Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rational Environmentalism

The closest brush I've had with active environmentalism was Christmas in 1987 when I was returning to university in Ottawa after the holidays. I was walking down the aisle of the plane and realized that David Suzuki was sitting very close to me.

I stopped to say hello and to exchange a few words (he was flying to Ottawa to speak at a committee meeting or royal commission, or something). As a journalist in training, I thought it was great to even have these few words with somebody after whom a scholarship in my journalism school was named. More recently, as I've reconnected with my cousin Gerald and his family over the last year, I learned he works for the Suzuki Foundation, although apparently Mr. Suzuki isn't seen frequently around Foundation offices. (Drat, there goes my re-introduction!)

But that's it! I've never marched on city hall in support of the environment, I've never handed out pamphlets calling for action against multi national companies polluting the earth. I've never chained myself to a bulldozer and I've never even considered myself an environmentalist. The word itself used to be a dirty word, especially in rural areas like ours that depend on natural resources for its income.

I found it quite amusing to be wished a happy Earth Day last April 22nd by my friend Jan Darby, who went on to describe us as "Eco Warriors". Not only is Jan just a fun person, but she has a sharp and unusual sense of humour, which we like very much.

Other friends have laughed at us for describing ourselves as fairly normal. Because of some of our decisions over the last decade we seem to have acquired a reputation (among our non-BC friends, anyway) for doing the unexpected and taking some less traveled roads. Chucking our well paid Toronto jobs for our own log home business was the first thing that seemed to place us firmly outside of the fast lane. Living through the wildfires of 2003 seemed to awe and entertain many of our friends and family. Choosing to live in a trailer relatively mortgage-free instead of sinking money into a "real" house was also a decision that was unheard of outside of a few like minded folks here in our local area.

But many of these things didn't visibly set us on our so called course of environmentalism. So, what led us to decide to build one of the greenest of green homes?

It actually began almost 20 years ago. When Chris graduated from U of T engineering school, he almost immediately enrolled in the masters program, with a specialty in sustainable energy. He completed a few courses part time but the rest of his life intruded. The chance to assist his parents in their own wood-based business in Vermont presented itself, and our marriage and subsequent family took precedence shortly after. But he was always reading and musing and wondering about sustainability.

When we had TV I used to watch lots of news stories about global warming, pollution, oil spills, you name it. Instead of calling me to action, they would instill in me an overwhelming sense of hopelessness in one person's (my) ability to make a difference. And honestly, I'm not fond of scare tactics, even if they are true. I think that if you can give people something small to accomplish, that is within their reach, the environmental movement, at the grassroots level, will have much more success.

Our real foray into environmentalism came when times were tough for us in the early years of the business. We, out of necessity, began choosing less expensive, and less unfriendly options. We heated our home with wood (using the trim ends from our business which were from beetle killed pine) over heating it with oil or electricity. Choosing energy efficient appliances years before we heard anybody else talking about it. Buying food in bulk because it cost less. It had the additional benefit of generating less packaging.

Soon, we began to realize that we were generating less garbage. Far less. We began to wonder how little we could generate and in the last year reduced our output by another 1/3. Chris' interest in vermi (worm) composting over the last 15 years took off last year as he expanded his worm bins. They still can't take anywhere near the vegetable scraps we generate, so he built a traditional composting bin system and I was given a tumbler through the freecycle network. Now we compost our scraps and my Dad and Gail's kitchen scraps. AND to the amusement of many of our friends, Chris is successfully composting sheep's wool.

For the last 10 years we have been recycling our cans, plastic and bottles. I have been slowly replacing plastic in our kitchen with glass or stainless steel. I'll admit I succumbed to the "plastic" leeching scares and have decided to err on the side of caution.

Last year Chris established us as novice gardeners. The pleasure of eating food grown by your own hand is immeasurable. We dove into preserving this fall in a big way and that opened up a whole new community to us! Knowing that you can grow enough vegetables to last through the winter months is empowering. It's healthy, it cuts down on fuel costs in trucking food all over the world, and it connects people, defying gender, age and temperament.

In terms of our business activities we always believed (and most loggers, too!) that our forests can be sustainable if practices are changed. Our biggest beef is that too many of our trees are leaving our country without Canadians getting full value (financially and environmentally). We could keep 7 people employed full time for a year processing 25 homes with the wood (dead standing pine that was either used or deteriorated beyond usefullness) that a big supermill would process in a few weeks, employing waaaayyyy fewer man hours per board foot. A supermill might get paid between $250 and $300 per thousand board foot of processed wood, while our log home operation might end up with a value of $2500 per thousand board feet. We used fewer fossil fuels to generate that income and we were extremely good at dealing with our waste. Wood shavings went to local farmers for farming uses and then were eventually composted. Trim ends were used to heat homes.

That's value added wood processing! And while many would argue that our log home operation couldn't possibly be an environmentally friendly activity, we certainly felt good about many of the things we were doing...

To us, recycling, gardening, reusing, mindful use of resources, just makes sense. It's a RATIONAL approach to environmentalism and one that many, many, many of the older folks who live around us, have been living for most of their lives. I see the over 70 group of people smiling rather tolerantly when they hear young folk talking about gardening, canning, composting and re-using...this has been their lives and is not something new at all!

But during the last two generations we've gone beserk! Here's an excerpt from one of Chris' recent posts. (I love this analogy!)
We took what resources we needed to expand, attached economic values to them and trashed them at the end of their obvious use to us. The resources we took and the wastes we dumped into the environment were like a pebble thrown into a pond ... the surface rippled and then was still again.

Our unparalleled and successful growth as a species means that our global economy has now caught up with (some would say overwhelmed) the capacity of the world to accommodate it. We are now rolling boulders into the pond with the enthusiasm of little kids, and no parents are telling us to stop before we kill all the goldfish.
Although this sounds like a very radical stance on Chris' part, you will see (if you've read the post) that he would probably also describe himself as less than extreme on the environmental front. We both try not to be overwhelmed by the bad news, instead trying to make a difference by doing the things we think our family can do and to have fun doing it.

So, despite the fact that Jan will tout us as Eco Warriors (it makes good copy, after all, and makes me giggle!) we really are neither radical environmentalists, nor part of the fringe element. Earthships, or any other sustainable building practice, are just an extension of common sense thinking about our resources and something that ended up making a lot of sense to us.


Jenny said...

Are you guys still in the process? I would love to know where you are in the building!! Very exciting!


Sandra said...

Hi Jenny,

Yes, if you read more of the blog, we are still building. We are starting the roof.