Reviews: Green Media

New reading and film for the ecophile

By Tobin Hack

Photo by Oliver Hodge

Garbage Warrior
Directed by Oliver Hodge, Open Eye Media, $24.98

Irresistibly irreverent architect Michael Reynolds has spent 30-plus years building houses out of garbage—old beer bottles, plastic water bottles, used car tires, you name it. The result is a groundbreaking model for entirely off-the-grid commu­nities of recycled “cellular” homes called Earthships—self-sufficient units that look to the sun for energy, the sky for water, the earth for heat, and the backyard for food. But US zoning and housing laws aren’t quite as trash-friendly as an experimental architect might have hoped; Hodge devotes much of the film to the Man vs Red Tape battle that ensues when New Mexico state author­ities revoke Reynolds’ architectural li­cense and ban his radical building techniques. Eventually, he and his team buck authority by marching out to the tsunami-hit Andaman Islands and post-Katrina New Orleans, offering their services to grateful, open-minded, and deserving home-seekers. Reynolds’ Earth­ships are as ugly as they are ingenious, but with water supplies drying up and oil at over $100 a barrel, they could start to look pretty good, even to the McMansion set. He claims he’s only trying to “save [his] ass” from global warming, pollution, and infrastructure breakdown, but the twinkle in his eye suggests he’s also in it for a good laugh, the thrill of rocking the boat, and the challenge of creating safe havens in an unstable world. — Tobin Hack

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler
By Thomas Hager
Harmony Books, $24.95

At the turn of the 20th century, the world faced an unprecedented problem: global starvation. Natural sources of fertilizer were nearly tapped, and unless someone developed an artificial source, a food crisis was imminent. Then scientists Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber invented a machine that produced ammonia, the main ingredient in fertilizer, out of thin air. Considered one of the greatest discoveries of all time, the technology created the means for feeding billions of people. But the success carried a heavy price. Arms makers used the same process that generated man-made manure to make explosives that killed millions in the world wars. Nature has also suffered from the discovery—nitrogen pollution has poisoned our air, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Hager’s latest book, Alchemy is a gripping account of the partnership between two Nobel Prize winners whose efforts to save the world had tragic consequences we’re still sifting through today.  —Alisa Opar

The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens our Health and Well-being
By Nena Baker
North Point Press, $24

It’s no fun to be told that toxins in the shampoo you’ve used for decades, the fire-retardants covering your electronic equipment, or the nonstick Teflon pan you love so dearly could be hijacking your body’s systems—just as they do the planet’s ecosystems—and contributing to cancer rates, diabetes, and birth defects. But unfortunately, in the span of only about 100 years, we’ve rushed headlong into “better living through chemistry,” and we’ve done it all blindly, thanks to an antiquated 1976 Toxic Control Act that does not mandate toxicity testing for chemicals used in everything from carpeting to liquid cleaners to cosmetics. We’re our own lab rats, effectively, and the test results coming back today don’t look good. But Baker is neither obsessive nor alarmist. She calmly presents two decades’ worth of critical research into the science and industries behind leading chemical culprits such as phthalates, pesticides, and PFOAs. In an appendix, she outlines the reasonable, manageable steps she’s taken to detox her own home, body, and lifestyle—a good place for anyone to start. —TH

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Issue 25

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