There is a war being waged far from the carnage of Iraq or Darfur. It connects to the war on want, but is more about making peace with our environment than anything else. The documentary Garbage Warrior is the story of renegade architect Michael Reynolds, who has been quietly waging a battle in New Mexico for the right to make mistakes when designing housing. Reynolds has been building “Earthships,” sustainably self-contained housing units in the desert of New Mexico since the 1970s.
The film traces the growing community of like-minded builders that work with him and the decade-long fight Reynolds embroils himself with, first with municipal zoning boards then with the state legislature. His goal: to have a bill passed that would allow experimental housing such as his Earthships legal and physical space to develop and grow.
The documentary is funny and inspiring, well shot and aside from the odd overdone cliché of a hammer hitting dirt to drive a point home, is skillfully edited. Reynolds is the driving force of the film, and as a character study he emerges as enigmatic, driven, excentric and innovative. Despite my near-capacity tolerance for documentaries about white men doing good, this story is important, entertaining and inspiring.
The stamina Reynolds exhibits over the years of his fight with state legislature reveals an archaic and broken political system as much as it offers inspiration to take it on. The films dabbles with some other characters, but they are ornamental – fellow sustainability activists who help round out the picture of Reynolds. To be fair, some of the characters also act as tour-guides, taking the audience on walks throught their incredibly unique, beautiful and sustainable homes as well as walking us through the history of the group that has formed around Reynolds. The homes themselves are self-contained: no sewage lines, no electric grid and no water goes in or out. They even have areas where food production is integrated into living spaces, spaces where even bananas grow.
The films briefly leaves New Mexico about two thirds through to follow Reynolds and crew to one of the Ataman Islands hit by the 2006 Tsunami. The Earthship builders spend two weeks constructing a simple but self-contained home with local workers, engineers and ordinary citizens. Watching the cooperation between the American workers and the locals is incredible: they do not speak eachother’s languages but collaborate to build the home, which catches its own water and is made from bottles collected for a rupee a piece by local children. The experience also reveals what can be accomplished in a short time without the muck of American bureacracy slowing down the process.
In the end Garbage Warrior doesn’t tell us enough about the actually process and technology of the Earthships. We see them being built, but little is explained. We learn nothing of the architectural design planning nor the environmental science of sustainability in home construction. We do get a rich portrait of Reynolds and his vision for addressing environmental destruction and global warming by starting with what we are closest with, or own homes.