The renewable-resource lifestyle known as ‘permaculture’ is taking root in L.A.
July 22, 2004|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer
How green can it get in frenetic, car-crazed L.A.?
Take a look at Jules Dervaes. A few years ago, he drove a VW van and lived in a standard Pasadena bungalow ringed with thirsty St. Augustine grass. Today the grass is gone, and in its place is a leafy, aromatic paradise overflowing with basil, thyme and tarragon, onions, beans and eggplants, strawberries and even coffee — altogether the yard produces 6,000 pounds of food each year. Five chickens and a couple of ducks are busy cranking out eggs. He’s traded the van for a 1988 Chevy Suburban that he converted to biodiesel and fuels with recycled vegetable oil. The house is partly solar-powered, including a solar oven that he keeps parked in the garage.
“A hundred years ago this was considered normal,” he says.
Actually, it’s not so odd today, either.
Dervaes, 57, and his family are on the leading edge of L.A.’s green movement — part of the growing impulse to take the old “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra to a higher level. The green movement tends to ebb and flow with the economy and political climate, and right now, it has plenty of steam: The Iraq war and a down economy have a lot of people contemplating the benefits of the self-sustaining, renewable-resource lifestyle (it’s called “permaculture” these days), and trying to figure out how to make it part of their disposable, go-cup existence.
An amalgamation of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture is a 30-year-old Australian term that’s only now coming into vogue — a sort of shorthand for closed-loop systems that take advantage of natural cycles, using the waste products from one cycle to fuel another. Think composting food waste into garden mulch, catching “gray water” from the kitchen to irrigate outdoor plants, converting discarded cooking oil into biodiesel to fuel cars.
But in L.A., the question is: How green can you be?
Recycling a plastic water bottle here, reusing a paper bag there — easy enough. But brewing biodiesel with used vegetable oil? Scaling a garage roof to install solar paneling? Retrofitting the plumbing to recycle kitchen water? There’s green, and then there’s really green.
The most hard-core greenies, such as Dervaes, are demonstrating what can be done. But the cost is high. Dervaes, like many of the most committed greenies, has given up his job to devote himself to running an urban homestead.
But there are some elements that are easily done, and if you can absorb the philosophy, there are even more changes that can be made almost automatically. For instance, permaculturalists refuse to buy excessively packaged and environmentally damaging products. They think in terms of what they need instead of what they want. They’re reusing the stuff they have, recycling those things they no longer need and restoring what’s around them rather than buying new. They’re getting rid of their lawns, their air conditioning, even their cars, embracing edible landscapes, alternative energy systems and forms of transportation that don’t rely on fuels formed over eons.
According to Bill Roley, president of the Permaculture Institute of Southern California, 10% to 30% of the population practices some sort of permaculture — whether it’s growing some of their own food or composting waste into their gardens. The number of people living the philosophy with fully integrated, self-sustaining lifestyles remains small, but they’re demonstrations of what’s possible.
Eco housing co-op
“Should we eat in the street?” asks Joe Linton, 40, pulling two loaves of fresh-baked bread from his oven.
It’s Sunday night, and the residents of L.A.’s Eco-Village are gathering for their weekly potluck. Carrying plates of gargantuan strawberries, pots of brown rice fresh from the stove and bowls full of tofu and organic spinach salads, the dozen or so people who’ve gathered for this vegetarian feast are not sitting by or near the street. They are sitting at tables on the asphalt just a few feet from the cars streaming to a nearby stop sign.
The potluck is a statement against car culture as much as it’s a meal. At Eco-Village, an ecologically oriented housing co-op with a communal garden and bicycle workshop called the “bicycle kitchen,” few of the residents own or drive cars. In return, they are rewarded with a $20 monthly discount off their rent. “Ecologically, vehicles are the biggest-ticket item,” said Lois Arkin, who helped found Eco-Village 11 years ago.
Arkin, 67, wears only used clothes, which she washes with nontoxic soap. Her apartment is outfitted with used furniture, a mini fridge and energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights. She takes her own bags to the market and saves the thick stacks of napkins she receives (without asking) from restaurants in her Koreatown neighborhood.
“None of that holds a candle to the destruction we do by driving,” said Arkin, who gave up her car in 1991. When she has to go somewhere, she said, “No. 1, I take my feet. No. 2, my bicycle. And No. 3, the bus. I’m rarely in a car, but every once in a while I am. It’s a real treat.”
Arkin is not poor. She lives this way by choice, having “seen what impact our living patterns have on people all over the world. I thought, gee, shouldn’t we be doing something differently to mitigate our negative effect on cultures worldwide? Where is this all leading?”
“Many people are permaculturalists and they don’t know it,” according to the Permaculture Institute’s Roley. “More people are asking for edible landscaping. Many people are thinking about how to recycle their organic material into their landscape. Twenty-five years ago, it was only the smoothies for lunch bunch and granola crew that was interested in that.”
More and many does not translate into most, however. Getting the masses to convert to a more sustainable lifestyle is a slow process, as people warm up to the idea, becoming more educated about its benefits and understanding how to incorporate environmentally friendly change into their life routines.
“A lot know there’s a lot more to do but it’s not yet within their reach,” said Andy Lipkis, founder and president of Treepeople, an environmental group that’s working with city officials to manage Los Angeles as an integrated ecosystem.
To Lipkis, living a more sustainable lifestyle is a mix of challenging, long-term projects like installing solar power and small, daily habits like using cloth napkins, buying bulk items, shopping at the farmers market and making his own yogurt.
“We’ve tried to always be a normal family instead of a sprout-eating, Birkenstock-wearing, spend-all-my-day-doing-this-stuff family. People just look at that and go, that’s not me,” said Lipkis’ wife, Kate. “We wanted to do it in a way that people couldn’t dismiss it. We have two kids. We’ve got a dog, a mortgage. Stuff that all Americans have.”
Like his garden, Dervaes came to urban homesteading organically — a journey that began with the drought 14 years ago and continues as an ongoing experiment he tracks on the Web.
“The drought made me rethink whether it was worth saving that lawn to have that image. When it didn’t cost me anything, I could let it go, but when they were going to have us pay more money if we used more water, I thought, ‘Why should we do that?’ I’m kind of a penny pincher,” said Dervaes, who lives and works with his four twentysomething kids.
A couple of water bills later, he tore out the grass, but looking out the window at the dry, barren dirt was more than he could bear. He “threw down some wildflower seeds just to give it some cover” and hoped for rain.
He got it with El Nino. Wildflowers were growing everywhere, so Dervaes and his family went into the edible flower business, selling nasturtiums to high-end restaurants, until they realized that man cannot live on flowers alone.
“We were cashing in the flowers and paying organic prices at the health food store, so I just went straight to the vegetables,” said Dervaes, who proceeded to rip out his driveway. His front, back and side yards are now a stunning arrangement of garden beds sectioned off with old wine bottles from area restaurants, the broken concrete he pulled out of his driveway, and trellises he found by the side of the road.
But the Dervaes family didn’t stop there. Five months ago, they got rid of their gas-guzzling van, bought an old Chevy and converted it to run on biodiesel, which they make in their garage using old vegetable oil from a local restaurant. At 70 cents a gallon, the price is right. But the process is something else again: picking up the oil, then converting it in a 36-hour process involving lye and methanol. It’s enough to scare off the best intentioned.
The car’s got about 10% less punch than they’re accustomed to, but they enjoy the added benefit of smelling “like someone’s cooking” when they drive.
Dervaes admits his family’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Still, he’s “surprised at how much response we get on the Internet,” he said. “We’re just regular people. We’re new at this. I think that’s why people aren’t intimidated. If we had 20 years experience, people might say, ‘Oh yeah, sure you can do it.’ But being new, we appeal to a lot of people.
“I think people see it as a possibility, especially since they don’t have to move anywhere,” added Dervaes, who’s received e-mails from all over the world. “Most people thought they’d have to first of all spend a lot of money and second, leave the city, which is where they grew up. We still need the city.”
Cities, after all, are where the action is. It’s where economies thrive because it’s where the people live. According to the 2000 census, 79% of all Americans reside in urban areas.
And that percentage is increasing. The population of the Los Angeles area alone is growing by 250,000 each year. As more people move to the city, fewer people understand how to work the land. But it doesn’t have to be that way, urban homesteaders say. More people may be living farther removed from nature than ever, but they can still remain close to nature’s design.
“People need to understand their place in the system. They’re a piece in the puzzle rather than the puzzle,” Roley said. “The values of natural cycles are really phenomenal, but you have to wait for them. They’re not instantaneous video games.”
In a culture that makes it faster and cheaper to buy new products than to fix the ones that are broken, a culture that encourages quantity rather than quality, technology over nature, and the individual over the whole, it can be difficult to slow down and smell the roses. Slowing down even further to actually grow the roses takes patience, but it’s a practice permaculturalists find worthwhile.
Julia Russell has been living in her Los Feliz home for 30 years, slowly converting her 1911 bungalow into a lesson in ecological sustainability. Her “Eco-Home,” as she calls it, features a drought-tolerant, native-plant xeriscape in the front yard and orchard and vegetable garden in the back. Recycled wood cabinets, water-based paints, linoleum flooring and a built-in countertop compost bin are all features of her remodeled kitchen.
When she does her laundry, she uses biodegradable detergent and hangs her clothes outdoors to dry. When she does her dishes, it is by hand, so she can recycle whatever water she uses to her garden. When she needs to go somewhere and it’s within five miles, she rides her “freight hauler” — a three-wheeled bicycle with a basket.
“The idea is to live locally, to function locally, to find ways to sustain yourself within your own neighborhood,” said Russell, an elegant 68-year-old who’s been car free for 15 years.
President of the Eco-Home Network, an organization that promotes Earth-friendly lifestyles through weekly tours of her home and a free telephone hotline for consultations on sustainable living, Russell said she was inspired to live green when she moved to L.A. 30 years ago.
“I thought the plane had crashed and I’d gone to heaven. It was so lush. That’s when I realized cities could be full of life and beauty and sustenance,” said Russell, who hasn’t been back to New York City since coming to California.
“You don’t have to live in a tepee in the country to live a green lifestyle.”
Shades of green
Sure, you recycle. But what about that air conditioner humming in the background and all those little bottles of water in the fridge? Here’s a gauge to your greenness:
Energy: You turn off the air conditioning or heat when you’re not home and keep the thermostat down a few degrees in winter and up a few degrees in summer. The box for green power is checked off on the DWP bill. You wash clothes in cold or warm water instead of hot and air-dry your laundry.
Water: You’ve fixed leaky faucets, toilets and showerheads, and you turn off the tap while sudsing your hands and the dishes.
Waste: Recycling is automatic; so is using biodegradable home cleansers, buying items in bulk to reduce packaging waste and buying recycled products. Of course, you reuse shopping bags.
Transportation: The car, a nifty four-cylinder, is tuned up and the tires are properly inflated. But then, you drive less and use the smallest car you can.
Energy: No air conditioning — fans only. The other appliances are certified “energy star.” You’ve switched incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents and planted trees to shade the house.
Water: It’s a low-flow lifestyle: from showerheads and toilets to a yard planted with native or drought-tolerant plants. Sprinklers are switched to drip irrigation, and paved areas are removed to prevent runoff.
Waste: Tupperware, travel mugs, cloth bags — all containers are reusable. You’re off junk-mail lists and renovate with recycled or sustainable building products like bamboo floors and recycled glass tile.
Transportation: Hey, Prius! (Or maybe you’ll just catch the bus.)
Food: Organic produce from the farmers market.
Energy: You’re pure solar power.
Water: A gray water system recycles your kitchen and bath water into the yard. A cistern system catches rainwater for future use.
Waste: What waste? Kitchen scraps and garden trimmings are compost material, and the resulting mulch helps reduce moisture loss in the garden.
Transportation: You bike almost everywhere and use the biodiesel car only when you must.
Food: It’s grow your own.