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A tent for the poor? Part 1 of 2

The soft spoken, bearded, Tilly-hat wearing 44-year-old is telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s motivated to give a mighty blow to the increasing rich-poor gap in Alberta. If you find yourself occupying a bar stool beside his, you can’t help but admire his egalitarian ideals. 

But once you start listening to his grand scheme — once he starts spelling out his proposal, complete with conceptual drawings, references to biblical scripture and the assertion that what you see with your eyes, feel with your hands and hear with your ears is the empirical, demonstrable truth — you can’t help but want to believe that profound change is right in front of our faces.

“What happens when you fill a steel ball full of air and hold it 40 metres under water?” Munro asks one Friday afternoon. This sounds like a trick question, but Munro doesn’t seem like the type. Too… nice. 

I bite. “It goes up?”

And that’s where the conversation begins. Munro, who for the last seven years has been more or less living out of his van trying to get governments, communities, philanthropists — anybody — on board, wants to build the world’s first buoyancy-gravity generator, the energy from which would power an off-the-grid, self-sustaining, zero-waste community. He’s got the land shored up, he’s got the skeleton framework for a business plan, he’s got the conviction and the energy to put in the time and labour. All he needs is somebody to buy into it. Someone to believe in it. Someone to believe in him.

Currently, there are only a small number of true believers: Munro, the self-described inventor (he has several registered patents), Joseph Magnuson, a landowner near Breton (southwest of Edmonton, east of Drayton Valley) and his partner in what they’re calling Sustainability Unlimited, Jesse Blackmore.

“Jesse’s got the land,” Munro says about his business partner. Indeed, Blackmore has offered up his acreage near Breton as ground zero for the Eco Village. Blackmore, the land development project manager for Sustainability Unlimited, has recently completed a papercrete construction course in the U.S., as has Magnuson.

Papercrete, Munro asserts, will be the foundation of the Eco Village. The pulp-based construction material consists primarily of recycled materials — newspaper, drywall and flyash (a coal combustion product) — and so Munro is currently approaching municipalities for their recycling refuse. Recently, he eyed the Municipality of Jasper’s cardboard bails as possible raw materials for his Eco Village, but first he needs the manufacturing plant. In their hasty-looking business plan outline, Sustainability Unlimited’s phase one plans envisage the papercrete manufacturing plant built on Blackmore’s land. That is where they want to turn energy production in Alberta on its head.

If the name Blackmore and the idea of a communal settlement rings a bell, that would be because Jesse is of the same blood as the notorious Mormon fundamentalist, Winston Blackmore, of Bountiful, British Columbia. However, Munro is quick to point out that even though his partner is a practicing Latter Day Saint, he is by no means associated with Winston and does not believe in polygamy, the doctrine which many fundamentalists ascribe to. Jesse too, wanted to make it clear to the Fitzhugh that he’s out of contact with the inhabitants of Bountiful. “I have but one wife, and am not planning on adding any more!” he wrote, half-jokingly in an email.

But just because Sustainability Unlimited’s foundations aren’t linked to fundamentalism doesn’t mean the Eco Village idea came from a strictly secular vision. As much as he believes that the migration of young people from small Canadian towns to the city is leaving small centres to wilt and die, Munro believes in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In designing this sustainable community, where the underprivileged, the working class and the youth can congregate and not be slaves to big business and landlords, Munro believes he is helping build the Bible’s tent for the poor.

“The Bible says there is a place where God will dry every tear,” he says.

In his version of that place, people will live in transportable Eco Pods, food will be made on site, water will be purified by way of passive solar distillers and no tax base will be required to sustain the community. The key lies in the buoyancy-gravity generator: the machine that Munro believes will simultaneously break the backs of energy executives and, as he paraphrases Isaiah 42:7: “set free the prisoners from the prison houses.”

“We can make power from garbage, fuel from water, a home that is your job… but the governments of Canada and the U.S. and the rest of the democratic world have got to say enough is enough,” he says.

“We are in the right place, at the right time.”

Please stay tuned to next week’s Fitzhugh for part two of “A tent for the poor?”

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