The AltBuild Alternative Building
Materials & Design Expo, in its ninth year, is regarded as a place
for the “green-curious” to make the leap to “green-committed.” For
people who had already waded past compact fluorescent bulbs deep into
eco-consciousness territory, however, it was the place to show off,
compare carbon footprints and otherwise feel greener-than-thou.
of the greenest people at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium had to be
David Karp, with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Karp
stood in front of a bin of worms and plunged his hand into the
wriggling mess. Worm feces, a powerful natural fertilizer, leaked out
the bottom of the bin. Karp scrounged around in the catch tray and let
the poop dribble through his fingers. “That's the good stuff,” he said.
he brews a cup of worm tea with the poop, using five gallons of water,
molasses, fish food and an aquarium bubbler. The tea is not for him but
Karp, a worm aficionado, waxed poetic about their
characteristics: how the components of the bin mimic the top six inches
of jungle leaf litter; how worms are hermaphroditic (“They make each
other pregnant”); how they live two years in the wild and five “in
captivity;” how, like many convention attendees, they adore vegetables
and abhor meat and dairy.
Stick their bin in a warm, shady spot,
pop in a few melon rinds, and the wigglers will happily defecate a
garden's worth of compost. “What if the worms leave the bin?” a woman
“Why would they leave? Where would they go? They hate light,” Karp said. “They're not curious.”
was hard to determine who was the most hard core about going green.
People were attending hands-on drip-irrigation workshops and
rainwater-harvesting workshops and panels on “Sustainable Landscapes
Demystified.” In between perusing soy ink-printed brochures that
proclaimed “Insulation is sexy stuff,” they were contemplating urban
homesteading and native plant gardening and permaculture and solar tubes
and zero toxin paints. They were driving energy-efficient hybrid cars.
Those who didn't drive were having their bicycles valet-parked.
stuff into other stuff is one of the central tenets of green living,
and people here did this in spades. They turned shipping containers into
houses, and houses into miniature ecosystems. They turned their roofs
into gardens, and their gardens into certified wildlife refuges. They
turned recycled plastic into furniture that resembles wood. They dredged
wood from the bottom of lakes and turned it into fancy, $6,000 Danish
If recycling is a central tenet, so is guilt.
Some attendees were wracked by guilt showering and doing laundry: all
that perfectly semi-usable water down the drain!
The water people
were a category unto themselves. Leigh Jerrard installs residential
“gray-water” irrigation systems that let you water, say, as he does,
three peach trees, one plum tree, one apple tree, and some loquats with
the used water from your washing machine. Jerrard gnashed his teeth in
anger at the thought of his neighbor hosing off the driveway.
people sought to drink the very ocean itself after removing its salt.
Easier said than done. Gossip in the water camp turned to the pilot
desalination program in Redondo Beach. They had problems with backflow.
Chlorine bleach leaked out from an adjoining desalination tank at the
Redondo Beach SEA Lab, killing most of the animals in the aquarium,
including 7,000 baby sea bass being raised on-site. On the morning of
the waterborne toxic event, the fish swam erratically, then went belly
up. Tragically, and ironically, the fish were a month away from release
into the ocean.
Unsurprisingly, the Expo also was the place to
feel insecure about your greenness. At lunch (organic, vegan, tasty as a
cardboard box) I sat next to a woman who had been neglecting the
outdoors because she's too busy reading books about it. Across from her,
a guy couldn't stop talking about the guava tree he'd planted. He spoke
in glowing terms, as if it were his child. He was spending inordinate
amounts of time on that tree, he said.
The outdoorsy woman nodded
as the guava tree guy went on. “I know what you mean,” she said,
stabbing her lettuce with a biodegradable plastic fork. “If I never had
to sleep again, I'd be rereading my book on urban foraging.”
of course, is the ultimate nonrecyclable. Architect Douglas Stanton,
finding himself with an abundance of time due to the economic downturn,
taught himself to build Depression-era architect Wallace Neff's bubble
houses. The indestructible structure is made by spraying concrete onto a
giant nylon balloon, “sort of like how you make a piñata.” It uses 50
percent less energy than a wood-frame house and looks 100 percent like
Jedi master Yoda's hut on the swamp planet Dagobah.
the hardest of the hard-core sustainability advocates are those willing
to kill for it. Asked if he is vegetarian, 20-something Davey paused for
a long time. “I raise chickens,” he said finally.
He also slaughters them. “It was hard the first time,” he admitted. “I couldn't see myself doing it on a weekly basis.”
remembers watching his grandmother kill a chicken when he was a kid. He
remembers being scared. It was the first time he'd been involved with
the meat he eats. For his own fowl execution, he used a killing cone.
“It's like a traffic cone,” he explained. You hang the chicken upside
down with its head poking outside the cone, then slit its throat.
far Davey has only killed chickens. He hoped to get some rabbits soon.
“I'm not really ready to eat rabbits yet, though,” he said. “I just want