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Garbage Warrior

An inspirational man from whom we could learn a lot

Garbage Warrior DVD coverI saw a wonderful documentary on TV last night. It was about Michael Reynolds, and entitled Garbage Warrior.

Reynolds is my sort of bloke. Resolutely alternative, mad as a hatter and highly visionary, for 30 years he's been building self-sustainable communities in the extreme climate of New Mexico's desert, where winter temperatures can fall to 30 below freezing. 

Called Earthships, the kind of monniker that is hardly going to endear him to the 'straights', these houses use passive solar for heating, and are constructed around a central greenhouse that enables a family to be almost entirely self-sufficient for water, heat, power and food. The walls are remarkable - mainly constructed from recycled plastic and glass bottles set into cement (resulting in igloo-like structures of stained glass beauty), or used tyres packed hard with earth to create thermal mass.

Thermal mass is something you become familiar with when you live in a stone house like mine, incidentally. With their granite walls 2ft thick, these houses have to be warmed up in winter until the heat sinks into the stones and radiates back out again, but once warm, they retain their heat brilliantly and don't need much topping up. It's something that the holiday-home owners rarely understand: because they're never here long enough to warm the houses up, they imagine that for the rest of us, they are cold to live in during winter. 

Anyway, back to Reynolds.

Establishing self-sufficient communities is the kind of thing that is hardly likely to please the powers that be, who would rather have us all firmly over a barrel where utilities are concerned (what do we exist for, if not to make money for the corporates?), and for around seven years, the authorities succeeded in depriving him of his licence and shutting him down.

But he was saved by the tsunami. Desperate for new ideas about building, architects in the Amdamman Islands called on him and his crew to help them rebuild after losing almost all their housing and half their population to the tidal wave.

Unhampered by red tape and over-regulation, he and his men showed the island communities how to build their houses from what they had lying around, and as usual with non-western communities, the hard labour of the local populace was shaming. We sometimes forget that most of the manual labour in the world is done by women and that 80 per cent of the world's farmers are women, but I was reminded of it watching these frail-looking females in their saris, mixing cement with mattocks to build new housing for their families.

The film was short on some of the detail I'd like to see - about exactly how the water and sewage systems work, for example - though this kind of territory is covered very well by series such as Grand Designs, which are more about the 'how' than the 'why'. This film focused more on Reynolds as a personality and his political battle, which has lessons for the rest of us. The end of the documentary was uplifting, with Reynolds - after years of fighting - managing to push a bill through his local senate to allow him to continue his experimental work in designated areas.

I highly recommend this inspirational documentary, which is by Oliver Hodge. You can also find out more about the film at Garbage Warrior.

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