Love and Waste: Converting a Bus Into a Home
In reference to the Vietnam War and President Nixon’s “Pentagon Papers,” whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, decried: “They hear it, they learn from it, they understand it, and they proceed to ignore it.” Both my personal and professional lives focus on how we can re-interpret “information” in order to embody our interdependencies. How can we learn to decode what we are told is “transparent truth?” How can we educate ourselves and our children to take nothing for granted, to filter perception management and the seemingly self-evident through cultural, historical, and ecological relationships, to unlearn what we think we know and debate differing perspectives?
Four installments, from January to April 2021, will include my personal-political discussion of both the roots and the implications of perceived solutions to climate crisis and environmental racism. We will see how these solutions may unintentionally sustain ecological devastation and global wealth inequities—actually diverting us from establishing long-term, regenerative infrastructures. As we unfold the possibilities of a “permaculture paradigm shift,” we will explore the implications of supply chains that render particular humans superfluous (Hannah Arendt). When radical self-inquiry converges with infrastructural mechanisms and institutional support, we can begin to uproot the foundations of our industrial-waste consumer culture—our internalized fascism (Michel Foucault). We can begin to actualize symbiotic, biophilic solutions as we transition from our petroleum-pharmaceutical-addicted cyber-culture to a biocentric economics.
On the Margins of the Margins
I have always attempted to live my ethics to the utmost. During my book launch for Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene, author Jill Nagle, introduced me by stating, “the care and intention with which you make your life choices…these aren’t just ideals… you are a living example.” I had been raising my toddler Zazu and living/teaching these ideals on my own—not only without a community, but in spite of every parenting norm, economic transaction, professional opportunity. While living on EcoVillages across the world, I found that my life choices, passions, and my desires, were on the margins of the margins.
Much of the Skoolie (school bus) Conversion Movement and the Tiny Home Movement take buying new for granted—overconsumption and manufactured consent still reign. As we move through another year in which climate chaos becomes ever more threatening and ecofriendly companies and products flood the marketplace, we are seeing that terms like “repurposing” are becoming trendy, even commonplace. Greenwashing is a prime example of the ways in which capitalism dictates our alleged freedom. Free market is a euphemism for economic terrorism. The “green economy has come to mean…the wholesale privatization of nature.” Greenwashing is one manifestation of this corporate atonement—a kind of ecofriendly reparation in which ‘sustainability’ is a manipulative marketing tool. ‘Green’ business maintains some of the most insidious economic practices today. Consumerism becomes the default for making supposedly ethical choices.
One antidote is permaculture: the practice of self-regulation, observation, flexibility, adaptation, establishing feedback structures, responding creatively to change, using the fertile edge, integrating diversity rather than segregating difference, focusing on slow and small solutions—the root-system of an embodied democracy. My commitment to leading a social permaculture life rooted in radical democracy, a proactive world of relational thinking and a deep desire to ask questions and take nothing for granted, led me to love.
Rob and I had so much to learn, and so much to share. Our entire home-building process was an unraveling of the unfamiliar. In the body-consciousness workshops I taught so long ago as an Iyengar yoga teacher in San Francisco, I had explored the idea of commitment as jumping into the unknown. We were committed! We knew almost nothing about building, but knew we needed to live differently. Both of us in our late 40s, we had our previous professional worlds: Rob as the co-founder and executive director of his 25-year-old bat conservation non-profit, and myself as a cultural studies and philosophy university professor and museum fine-art photographer. We were determined to live up to the origin of the word home: “eco”—build a home less compromised by the scarcity-dogma of colonialism and free-market capitalism that drive fossil fuel and too often, renewable energy-addicted lifestyles.
Dung Beetles to the Rescue
We bought a retired school bus. We shared our dreams of living in a tiny home that we would create ourselves. Michigan was having February weather in November. Outside our temporary conventional home rescued from city demolition, in less than 20 degree weather, Rob, Zazu, and I took 30 days to transform the Community School Corporation bus into our new cozy LoveBus—saving it from its fate of being stripped, sold, and crushed. We felt like dung beetles that use others’ waste to build their home and feed their family, or like sea slugs that eat debris off the ocean floor. We were doing our ecosystem an indispensable service. Like the humpback whale character in Zazu Dreams reminds us: “When humans throw things away, they’ve got to understand that there is no ‘away!’ Instead, we all must learn from waste-consuming creatures that co-exist with their environments.”
And, Endnote 248: “Thriving in waste, while worshipped by all ancient civilizations, the dung scarab beetle represents the both/and, the la’am (simultaneously yes and no in Hebrew and Arabic), the balance of contradictions. It represents life itself: hieroglyphic inscriptions from ancient Egypt designate the scarab with the syllable kheperi, ‘to be,’ ‘to exist.’ It is also associated with birth: in some South American Indian tribes a dung beetle called Aksak is said to have modeled the first man and woman from clay. Interfacing biology with anthropology, our story offers possibilities of cultivating life from death, birth from waste.”
The only day we rested during that 30-day blast was when all three of us got a severe case of the stomach-flu. Even between rushing past one another on the way to the bathroom, we still dreamed about design-integration as an aesthetic and spiritual challenge, still explored possibilities of igniting beauty from waste, maintaining and sharing our joyful values in the midst of ever-present and increasingly-approaching climate chaos.
The grandest material object I have ever owned is my bicycle—(well, also my 2¼ Rollei and Hasselblad cameras)—not a home, not a car, not even a credit card or smartphone. Instead of being entrenched in the corporatist paradigm of you need or want? Buy it online (during the spurious quarantine on consumption during COVID-19, through exponential Amazon sales, Jeff Bezos is now the first trillionaire in the history of the world), or jump in your car and buy it at WalMart, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, Rob, Zazu, and I revive the discarded. Brainstorming with our family offers an ongoing unfolding of unexpected solutions—a social-permaculture perspective in which we think beyond the habitual; we creatively rearrange to function anew.
It turned out that building our LoveBus inspired the perfect homeschool opportunity for Zazu. His participation was invaluable; how he learned was central to both our home and Zazu’s psyche and body awareness. Through reading, writing, math, science, art, we asked how we can take a social-permaculture approach that encourages real Zero Waste in which all by-products are reintegrated into use-systems? We explored what it is like to live within a human-scale economy, how to question, think relationally, research ideas and problem-solve using unusual challenges—not having electricity in our home, or how to creatively incorporate weather extremes.
Because of some bus roof and window leaks, we decided a temporary solution during our conversion was to cover the entire bus with one of our rescued highway billboards. Once the bus was covered with the tarp, the now pitch-black, bitter, winter air felt even icier. We continued to electrify using solar lamps or lights with rechargeable batteries—always aware of the geopolitical impact of our choices. It felt like a hefty accomplishment to keep these 15’x45’ plastic tarps advertising café lattés, back-to-school clothes, worker-injury claims, etc. out of landfill. (Of course, the ideal is for the rest of the U.S. to join the states that ban billboards: Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, Alaska.) The irony is how difficult it was to get hold of the used billboards from the advertising agencies. When one of them did finally respond, their rep unwittingly provided another perverse twist in the story of salvaged materials. He explained that the EPA doesn’t permit reuse of these massive quantities of plastic because apparently those who take the billboards don’t recycle the plastic after they use it. In the vein of Rainer Marie Rilke, we live our questions now. What happens when, in the name of “protecting the environment,” institutional prohibition cultivates public inaction?
 Following my book on social ecology, I focused my writing and teaching on what I call Petroleum Parenting (the decisions many U.S. parents make that overwhelmingly contribute to both environmental destruction and body-phobic institutional practices).
 Jeff Conant, “The Dark Side of the ‘Green Economy,” Yes! Magazine, August 2012, 63.
 “Endnote 248” refers one of the references in my cross-cultural climate justice and deep science book that focuses on interracial families. Endorsed by Noam Chomsky, Eve Ensler, James E. Hansen, David Orr, SHKG Humpty Hump, Thom Hartmann, Paul Hawken, and Bill McKibben among other activists, and scientists, Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era unravels the complexities of our climate crisis as it celebrates our interconnectedness through indigenous wisdom, economic, literary, environmental science, and historical resources. Zazu Dreams includes over 100 paintings of Middle Eastern and East Indian philosophers, healers, artists, scientists, and activists. I would be happy to include some of those images, too.
 “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Rainer Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY: 2019, 1945, 12.
Previously Published on Mother Pelican
all photos courtesy of author