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.

Rock Farm

I visited Rock Farm today. It’s a 6-acre market garden in West Sussex that’s been run as a community project called Roots To Growth, focusing on the therapeutic effects of growing things and working outdoors. It’s recently been taken on by OneChurch, Brighton.IMG_20171019_153122

Ben, who’s leading the project, showed me around. He’s keen to use permaculture principles to reduce the amount of physical workload (“There’s no point coming for something therapeutic and getting stressed by the amount there is to do”) but also to work in harmony with the plants, the people and the land. He’s also keen for this to be a place where people just enjoy being in the countryside.

IMG_20171019_153050This particular bed has been used for beans and courgettes this year, and has an apple tree at one edge. I loved the way Ben talked about putting in plants “that want to be near that tree,” meaning things like comfrey and dandelions that will attract good pollinators for the tree. The idea is to listen to the land and put plants together that not just work together but that like being together. Another principle is to listen to the people who are involved and, rather than presenting them with a long list of jobs, let them do the things around the farm that they find life-giving. It’s a model of land, plants, animals and people flourishing together. I guess that, in the big picture, the jobs that really need doing will be the jobs that, between them, the people want to do, and the work will get done. The farm might even be more productive – and certainly will be in the big picture.

IMG_20171019_152947I’ve been attracted to permaculture for several years and have tried a few practices in my garden. I love this idea of listening to the land, learning from it and working with it. Layer mulching has worked pretty well for me (layers of cardboard, compost and manure), and not disturbing the soil structure by digging works very well for me. I’ve loads to learn, though – e.g. about how different plants work together – but I think it’s a great idea.

It was inspiring to hear Ben’s vision for Rock Farm as a place where the point is not to grow as much stuff as possible, but to let people, plants, animals and the land itself flourish.