30 Jun 2008
Film Review: Garbage Warrior
So, ‘Sex and the City’ wasn’t the only film I saw this week, as it turns out (amazing how many comments that piece generated!). I also had the pleasure to see the excellent new film ‘Garbage Warrior’ which focuses on the life and work of Michael Reynolds, who developed the concept of the Earthship, homes built using waste materials, most famously old car tyres. Here is the film’s trailer;
Reynolds is one of those great stubborn, persistent and driven people upon whom the dissemination of a great idea often depends. His work began in the 1970s, when having trained as an architect, he decided that what architecture was providing for the world was in fact ‘endless horseshit’, which failed to meet either the needs of people or planet. He became fascinated by the creation of low-cost housing which used recycled materials, and which created self-reliant systems, homes that generate their own power, gather and treat their own water, and grow their own food. In that upsurge of innovation and creativity that emerged from the first oil shock of 1973, he began to build prototypes.
His first structures were at communes, and on radical hippy projects where people had time, energy and enthusiasm but little money. His first buildings were outlandish, highly experimental and each one provided scope for testing and refining. He worked driven by a faith in what he was doing, and a belief that the right doors would open at the right time. “I always thought if you’re doing things right for people, they’ll find you”, he says in the film.
The importance of this scope to experiment comes through in the film as a very strong theme. The Earthship concept was born of trial and error, of operating at the cutting edge. Reynolds was operating outside the law, building Earthship subdivisions which provided little in the way of services, principally because, being autonomous buildings, they didn’t need any. As he puts it “outside the law is the place where the information lies”.
In time though, the law decided it had had enough. Reynolds found the full weight of the New Mexico planning authorities thrown at him, and his work was subjected to relentless scrutiny and regulation. In the end his work was became so restricted that he stopped working. As he puts it “I had lost the freedom to fail”.
His response was to create a bill which allowed areas of land to be identified as zones where experimental buildings can be developed, where the building regulations are relaxed in the aim of developing sustainable housing. Reynolds argues that if the US government can ring fence many thousands of acres to test nuclear bombs on, thus rendering them entirely useless for thousands of years, then why can’t a couple of hundred acres be put aside for unusual buildings?
The film follows Reynolds through the endless corridors of the New Mexico legislature, as he tries to get his bill passed. I won’t spoil the story by telling you if it gets passed or not, but his persistence and his decision, as someone from a strong counter-culture, alternative background, to don a suit (the scene of him buying a suit is priceless) and “climb in through the arsehole of society and get into its bloodstream” (as he colourfully puts it), speaks volumes about his depth of principle and dedication to his art.
Perhaps the most moving part of the whole film is when, with his own architectural practice in tatters, he heads to the Andaman Islands in the wake of the tsunami there to see how he and his team can help. The island’s population has been reduced from 35,000 to 7,500, and the settlements are devastated. Reynolds and the crew set to, building a house which captures its rainwater, stores it in a cellar, draws air in over the water to keep the air cool, and is built using tyres and old bottles (and rather a lot of cement, it must be said).
What sustains the film and keeps it beyond just being about unusual buildings is Reynolds himself. He is an obsessive, who has single-pointedly pursued an ideal, a vision, for nearly 40 years, in spite of all that has been thrown at him. His wife refers to him as a ‘freak magnet’, given the unlikely crew of dedicated Earthship builders he has assembled. It is people like Reynolds, who saw the vital importance of an idea that long ago and have doggedly persisted at refining and developing it, (one could add to the list Bill Mollison, Masanobu Fukuoka, David Holmgren, Emelia Hazelip, Robert Hart…) to whom we owe an enormous debt.
We can fund all the researchers in all the Universities in the world to research various aspects of how a post peak world might function, but unless we go to those who have been working tirelessly for many years, who have learn as much from their failures as from their successes, our research is pointless. ‘Garbage Warrior’ is a passionate, rousing and engaging look at one of the great mavericks and cultural creatives of our time. It is a study in the power of hard work, supportive community and a good idea. It is about the power of applied common sense. Above all perhaps, it is about the power of being naughty in a world which increasingly disapproves of such behaviour. ‘Garbage Warrior’ is quite wonderful, and I recommend it very highly.
You can find out more about the film and buy copies of the newly released DVD here.