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.

Together We Can

A conversation over breakfast at a church weekend turned to electric vehicles. I made the point that I do these days, that if we simply replace current vehicle use with electric vehicles, we’ll have to burn a lot of fossil fuels to provide that much electricity and so electric vehicles may not make much difference to the bigger climate change picture. So we moved on to how different expectations of how we use transport could make the difference.

Someone mentioned that in the early days of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the US trade embargo, the cars they had were seen as belonging to the nation. If you were driving and someone hailed you, you were expected to pull over and drive them where they wanted to go. It wasn’t your car, it was our car. That’s one thought: sharing resources as things we hold in common for the common good.

Trucks platoonedAnother thought we discussed is how technology might enable more sharing. By the end of this year, the UK government intends to have trialled ‘platooning’ three semi-autonomous trucks together, driven by just one driver in the lead truck. Similar trials have taken place in the US and on continental Europe. Driverless vehicles platooned like this can drive safely very close together, potentially hugely increasing the capacity of existing roads and thereby avoiding the environmental destruction caused by building new roads. Couple up driverless technology to planning and logistics systems overseeing the needs of business – where and when the goods in the trucks need to be – and road haulage could be even more fuel-efficient. That could be linked up to weather forecasting systems so that the logistics could be planned around the likely availability of renewable energy.

Something similar could be put into place with cars and the transport of people. A ride-hailing app could be linked up to the availability of transport. So if I want to go from my house to town in 15 minutes time, I just tap that into my phone and the system would tell me the best option, whether a bus or a car share with someone driving that way anyway, and hook me up with the driver. Or it could tell me that the pool car parked nearby is available for me, and on my way I could pick up a neighbour or two. With driverless technology, the pool car could pick us all up, drop us off and either park or pick up other people and later another vehicle would take me home. The same app could tell me that I can’t go in 15 minutes time, but 10 or 20 are possible. With longer journeys, platooning could provide the same energy and planning efficiencies as with freight transport.

This was just a breakfast conversation, pooling as much ignorance as knowledge and enthusiasm. The technology may or may not help us, and in any case the gate-keeper on the road to lower-impact transport is our attitude. The choice to hold resources in common for the common good entails sacrificing the comfort and convenience we’ve gotten used to, for example driving my car where I want and when I want, without needing to consider the needs and wants of anyone else.

It did make me think, though, that so much of my environmental campaigning has focussed on individual action: changes I can make to my energy use and my other consumer choices, and the collective angle is no more than the combination of many individual actions. What if more consideration were given to the social dimension of climate action, giving primary attention to how we interact with each other? Building a stronger sense of belonging together in community may enable greater reductions in human impact on the environment than if we go it alone, and becoming less isolated may make us happier, too. In the society that emerges after the collapse of this one, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts and we will have learned that a good life is only possible through a choice to serve the common good.

Imagine you’re sitting at that breakfast table. What would you say? What do you think?

 

The day I left my auxiliary brain at home

I got to the office this morning and couldn’t find my phone. I phoned home (on the landline), and Mrs M confirmed my suspicion that it was still plugged in to the charger in the kitchen. Aarrgh! I felt naked and adrift.

Now, I am not a great mobile user. I’m not forever checking stuff. I keep notifications for apps permanently off. I use a paper diary. I don’t do emails on the phone. Some of this dates back to my early days with a smart phone, when I did use some of these features and caught myself referring to it as my auxiliary brain. At that point, I thought, “No.”

However, today I was in a mild panic. I had a couple of appointments lined up – people coming to see me – and I didn’t know how they’d get in touch to say they were running late, or whatever. What if one of my children sent me a text and they wouldn’t know I hadn’t received it?

In the staff kitchen, I told two colleagues about it and we agreed that, somehow, in the olden days, we managed fine without mobiles. One said that she had been to see Chrissie Hynde in concert the previous night, and Chrissie had stopped in the middle of a song to tell someone to stop filming and switch their phone off. We agreed that it’s rude, the way some people film concerts, and that the results are rarely worth seeing. We agreed that you get more out of a show by keeping your phone in your pocket and being fully present. One of my colleagues said that she’d read some research showing that people who don’t take photos remember more of their experiences than those who do. It’s as if you delegate some of your thinking to your phone, and lose a little bit of your ability to use that little bit of your brain. Also, you stop being fully present. Instead, you’re partly in the future, thinking about how you’ll share those photos on Facebook and how your friends will react.

I recognise that I am old, well – 52. But I do feel resistant to the idea of delegating thinking to machines. I know it is the future, but I don’t like it. What shocked me today is, even with the limits I place around my dependence on the phone, I realised how dependent on it I am.

In the end, both of my visitors turned up on time. When I got home, there were no texts waiting for me (apart from one from one of my visitors saying he was on time). I got through the day fine, with just the brain that’s in my head, just like we used to.