The Broader Perspective

Michael Reynolds is a rock star. He has the long hair, the charisma, and the wild enthusiasm. He even has groupies, lots of them. But his celebrity doesn’t come from music (though he did take a few years off to tour with his rock band). Rather he is famous for the creation, and the more importantly the idea, that he has spent his life developing: earthships.

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As I sat in the packed University of Utah auditorium with the rest of the Community Rebuilds interns it was hard not get caught up in the excitement. Two hundred people had come from as far away as Rhode Island to hear the guru of earthships tell us about his invention. The conference, which was sponsored in part by Community Rebuilds, had the air of a concert. Was that Michael in the back peaking out from behind the curtain? Could that have been his trademark mop of unruly grey hair? It was. And when he came down to the podium he was greeted with thunderous applause.

It wasn’t a hard crowd to win over. If he had told us the sky was green about half the audience would probably have believed him. But even with an audience like that, he was captivating. In just a day he managed to not only entertain, but to give a thorough overview of the basics of an earthship, a feat I had been very skeptical of given the time frame.

In the first session Michael took us through the history and evolution of the earthship. Though centered on the earthship, that first hour and a half was also an autobiography of the man who is synonymous with the structure. The man who, after finishing architecture school, moved out to Taos, New Mexico to race motorcycles. The man who, after arriving, saw the huge amount of cans littering the area not as a blight, but as an untapped resource. The man who then spent the next forty years of his life honing -through much trail and error- a design that he hopes will shelter humanity through the massive environmental and social upheavals he sees on the horizon.

Though the idea has evolved substantially from the first can-brick home that he built in the New Mexican desert, the fundamental idea behind it has stayed the same: to use ‘garbage’ and dirt to build homes that are almost entirely self-sufficient.

 

 

Michael has, and continues, to encounter a great deal of resistance from those that view his ideas as an affront to thearth_shipe status quo, a status quo that many of them have a vested interest in. Most of the time, it seems, it is not even that those in opposition to him have a financial stake in stopping earthships, but rather that they have a psychological stake opposing them. Their view of the world, like all of ours, has lines and boundaries that need to be maintained. If those lines are ignored then the structures that we live in can begin to wobble, if those boundaries are transgressed then all of the sudden everything else can be called into question. And that can be a very scary thing.

Predictability is a huge part of what allows us to move confidently through the world. To put the lessons and experiences of our lives to use in our current context and avoid the paralysis of indecision. To use what we already know rather than having to reinventing the wheel. But that structure whose integrity we try so hard to maintain can also become a cage.

But it is only in breaking that cage that humanity moves forward. Like the old saying goes, ‘every new truth is first laughed at and dismissed, then violently opposed, then accepted as fact.’

Taking the boundaries of how we see the world and making them a little less rigid and a little more permeable, a little more free of tradition, is the unifying feature I have found in all of the leading figures I have met through Community Rebuilds.

From Michael Reynolds, to Brad Lancaster, to Joel Glanzberg, to Emily Niehaus, they all have looked problems affecting their communities, their regions, and their world, and seen practical solutions. Solutions that, once you see them, are so obvious you can’t believe you missed them. But in order to see those solutions each of these remarkable people had to look at the world in a way that most of us don’t. At least not yet.

Michael saw that our disposable culture was burning through the planet’s natural resources in a way that was far from sustainable. But he looked at the ‘trash’ that came from that disposal and didn’t see garbage, but another resource. A resource that was readily accessible and growing, not shrinking.

Brad saw the way that we were using water in the western United States and was able to step back enough to see the different issues connected to the problem as a whole, and how they were connected. He saw that it was ludicrous to evacuate the water that falls for free on our homes and streets as fast as possible, while at the same time spending hundreds of millions of dollars to divert the Colorado River.

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Joel teaches us to look at the world in terms in of patterns. That nothing exists in a vacuum, and everything is interconnected and interdependent. To see things as an ecosystem where changing any one variable has lasting reverberations throughout the rest of that system.

Emily looked at all of the trailers from the uranium mining boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s littered across Moab, that were so worthless that they actually lowered the value of the land that they sat on. She saw families that couldn’t afford better housing but who were forced to pour hundreds and hundreds of dollars every month into heating their tin foil shacks in the winter and cooling them in summer. By combining her knowledge of the problem and what she knew about natural building she was able to see the bigger picture and connect the dots. To remove the trailers, use interns who learn the skills of natural building, and construct a home that needs a fraction of the energy that the trailer did, and which will last decades longer.

None of these people have had an easy time pursuing their vision; motivation, tenacity, and knowledge of how to act are just as important as the idea. But without the first step of being able to look at a situation and view it in a new way, there can be no second step.

And that vision, the connections that they saw, came not from rejecting the status quo, but from transcending and incorporating it into their worldview. From taking a step up from the foundation that is our modern, western culture and seeing it, and its problems, in a broader light. A light that shines over the barriers we naively erect of what is and what should be. Of what is a valuable and what is garbage. Of how a problem can be solved.

Our cultural structures are ladders that have allowed us to climb out of caves and into skyscrapers. But they also confine our minds to seeing the world in a limited way. It was by climbing that ladder, then stepping away from it that Michael, Brad, Joel, and Emily have been able to do what they did. They didn’t reject the world around them, but saw it for it was, saw the way they wanted it, and then did their best to build a bridge between the two. It is an example many of us would do well to follow.

 

Travis Holtby

 

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