Building Earthships and Transcending Trump
We caught up with Michael Reynolds, cult figure and the creator of the ultimate off-the-grid homes, Earthships, to talk about everything from sustainability and climate change to the importance of transcendence.
It’s been almost 50 years since Michael Reynolds graduated from architectural college: “I began right then to think that architecture was useless,” he said. “Why couldn’t houses do more? Why couldn’t houses take care of people?”
In 1971, Reynolds built the Thumb House, the world’s first Earthship – a home that “encounters the phenomena of the earth and takes care of people” – and he hasn’t stopped building them since. “I didn’t have a choice,” he says. “Something was pulling me by the heart. I fought it – I let different things pull me away from it – and every time they wouldn’t succeed. This pulls me.”
Today, Reynolds and the Earthship Biotecture team have built 5,000 Earthships in over 30 countries. Their graduates have built Earthships in another 30 to 40 countries. Reynolds has battled bureaucracy, law suits, natural disasters –and human-made ones – but, at 73, and in this era of Trump and tragedy, his resolve and passion are undeterred.
It’s a sunny and blowy Spring afternoon in the desert town of Taos, New Mexico, when I speak to Reynolds on the phone. He’s outside and I can picture his wild, grey hair whipping about like a helmet-less hippy on a motorcycle (which he often is).
Unsurprisingly, he’s building an Earthship. “He’s really happy when he’s building,” says Kirsten Jacobson, who has worked with Reynolds for 24 years. With Reynolds are 15 volunteers from all around the world. “We’re out here in the wind and the dust,” he tells me. “They were just yelling out through the wind, ‘This is fun!’” The Earthship team are never at a loss for volunteers. “People get engaged in it because it means something to them,” says Reynolds.
Today, they’re using sledgehammers to ram earth into tyres. (If you’ve wondered why a 73-year-old man is in better shape than most men half his age, you have your answer.) The tyres will be used to build the walls of a new 80-seat classroom for the Global Academy – the school that Reynolds runs teaching people how to build his bio-homes.
Earthships are always built from reclaimed rubbish. Tyres rammed with earth, typically, but also bottles and beer cans that are cut, shaped and used as building blocks, decoration or windows. Tyres, reads a tweet from Earthship Biotecture, “are bug proof, do not burn when filled with dirt, resist earthquakes, provide thermo mass and are everywhere around the globe, they do not rot, are fantastic in compression, and walls do NOT need foundations.”
The walls are finished with concrete and with mud from the surrounding environment. The result are homes that look sprung from the soil: earth-hued, curved like the landscape, sparkling with round, coloured bottle-jewels. They are human ant-hills, equal parts dystopia and utopia: a castle from Mad Max.
But Earthships, while curiously lovely, aren’t about looks, they’re about function. “It’s a machine that will take care of people in any country in any climate, and it will provide for people,” Reynolds says.
Earthships must be carefully geospatially angled. “You must orient towards the great nuclear power plant in the sky,” says Reynolds. “The sun is your electricity, it is your hot water, it is your heat. It even effects your cooling because we use heat to cool.” Water is harvested from the roof (in any climate), stored and used for drinking and cooking, then grey water is used for plants and toilet flushing. Food is grown within the home. Often there is aquaponics – food and fish raised in symbiosis – and the home treats and removes its own waste.
Earthships utilise six principles – or ‘human needs’ – for life: thermo-solar heating and cooling, wind and solar electricity, self-contained sewage treatment, building with recycled and natural materials, water harvesting and long-term storage, and some internal food production capability.
“These principles aren’t just about Earthships with a capital E,” says Jacobson. “They can be used for the construction of any new home or the retrofit of an existing home. It’s just a simple approach that we feel needs to be applied everywhere as fast as possible to face all the things that are already happening, or looming, in a not too distant future.”
In order to apply the principles as fast as possible, the team disseminate the know-how in books, lectures, classes, YouTube videos, and now you can buy their app, Simple Survival Earthships, for $A15 from the App Store (I did). “Everything that is in my head, that is going to happen over the next two decades – it’s going to go on that app,” says Reynolds. “We’re trying to make this available.”
To build a building a person needs a set of construction drawings, but they can cost tens of thousands of dollars. “We’re taking the key drawings to our key buildings and we’re putting them on the app,” says Reynolds. “You get a set of drawings you can send to your computer and print out 11 by 17 inches in colour and build from it – and even get a permit from it.”
The app provides books, graphics, musings, philosophy and 10 different sets of construction drawings. They update every week. So, Reynolds is giving his life’s work away, essentially for free? “I see that every person in the world needs this,” he says.
The Earthship that they are building today – yes, the plans will be on the app – is “going to use the latest of our technology”. Even after almost 50 years, Reynolds believes “we’re only just scratching the surface of what this machine can do”. Every building improves on the last. “Every time we build, we’re making 20 small changes,” he says. “It’s like automobiles: each year they get faster, lighter, more economical – they keep learning more and they keep making them better, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this prototype building.”
"Our work goes on no matter what."
While it has been almost 50 years of prototype building, the world really only discovered Earthships in 2007 with the release of the documentary Garbage Warrior. The documentary follows Reynolds over several years as he navigates the stranglehold of bureaucracy trying to prevent him from building the bio-homes as he builds Earthships in disaster-torn countries. Eventually, after a painful battle (and more paperwork then could fit in all the Earthships) Reynold’s Test Site law was approved by the New Mexico and allowed the team to prototype new buildings on a designated site in Taos. “They’ve lied to us. They’ve passed laws and taken them away. They’ve crucified us. They’ve taken my license away. They’ve done everything – but that doesn’t stop anything,” Reynolds tells me.
Today, the Earthships team are, once more, fighting with bureaucracy. “Our work is really aimed at surviving through a disaster or a catastrophe, and yes, our political situation is a disaster,” says Reynolds. “Donald Trump is trying to negate everything that Obama did. The same with the Republicans that came in [in New Mexico], and we’re back to a political battle with the law. We’ll fight it, we’ll eventually win. But it’s incredible how much energy has to be spent fighting to be able to do this, as opposed to just doing it, which is fun.”
Ugh, bureaucracy. “Many bureaucracies have petty authoritarians within them, generating unnecessary rules and procedures simply to express and cement power,” writes clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson.
I tell Reynolds that, here in Australia, our innovators are being crushed to despair by "unnecessary rules and procedures", with some quitting their boundary-pushing work. Jacobsen tell me Australians are second only to Canadians for their interest in Earthships: we are keen participants in Global Academy Sessions and we are voracious for information on Earthships. But, despite this interest, we have only on Earthship in victoria. It took Daryl Taylor five years to navigate the bewildering legalities to be able to build 'Kinship' in King Lake.
"We've seen a kind of struggle in Australia to get Earthsips actually built," says Jacobsen. Yep, that'll be our infamous bureaucracy.
Reynolds is undeterred. “We never get tired, we never get depressed because there is nothing [our critics] can do to us. Our work goes on no matter what.” But, how do you protect yourself from despair? In the face of irrefutable knowledge that we are beyond the tipping point – and as we start to witness the world encounter the effects of climate change, and innovators, the very people who could be fixing or mitigating the effects of climate change, are tangled in webs of paperwork and outdated laws – how do you maintain the inner fortitude to keep going?
“The word that I think is big these days for us is ‘transcend’,” Reynolds replies. “We’re simply transcending the whole damn mess. Our method here does not depend on politics or economics. We’re on the planet. And we count on inarguable things like the sun and the rain and gravity and the wind. Nobody can mess with those and they can’t mess with our reception of them. We relate to the things that are inarguable. Trump is arguable, all the politics are arguable, all the economics are arguable. But the things we relate to aren’t, and that makes us always have an anchor in stability.”
I love that. That’s so, well, comforting. Because, the planet is dying, isn’t it? Well, no, “The planet’s not gonna die,” replies Reynolds. “We are. Maybe roaches and bacteria and other things – other forms of life will manage to live. We’re just blowing it for ourselves. If we learn to live in a more simple situation that calls on the phenomena of the planet, I think many of us will survive, and flourish, and bring a whole new generation of creatures to life on this planet that know how to respect this planet."