Down to Earthship

There is a giant, glowing Jesus statue that overlooks the idyllic beach community of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua from a cliff on the edge of the horseshoe shaped bay. It is in peripheral vision from every porch, picnic table, beach blanket and bar stool in town. There is also, coincidentally, a group of transplanted Californians living in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town who have made it their business to behave like saints; coordinating after-school English lessons for local kids, planning beach clean-up days and stopping to pick up loads of school children on their way to the beach. Under no formal nonprofit or organization name, the crew has been making their print on the local community. They even built Casa Llanta, Nicaragua’s very first, authentic Earthship.

The Earthship design was first developed in Taos, New Mexico by sustainability guru Michael Reynolds. Incorporating the use of society’s throw-away products like tires, glass bottles, plastic containers and aluminum cans, Earthships were built using minimal amounts of cement, treated wood, plaster and other common construction materials. Modern Earthship designs are self-sustainable, off-grid structures that utilize water catchment systems, solar panels, thermal heating and cooling, contained sewage treatment and internal food harvesting systems.

For native Nicaraguans, life is relatively simple. Much of the population already live off-grid due to several factors including an unwillingness by power supply companies to run power lines into the isolated, rural areas where many locals live and work. In contrast to the cost of living in Nicaragua, energy is also extremely expensive and for those who do live in on-grid areas, there are frequent power outages that can last for hours. It is arguably more practical to develop everyday habits that don’t require electricity use, or, to live in an Earthship.

When Tim Kelly, a transplanted Californian real-estate developer among many ex-pats in San Juan del Sur that have recently flocked to Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast, bought 550 acres of land on the side of a mountain on the edge of town, he wasn’t planning to host Nicaragua’s first Earthship. When his friend David Kniffin, a long time green building enthusiast who had done an internship with Michael Reynolds’ company Earthship Biotecture, jokingly declared he wanted to build one on a flat, lower-laying plot on Kelly’s parcel, the Casa Llanta project was born.

“Mike [Reynolds] likes the idea of going to new places, he liked the fact that we were actually totally off-grid and that we were going to be utilizing land that didn’t have power and didn’t have easy water access. Why build all these power poles and drag all these millions of miles of wire, digging wells and pumping water? Just build an Earthship,” said Kelly.

In December of 2007, a crew of ten Taos-trained Earthship builders arrived in Nicaragua to join 13 local laborers who broke ground on Casa Llanta. The hybrid construction crew got right down to work; collecting materials from nearby transportation hub Rivas, packing dirt into tires to be laid as “bricks” forming load-bearing walls, and cutting and cleaning plastic and glass bottles for honeycomb-style light bearing cut-outs.

The 1800 square foot Earthship was completed in August 2009. Finished, the back is built into the Earth for maximum natural heating and cooling for comfort in any climate making it appropriate and adaptable with the extreme conditions of the country’s rainy and dry seasons. The three-dome water catchment system is designed to maximize use of available rain water through a series of filtration methods including garden filters, leveraging what falls from the sky for use in showers, toilets and to water plants. Excess rain accumulated during the rainy season is stored in cisterns for use during the dry, desert-like months. The roof of Casa Llanta dons five 123-watt solar panels which collect energy from the sun for as much as eight hours of daylight; enough to power the refrigerator, lights and to recharge laptops. Casa Llanta is immune from two of the major challenges of Nica-living; frequent power outages and crop-crippling precipitation shortages.

Casa Llanta is situated among a community that is home to a few hundred Nicaraguan families, according to Brooke Rundle, San Juan del Sur real estate agent and founding member of the Earthship crew. Along with the indigenous population, the area has seen significant growth during the last ten years as an influx of international developers have discovered acres of undisturbed land ripe with oceanfront property, quiet beach views and access, and mountain look-out lots. As neighboring Costa Rica has struggled with the preservation of distinctive Tico-culture in the face of a similar foreign-investor development boom, Nicaragua now faces a similar challenge.

“We’re trying to make this a community effort and not just another case of gringos who are coming down and building just like everyone else. We’re really focused on helping the community thrive, and helping to get more and more of both the local and visiting people involved,” said Rundle.

The process of building the Earthship has provided benefits to the local community that the projects leaders hope will lead to sustained results. Working alongside the Taos-trained Earthship crew members, local laborers from the surrounding area learned to utilize cheap, locally abundant materials to build spaces that are conducive to solving some of the contemporary challenges of Nicaraguan living.

Natural heating and cooling through passive solar and thermal mass, water catchment with simple rooftop collection systems and sustainable agriculture are also among the Earthship’s simply executed and affordable solutions to both extreme rains and debilitating dry seasons.

“We’re trying to figure out building methods that are less costly and more feasible for the locals to use. For example, the local school runs out of water every single year during the dry season. It’s pretty easy to install a simple water catchment system off the roof. If [local residents] need a retaining wall in their homes, why not build it out of tires? Tires are free and there are a lot right outside of town. There’s actually a ton, because the roads are so bad here,” said Rundle.

The ambitious Earthship crew is optimistic for the future development of the Casa Llanta community. Committed to staying off-grid, Tim Kelly sells exclusively to those who accept that the lots will not have access to fossil-fueled utilities to ensure strictly solar, wind and renewable energy use. He believes the Earthship, which sits on the lowest piece of the 550-acre package, will be instrumental in illustrating the benefits and feasibility of both the Earthship design and the off-grid option in general.


New Orleans Contemporary Art: Post-Katrina

On Thursday, September 24, artist and gallery owner Terrence Sanders presented a private screening of his documentary film "New Orleans Contemporary Art: Post-Katrina." Just before 7 p.m. a collection of local artists, gallery owners and New Orleans' art-scene stakeholders milled about at the Marigny intersection of Kerlerec and Royal streets, sandwiched between Sanders' ArtVoices headquarters and the R Bar. The film had only been previously previewed for one night in late July at Robert Tannen's Studio 527 gallery.

The art space gone screening room was ripe with some of New Orleans most active and influential artists and curators, many who were also featured in the film. Running at about 30 minutes, the film featured snippits of interviews with Andy Antippas (owner, Barrister's Gallery), Willie Birch (artist), Dan Cameron (director of visual art at New Orleans' Contemporary Arts Center and director of Prospect.1), Dawn DeDeaux (artist), Brad Dupuy (artist), Olivia Hill (artist), Kirsha Kaechele (owner, KK Projects), Mia Kaplan (artist), Borislava Kharalampiev (owner, Gallery Bienvenu, Miranda Lash (curator, New Orleans Museum of Art, Shantrelle Lewis (curator, George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, Terrence Sanders (artist and editor, ArtVoices magazine), Robert Tannen (artist) and more.

"After my friend and fellow Artist Jeffrey Cook’s untimely death, I decided to document our contemporary art scene in New Orleans. The outcome is a concise and coherent motion picture that celebrates our struggle to articulate the movement of contemporary art in Nola," Sanders said in a press release for the July preview screening.

Among still images of recent pieces and installations shown in various venues throughout the city and the tune of a sobering piano piece, the colorful cast of characters (in the truest sense of the word) discussed their personal histories in New Orleans arts scene, last year's biennial Prospect.1 and the effects of Hurricane Katrina on local artists and their work.

"I came to New Orleans based on a moment in a restaurant in New York City. And I had just come back to the country from living in southern Lebanon and I suppose I had a little bit of a culture shock. So, I wandered into this restaurant and felt immediately at home. There was this table of about thirteen people, laughing their heads off, falling out of their chairs onto the floor, children on the table dancing, at this beautiful restaurant. And I just said, 'wherever these people are from, I’m moving there immediately.' I went up and said, 'where are you from?' And they said, 'New Orleans, come on!' And I did, I took a train down three days later," said Kirsha Kaechele.

At the risk of seeming self-important, Sanders finished the film with a segment of himself waxing predictive about the legacy of the post-storm players (presumably himself included) who are defining New Orleans' art scene.

"They [future generations] are going to look back, and they’re going to talk about new Orleans post-Katrina. They’re going to talk about the contemporary art movement and the way we were alive here, and that we were alive. And this is what it’s all about," said Sanders.


Author Dr. Gigi Durham presents "The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It" at Loyola University

On Monday, September 20, in conjunction with "Love Your Body Week" at Loyola University New Orleans, women's studies and mass communications scholar Dr. Gigi Durham presented a free, public lecture, "The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It." Highlighting several points discussed in her book of the same title, Durham discussed the five myths that comprise the female-plaguing phenomenon she has coined "The Lolita Effect." The five myths are, in summary, a set of media messages that offer misleading representations of female sexuality and the female body.

The lecture began with the presentation of several alarming statistics that illustrate the real life consequences caused by the five myths of "The Lolita Effect":

  • Women account for 90–95% of all cases of anorexia nervosa and 80% of those who struggle with bulimia nervosa. (Source: National Institute for Mental Health)
  • In a study of 13 Northern California schools, 35% of third grade girls (average age 8) reported wanting to lose weight while 24% reported dieting to lose weight.
  • The use of diet pills, powders or liquids to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight is higher among women in grades 9–12 than it is among young men of the same age group.
  • There has been a 600% increase in womens' death rates from lung cancer since 1950. (Source: Recent surgeon general’s report)
  • Smoking among girls and young women increased dramatically during the 1990s. From 1991 through 1999, smoking among high school girls increased from 27–34% percent.
  • Over the last 20 years, lung cancer has become the leading cause of death among women, showing a nearly 400% increase since 1989.

In pursuit of the roots of these unsettling realities, which paint a bleak picture of a population of American women suffering from issues stemming from poor body-image and a resulting, disturbing decrease in healthy, self-nurturing choices, Durham turned to the media.

“Market research indicates that children and teenagers are major media consumers. Teens, in particular, get most of their information about sex from the media. They turn to the media for information about sex far more than they do their parents, their teachers or even their peers,” said Durham.

According to Durham, recent studies have shown a direct correlation between teen consumption of media containing high levels of sexual content and teen sexual activity. Those who were exposed to sexy media were more likely to exhibit sexual behaviors, including teen pregnancy. Levels of teen pregnancy are rising, and a study done by the Center for Disease Control in 2000 showed that one in four teenage girls had a sexually transmitted disease.

“What we can see from this is that girls are not getting the information, understanding or confidence that they need to control their sexual lives and make decisions that are good for them,” said Durham. "I looked at a huge amount of media that target girls, in particular girls and children, and what I saw, over and over again, was that these certain myths of sexuality kept coming up over and over again.”

Durham continued on to explain the five myths of “The Lolita Effect”:

Myth #1: If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

“This very simplistic formula that the more you take off the sexier you are is really negating all these other complicating factors that make up human sexuality. It’s putting girls in the position of having to display their bodies usually for the male gaze, for boys to look at and arbitrate and judge. It puts girls in a more vulnerable position in part because this myth comes in the conditional: IF you’ve got it, flaunt it,” said Durham.

Myth #2: “It” = The body of a sex goddess.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And what is “it”? “It” is basically the anatomy of a sex goddess. If you’ve got the anatomy of a sex goddess, then you can flaunt it. And we all know what that particular anatomy involves; a completely unrealistic and completely unattainable body; extremely slender, tight as a tick, no flab anywhere, and yet extremely large breasts. Which is a body not found in nature. Nobody comes to that body naturally,” said Durham.

Myth #3: Pretty babies.

“The younger a girl is, the sexier she is. And we’re seeing this message reiterated over and over again in the media,” said Durham. To better explain how the media sends the message of the “pretty babies” myth, Durham cited the following examples:

  • The pole dancing kit, marketed by British retailer Tesco, features a little plastic pole, a child size garter belt and fake money to tuck into it.
Durham noted that as numbers released by UNICEF estimated a staggering 1.2 million children worldwide are pulled into the sex trade each year, products like the pole dancing kit are contributing to the normalization of children within the realm of the sex trade and industry.
  • A photo published in Vanity Fair, a widely circulated, gender-neutral magazine with equal rates of male and female readers, featured a very young, flat-chested female posing erotically for a Louis Vuitton ad.

When Durham asked lecture attendees how old the girl looked, a male member of the audience estimated her to be ten years old.

“Ten or eleven," Durham agreed, "and yet, she’s being presented as a legitimate object of sexual desire. She’s a very young girl, clearly underage, probably hasn’t even reached puberty yet, and she’s in this extremely eroticized pose. And this is not from some child porn magazine. This was in Vanity Fair. And there was no public outcry about this, no protest," Durham continued.

She cited that one in four girls, and one in five boys in the United States are thought to have been sexually abused.

"Given the really high rates of child sexual abuse, are these media actually helping in terms of a growing problem with child sexual abuse? This is something I really have to question,” said Durham.

Myth #4: Violence is sexy.

Durham cited an observation made by masculinity scholar Jackson Katz, pointing out the common timing of female murders in many contemporary slasher films; the killer often strikes at the most erotic moment, when a female has just removed her clothing or is in a sexual (and vulnerable) position.

“The point is that right when you’re average teenage boy is highly aroused by this scene, that’s when the violence happens. So that connection between arousal and violence is reiterated in these kinds of media. We need to be questioning whether these media are actually creating an atmosphere in which this type of violence is supported and normalized,” Durham probed.

Myth #5: What boys like matters more than what girls like.

“We see this particularly in media aimed at young girls. It’s constantly telling girls that all the ways in which they have to think about sexuality is aimed at pleasing and attracting the male gaze or attracting boys. It never goes the other way, what a boy can do to attract a girl, or there’s never anything there about what girls want. What about girls’ sexual pleasures? What about girls’ desires? What about girls’ boundaries? There’s never anything about that. There’s this whole missing discourse about girls’ desire,” said Durham.

To illustrate her point, Durham presented covers of popular teen (girls’) magazines which featured titles such as "Get Him to Notice You," "How Far Must a Girl Go to Get his Attention?," and "How to Become His Girlfriend."

Even in light of the absurdity of some media messages regarding female sexuality, Durham remains adamantly opposed to censorship. Her approaches to the problems presented by media misrepresentations regarding female sexuality and the female body would be, in a sense, just the opposite. She advocates a dedication to increasing open, public discourse about female sexuality and the female body, encouraging and teaching media literacy and raising awareness, all of which she believes would be steps toward debunking some of the factors at play behind the nationwide crisis that has yielded rising numbers of teen pregnancy, STDs, negative body-image, mental illness, and hazardous behavior among young girls and women.

“As a feminist, as a women's studies scholar and as an advocate for girls and women’s rights, I believe that these myths are preventing us from truly understanding, respecting, and yes, loving our bodies,” Durham said.


A New Orleans style send-off: For Michael (and me)

For my last week in New Orleans before spending the summer in Central America, I thought I should take advantage of all those same-old-thing weekly parties that go down regularly in New Orleans: Up here, Uptown, every Tuesday night it's Rebirth Brass Band at The Maple Leaf, down on Frenchman street, Thursday night is reggae night with T-Roy at Blue Nile, and way down at Mimi's in the Marigny DJ Soul Sister spins rare funk and groove records every Saturday night. I don't know if it's the impending departure date, the heat wave or what, but for some reason this week they were all more fun than ever.
In honor of Michael Jackson, Soul Sister did an extra special, all Michael night. New Orleans is not my home town but I've spent 4 summers here (entering the 5th) and I have never sweat so much. Not running on the neutral ground in the sun in August, not at a Tuesday night Rebirth show, not at Dragon's Den reggae night post-"closed balcony rule," not at Krewe of OAK Mid-Summer Mardi Gras, not waiting tables in a restaurant with a busted A/C, and not today, at the Michael Jackson 7th ward second line on a record-breaking hot Sunday in late June. What a week, though. The week of three showers a day.

Second Line for Michael Jackson
Sunday, June 28, 2009
St. Bernard Avenue, New Orleans, La.


Lower 9th ward's Holy Cross Project homes are outfitted with PV-systems by local green workers and trainees

New Orleans’ lower 9th ward residents and community leaders joined Global Green USA at the site of the Holy Cross Project on Wednesday where solar-PV systems were installed on the rooftops of the projects under construction 2nd and 3rd single family homes.

The day was both a celebration of the expansion of the Holy Cross Project, which has tripled in size during the past year with three houses now on the lot, and a chance for green building and renewable energy enthusiasts to check out a solar panel installation. It was also a chance for a trainee from a local solar installation course to participate in his first actual installation as part of his PV-certification process.

“What the New Orleans community needs are not only green and sustainable buildings and houses like the model house here at the Holy Cross Project, but contractors that have been trained to build this way, using the green methods and practices we’ve used and are using to build these structures,” said Mike Lopez, Global Green USA’s construction manager at the Holy Cross Project.

“For that reason, we decided to try to hire only local, professional contractors, and train them in how to build this way, so that long after we’ve completed this and our other projects, local citizens will have access to a pool of skilled and qualified contractors who can build to sustainable, responsible standards for their own projects, both residential and commercial,” said Lopez.

Although solar panels and other renewable energy options are becoming increasingly available and accessible, particularly in Louisiana, which offers buyers generous tax credits in addition to the Federal incentives, the systems are still expensive and thus remain mysterious or out of reach for much of the population. Many of us, even those of us who have made careers out of promoting, organizing, lobbying for, writing about and generally dabbling in green-geared activities and industries, have never seen an actual solar panel installation. It was super cool.

South Coast Solar, the local renewable energy firm who were hired by Global Green to perform the installation, constructed a special 20-person capacity viewing platform for the event. After remarks from Global Green’s New Orleans Director Beth Galante, South Coast Solar President Troy Von Otnott, New Orleans Office of Recovery Development and Administration Belinda Little-wood and Chief of Staff for Councilperson Cynthia Willard Lewis, Clarence Bickham, attendees were invited to climb a couple of flights to watch the team do the job at eye-level. They also permitted Julio Cardoza, a trainee from a course presented by local solar installation trainers Louisiana CleanTech Network (LCTN) to participate.

“Real trained personnel in this industry are hard to find. You can go to an institution, you can go to school, and you can get trained and qualified for NABCEP certification without ever doing anything on the roof. Sure that’s possible. But is that going to help the industry? No. Programs like this, where you actually get the knowledge and the training in the field, that’s what we really need and what the solar industry needs,” said Aaron Garrett-Schesch, the newest member of the South Coast Solar team who moved to New Orleans just one week before the installation at Holy Cross.

“People need to be proactive. The net metering PV-systems on a house like this do a lot to stabilize the energy grid, reduce the demand on the grid, and during times of non-consumption they’re actually trickling energy back into the grid,” said Garrett-Schesch.

“[Global Green USA] are actually doing their part, and that makes for a more secure community, state, and a whole country for that matter. Residential systems like this that trickle back and are doing their part, they do a lot to stabilize everybody’s security. I don’t care if you’re in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Manhattan, or anyplace else, we are all on the same grid,” said Garrett-Schesch.

The South Coast Solar team, with the help Cardoza, who has passed the required NABCEP exam and is making his way through the next round of qualification which involves serving as “lead installer” on two jobs, laid down and fastened 16 panels which will yield 193 watts each. That’s 3,088 watts per house.

A Nicaraguan native, Cardoza came to the U.S. five years ago to attend Alabama’s University of Mobile, and has worked in the construction industry as a plumber for the past two years. Noticing the rapid growth of the solar industry in New Orleans, he began investigating local training opportunities to get certified as a renewable energy system installer. Through his research he found Louisiana CleanTech Network, who have been offering solar electric training courses in Louisiana since 2008 and have since trained over 140 local workers.

But the classroom coursework is just the beginning of the training process. LCTN courses prepare trainees with the information they need to pass the preliminary, industry standard NABCEP exam. Once passing the first test, LCTN pairs students with local, accredited companies that will permit them to practice as lead installers for a total of two installations in order to qualify for the second PV-certification exam.

LCTN linked Cardoza up with South Coast Solar, who invited him to participate in Global Green’s Holy Cross Project installation. In between gulps of water and wiping sweat from his brow, Cardoza called the experience “way, way different” from being in the classroom. He declared with confidence, though admitting to have wondered previously, that he is not afraid of heights.

Cardoza plans to stay in New Orleans and focus on his professional development in the solar industry. As for Nicaragua, which he said is far behind in adopting alternative energy use, Cardoza hopes to go back someday and share his solar skills and knowledge with his native country.

“I am planning on staying here long term, but I’m focused on doing what I have to do in terms of getting experience. [In Nicaragua] they don’t have any idea about this. They are still struggling with the old technology. Hopefully one day I’m going to go to Nicaragua and share this experience over there,” said Cardoza.