Thinking about paper towels and things

This is My Brain on Paper Towels

I read the above essay this morning and decided to post it here because it’s a question that fairly regularly comes up in my life, the degree to which we make efforts to avoid wasteful or toxic products, and by extension how “green” (whatever that means) we are. I’m one who believes that individual actions and desires are a big part of the web of reasons why we’re on the road to who knows what climatically. (By the way, I’m reading World Made by Hand right now and it is not helping my general level of optimism that the world will avoid such a scenario.) That said, the fact that you (the plural you) don’t compost, or even recycle, is not going to in itself cause global climatic catastrophe, though yes, the amalgamation of our actions does carry a massive amount of weight, toward the continued production of throw-away consumer goods, the destruction of ecosystems in order to meet the public’s demand for a certain way of life, combined emissions from cars, etc. But the bad guy is not just us, or even the guy who tosses beer cans out his car window and into a sanctuary for piping plovers, and so I believe it to be counterproductive to make environmental consciousness into a pissing contest to see who’s doing the most to save Earth.

I know a girl who’s vegan (well, I know several, but I’m talking about one in particular). This in itself doesn’t bother me at all because it’s her personal choice, she can eat or not eat what she wants. I don’t eat meat (for a variety of reasons) but I do eat dairy and eggs; however, I fully understand why someone would not want to. The thing I don’t understand is the angry judgement that some people project onto others who do not make the same choices. This person is someone who will crinkle her nose and look away when someone next to her is eating a chicken stir-fry, and should you inquire as to what she’s eating for lunch, she says “TOFU” and honest to god you can see her muscles tensing up as though preparing for a fight. Calm down. I witnessed this exact scene, and then the following day also witnessed her unloading a sack of groceries to start cutting up an avocado and mango salad. I can say with the utmost certainty that the mangoes and avocados we get around here come from South America.

So who’s living in gray zones of good and bad? I can’t say, but what I can say is that I have never once witnessed someone respond positively to a personal attack on his or her lifestyle. Maybe you have — if so, please do tell because the person behind the attack might have discovered the magic approach to forcibly changing another’s subjectivity. But I really don’t think that it’s helpful to our world’s problems at large if we the people argue among ourselves about the details of our daily lives. It creates rifts where we should be creating links.

Alvaro’s and my roommate is decidedly less interested and concerned about the sorts of things we talk about all the time, and the roommate and I were talking the other day about friendships that cross political lines. He’s right-leaning, loves buying stuff, takes airplanes all the time, and maybe one in three times does his plastic, metal and paper actually make it into the recycling bin instead of the garbage pail. This makes for occasionally interesting (read: heated) dinner talk. But he said to me when we were discussing our differences that he appreciates that I’m not like him and also that I don’t lecture him for the things he does, and that we can be friends despite it all. I agree, it’s nice to be friends — though he said that he feels we need people all along the scale of politics and beliefs and actions, the real bad guys included, because it makes the world more diverse and interesting. That’s where I don’t agree — I would really love it if everyone in the world lived lightly on the planet, and I want the bad guys to disappear. But in no way do I believe that we’re going to get there by strong-arming people to change.

How then? I am not for erasing guilt, for being like him and saying that we need all sorts of people living all along the spectrum of personal action (environmentally speaking), and that I should not feel bad about getting on an airplane every so often because I do this that or the other so it all equals out.

Corporations depend on our rationalizations: it absolves them of doing anything wrong and it creates guilt-free consumers. That’s why they run all the ads that tell us, “What, you worry?” Falling back on wasteful or toxic products not only has its perverse pleasures, but it can seem “natural,” especially if those products are featured in ads with wild animals and awe-inspiring landscapes.

My personal guilt over some of my choices makes me think critically about what I’m doing, and not having any guilt over how I live could very quickly lead to not caring about anything, planet and people included. My guilt forces me look for alternatives and test my comfort level for new ways of living, and I want that.

The question that follows is to get beyond the “me,” those mantras of “first change yourself” and “small actions lead to big changes” and to figure out what comes next….


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In other news, we had a visiting artist at Utopiana yesterday evening who did part 1 of a two-part workshop on mushroom cultivation. It was FASCINATING. I’ve got loads of pictures and diagrams and explanations coming, but that’ll be for next time because right now I’m heading out to the campagne to see a guy about some wheat.

My first jam

My friends, I have reached a milestone. I have made jam, and canned it.

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We’ve just started getting semi local strawberries here — they’re from farther south in France, so it entailed a little bit of transportation to get them to us in the Haute Savoie, but they are very definitely real strawberries that smell and taste as such, not watery and flavorless like the ones you get when “strawberry season” hits the big chain grocery stores in late February. I will never understand why people buy strawberries so far out of season. There is no pleasure in a winter strawberry.

If I had to pick one food to survive off of for the rest of my life, putting aside questions of whether or not that food contains all the essential nutrients, I would pick strawberries, no debate on that. And because I will not buy out of season strawberries, I am only able to enjoy my favorite food ever for one short window of time throughout the course of the year, and so of course I take full advantage of their presence, i.e., I gorge myself on them — straight up raw, mixed with yogurt, paired with scones and whipped cream, whatever. We bought two kilos at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning and they were all gone by Sunday night. (I had help. Some.)

I also picked up some rhubarb at the market, but an off quantity of it, not really enough to make crumble, which is the only dish I know to do with rhubarb. The only other thing I know that involves rhubarb is strawberry-rhubarb jam, which my grandmother used to make and which I pretty well ate directly out of the jar with a spoon when I visited her place as a kid. She was a child during the Great Depression, and my mother has a theory that Grandma’s food preserving and hoarding of everything from plastic bags to bulk dry goods is a direct psychological response to the experience of deprivation. At my grandparents’ old house, the one my mother grew up in, they had four refrigerators, one large industrial freezer, and an entire basement room lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with canned everything. My cousins and I used to go in there and play a game called Who Can Find the Oldest Preserves. If I remember right, the winner was Apricot Jam, July 1972.

So my grandmother was a thrifty woman, but the canning thing didn’t get passed on through my mother to me. Mom has never canned anything to my knowledge, and in general seems kind of wary of the practice — botulism and whatnot. Because of this I’ve always had a fascination with people who can, imagining them to have some sort of wizard-like capacities to be able to toe the line of bacterial food poisoning without falling on the wrong side. I also assumed a laboratory full of fancy equipment was needed, and that plus the botulism thing had scared me off trying it, until now.

Alvaro’s mom came for a visit last month, and one day putzing around the apartment she decided to sterilize a half dozen of the old glass jars she found at the back of one of the cupboards and put up an enormous batch of tomato sauce. I met up with her and Alvaro that evening for a St. Patrick’s Day beer and when we got home I discovered her afternoon project cooling on the counter top. Needless to say I was astounded. I’m always kind of astounded by her. If you merged the homesteading powers of Alvaro’s mom and my mom, it would create an unstoppable Force of Mom that would no doubt rock the very foundations upon which our consumer culture stands. I asked her how she had managed to do all of that canning without anything in the way of fancy equipment, and she clucked at my naivety and explained putting up produce in a way that suggested it was really not all that magical.

Since her visit I’ve had nothing in the kitchen crying out to be canned, until a couple days ago when the strawberries plus rhubarb put me in a nostalgic state for my grandmother’s jam, so I decided to just go for it. That’s what you need to do sometimes. I sat down and read everything about canning in my Joy of Cooking, and read up on boiling water canning on Food in Jars. This was also supplemented by what Marisa (A’s mom) told me, namely that per her instructions I reused old jars that had once held corn and peanut butter (not together). JoC says to always use new lids, but Marisa didn’t see this as being particularly vital, and since no one in her family has come down with canned tomato sauce-induced food poisoning I decided to take her word for it. Besides, food preservation using this method has been going on for generations, and I would hazard a guess that not everyone had access to brand new canning lids and so they would just reuse the old ones. (I’m not a professional so don’t take my word on this.)

Thus I began. First with two cups of chopped rhubarb and two cups of sugar, mixed together and left in the fridge overnight.

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The next day, with the rhubarb good and soaked in the sugar, I brought it all to boil in a wide pan and then added a quart of washed, hulled, and halved strawberries.

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I stirred it constantly while it simmered for fifteen minutes, until it had thickened up and the mass of foamy, liquid bubbles had subsided into a mass of tiny, gooey ones. Then I transferred it to a glass Tupperware, loosely covered, and put it in the fridge overnight again to plump up.

This morning I took it out and began heating it back up to a boil:

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In the meantime, I washed several old glass jars in scalding hot, soapy water, rinsed them, and set them in a soup pot filled with rapidly boiling water for fifteen minutes. I used a metal spaghetti strainer to lower them into the water, and once the sterilization time was up I pulled out the jars one by one, filled them with the hot jam, leaving about a quarter inch of space at the top, and screwed on the lids. Then, full, they went back into another boiling water bath. I took them out after ten minutes, and as they cooled off a vacuum was created that sucked all the air from the jars and sealed the lids.

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And there you have it, three jars of my strawberry-rhubarb bounty preserved for future toast. (The JoC recipe said it made five 1/2 pint jars but I wound up with considerably less.) I can’t quite believe that this actually worked, but it seems to have done just that — the lids are on tight and don’t pop up when you press in the center so they are apparently good to get stored away in the pantry. It was a fair amount of work for three jars, but it was a fun sort of work that carried with it no small amount of joy in learning something new. I feel rather accomplished. And while the jam jars were boiling I mixed up a leaven (prepared last night) with flour, water, and salt, and right now it’s hanging out in the kitchen for its bulk rise before baking later today. Tomorrow’s breakfast is going to be the best in history.

(Note: If you’ve never done this and are interested in trying it, please do your research before leaping in full throttle. What I’ve shown here is my general process, not a detailed recipe, and there’s a lot of important information, precautions and terminology to get down first if you don’t know what you’re doing. Food in Jars is a great reference, as is the canning chapter in the Joy of Cooking.)

Links in the theme of home

DIY Houses in the Internet Age: Some Assembly Required (NPR)

Rural Studio Turns 20 (The Bitter Southerner)

“At schools of architecture, very often I wonder why people aren’t more interested in housing,” Freear says. “And housing as a kind of an aggregation. Because it is a challenge, and it’s also difficult. And I think schools of architecture don’t do it because it’s not that sexy. It’s not going to attract students. Tell them we’re going to design a museum and maybe they’ll want to come do it.”

Freear pauses, leaning back in his chair to look at pictures of 20K Houses that cover the walls of his office.

“I’ll go to my grave believing it’s relevant,” he says after a moment.

DIY Homes: Build Your Own Community (Telegraph)

How Robots Can Change Architecture (the next step toward world domination…)

And this:

“Significance of the ‘Self-Build’ Movement,” first published in FREEDOM May 17, 1952. Republished in Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society. Vernon Richards, editor. London: Aldgate Press, 1983, pp. 125-126.

We have discussed several times in FREEDOM the growing movement for “self-building” houses.

In a broadcast talk on “Building One’s Own House,” last month, Mr. Fello Atkinson, the architect, said:

“It is a sign of the fearful complication of our times that building one’s own house should seem a new idea. What else did our remote ancestors do? And, of course, all primitive and pioneer communities build this way. Grandma Moses, that astonishing ninety-four-year-old American lady who has achieved such fame as a folk painter in the last few years, records in her memoirs how, in her young days, the men of New England wanting to set up home were given land and an axe and set about making their own log cabins. I am certain there are many places where the same thing still happens. The idea is certainly not new but only unusual in modern, highly industrialised communities where each of us, except possibly farmers and sailors, tends to specialise in ever-narrowing fields to the exclusion and even ignorance of all others. The responsibility for housing has now largely passed to government, and there exists a complicated and rigid pattern of planning and building permits, regulations and standards, financing and subsidies.

“But, in spite of this, groups of men are building their own houses in this country to-day; they have been doing so for some time, and they are building them successfully within this complex mechanism. And these ‘self-build groups’, as they are called, are growing in number.”

He went on to describe the activities of groups affiliated to the National Federation of Housing Societies.

This called forth (and it is an indication of the spread of “self-building”), a letter in the Listener from the secretary of a group, who wanted to draw attention to the 194 “self-build” groups affiliated to the London and National Self-Build Housing Association, Birmingham, and to “the difficulties and heartbreak of other groups, already fully trained, with considerable financial resources, who have been ready to build for eighteen months, and who lack one thing only — the cooperation of their local authorities to grant the necessary permission for them to go ahead and build.”

The writer has also paid tribute to the founders of the associations, who “without any prompting, and for no personal gain, have come forward and shown us, for the first time in our lives, how to help ourselves.”

For the first time in our lives, how to help ourselves. This is why we believe the “self-building” movement to be so valuable and important.

Meet the baker: Alain Pommart

Clip from Rencontre avec un boulanger-paysan with Alain Pommart

For non-French speaking readers, this is what he says:

The opening that I leave in the top of the bread, which we’ll turn over and which will become the underside when it’s in the oven, is what we call la clé* in bread baking.

Just now we were saying that for the leaven I use fresh flour, because I’m looking for a very high energy level. But actually for the bread I like to work with flour that has a bit of age, one or two months, six months or even a year, that doesn’t bother me at all. That’s what I like taste wise. But with the leaven we’re working with energy, and there’s something there that’s very, very energetic, like a kid who’s four, five, six years old, seven or eight years old. Meaning it’s overflowing with energy but it’s not at all controlled. We say, “Don’t do that,” and we turn around, and he goes and does exactly what we just said not to do. And well, flour, like kids, it’s like that. It’s what commands the bakery, it’s the boss in a way. With a flour that’s already a month or two old, we can start being able to work together with it. Like someone who’s forty years old, say.

(after the other guy covers up the loaves with the canvas, which reminds me, I seriously need to get some canvas for my baking): So now we’re going to leave the trays on the shelf, and the bread will rise until 11:30 or 11:45, we’ll see. I’ll check it in a bit, see how it is.

So working, you know, bread baking, our way, it’s a bit like tightrope walking. We’re tightrope walking bakers. We work with dough that is very, very soft, which means it doesn’t have a whole lot of hold. So it’s necessary that we use certain moves, that we concentrate the dough, that we handle it. And then working with it, since it’s so cumbersome, we don’t have a lot of leeway, maybe a space of twenty minutes when the bread is good to go in the oven, so the oven has to be at just the right temperature. So we’re juggling a bit, you could say. It’s fairly stressful. (checks the temperature of the bread) Okay it’s good.

(walks over to the other guy) Okay lower it to 29. So we’ll light the fire at 9:30.

Right, so the next stage will be lighting the oven. We’re going from fire to water, and then earth. Let’s go over to the oven.

(lights the fire) And there you go. One part of the four elements.


clé literally means “key” — I wasn’t able to verify that we call it a “key” in English, but like he said it’s the spot where the dough is brought together when folding and forming the loaf

Baking sourdough with Trade School Geneva

Did my Trade School class! I was pretty nervous the night before, didn’t sleep particularly well, and woke up at one point, around 1 a.m., to realize that (oh crap) I hadn’t mixed the sponge, so I shot out of bed and into the kitchen to mix up a bit of starter with flour and water before going back to bed and continuing to lie awake thinking and rethinking about how to organize the class. Since the process I use to make bread takes place over the course of three days, I wouldn’t be able to do one loaf from start to finish in my two-hour time slot, and so I prepared the various steps in advance to be able to at least show what the steps look and feel like.

As it turned out I had no real reason to be nervous. It went fine. The attendees were great, the bread came out pretty decent despite the weird oven and my apparently kaput cooking thermometer, and everyone left happily with a little bit of my starter which I packaged up in a bunch of glass jars I had saved up at home. I didn’t keep close track of time but I managed to pretty much use the whole two hours — something I was worried about, that I would run out of things to say. At one point after mixing the sponge and the rest of flour and water for the dough, we had to wait about a half an hour for it to rest before adding the salt. I paused for a second and my mind raced through what we could do or talk about during that half hour, and finally I said, “Well, if you’d like I can talk a bit about how modern capitalism has affected wheat cultivation and processing…” Everyone laughed and one woman shouted out “Ye-ah!” so I launched into my rant. The high point for me in all of it was when I mentioned that I’d run across a local collective of people, about twenty in the group, who have organized themselves to make bread — the slow way, over three days, like I do. They pair off each of them once a month to make enough bread for everyone else in the group, which means that each person only has to bake once a month but gets fresh bread throughout the entire month. When I said this there was a glimmer in the eyes of a few of the people in the class who live in the same village, and one of them suggested to the others that they start the same sort of thing where they live. (No bakery in the village, she said. Horrors!) I really hope they get that started — I’m going to ask that they keep me posted if they do.

Some photos from the class:

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The dough I prepared in advance. I tried out something new with this one. When I prepared the leaven the Friday night before the class on Sunday, I also mixed together all the flour and water for the dough in a separate bowl, and left that to soak overnight. The next morning I mixed in the leaven and left it to ferment in the fridge for 24 hours. A girl in the Pills and Seeds and Death workshop, an avid baker, shared this tip that soaking whole grain flour prior to baking with it softens the grain, which makes it more digestible and also causes the bread itself to be fluffier, not dense like whole grain bread so often is. I’d been meaning to experiment with the idea, and after reading about it again recently in some information I found about whole grain baking, I was reminded that I hadn’t yet tried it out so I decided to give it a shot for the class. Risking possible failure of course, but such is life when you’re learning something new.

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The class

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The barter items they brought. To date: the chocolate is eaten, the music is listened to, and the mud mask is magnificent.

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Mixing the leaven

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Talking about wheat seed anatomy and Integrated World Capitalism

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Removing the bread from the pan. Some weird crust action there…


Breaking bread. The flour soaking thing is definitely going to be part of my process from now on — I’ve never before now had this kind of result using all whole grain flour and was really shocked at the difference you get when you soak the flour. The interior was fluffy like a muffin. The ten of us polished off one of the loaves at the end of class, and I cut up the rest and sent a chunk home with everyone. As for the starter I portioned out, I’ve already gotten feedback that it’s alive and well in its new homes.


More things to read

A random salad of subjects, but I can’t stand having 800 tabs open all at once on my web browser so I’m filing them here.


A straw house for all!

(My translation of an article I came across in La revue des Livres n°013 Sept/Oct 2013, p. 77-79.)



By Charlotte Nordmann

Collectif Straw d’la bale: La Maison de paille de Lausanne. Pourquoi nous l’avons construit. Pourquoi elle fut incendiée (The Straw House of Lausanne: Why we built it, why it was burned). Paris: La Lenteur, 2013, 210 p., 12 Euros.

August 2007, Lausanne, a public park in the middle of the city. In a few days, a straw house surged up from the earth, built illegally by activists. Four months later, after the municipality, directed by a member of the Green Party, had tried in vain to impose its demolition, the house was burned to the ground during the night in what could only have been a criminal act.


The story might appear to be anecdotal, a tall tale testifying at most to the audacity and inventivity of idle youth, but not suggesting any way to confront “real” societal and ecological problems; anyway, not everyone is going to go build a straw house on every street corner in the city. Of course not. But even so, there was something important that happened here.

A diagnosis

At the beginning of the straw house project, there was an analysis of some of the major problems that affect our societies, and there was the affirmation that ecological questions are intimately linked to political and social ones. Coming from the squatter’s movement, the builders started off with a triple diagnosis.

The first diagnosis was the intentional organization of housing shortages in the capitalist city that allows for guaranteed profits for investors. Faced with capitalism’s intensive investment in urban space (1), we could try to go elsewhere — to go live in the countryside, in a collective house, for example — or we could also band together and look for ways to invest in the cracks of the city, picking up the tattered pieces. That’s the aim of squats — and it was also the aim of the straw house.

The second aspect of the analysis was the fact that the societal model that rules today is directly contradictory to the needs of ecology — needs that come from the fact that the natural resources upon which we depend are limited, and that their indiscriminate use has catastrophic consequences (with the major problem of course being climate change). In the domain of housing, this is shown in a flagrant way by the intensive use of cement, a main culprit in the disappearance of sand (2), for example, and also by the inefficient use of energy for heating buildings, and by the use of such a fundamental resource as fresh water for toilets.

The third was the fact that we are today in a relationship of heteronomy with the world in which we live, to use Ivan Illich’s words (3); we are “put up,” we don’t inhabit the space where we live; “they” provide us with a space in which to live (if we have the means to pay), which, it goes without saying, we don’t have the right to modify. “Please leave the premises in the same state in which you found them” seems to be the general principle, for the renter as for the passer-by (who of course shall not do anything more than “pass by”) in the street or in the neighborhood park. This rapport of heteronomy to our fundamental needs (to have housing, to feed ourselves, to move freely) results in a radical dependence on an ecologically non-viable system founded on exploitation.

To build oneself a home

One response to these problems is to build oneself a home, without administrative authorization and without having “legitimately acquired” the land on which one builds, and to build in a way so as to have minimal impact on the environment and reduce one’s dependence on infrastructure. That is a conclusion drawn from the diagnoses, to become aligned with one’s principles. From there the choice was progressively made to build with straw: a light material, easy to handle, that permits one to build quickly and with only a few helping hands; whose production demands little energy and whose materials are produced locally; which employs a mode of construction without lasting impact on the land (no need for cement foundations thanks to piles); insulated, conserving heat and permitting one to reduce the need for heating systems. If we add dry toilets and a natural waste water filtering system, the dependence on city infrastructure is minimal — which, in the case of an imbalanced power relationship with the mayor’s office, isn’t a negligible issue.

The approach here is the same as in the squat movement from which the initiators of the straw house came; collectively take that which we need and which capital refuses us, and organize in order to better resist attempts at reappropriation by the powers that be. To this may be added something that is in fact already present in squats, but less visible and above all less developed: the capacity to acquire know-how, to transmit it, and to accumulate it. The book (La maison de paille de Lausanne) participates itself in this diffusion of knowledge by indicating a number of resources (web sites, books, films) about DIY(T) building, and in attempting to explain in detail the construction of the straw house, thanks to which we might learn a whole vocabulary, useful and poetic — from “pisoir” (note: I’ll let you decipher that one) to “l’enduit de corps” (can’t figure this one out… something spackle??) by way of “chaux aérienne” (whitewash?). The construction of the straw house was in this way preceded by the experiences of autonomously run spaces, Lausanne squats, and notably the organization of a squatted garden in the same park where the straw house was built (an experience that itself led to a new relationship with the spaces we inhabit) — but preceded also by several “learning by doing” house building/teaching sites, as well as the experiences of the “temporary villages” of climate camps and anti globalization movements.

Too much collective power?

The efficiency with which the project got going is clearly remarkable — to build a solid and livable house in a space of two days, out of recuperated material and bales of straw, was quite a feat in itself. What this shows is at once the value of know-how acquired by the people who conceived of and carried out the project — know-how that was partly of traditional techniques, today considered to be outmoded — but also their capacity to work together, to coordinate, and most of all the power of the collective intelligence called for by this project. (One might make the connection between this and the Transition Town (4) projects with their techniques of empowerment and mobilization of group intelligence.)

We can therefore say that, in a sense, the straw house was a rousing success — and at the same time, we must add that it was as well a failure, and a failure to be expected. The attempt to create something long-term – several years at least — in which to live, and in particular to live in an alternative way, and to have this space be a long-lasting center for discussion, exchanges, and knowledge sharing: this attempt failed. The allowance taken by “the power of the people” from capitalism’s investments in space, from grid-like compartmentalization, is always precarious and in this case was, without a doubt, too visible — right in the heart of Lausanne! — to be tolerated for long. Such an example of reappropriation of public space clearly must be erased right away; it suggests that there might be an alternative to the privatization of space and the wholesale delegation of its management to a power supposedly catering to the interests of the general public (5) — a power that, on the contrary, makes clear each and every day that its goal is to guarantee the continuance of the capitalist system. Projects of the sort of the straw house also without a doubt show too clearly the lack of grounding there is in the belief that we are incapable of meeting our needs in a more autonomous way.


The attacks

The straw house sustained three sorts of attacks.

The first — and the most clever, as it seemed at first glace to be friendly support – was when certain media outlets contrasted the straw house to the squat movement; on the one side, a constructive project, inventive and “positive,” and on the other side, the “antiestablishment,” without respect for the well-being of others. In artificially isolating two sorts of action, and in disappearing the critique of the capitalist city, which was the very grounding for the house’s construction, we see sense being turned upside down.

The second attack was carried out by the municipality and consisted in demanding — nearly at the same time as its construction — the demolition of the illegally built straw house. It was enough to call up the all-powerful specter of anarchy — “Imagine if everyone started building his own straw house wherever he wanted!” — and to invoke the importance of the rules of urbanism, “the sole protection against an excess of real estate developers,” to make the situation understood. As we’ve already mentioned, the municipality of Lausanne is led by a member of the Green Party, the head of a pink-green coalition. (Note: “pink” refers to the Socialist Party.) In this case as in many others, their position well illustrates what we can expect from a party upholding the ideology of “sustainable development,” which defends a “balance between ecology and the market economy” (in the words of one elected official). We need not further explain the deception inherent in an “ecology” that has among its goals an allowance for the pursuit of “growth” (pardon us — “green growth”) in a world with finite resources.

This sort of reappropriation of ecological issues goes hand in hand with the growth of individual dispossession, of their heteronomy vis à vis their conditions of existence. Thus it happened — and this is the third attack that the straw house sustained, this time after its destruction — that the city of Lausanne inaugurated in 2011 its own “straw house”: a construction that claimed to be a “model” in the domain, built at a cost of 1.8 million Swiss francs! Built by professionals, with cement foundations, it was meant to show that the city of Lausanne is itself a model for “sustainable development” (no argument there, even if we still doubt the concept), and was but a cover for business as usual.


(The city of Lausanne’s straw house)


To return to the sense and value of the straw house, it’s clear that it is not on its own a “solution.” It will not be thanks to a proliferation of straw houses that we will halt the continuation of the capitalist system and the destruction it perpetuates. The idea that such projects can have ripple effects, that they might grow in number and send out shoots, is not enough to resolve the problem, because the temporality of this extension is not on the same scale as what is necessary to respond proportionately to ecological problems. Never mind that the capitalist system does everything it can to limit the multiplication of these alternatives, helped if necessary by regulations zealously imposed by the State (such as, for example, those who oppose the creation of local currencies, or who obstruct the development of CSAs.

Conversely, the importance of the straw house, and what continues in its own way in the book that came about from the experience, is that it created a margin in a space that tends to be saturated, by creating a space that, in addition to offering a roof to all those who lived there, allowed for knowledge sharing, experiences, discussions, and exchanges. The choice to build in the city, importantly, came from the desire for this sort of place, even if its continuation was of course much more difficult than it would have been had it been built elsewhere.

This place existed, as the book, photos, and sketches testify — and it existed for a lot of different kinds of people, evidenced by the variety of stories scattered throughout the book — as the incarnation of a place in which to live differently. I said further up that this place demonstrated the power that can come from a collective, that it contradicts the belief in our individual and collective impotence. But the demonstration of power here is not only directed toward the outside. This power is important for those individuals – and I count myself among them — who believe in it and yet at the same time don’t, and who therefore need to have the experience in order to believe, and to act. Such a place demonstrates what we are missing by not living collectively in the spaces where we live, and what we have to gain through inventing new ways of being and doing.




(1) Described in detail by David Harvey in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

(2) See the recent documentary by Denis Delestrac, Enquête sur une disparition (2013).

(3) Ivan Illich is a major reference for the collective. At a 2007 protest, a squatter’s movement in Geneva reedited one of his texts, “Tools for Conviviality.”

(4) See also my (Nordmann’s) review of the Manuel for transition by Rob Hopkins (Ecosocieté, 2010), which appeared in La Revue internationale des livres et des idées, “L’après-pétrole; survivre ou vivre autrement?” Article available online (in French).

(5) Contradicting the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, 1968), according to which a resource used collectively is fated to disappear due to its over exploitation by all the people who use it.


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