Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Good Planet is Hard to Come By

Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains just outside of Tucson, Biosphere 2 rises from the desert like a gigantic diamond with thousands of jeweled facets gleaming in the sun. However all that glitters is not gold and Biosphere 2 is no exception. Plagued by controversy and labeled by many as a “failure”, this massive experiment has managed to prove that Biosphere 1, our planet, is an incredibly complex system, and that man’s puny efforts to replicate or control it often produce less than the desired result. We recently spent the day there and here is our report.

Funded by wealthy oilman Edward P. Bass, the initial project was designed to study how man might create artificial earthlike sanctuaries in space and on other planets, as well as to learn more about how our planet does what it does so seamlessly, flawlessly and seemingly effortlessly. What looks like a giant greenhouse, is in reality a complex set of systems designed to regulate the water, air and soil that was to be the key to the inhabitants survival. What they learned was that mother nature has spent billions of years, not millions of dollars to perfect her systems, and that there are so many pieces to the puzzle, that missing even the slightest detail like forgetting to seal the concrete which resulted in a gradual loss of oxygen, can be a disaster. But unlike Biosphere 2, where the occupants always had the option to open the doors and step back into Biosphere 1, we have no options when it comes to our survival.

As with any experiment, the outcome is not always certain, that is why you conduct it. So Biosphere 2 is considered by many, as living proof of how resilient life is on this planet, and yet how fragile, surviving only within a narrow band of environmental parameters. If, like the designers of Biosphere 2, we miss a few details about the impact of human activities on the ecosystems, the results may be, just like at Biosphere 2, the shutdown or collapse of those ecosystems.

When the first eight Biospherians were sealed inside the structure in 1991, the whole world was watching, and the problems began almost immediately. Food production was inadequate due in part to unusually cloudy skies caused by El Nino. Plastic used to reinforce the millions of cubic feet of glass reduced the UV radiation reaching the inhabitants resulting in vitamin deficiencies. Cockroaches, brought into the experiment as they were considered important for their ability to breakdown organic materials, began to overrun the place. And the people, both constantly under the microscope from the outside, yet hopelessly trapped with each other inside, began to breakdown as well. Yet remarkably, these eight people stuck it out, and for two years they worked and lived in this sealed goldfish bowl with no inputs from the outside world. The diminishing oxygen finally resulted in new oxygen having to be imported from the outside world, but in all other respects, they lived and breathed and ate and drank from the same materials, recycled endlessly, that they had entered with. When they left, they were all 25 lbs. lighter, their skin tone reflected the lack of natural sunlight, and while relatively healthy, they all looked like hell. I can only imagine the strength it took to tough it out.

By the time the second group of Biospherians entered the structure in 1994, many of the original environmental bugs had been worked out. However six months later the human factor would bring the entire mission crashing to an end, and Biosphere 2 would never again be operated as a sealed environmental test.

Today, time has taken its toll on the habitat within the structure. The various Biomes including the 850 square meter ocean complete with coral reef are in different states of health. The coral reefs, much like our own, have collapsed completely, and the science being conducted is now being changed to help us understand the effects that global warming may have on our ecosystems. The rain forest is slowly being dried out to replicate the effects of drought, and the CO2 levels in some of the other Biomes are being increased to study those effects as well. The University of Arizona now operates the project, and it appears they have saved it, at least in the short-term, from the destruction many thought would occur when a land developer who has plans for a resort hotel and housing development bought the property in 2007.

Stephen Hawking, the brilliant mathematician has said that the survival of the species may depend on our ability to leave this planet at some time in the future. I would argue that why should we waste our time and precious resources trying to find or create a new home on a distant or inhospitable planet, when we have a perfectly good one right here. Biosphere 2 has proved that it is not any easy job to steward a planet. We have a lot of work to do.

For more info and pictures, CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Monday, December 21, 2009

6 months, 17,000 Miles, 32 States, and One Lifetime Later

As 2009 draws to a close, Kate and I find ourselves in the desert of New Mexico taking a bit of a hiatus from our travels. In part because we found that trying to do one of our shows or visits became more difficult as the holidays approached, in part because we wanted a chance to visit with family and friends, and finally because we needed a bit of a break from the rigors of the road.

So what have we learned in 6 months, 32 States, and 17,000 miles of traveling? Well, first of all it has been an incredible journey so far. We have met a multitudinous array of people, and virtually without exception, from North to South and East to West, these people have welcomed us warmly, treated us kindly and opened their hearts and their homes.

Sure, there were a couple of jerks, like the guy who sprayed the side of our vehicle with gravel when he became impatient in a line of cars and did a “burn out” next to us. Or the gal that sat there in front of a gas pump and finished a long cell phone conversation while our Airstream sat sticking our in the road and snarling up traffic. Or the vandals that decided to take a hammer to the side of our vehicle in New Mexico. But these were pretty minor annoyances in comparison to the hundreds of people that toured our Airstream, or the dozens that offered us a place to stay, a warm meal, or a hand with anything we needed. Many of these people were family, many were friends old and new, but many of them were complete strangers, and as we count the days to Christmas we are counting our blessings as well.

We also learned, and hopefully taught many others that you can reduce your footprint on this planet without giving up all the comforts we often take for granted. Yes, you have to make adjustments. Like turning the water on and off as you shower, which saves a remarkable volume and still leaves you feeling fresh and clean. Or how to operate a composting toilet, which although is a bit more work, the feeling you get from NOT flushing down several gallons of fresh drinking water each time you get rid of your excrement actually makes you feel guilty when you do use a regular toilet. But the biggest thing we learned is that although we lived with a lot less, we still lived in relative comfort and style, and that “giving up” things doesn’t have to be sacrifice, indeed it can be a joyful liberation.

Sometimes we learned that which we already should know. Like how the fact that our water is a finite resource becomes painfully clear when you have only a 30 gallon tank of it, and you have to think about where that next 30 gallons is going to and coming from. And as we predicted the Airstream has become for us a microcosm of the real world, and of our planets potential future. A world where water is in short supply, where our waste of all types must be carefully recycled, where when it gets hot or cold outside, it gets hot or cold inside, where a safe place to sleep at night is not a given, and where each of us considers more carefully the effects of our actions on the environment.

The first thing you learn from small space living is that no matter how few material possessions you take with you, you need less. During months of preparation for this trip, we carefully went through each item to determine it usefulness, and like many travelers we have been shedding items ever since. When you think about it, we are all just travelers on this planet. Here until the end of our journey, we will either leave it clean and ready for the next round of visitors, or trashed like some funky campground full of pop bottles, candy bar wrappers, and cigarette butts.

Our children and grandchildren are the next visitors to this campground people, what on earth will they find? We all use too much, we are all guilty, and if there is even a glaciers chance in hell of stopping catastrophic climate change, we all have to do more to use less. Here in this great country that we have been blessed to be born in, where nearly all of uses more than our fair share of our precious resources, will have to bear more of the burden for change or the less fortunate people of this world will suffer terribly as our resources become increasingly scarce.

Decidedly, not everyone we met agreed with our views. Indeed some disagreed passionately. But what was interesting is that everywhere we went, people were willing to talk about it. I remember in the 1960’s when the war in Viet Nam was raging and the struggle for civil rights had reached its peak, and it seemed like most everybody was on either one side or the other. War protesters and civil rights demonstrators were beaten in the streets by the police who were clearly aligned with the powers that be, whether it was the military industrial complex or the institution of racism, and meaningful dialog was hard to come by.

But today, and I believe due in a large part to the courageous struggles of the 60’s that changed our society forever, people seem at minimum willing to talk, and frequently willing to listen. However as they say, talk is cheap, and as we just learned in Copenhagen recently, we can talk a lot and get little or nothing done. The time for action is upon us, and personally we have decided to act. We hope from our actions will come results, and from those results, a chance to keep learning more about how we can shape the future. We hope you will continue to join us.

Best wishes from the road!

John & Kate

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Photo Galleries

We've just added several new photo galleries for your enjoyment. To see hundreds of new photos, CLICK HERE!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Gas Museum

As we were headed toward Taos on our way to visit the Earthship Landing Zone, we passed an amazing pile of gas station memorabilia and a sign that said “Museum”. Intrigued, we pulled in and started to take some pictures. Before long we were greeted by a man who appeared from the back of the property. Surrounded as we were by the thousands of pieces of old gas stations and other automobile paraphernalia, I said “Wow! Nice collection! How long you been doing this? ” “Bout two weeks” he fired back, chuckled and wandered off towards an old Coca-Cola cooler that was sitting on the front porch.

Reaching in to the cooler, he wrestled around for a few seconds and came back up with a small wrapped package about the size of an ice cream bar. I had noticed the sign out front, in addition to saying “Museum”, also said “Moon Pies”. Having not seen a Moon Pie since some time in the 60’s, I assumed the sign was just part of his collection. But lo and behold, here he was clutching an honest to goodness Moon Pie! As he unwrapped it to eat, I couldn’t help but notice the Moon Pie almost looked like it had been around since the 60’s, but he happily began to munch on what had been one of my favorite treats when I was very young and before my Mom realized they probably weren’t the best snack food in the world.

His collection was incredible, and included everything from vintage gas pumps to oil cans and posters, and even an old typewriter of the same make and model I remember my Dad banging away on a few hundred years ago. With obvious pride he showed my brother-in-law Simon and I around the museum which was packed so tight you get barely get down the aisles. Out in the parking lot sat a nearly complete, although quite dilapidated small diner on wheels. Everything was still there, from the 50’s style bar stools to the sink and stove, and even some of the pots and pans. Johnnie, as I found out his name was, was planning on doing a full restoration this summer and selling some ice cream out of it to go with his Moon Pies.

Simon bought a small trinket, and I made a donation which I found out Johnnie gives to the local Humane Society each year. As we drove away, I realized that someday all the paraphernalia of the fossil fuel powered automobile age will end up in a museum. Perhaps Johnnie is just a little bit ahead of his time.

To enjoy more photos of the Gas Museum and New Mexico CLICK HERE to visit our photo gallery.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Earthships Land in the New Mexico Desert!

While enjoying a visit with my Mother and my Sister and her family in Albuquerque, we took a little journey and headed up to Taos for the day to visit the “Earthship” community that is growing on the edge of town. The Earthship concept has been designed by Michael Reynolds who has been pioneering the development of eco-friendly housing for over 35 years, and whose innovative designs have been built around the world.

Nestled into the desert under the brilliant blue New Mexico sky, the Earthship community pops up from the sagebrush and juniper just outside of Taos. Located about a mile or so past the stunning Rio Grande Gorge, the community has been slowly blossoming on the arid landscape for over 20 years. If you are not familiar with the Earthship concept, the homes are built using a variety of readily available recycled materials, and feature solar and wind power systems, rain-catchment cisterns, gray and black water recycling, and are a showcase of low-impact living and design.

Visitors to the community are greeted at the visitor’s center and are shown a short video to familiarize them with the concepts. Accompanied by a guidebook (which you return before you leave so as to minimize their printing!), you then take yourself through the building on a casual self-guided tour. While not a complete or lived-in home, the tour allows you to see all the innovative details of the construction, as well as the energy and water saving systems incorporated in their design.

A 3000 gallon water cistern with an active water feature dominates the main room, and lush gray-water fed planting boxes in front of the passive solar windows were teeming with flowering plants and vegetables even in the middle of winter. Some of the stucco on the interior walls has been left unfinished to reveal the used tires and aluminum cans that along with the rammed earth with which they are filled, is the dominant feature of their construction. These three foot thick walls which are built into the earth on three sides provide the superior insulation that allows the passive solar features of the south facing structures to provide more than enough heat to keep the homes warm on the coldest of desert nights. Like many solar homes, getting rid of excess heat is sometimes more of a problem than using it, and the Earthships are graced with a plethora of skylights that not only bring a great deal of light into the recesses of the homes, but allow the occupants to release the extra heat when needed. The solar powered electric and the gray water filtration systems are also visible and described in detail. The very hobbit-like dwellings also feature a delightful use of recycled glass bottles which poke through the walls in intriguing patterns and send beams of colored light into the home.

Surrounding the visitors center, the rest of the Earthship community stretches out across the desert. However as a result of the south facing earth-berm design, from the tall windows that grace the front of the homes you see little of your neighbors except the floor of the desert that seems to crawl up the backside of their house.

After working tirelessly for many years, Michael Reynolds and the Earthship team is finally being recognized for their innovative designs, and was recently given funds by the State of New Mexico to build a new larger visitors center. They are also actively building pilot project homes around the world to help spread the Earthship mission and as we departed into the bright desert sun, we hoped for their success.

For more information and pictures CLICK HERE to visit our website.