“Off-the-grid” is a terribly-abused expression. I (Phillip) have heard people say they’re “off-grid” if they switch off their cell phone for a day. Others think that anyone living far from the city is off-the-grid. Some use “off-the-grid” to describe people who wish to run and hide, to go incommunicado. In Canada, off-grid is a technical expression with a precise meaning defined by the government. Engineers and architects, to whom the government’s definition can be attributed, say “off-grid” to refer to those dwellings (individual homes as well as entire communities) that are disconnected from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a particular region. This definition makes things clear and simple: a home (not an individual) is off the grid in relation to electricity and natural gas.
The reality on the ground, however, is a bit more complex. Off-grid households capable of generating their own heat and electricity are often also intent on harvesting water, growing food, and disposing of their own sewage and waste without the aid of municipal infrastructure. These homes typically also have a cautious attitude towards communication links, and may therefore be cut off from telephone landlines or television cables. At times, they may be in remote places, even off the road. All these are incredibly interesting lifestyle choices that are simply mind-boggling for most people. I’m one of those people.
I moved to a small island off the British Columbia coast in 2010. Though I was no stranger to small town life, moving away from a municipality and off to a rural island meant becoming responsible for my water supply (and don’t get me started on my septic field). It meant, in other words, living with a groundwater well and monitoring it carefully to make sure I wouldn’t consume too much of my own water. My own water. Those three words, spoken in a row, had never even entered my consciousness until then. What could life be like — I started asking myself — if I had not only my own water, but also my own heat and my own electricity? What could life be like, off the grid?
I took a short trip to find out. I reached out to a friend of a friend who lived off-grid on Vancouver Island and asked for a guided tour of his house. Three hours later —three hours full of amperage, wattages, BTUs, inverters, and all kinds of gadgets that looked like something out of a Steampunk catalogue — I was enchanted, mesmerized, in awe. And utterly confused.
I returned home wondering whether I too could live like that. I am no stranger to a slower way of life, to growing veggies and filtering out unwanted television, social media, or cell phone signals, but I questioned whether I could go the extra mile and sever my ties to the power grid too. I puzzled over whether I had what it takes: the ability to do with less, to rely on myself more, to embrace a little inconvenience. I agonized over my lack of handy skills and my tendency to tackle domestic projects with stress and panic, rather than the required “I-can-fix-it” attitude that I admired in so many tool-box-endowed friends. I tossed and turned, debating ad nauseam whether as a good ethnographic researcher I should indeed “go native” and practice firsthand the life I chose to write about.
The prospect of going off-grid, for most people, rightly feels like taking a leap in the dark. Most of us have become accustomed to flicking on a switch and, in virtue of the technological miracle called electric light, stretching daylight deep into nighttime. Those of us living in the Western hemisphere, and fortunate enough to pay the monthly bills, are spoiled with the historically unique privilege of being able to microwave our food in seconds, tumble-dry our machine-washed clothes in minutes, and power up dozens of digital gadgets all day long. Our homes can be warmed at the twisting of a thermostat and kept cooled during the muggiest of summer days. Our store-bought foods can be preserved effortlessly for months in capacious freezers. Our constitutionals can be flushed away in an instant, out of sight and out of mind.
So, how can we, and why would we, cut off these life lines? Some might say because our lives may have gotten just a tad too boring, too disconnected from the natural world, too comfortable, too lazy, too irresponsible, too crowded, too expensive, too confined, too saturated, too superficial, too fast, too incompetent, and too dependent. Though I didn’t know if those arguments would really compel me and my family to make the leap, I felt the urge to understand them better, to experience and practice them vicariously through the everyday lives of full-time off-gridders.
For the next three years, together with my then-student and now collaborator Jonathan Taggart, I travelled to all of Canada’s provinces and territories to document the ways of life of people off the grid. In June of 2013, Jon and I ended our travels on Canada’s easternmost point, having travelled 65,000 miles coast to coast to coast to find and interview about 200 off-gridders. Our experiences, now told in a book and a film, will be the subject of this blog in the coming weeks and months.
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