Land use in America has been one of increasing concern in recent years. With the spread of urban growth, a steady annual increase in America’s population, and rising costs of energy, food, and water, the idea of off-the-grid living has also been appealing to a growing number of America’s citizens.
One of my first encounters with someone who practiced this kind of living was in 2008, with a man in Portland, Oregon who helped build structures known as Earthships, He described his experiences in Taos, New Mexico, with The Greater World Earthship Community.
The building process he described seemed challenging to me, yet somewhat romantic. He, along with several others, spent hours daily in the New Mexican desert sun, using old tires, recycled bottles and cans, and earthen materials to construct the Earthships.
He told me because of the way the structures were built, there was no need for the use of electricity, heat, or air conditioning. As a blog post on the Earthship Biotecture website states, they integrate “solar, wind, thermal mass, rainwater harvest, gray water recycling and indoor food production.” And having already been aware of the potentially harmful effects of urbanization, a fast-paced culture, and loss of natural habitat, I was intrigued by the idea.
Not too long after, I stumbled across Garbage Warrior, a documentary about architect Mike Reynolds, the inventor of the Earthship building style. The film documented the building process, as well as the challenges faced by government regulations and legislation at the state and municipal levels.
This was also one of the first films that helped me to understand much more clearly how the rule of law is designed to benefit and protect the racket of corporate governance, as opposed to the environment from which it obtains its resources, or the freedom of people to live a self-sustaining and energy-independent lifestyle.
Since then I learned of many other Earthship projects around the world, as well as other off-grid-living endeavors, one of which independent journalist and former Portland, Oregon local Alex Ansary began undertaking before winter, on November 12, 2012. He survived for three weeks without wood, during which time he kept warm using a heater, thermal underwear, ski pants, a face guard, and thermal socks. He also inhabited a yurt with the help of nearby locals in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
While living in the yurt, he also experimented with self-sufficiency using a borrowed 22-watt panel and a $40 inverter to supply energy for his Mac laptop and other electronic devices. Additionally, he used his Honda Accord to charge a deep cycle battery.
Since then he moved back to Portland, and then traveled back to Colorado driving a RV, in a quest to look for affordable land for more permanent off-grid-living. He found potential there during August of this year in the desert plains of Costilla County.
He endearingly refers to his RV as the “Freedom Spaceship.” It is equipped with solar power, a fridge, and four computers, with internet. The vehicle has been parked on a community 5-acre plot of land, in the plains region of Colorado, in the city of San Luis, near the New Mexico border. Ansary has also been seeking to purchase his own plot of land, where he anticipates on building his own structure.
Since staying, he and several others have been at odds with the San Luis City Council over land use regulations which many find are designed to work in favor of big business, corporate interests, and against the general well-being of humanity and the environment, as well as the freedom to live off-the-grid.
In early-September there were two meetings – one on the 9th, and another on the 15th. The first, with the planning commission, was open to all members of the public. However, Alex claims he was told to stop filming 20 minutes into the meeting by Costilla County Deputy Colleen Romero, and was never shown any law which prevented people from filming.
Others present at the September 9th meeting, such as off-gridder Neal Taylor, were there to share their experiences concerning Romero’s harassment.
Confrontations occurred at the September 15th meeting stemming from a mild argument. According to Hyrum Jensen, a disabled Afghan War veteran who spoke at the first meeting, “…[off-gridders] were pushed down the street by sheriff’s deputies.”
In another incident that day, Neale Taylor was arrested for saying “fuck you” to police officers. Ansary also added, “the sheriff’s department has not yet been held accountable.”
As a 2011 blog post on the Denver Post’s website points out, saying this to a police officer in Colorado is legal and constitutional, according to the First Amendment. In fact, a man named Bob McIntosh was awarded $20,000 in a Boulder County legal settlement for his arrest, after flipping off a police officer during a traffic stop.
Concerning Costilla County’s land use code, in a recent video uploaded on Ansary’s YouTube channel his friend, Manny Felui, explains they are currently inhabiting a state residential zone. Reading from the county’s land use code, Section 5.3: Review Criteria for a Permit, he shows there is a limit for RV usage in this particular kind of zone:
Long-Term Camping in a Recreational Vehicle is Restricted. Use of a recreational vehicle or other camping shelter for longer than a total of 14 days during any consecutive three months on the same parcel shall require a Long-term Camping Permit, which may be obtained from the Planning Department.
Furthermore, he explains it is possible to obtain a 90-day camping permit for $100.00, but none have been sold since June. He adds, “They are trying to get people out of these areas. They are not letting them camp while they build, even if they are willing to pay for it.”
Additionally he claims, “…we’re really just being made to be law breakers. They won’t allow us to abide by the land use code out here.”
In the same video, Ansary also points out how the description of the term “junk” in the county’s zoning law is relative to the extent it could leave the possibility open for the county government to target people for a trash problem, and force them off the land under threat of legal suit:
Junk. Any manufactured good, appliance, fixture, furniture, machinery, vehicle, personal property or any other thing or part thereof, whether of value or valueless, that is demolished discarded, dismantled, partially dismantled, dilapidated or so worn and deteriorated that it would not normally be useable in its current state for its original manufactured use. This may include but is not limited to wood, used lumber, paper, glass bottles, rags, rubber, scrap metal, tin cans, scrap material, waste, concrete, rubble, boxes, crates building materials, or machinery parts. (Costilla County Land Use Code Pages 14-15)
At this point I also find it’s worth noting that any of this “junk” could also potentially be used in the construction of structures such as Earthships. And, according to Earthship enthusiasts, it may be a more wise decision to use said “junk” for building off-grid-living structures, as opposed to disposing of them in landfills or combusting them for industrial fuels.
A post on the website for Humboldt State University’s Campus Center for Appropriate Technology cites an EPA study showing, this form of disposal “results in dioxin and furan emissions, which are highly toxic and dangerous for biological health.”
The post further states, “…used tires most likely do not pose a health risk if they are rammed with earth and sequestered in a location away from exposure to sun or moisture.”
At the same time, the post states “…there is a body of research that suggests old tires should not be used in any landscaping application where edible plants are exposed.” But the benefits of using old tires in Earthships for off-grid living so far seem to outweigh the risks of mass disposal methods.
Other “junk” items mentioned in the Costilla County Land Use Code, such as “wood, used lumber, paper, glass bottles,…scrap metal, tin cans, scrap material,…boxes, crates [and] building materials” could also be potentially helpful in building similar off-grid living structures, and could potentially benefit both human and environmental health in the reduction of waste, and the role in limiting harmful methods of mass production, such as the harvesting of old growth forests for wood and paper products.
More generally, there are also many who object to government taxation (or theft) for the involuntary funding of recycling programs. Furthermore, depending on the type of recycling facility used, a significant portion of recyclable waste (estimates range between 20-40%) ends up in a landfill.
And, while organizations such as the Colorado Association for Recycling may be coordinating with other organizations and institutions to implement a leadership program for sustainable purchasing, the arguably more damaging lack of sustainability regarding political power and taxation itself fails to be addressed.
And this addiction to power and taxation, along with an economy centered around this addiction, also results in the side-effects of the perpetuation of a culture based in addictive relationships.
Meanwhile, treatment for addiction to a different form of junk (aka heroin) in Pueblo, Colorado was the subject of a September 24th podcast on Colorado Public Radio’s website. According to the podcast, “Just 6 percent of the state’s residents live there, but they represent 18 percent of Coloradans being treated for heroin addiction.”
The podcast also points out “…experts seem to think it’s a combination of factors — economics, ease of access, even that there’s just less to do in southeast Colorado.”
These findings would also support those of the “Rat Park” experiment conducted in the late 1970s, by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander, and colleagues at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, B.C.
The observations made in this experiment supported Alexander’s hypothesis that addictions in laboratory rats are attributed to their living conditions, as opposed to biological chemical dependency on the opiates themselves.
The park of which the experiment was named after was described in the book Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century as a “8.8 m2 (95 sq ft) housing colony, 200 times the floor area of a standard laboratory cage.”
The rats in this cage were given a choice of a bottle of ordinary tap water and a bottle of morphine-laced water. They, contrary to the rats in the control group confined in small cages, always consumed the tap water.
This experiment is also cited by many other experts who work in the field of addiction, including Dr. Gabor Maté, as evidence that most aspects of addiction are cultural and environmental, as opposed to the popular mindset that addiction is more genetically and biologically based.
Consequently this mindset also legitimizes the further medication by the pharmaceutical industry of other ailments commonly associated with addiction, such as anxiety, depression, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, as if addiction itself can simply be “medicated” away with drugs that have in many cases proven to be more harmful.
And the line of logic associated with this mentality may also relate to the same logic associated with the addiction to political power itself, including the political power which fuels the very regulations that seek to prevent off-gridders in Costilla County from building a community safety net – the same kind which Maté observes as being largely absent from modern and “advanced” western culture.
Addressing the issue of political power in the short documentary Engines of Domination, author and philosopher Mark Corske postulates that political power is also the main cause for that which people might refer to as destructive technology. And I strongly agree with this logic, with legal code itself as one of many forms of human technology.
With this in mind, might it also be that land use codes in places such as San Luis protect a much deeper cultural addiction to land and resources themselves? If so, what can be done to change the technology so it more accurately reflects a culture based in voluntary association, and free of addictive relationships, including those relating to political power, organized theft (taxation), and the hoarding of wealth and resources? The city of San Luis and Costilla County, Colorado may help to provide answers to these questions in years to come.
(UPDATE – October 2, 2015: According to a Colorado Public Radio article, as of October 1st, 2015 Costilla County off-gridders claimed victory. The proposed permit changes, which would have required water, septic, and electricity, would have conflicted with the non-conventional building methods embraced by off-gridders.)