Natural disasters like Hurricane Irene, which left millions without electricity and caused billions of dollars in damage, always remind us of two things: the fragility of our infrastructure and the tremendous potency of nature.
It's enough to make some of us wonder: What if we could be immune to such disturbances? What if gale-force winds, falling trees and torrential downpours were powerless against the conveniences we take for granted?
Well, as it turns out, one group of tight-knit environmentalists can tell you precisely what it's like. The Greater World Earthship Community, led by visionary Michael Reynolds (pictured at left), acted on the reality of infrastructural vulnerability more than 20 years ago when its founding members moved completely "off the grid," to live in self-sustaining homes built of scavenged material and known as "earthships."
"A house is a shelter box that nuclear power plants and sewage systems come in and out of," Reynolds says of the the places most of us call home. "[The earthship] is a machine that does all that; it's an independent cellular vessel."
As it has since its inception, the earthship community, situated in the New Mexico desert, continues to stand as a shining city on a hill of self-sufficiency, a paradigm of sustainable living that, as fuel costs rise, Mother Nature rages, and economies falter, more and more are looking to as a model for the future.
"We're seeing a swell in interest again," said Kirsten Jacobsen, education director of Earthship Biotecture, a company Reynolds founded that builds and teaches the design of earthships. "Over the past year or so, traffic on the website has been growing exponentially. There's more people that want to ."
The Greater World Earthship Community, situated 10 miles outside Taos, N.M., in the sun-scorched desert, boasts members of all ages and includes more than 100 earthships. Sixty of the ships are permanently occupied, while the remainder are rented to open-minded tourists.
In addition to homes clustered at the community site, at least a hundred more dot Taos' perimeter, reflecting the community's 40-year influence. Beyond their concentration in New Mexico, earthships are scattered across the globe, with Reynolds, who says interest in earthships is reaching a "crescendo," putting the total number on Earth at about 1,000.
The earthship, Reynolds says, "is really a machine to take the place of housing and infrastructure for the future" built to "sail on the seas of tomorrow."
Click on the pictures below to see some earthships for sale near Taos, N.M.:
Partially hollowed into the ground, the structures are built largely from refuse such as tires, beer cans and bottles. They cost, on average, $200 per square foot. (Earthship Biotecture's cheapest design, dubbed the "Survival Model," costs $10,000).
The recycled materials do less to hinder aesthetics than you'd think: Variegated glass bottle ends nestle into mud walls to create rainbow-colored designs, while three sides of floor-to-ceiling glass flood the homes with natural light.
Earthships' unconventional materials are not their most impressive trait, however. That honor goes to their self-sustainable power and recycling systems, which render the homes completely independent.
Solar heat drawn through windows and cool air emanating from earthen walls interact to maintain comfortable room temperatures year-round, while rooftop solar panels and wind turbines harvest power from natural sources and store it in batteries. The homes also catch rain and snowmelt for cooking and sanitation, which treatment cells later recycle.
Reynolds says that members of the community, like other earthship owners around the world, "share a belief that we need to find a better way for ourselves." But, he adds, political orientations are not as uniform as you might think.
"Everybody is trying to save their own ass," he says. "There's no Sufi dancing or anything like that."
According to Reynolds, who serves on the board that governs the community, more than half of its members work at Earthship Biotecture, while others have online jobs –- yes, the community has WiFi –- or make the trek to Taos for work there.
Beyond saving themselves from dependence on what they see as paper-thin macro-systems, earthship owners also save something else: money.
Community members report spending no more than $100 in energy costs per year, mostly to pay for propane used for cooking.
But perhaps the greatest draw of earthships, members say, is the sense of community that the structures stir inside their owners.
"It was like moving into some kind of living organism," muses Ron Sciarrillo, who subcontracts for Reynolds' company but also builds earthships independently. "[We] go back to the way it used to be. It's more like hunters and gatherers."
Sciarrillo is an active member of the community's "commando team," a group that descends on parts of the world ravaged by natural disasters in order to pitch the earthship.
The team to Haiti shortly after the country's devastating earthquake to show Haitians an alternative to corrugated-metal shacks. Currently, the commandos are trying to raise $60,000 so that hey can return to Haiti to build more "easily replicable" features of the earthship.
See a video of the model earthship that the commando team constructed in Haiti:
Future projects for Earthship Biotecture include constructing an eight-room school in Sierra Leone, a monastery in Prague and, possibly, a housing project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
But whatever future endeavors Reynolds and his team undertake, one goal will remain paramount to them: finding ways to make earthships even more efficient and accessible.
"This vessel has to continue to be tailored and streamlined to make it into the uncertain seas of the future," he says.
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