Earthship

Today I went on a fascinating tour of Brighton’s Earthship.

In the words of pioneer Michael Reynolds, Earthships are “Buildings that sail on the seas of tomorrow.” In more mundane language, an Earthship is a building made of a mixture of waste, recycled and natural materials that is autonomous in terms of heating, cooling, power, water and sewage. The Brighton Earthship was built as an educational and community resource rather than a home. The walls are made of old tyres packed with sand and earth, apart from the south-facing wall of glass. Rainwater is harvested from the roof for all water needs. Thermal solar panels heat the water and photo-voltaic panels generate electricity, with the help of a small wind turbine and battery storage. There’s a wood-burning stove in the main room for extra heat in winter. Waste water is filtered through two internal plant beds and then into a reed bed outside, and there’s a compost toilet in the garden.

It’s certainly a funky place. I love the flowing lines of the building, the way it sits back into the hillside and the idea of building from waste and being off-grid. But the big eye-opener for me was how something that could come across as idealistic is far from being so.

Mischa, who showed us around (and I hope I am not mis-representing him – my memory is full of holes like a Swiss cheese these days), was very open about some of the draw-backs, for example, the equipment needed to make the rain-water safe to drink, and the limitations of off-grid power. They use a gas cooker (bottled gas) because to cook with electricity would require a much beefier power system. They looked into the possibility of hooking up to mains electricity and it was the price that put them off. Mischa’s point was that location is a major factor: if you’re near a mains water supply, for example, it’s probably better to use that than buy, maintain and power the equipment to deal with rain-water. Very early on in his presentation, Mischa said that this approach to buildings wouldn’t work in a densely-populated urban context, although some of the ideas could – and should – be applied.

It all brings me back to a recent blog post about how complicated ethical living can be. Sometimes going straight for the sexy eco-tech solution might be more harmful than a more conventional option. On the bus back to the office, I read an article about plastic in the latest edition of ‘Clean Slate’ magazine from the Centre for Alternative Technology. In the article, Judith Thornton explains how plastic wrapping of food saves carbon emissions, because food keeps longer and less is wasted. For example, a shrink-wrapped cucumber lasts about four times as long as a loose one. The carbon footprint of uneaten food is estimated to be equivalent to 3.3 Giga-tonnes of CO2 – which, if it were a country, would make food waste the third largest emitter after the USA and China. Of course, you can reduce the supply chain by buying local food from a farmers market, in which case the supplier doesn’t need to wrap it in plastic (though you may need to at home – but it can be re-usable).

I think it’s important that places like the Brighton Earthship exist and demonstrate low-impact alternatives to mainstream ways of living. My take-away from the morning was that there’s a cost to everything, and being thoughtful and informed is more important for making good choices than just blindly following a campaign, and that all the (necessarily) focussed environmental campaigners need to avoid fundamentalist thinking but talk to each other so that we can see the big picture and tell a big story that will help us all sail on the seas of tomorrow.