old but not commonly known or used?

“If we don’t get over our car and gas addiction, we’re gonna be in serious trouble,” says Keaney about our dependency on fossil fuels and foreign resources for transportation.  Keaney understands that petroleum product sources have a finite quantity and that other renewable resources could be used to harness the same technology.  “There’s gonna come a time when they’ll need to embrace that idea themselves… … so why not get’em thinking about it.”

Data from World Bank