Posted: 12/07/2008


Garbage Warrior


by Del Harvey

“If you create your own electricity, heating and water systems you create your own politics. Maybe that’s what they’re afraid of.” -Michael Reynolds

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This 2007 documentary offers up some thought-provoking ideas while educating the unaware of the delicate balance in which we all live. Delicate because our unspoken contract with this planet upon which we live is predicated to a great extent by what we do with the resources we are given. And thought-provoking because in a time when we all are reminded daily of our gross mismanagement of those resources, one individual has been striving to change the rule by which we construct our living spaces. Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape has proven it still runs government and can block an individual’s attempts at helping other individuals just as good as ever.

Michael Reynolds graduated architecture school in 1968 and shortly thereafter built a house from beer can bricks. The thing was, it worked. It was a fully working home which utilized man-made products which otherwise would have become scrap on the garbage pile, contributing to someone’s carbon footprint for hundreds of years. The big problem: it so upset the bricklayer’s union that they forced him to halt construction.

Never one to be told, “No,” and simply give up and walk away, Reynolds then developed a concept for an experimental home powered by solar energy and using car tires for foundation and exterior support, recycling rainwater and sewage and costing almost nothing to run. This was his first “Earthship” design.

But the truly workable design for “Earthship” would end up taking him over 30 years.
It began with Reynolds moving to a patch of desert on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, where he began to experiment with a new and more scientific approach to architecture. And both lax planning laws and sympathetic public officials willing to grant him exemptions from state building regulations meant that Mike was able to use “waste” materials such as beer cans, etc., to construct a series of truly original homes shaped like castles or pyramids and powered by giant wind-turbines. Some were disasters, but others were spectacular successes. And with each project Reynolds tried, he learned something new.

Over the next twenty-five years Reynolds and his crew created an energy independent community which became a test site for autonomous living. Eventually, they were building for clients all over the globe, including actor Dennis Weaver, who commissioned his own million-dollar version high in the Colorado Mountains. But, just when success seemed within grasp, the community back in Taos ran into big trouble. There was a changing of the guard at the local planning authority, which brought a less sympathetic regime into power. Planning and building regulations stated that housing had to be connected to centralized utilities, and according to these new regs, Reynolds was breaking every rule in the book. The law came down hard, shutting down his communities and confiscating his architect and contractor’s licenses.

Again, Reynolds proved his mettle. He always believed fervently that people should not have to rely upon outside forces for the provision of safe, comfortable shelter, and now he began to realize that housing regulations stood in the way of something he had always regarded as a fundamental human right. Again and again he was coming up against planning bodies that not only seemed to deny people the right to create their own homes, but who were forcing future generations to inherit housing designed around increasingly unreliable services. With today’s changing global environment, he simply could not see the point of forcing future generations into a lifestyle of dependency on dwindling supplies of water, gas and oil.

Reynolds saw that if he wanted his buildings to have a future – and open up the possibilities of the profound social changes they could facilitate – he was going to have to scrub the construction dirt from under his fingernails, put on a suit, and rewrite the law. And New Mexico was as good a place to start as any. This, after all, was the state in which scientists blew away every code and convention in existence when they tested the atom bomb.

Determined to achieve a similarly revolutionary breakthrough in planning, Reynolds decided to tackle the politicians head on by drafting a “sustainable building test site” law and lobbying for it at the state legislature. After months of effort the bill is put to the vote, but in a dramatic last minute showdown it is filibustered off the senate floor.

Immensely frustrated, Mike temporarily abandons America and flies his crew to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, devastated by the Asian tsunami only a few weeks before. Here, in an area where all infrastructures have been obliterated, all wells are polluted with sea water and thousands are living without shelter, bureaucratic niceties are irrelevant and Reynolds’s ideas for sustainable buildings are not only eagerly welcomed, but seen as something of a revelation to a community feeling desperately lost.

In the three weeks left before the monsoon, Mike and his crew show the survivors how to use tires, plastic bottles and bamboo to build a house that provides its own drinking water, sanitation and air-conditioning. When the project succeeds they are hailed as heroes – and granted immediate approval by the Indian authorities.

The moment is a great boost for Reynolds, but it seems a long way from the situation back home. At least until hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. When even skeptical scientists blame the disaster on global warming, Mike seizes the opportunity for a second attempt to alter the law. Once again putting away his tools he digs out his tie and heads back to the courts. The second time around he is wiser, calmer and more prepared. And the heart-breaking devastation of Katrina has meant that there’s no need to preach. The advantages of Earthships should now be self-evident, and thanks to his earlier efforts Mike now has a core group of sympathizers within the bureaucratic machine. He’s even beginning to relish his new role, as comfortable now in a suit as he is in his Carhartt’s work wear. And he is able to play the game better.

But with yet another hurricane pummeling Northern Mexico and Texas, leaving tens of thousands homeless, the architect finds himself stuck trying to wake a literally sleeping state senate, his blood pressure rising as vested interests line up against him and hardened legislators insist that it takes at least five years to get a major law passed. Convinced more than ever that climate disaster is only decades away, Reynolds starts to doubt whether he’s made the right choice by swapping his hammers and drills for another attempt to succeed against the prehistorically slow legal process.

Garbage Warrior tells the story of one unusual architect and planner’s attempts to alter the way we live, fighting local and state government in an effort to develop truly self-sustaining personal environments which utilize many items we take for granted or treat as common trash.

The film is an amazing eye-opener, especially in the wake of disasters like Katrina. Watching this film, one realizes what positive outcomes might have happened for the survivors if the administration had sent in forward-thinking individuals such as Reynolds instead of a bunch of undersized and overpriced house trailers filled with toxic building materials.

Directed by film veteran Oliver Hodge, Garbage Warrior is a stunning work. You can read more about it at the filmmaker’s official site, here:

To purchase a copy, go here:

This film is also available for rental from Netflix.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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