Living in the Environment, Introduction


Author: Alistair Knox

The history and progress of environmental building in Australia is really the history of modem mud brick building. It is not confined to earth walls, but earth-wall construction stimulates a point of view and a relationship with nature that no other material is able to do. It makes everything seem possible by retaining much of the wonder and mystery that is the power of the natural environment. This sense of totality of human comprehension is nowhere better expressed than by the Duke Senior in Shakespeare's As You Like It who, when he has to live in the Forest of Arden, ' ... finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stone and good in everything', and this is precisely the impact that environmental building should have on twentieth century man. It should counteract the confusion that the perpetual flow of high technology products have upon him as they pander to his hysteria generated by the advertising media, and then fall apart as he grasps them in his hand because of their planned obsolescence.

By contrast, the humble mud brick is unquestionably the most universal and enduring of all building materials. Its history reaches back into the timeless past. No one knows by whom or when it was first used. The English archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley, in his book Digging up the Past, refers to mud brick walls he found still standing in Mesopotamia after more than 4000 years. In photographs they look exactly like walls that are being laid in Australia today. It is also estimated that something like two-thirds of all the buildings in the world are made from some form of unbaked earth and clay.

The universality of earth-walling springs first from its availability, and secondly from the fact that it can be produced by human labour alone. It cannot become the prerogative of the multi-nationals or of the corporate State. It can be made without any machinery at all and it requires no modem engineering skills. It is the total material which is as available to the poor as it is to the rich. It cannot be copyrighted or patented. It is a community activity, yet it is full of personal interpretation, and it is eternally recyclable because it is the most basic of all substances and cannot normally be altered from its existing form or broken down into another character. It is the heart and soul, the basic element of the Low Technology life style that is so exercising the minds of conservationists today.

The glory of Greece and the splendour of Rome have largely decayed and those remaining miracles in stone such as the Parthenon that still stand have never been more seriously threatened than they have been through pollution during the past twenty years.

It is a further fact that it is only in technically advanced states that earth building is no longer considered a viable method of construction. The Corporate State in its over-simplification of the complex problems of modern civilisation continually seeks generalised technical answers to its problems. Its hope, for instance, that the green revolution would solve the world food shortages becomes an evident failure, as the mass starvation in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and other poverty stricken economies is becoming tacitly accepted as a way of life that cannot be changed.

The continual demand for sophisticated building materials and methods likewise produces an economic crisis which even in Australia is pushing the idea of single unit housing out of the reach of many of its inhabitants. The multinationals' capacity to produce anti-human, dull, repetitive products has outstripped the ability of those for whom they are designed to pay for them or even to want them. A stage has now been reached where the almighty automotive industry is shuddering at the uncertainty of its future, while the erstwhile despised oil sheiks of the Persian Gulf and other Middle East countries wallow in luxury undreamed of even by the Caliphs of the Arabian Nights.

The whole structure of Western civilisation is under the deepest scrutiny by the younger generation who have lost faith in its law and order arguments; as they meditate on its inability to practise what it preached in Vietnam, and a dozen other great conscience issues. The current uncertainty that dogs materialist societies through inflation and the increasing gap that separates the 'haves' and the 'have nots' is reaching a state of comparative permanence. Many younger people feel it is fruitless to work hard to try and accumulate funds that can give them financial security. The diminishing purchasing power of money causes their savings to fall continually further' behind in the race to have the equivalent material possessions they might have expected only ten or fifteen years ago.

As this disenchantment with traditional living infects the greater part of the Australian community, it is creating a climate of affairs that makes the idea of building in earth sound both possible and fascinating.

There is seldom a day goes past without some new person discussing with me the idea of earth-wall building. The enquiries come from all sections of society in suburban, semi-rural, and rural living areas, and from those in the lowest through to the highest income brackets. There is a fundamental movement in the hearts of many people to find an alternative to the ticky-tacky and pressed out plastic products that have neither sensuous appeal nor spiritual value. A revulsion has set in against quantity at the price of quality because such things in themselves soon clog and clutter.

The growing premonition that there could he an environmental collapse of nature intensifies the issues in ever increasing circles, and it is this search for genuine simplification of life style that will cause earth to become once again of primary importance as a building medium in the erstwhile sophisticated societies.

Many now feel that the last great struggle for the life of mankind on the planet Earth was joined in the 1950s. It was not heralded hy a great bombardment. There was no call-up, little flag waving or national fervour. Nevertheless, the armies were in array and stood confronting each other.

As in all other wars, the aggressors could justify their stand in their own eyes.

The general population of the countries can mostly be won over or intimidated yet everyone knows that if they win the battle the war will destroy both the spoil and the spoiler. Those that have, want more, and they can only get it hy depriving those who have not. The struggle ha'l become global because we have run out of space and resources to confine it to countries and continents.

The corporate State's vast technology started churning out chemical products which, though slower in action, were just as deadly as nerve gas. Millions of tons of pesticides, carbon monoxide and the thousand new household words that we now call pollution pour all over the purity of the natural creation, so that it would no longer survive without a crusade of people at all levels of society in every nation.

The conservation of the planet for the habitation of mankind requires a clarification of the issues involved. These include the conflict between the natural environment and the man-manipulated environment. It is the struggle between physical living space and the conservation of natural resources against the rapacity of the vested interests of mining, capital gain development and, in Australia, the crucifixion of the eucalypt forests for the chip mill and similar industries. These can destroy tens of thousands of square miles of life-giving landscape in the overexploitation of the natural resources of the earth. It is private gain opposed to the welfare of the total humanity. The battle is bigger than man. It has caught those who have sought to control it in a web of unimaginable tangling. It is a case of people versus property, exploited for profit: the conflict between man"s intellect set on its own plan against the immutable and silent forces of nature - sunlight, air, soil, water, and the hosts of growing things that combine into what we call the 'Earth'.

The Universe will win in the end but, unless we change our ground, it may only be at the cost of all civilisation being totally destroyed in the process.

This book seeks to find a creative aspect to alleviate this stellar calamity.

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