Archive for February, 2009


Garbage Warrior: Michael Reynolds is an interesting film, in so far as it shows the brilliance and hubris of the environmenalist movement.  Its a heroic film, a triumphant and edifying biopic of a man elevated as a radical, a visionary and a dreamer.  Reynolds has spent thirty years as a architect and builder constructing earth ships, which are defined on the movie’s website as such:

n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.

He builds homes out of garbage: bottles, cans, tires, used pipe and scrap metal, packed with earth, covered in plaster and designed as almost fully autonomous, many with farms and greenhouses included as basic features of the architecture.  They are indeed brilliant pieces of architecture, relatively inexpensive to build if almost always illegal under most zoning laws (as one of the lawmakers who tries to help Reynolds candidly states (paraphrasing): ‘they [New Mexico state legislature] won’t upset the utilities, they don’t want people off the grid.’  Most of the film focuses on Reynolds and his ‘crew,’ a group of likeminded men and women trained to assemble earthships and disciples of Reynolds, and their long project to construct a community outside of Taos, New Mexico that heats itself, feeds itself, collects its own rain water and requires no outside aid.  As it is relatively easy to find information about earthships online, there won’t be much about them in this review.   The movie, after all, dwells as much on Reynold’s political battles, the slow bureacratic sapping of his bold experiments in new sustainable communities, and the repeated defeat of the laws he attempted to have introduced.  We get lots of shots of how the houses are built, and even some discussion of the basic principles behind much of their design, though not enough for my taste.

Reynolds is an affable man, likable and charming in the film, and the loyalty he inspires in his ‘crew’ is evident.  His scorn for the way in which politics  is pursued in legislatures, as  a game, as tortuous nitpicking, is something many of us, on the left as elsewhere share, and it is all to evident from his time in the New Mexico legislature just how stultifying, old and status quo conservative much of its members are; if there is any surer demonstration of one of the many reasons why so many are dissatisfied with politics, than the legalistic bureaucracy and gerontocracy of our democratic institutions, and the active way in which they discourage layman from participating through those elements on display is interesting on its own.   Reynolds is clearly convinced that change in the way we build and live is necessary yesterday, and his energy and ambition are incredible, as is the reach of his projects: his crew goes to Mexico after hurricane Rita and the Andaman Islands to help rebuild after the 2004 tsunami, and there finds a society more than willing to adapt his ideas and teach engineers on the spot how to build these homes (which are admittedly cheaper and sturdier than many other kinds that could be used) is impressive and interesting, and to many probably hopeful as well.  I did notice that he had an almost ‘Shock Doctrine’ analysis of disasters, that getting earthsips built will only happen after disasters, though he is no way hoping for them; somehow, it might have been possible, or at least easier, in the Andaman Islands before the tsunami to have built his earthships, whereas his struggles with the law and subdivision zoning in New Mexico demonstrates how deeply the  housing industry has infiltrated all building in America (and Canada, where it turns out the identicalness of homes is a direct result of zoning laws).

So, on one hand, deep sympathy and admiration for what Reynolds is attempting to do, and the construction of earthships in the Andaman Islands forestalled at least in part one of the easiest criticisms to lay against Reynolds: that his homes are impractical for those parts of the world where space is still at a premium and poverty and overpopulation is widespread.  The homes he builds in the Andamans are eagerly adapted by locals, impressed by their ease and efficiency, and the film avoids the whole ‘white guys teaching brown guys what to do’ angle that sometimes infiltrates unexpectedly into such films.  Still, this movie brings back a conversation with an anarcho-syndicalist friend I had a few nights ago about some of the conceptual problems of environmentalists.  Impassioned, highly skilled, putting their ideas into action, that is much more than many leftists, whether anarchist or socialist or what have you, can say they do.  And Reynolds solution to the challenge of global warming is impressive: a wholescale reappraisal of how we live, a shift to more self-reliance and agricultural handicraft.  Indeed, there is some lineage to these projects, and Reynolds is in some way a modern day Victor Prosper Considerant, building his  Fourierist utopian communes in the wilds of Texas to escape the horrors of capitalism and build a new, better society.  218826679_6073c2d06a

But there is almost no mechanism for explaining how and why these original changes took place.  It is clear that he views cities with some distate, claiming that they are crumbling and crime-ridden, without figuring out why cities are like that, including the collapse of funding, money and the flight of wealthier whites and professional minorities out of inner cities: cities are not inherently hellholes, as Reynolds and many environmentalists seem to think.  Freedom, individualism, self-sustainibility in doing whatever you want, are touted again and again, being off the grid, a rejection of industrial urban civilization; it reeks of frontier American utopianism, again, the cult of the heroic rugged mountain man mixed with communing with nature.     And yet they all use drills and equipment made by those urban working classes and industrial cities, and they all drive massive trucks and build communities that look exactly like the old unsustainable suburbs that sprawl outside all major and minor North American (and many European, and Australasian, and now even Asian cities).   They benefit from the enormous surplus of unclaimed and undeveloped land in New Mexico, claimed in part through the death and forced settlement of the aboriginal tribes (Reynolds hates that he was required by law to allow archeologists had to scour his subdivision for, and found, arrow heads) so as to enjoy the mountains in their backyard and 10 hectares of property, and advocating unreasonably the same for the rest of the world; indeed, there is little consideration that people might like living in cities, or of adopting his techniques to cities.  Instead, we have a modification of the ruralist dream of late capitalism mixed with the science fiction of the dispersed population in Simak or Stapledon, of every man an island in the wilderness, self-sustaining aside from the tools, fuel and vehicles needed to live in a civilization, provided from somewhere ‘else’.  As I said, there is a certain universalising tendency here, one both wondrous and full of hubris, often typical of some strains of American (and not just) political thought.

On the other hand, there is an explicit and radical challenge to late capitalism, what I like to call asphalt capitalism, a rejection of consumerism and civilization geared for overconsumption, a conviction that anybody can do and use their technology, and save money at it, without the heavy cynicism I have on display here.   On the other hand, these criticisms are frequently very muddled, and in many ways his dream and that of those who buy his homes is one of: more of the same, only greener.  Reynolds is still a business man, but his own settlement schemes involved blind lotteries and equal distrubition of property.  He repeatedly affirms he is not a hippy, though he looks like a bearded French utopian socialist.  Though forced to water down his language for the law he attempts to get passed, from a near messianic insistency on his homes being the only solution, the need for its revelation and clear contempt for the tardy status quo, in many ways it seems he wouldn’t need to, because he repeatedly affirms that his plan is safe and comfortable for everyone.   The worst thing to happen to Reynolds though, would be for his schemes to fail, be commodified by people less moral and committed than him, or to be consigned, like the Owenite and Fourierist communes before hand, to isolation, ignored and surrounded and then destroyed from within or from without, by a civilization that ultimately doesn’t care and can’t abide his sustainable housing system. Nonetheless, a well shot film, generally not too hagiographic or swooning, and at the very least a clear vision of a man with the knowlegde and expertise to prepare for what may well be a very bleak future.

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Heard a strange little show on the CBC today, on Family Day, our lovely government mandated holiday round this province wherein we get to take a day off and not spend time our families in lew of drinking and such like. Rewind, hosted by CBC regular Michael Enright which repeats old shows from the CBC archives, had a special for the day, on the definition of the family from the 1940’s until today. A rich part in the beginning: Mr. Enright affirming with all seriousness that the CBC once was dominated by politicians, pundits, intellectuals and stars, but no longer; the misses quipped rightly ‘sure, now they have call in show occasionally.’ Then the segments, all of them interesting for the particular attempts to deal with the changing role of the fathers, the freedom of teenagers and woman’s place in the home and workplace. The first dealt with….well, with not much at all, just interviewing a couple about the possibilities of post-war prosperity in 1945, but the way in which the CBC framed their interview is a telling sign of how much ‘the middle class’ was a construction even then. The CBC opined that this small shopkeeper, who runs a shop out of the front of his house and makes (in 1945 dollars) $2000, is part of the largest social group in Canada, the middle class, and is a part of that great prosperity that so distinguishes Canada. The actual shopkeeper and his wife seem less certain, but eagerly agree that they are just like everyone else, privileged, wealthy, happy, bourgeois. They are the backbone of society.

It has long been an argument, voiced as much in Barthes and Sontag as in any classic or canonical Marxist text, that the bourgeoisie assumes universalism, assumes that its mode of life, aesthetic sense, cultural mores and political beliefs are universal and shared by all; actually, this is more likely a liberal bourgeoisie attitude, because I can’t imagine the conservative or monarchist financiers of Paris arguing they ever had much in common with the shopkeepers. That the majority of the CBC’s reporters now, as then, are bourgeois, upper middle class, educated, professional, travelled and mostly intelligent, should be a given. That they impose their own sense of what is right about politics, war, society, the economy, on what they report, without doing so actively or even in some cases realizing it, and assume that their listeners all hold stocks, think politics is about soundbites and image, care about the Dalai Lhama and the employer’s eye view of the world, is not as popular an explanation. It makes more sense, I think, though it would need to be sketched out much more, than the Chomsky thesis from Manufacturing Consent (I suspect his later works are better than this), that all media is bought out and controlled by governments and corporations; I’d argue that plenty of reporters for a figurehead of the liberal, business establishment like the CBC don’t need to be bribed to follow the narrative of the War on Terror or fret over employer’s and their problems, because they genuinely assume those issues are of universal concern and are approached in the same way by all Canadians. It isn’t an agenda, it’s just being upper-middle class professional reporters. Now, this analysis can and should be more complete, and far be it from me to discount the fact that their political editorial lines at Canwest or the CBC, or that many reporters are deeply moral people who care actively about reporting injustice and corruption;  but try telling me when they ramble on about stocks in the business reports that that isn’t for a specific, privileged demographic who actually has an extensive portfolio they manage themselves.

Back to the 1945 middle class. The concept of the middle class is ideological, a product of a universalising assumption and tendency integral to the bourgeois. That there is a middle class is beyond question, of course, and its existence can be objectively proven, as much as possible, through census data on incomes, mobility, jobs and such. But far more people, just like those shopkeepers in 1945, belief they are middle class than is actually demonstrable by any census data. This may very well be an artifact of the post-war world, the result of a prosperity that allowed even millworkers like my dad to afford a big house, televisions and two cars, and that continues to inform many of our assumptions to this day, that owning a computer, an iPod or a car is a symbol of being ‘one of us,’ that universal middle class. The inscription of objects with class values has a long and storied history of its own, from sabots and sans culottes to peaked caps or tails to denim and bow ties, so it isn’t really a surprise that it still occurs to this day. But it is a confused identification, for the costs of those items have gone done, most obviously in the cases of appliances and electronics, and because so much of our culture is popular, and denim is no longer a class signifier.  It is a confusion that leads Labour governments in Britain to argue ‘we are all Middle Class now’ even if such uniformity is bought by cheap tricks on censuses and the manipulation of poverty measurements, so that the lower you go, the more middle you are (and this just isn’t in stats and figures, I remember reading an article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee in which City bankers were certain an employee would ‘only’ need 20,000 pounds a year to live, which is below the official poverty line). And even if Canada is more egalitarian and less class conscious and allows for more ‘upwards mobility’ than Britain, or even ‘egalite, liberte, fraternite’ France, or the United States, that a universal middle class does not make.

That the project to make a middle class is so old did surprise me, as ten years earlier in 1935 it was quite clear there was something called a working class, which made up a good percentage of the population; ten years and one depression and one world war later, we are all middle class. The shopkeeper, the miner, the lumberjack and steel worker and textile worker and professor and doctor, all middle class, all friends, the bedrock of our democracy. That was what the CBC said in 1945, telling the petty shopkeeper he is now a member of the good class, it does the same now, in 2009. There are some potent democraticising elements there, especially when compared to the fierceness that Tories, capitalists and the Church clung and endorsed hierarchy and aristocracy even today, and rail against popular culture, that is to say working class culture, of a sort, which has triumphed against all odds over its more rarified but universaling bourgeois antecedents; indeed, popular culture now makes those same claims, that it is represented by all, and counter culture and subcultures are placed in the position of railing against their own forebearers.  There is something very nice that my father is no longer as openly snubbed by doctors and teachers, even as they both behind each others back mutter curses.

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