Last weekend I was down south in Brighton for a three-day course called "Self Building an Earthship", organised by Brighton Permaculture Trust. Brighton is a strange and lovely place. It's in England, but has palm trees. It's a traditional seaside town, but there's a park with a ruddy great Indian palace in the middle of it:
Cars abandoned by the golf course look like this for some reason:
Brighton is also known for having Britain's only Green MP, Caroline Smiley Lucas. Even the local tobacco, copiously smoked and generously shared, is a deep shade of green. And come to think of it, maybe not really tobacco. All of this feels perfectly normal, which in fact it is. Me being of indeterminate origin but still northern enough to feel more alien here than there, I've always associated the south with the middle - of what is called "England", with the conservative (both big C and small), with the bland and the ignorant, with the sort of people who can pronounce all the letters in "didn't" with a straight face, with the desperate kind of optimistic passive-aggression that our American friends associate us. This is all very sloppy thinking on my part, of course, but I'm just trying to set the tone.
Anyway, an earthship isn't a ship, and doesn't look like one. It looks like this:
and from another angle, like this:
From the inside, like this:
On video, like this:
Who would live in a house like this? Well, I would for a start. That's why I went on the course. Here's some of what I learned:
An earthship is a structure built from recycled materials, designed to be completely off-grid, self-sufficient and with as low an environmental impact as architecture can possibly have. Done properly, a functioning earthship can even make a positive contribution to the environment and local eco-system. The bulk of the structure is built from old tyres, packed with earth, rocks and anything else you can sledgehammer into them, like so:
This is hard work - it takes about 20 minutes to fill one tyre, and most earthships use close to a thousand to make one wall - but it's work that pays off. Not only is this actually the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of tyres (which are classed as a toxic material, so once they are built into a wall they are prevented from degrading further and damaging the earth, as they do when they are dumped into landfills at a rate of billions per year around the world) but they form the outer layer of a wall that collects "thermal mass". The idea here is that, with the main wall of the earthship facing south, adjacent to the windows, heat is absorbed in the summer and released in the winter, regulating the temperature of the indoor environmental naturally and mitigating the need for any other form of heating or cooling. Over the weekend, while it was often uncomfortably hot outdoors, the inside room temperature was comfortable all day long. The two layers of glazing, between which the 'greenhouse' area of the earthship can be used to grow food, or any other greenery you'd like to live with, is the warmest and lightest part of the structure. These areas also form part of a 'greywater' system, where all water that is used for washing and sanitation is recycled through a filter into a form that, while not clean enough for human consumption, is a feast for the plants. The water itself is collected from the sky, and drained into large storage tanks buried into the hill behind the tyre wall:
The four tanks of Brighton's earthship have a total capacity of 20,000 litres. And you know how water falls from the sky sometimes? Well, it turns out you can make electricity out of things in the sky too.
Laptops were plugged in, phones were charged, pumps and filters are powered with juice to spare, saved in battery packs stored inside the roof, for use at less sunnier times of year.
Two thoughts kept occurring to me through the weekend: one, how remarkably simple all this was and two, why aren't we all doing this? Or, two-in-one: this is so remarkably simple, why are we being so stupid as to do anything else? One answer here is the answer to so many questions in our world: convenience. Why has the time and energy to build their own home? Not to mention the money and resources. It is easier to rent a flat or get or a mortgage on a structure that already exists. And once again, as with so many other things, the wider impact on the world of our behaviour simply doesn't factor in to our decisions. For most of us, such questions are luxuries we can't afford, no matter how environmentally conscious we happen to be. It is comforting to think that our "consciousness" here is enough but of course, this is delusion. Consciousness achieves little. You can't save the world just by thinking about it.
It was satisfying to spend a weekend with a group of people who share similar thoughts. I learned as much from talking to other participants as I did from the course itself. One had come from Romania and had plans to build a hut for himself and a few friends out in the wilds of Eastern Europe. Another grew up in a free-love cult, from which she had escaped and now was making plans with her son to build a sustainable home on some land they had bought in Crete. Another described himself as homeless, and spend his time couchsurfing, living in his van, and volunteering. A third thought I had was this: after the crash comes, it will be people like this who are left. For now, for me, it was inspiration enough to know these people are out there. I just wish there were a lot more of them.
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