Desert Days – Life on an Eco Kibbutz

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It isn’t always easy living simply but at Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev Desert in the south of Israel, the kibbutzniks and the Eco Volunteers who live amongst them are giving it their best shot.

If there’s anywhere in the world where the ethics of Care for People, Care for the Earth and all life and Fair Share should be put to most urgent use, it’s in this harsh desert environment in arguably the most politically complex region on the planet.

Driving through the arid Arava Valley, where daily evaporation exceeds annual rainfall, one can only imagine the challenges that must arise from trying to survive, sustainably or otherwise, in such unforgiving conditions. However in 1983, the same year as the term Ecotourism was popularised, the founding members of Kibbutz Lotan decided to do just that.

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Like every decision one makes in Israel, that of where to establish an egalitarian collective community was a political one. In keeping with the ethics which they still uphold to this day, the founders chose an area which is not contested in the ongoing land grab that defines the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And what they’ve learned through developing this prototype model for sustainable living has much to teach us all.

Upon our arrival at Lotan my friend and I were shown to the Ecotourism suite that would accommodate us for the night, and were surprised to see that we had our very own en suite bathroom, complete with shower and (dual) flushing toilet, and that there was an air-conditioning unit attached to the wall. So far, so not-very-eco-friendly…

We’d arrived late in the afternoon and our formal tour was not due to take place until the next morning, so we welcomed the invitation to take an independent look around some of the 143 acres that comprise the kibbutz. And it didn’t take long for some of the eco-puzzle pieces to start falling into place.

Walking through the grassed areas and seeing the carefully tended flowering plants that decorate the many community spaces around Lotan, it was very easy to forget that we were in the desert. Within a few minutes, though, after wandering happily past a White Gum that, as ever, brought back thoughts of my native Australia, we caught a glimpse of the sustainable homes that have become the hallmark of this eco community.

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My friend and I soon got chatting with a friendly-looking passerby, who introduced himself as Shilo and explained that he did his Green Apprenticeship at Lotan in November and has stayed on as an Eco Volunteer ever since.

During our impromptu tour around the area known within the community as the Bustan, (Orchard in Hebrew), Shilo explained that the kibbutz, while built on ideals of cooperation and equality, was not always an eco village; its original houses were conventional concrete structures, and its inhabitants’ main focus was on democratic Jewish renewal.

However, in their efforts to live according to the Jewish principle of Tikun Olam, which involves an ongoing process of transforming the world into an ever more perfect state, the group found that they were accumulating a significant wealth of knowledge which they could impart to other people who were interested in living more sustainably. So it was in the mid-1990s that the eco experience at Lotan began in earnest, and the community, now affiliated with the Global Ecovillage Network, has since gone from strength to strength.

Evidence of Lotan’s determination to reduce, reuse, rethink and recycle can be seen all over the kibbutz, perhaps most outstandingly in the Bustan, whose natural, sustainable geodesic domes were constructed by students on the Green Apprenticeship programme over a two-year period which began in 2005.

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(Thanks to Kibbutz Lotan for this photo.)

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

In the winter, the domes are passively heated by the desert sun, and the heat absorbed by their walls and floors stays within the structure during the often cold nights, meaning that no additional heating is required. And because the windows are carefully placed for the most effective ventilation, the air-conditioning units are only switched on for very brief periods during the long hot summers, when temperatures often reach 45°C during the day and stay at around 30°C overnight. In an ongoing experiment in which the Eco Volunteers measure daily temperatures inside the domes and carefully monitor the use of mechanical heating/cooling systems, the domes have been proven to use one fifth of the energy being consumed by the conventionally built concrete kibbutz dwellings in the winter, and just one eighth in the summer.

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During the five-month periods in which Green Apprentices like Shilo live in the Bustan, every day sees them practically applying the knowledge they’re acquiring about alternative building, organic gardening, creative recycling, alternative energy use and community living. In the central area of the Bustan there lies, among various other communal living areas, an outdoor alternative kitchen, which features a solar oven, a parabolic oven, a taboon or earth oven, and Shilo’s favourite, the rocket oven. Sunshine is in abundant supply here in the Arava Valley, and these cooking methods maximise this ever-present resource to its best effect. And I’m happy to report that the proof was in the…cookies that Shilo offers us, which had been slow-baked at 120°C in the solar oven, using reflective insulation and sun absorption.

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The last stop on Shilo’s Whistlestop Bustan Tour allowed my friend and I to try out the latest in must-have eco white goods – the pedal-powered washing machine. Just throw in your clothes and eco-friendly washing powder, and your washing will be shiny-white by the time your workout is done.

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After we said goodbye to Shilo and continued on our way, we stumbled upon Lotan’s Collection Centre, which was built with the assistance of Israel’s Ministry for the Environment in recognition of the kibbutz’s early efforts to recycle. Lotan was established during a time when Israelis were making active attempts to forget the necessary thrift of their forebears; while war, persecution and poverty had made compulsive reusers and recyclers of those who created the state of Israel, subsequent generations have revelled in the possibility of an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mentality. So in a country whose inhabitants are now the second biggest creators of rubbish in the world, (relative to population size and second to the United States), the work being done by Lotan and other environmental groups is essential to future sustainability.

All of this was explained to us in greater detail the next morning, when we joined a small tour group being led by Lotan’s General Secretary, Mark Naveh, who studied ecology in Australia and sustainability education in England. As Mark walked us around the kibbutz, he explained some of the challenges involved in trying to live organically and sustainably in such an intense, extreme and challenging environment as the Negev.

Mark and his fellow kibbutzniks, he explained, are making use of all of their collective knowledge and experience in designing, building and running sustainable homes, businesses and communities. As well as the building methods and technologies mentioned earlier, the centre also has composting toilets, grey and black water purification systems, solar electricity generation and storage, and organic gardens. The kibbutz is not yet at zero waste, but has managed to reduce its general waste disposal by 70%. But the eco centre’s goal of achieving self-sufficiency using only organic methodologies is, Mark fears, some way off.

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While the community uses as little water as possible, it still relies on non-renewable groundwater to provide for its everyday needs, as the little rain that does fall tends to lead to flash-floods in unpredictable areas and therefore cannot be collected. There is no grazing land for the dairy cattle that are the economic backbone of the kibbutz, so 100% of their animal feed has to be bought in, and at this stage the centre’s organic gardens produce only a small percentage of the food required for the 200 people – kibbutzniks, renting residents and volunteers – to be found at Lotan on any given day.

The immense value of a community such as Lotan, however, is surely to be found in the efforts they are making to live as sustainably as possible, and also, perhaps most importantly, to educate the thousands of people who visit the centre each year to do the same. While my friend and I, together with an interested couple from England, were being shown around the centre, Mark’s colleague Leah Zigmond was busy teaching a group of young volunteers about organic gardening. There were also, we were told, people receiving holistic health treatments and others engaged in bird-watching, all of which enable people to enjoy themselves and their environment in a non-destructive way, as well as providing an income to allow the centre to continue its work.

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Soon before our reluctant departure from the kibbutz, while we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea in the vegetarian eco-café, Mark explained his perception of the centre’s role as being one of essential education – people must be prepared for what he expects is to come, in 15 or 20 years, when peak oil, water shortages and a possible global food crisis make localisation humanity’s only hope.

As a final question, I asked Mark if the centre was doing anything to mark Earth Day, which happened to fall on the day that I visited Lotan. “No, nothing special,” he said. “Every day here is Earth Day.”

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