As I crisscrossed America researching for Off The Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America, I encountered an unsatisfied, pent-up demand to live offgrid. And those who seek to live this way want to do so without obstacles like zoning, building permits, or social ostracism (all of which I encountered). I suspect most people consider using a composting toilet, for example, a fate worse than sleeping in their car. But for those on a limited budget, living off the grid appears to solve all sorts of problems, housing being the most immediate; there are no power or water bills, which reduces the amount of money one needs to live well. As long as one can afford the up-front payment for the equipment, one can live comfortably, use the latest gadgets, and avoid most of the hardships suffered by the earlier generation of off-gridders.
The main requirement is a change of mind-set. Most Americans are taught, or at the very least encouraged to believe, that homes must be a certain way. Well before the invention of TV, marketers pushed "ideal lifestyle" scenarios that included fridges and washing machines and electric gadgets of all kinds. The power companies, of course, subsidized the development and marketing of these products, and intentionally or not, dependence on the grid became a fact of life in America. Americans are happy and proud to buy and use recycled toilet paper, but a composting toilet is another matter, a level most people won't even think about.
The crunchy, granola off-gridders--environmentalists and other anti-capitalists--are just part of the story. The other big off-the-grid grouping is made up of right-wing survivalists, veterans, and traditional good ol' boys who were never on the grid in the first place.
Like many millions of Americans, they are losing faith in the ability of the state to fulfill its basic functions--to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak and to regulate the markets. The final straw was the triumph of the "banksters" (and insurers and hedge-fund managers) in keeping their jobs, barring a few layoffs. It was quite a trick the financial community pulled, scamming the world for billions of dollars through the real estate bubble. The anger is still palpable and off-grid real estate may be the only remaining answer for many.
I should point out that I am not an American. This collapse in trust, however, is global. With the global economy in danger, many believe that what's needed is a glocal (global and local) solution.
A former PBS camerawoman-turned-trucker, Andrea Johnson lived a high-tech version of the off-grid life – truck stops stores are stuffed with 12 volt, low-energy appliances from cooking pots to fax machines. On her travels Andrea scoured 48 States for the ideal location before settling in a hilltop cabin near Ridgway, CO. In winter it’s a ski-in. Andrea had wanted to be at least 200 miles from the nearest big city, “so that meant the smallest dots on the map.”
Carolyn Chute, "The Beans of Maine" author, and her husband moved from Portland Maine to their present wooded location to get away from the neighbors who thought they were weird and whose arguments they could hear through paper-thin walls. After several years, Chute is still connected to the electricity grid but is prepared for life without it. She has a composting toilet, well-water, wood fires and solar panels. She is “off-grid ready.”
Eddie Lemke recently graduated from Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina. For the final two years of his degree he lived, unknown to the authorities, in this teepee nestling among Hydrangea bushes on a remote part of Boone University Campus
Jim Juczak is the self-style Sultan of Scrounge – a former grade school teacher, his home is built from scraps he found on building sites, held together with “papercrete” made from “the waste stream from the local paper mill.” His 30-acre Woodhenge complex in upstate NY also has a motel he bought for $5000 and transported for a further $5000, and a bungalow made from an old, “steam-cleaned” fuel tank.
Eustace Conway is the Last American Man profiled in the book of that name by Elizabeth Gilbert. On his 1000 acre NC estate, called Turtle Island Preserve, Eustace is teaching by example. He and his followers grow their own food, make their own furniture, cook on wood fires, and dine by candlelight.
This is true green energy- the horse eats grass and produces energy. Several homes in this Mennonite community have adopted horse-power. As the horse turns the treads, motive power is generated via the red tube to power an icebox, washing machine, or any other motor. A few hours per day keeps the icebox cold.
Residents and guests at Earthaven eco-commune near Ashville, NC. The commune has its own currency (the Leap). Residents earn Leaps by working on communal projects and can then spend them in the canteen or on each other’s services.
Vonnie (left) quit her job as Visual Director of Urban Outfitters’ Philadelphia HQ. She found that her corporate bosses were happy to “take more than you had to give,” and decided to move west to save her relationship. The two now live very contentedly in an Earthship on the Mesa outside Taos, NM.
Mike Reynolds is the Earthship entrepreneur and Founder of Greater World Off-Grid Community in Taos, NM. Reynolds has built literally hundreds of Earthships, although doubts remain over the design. He campaigns for a new category of building permit for green homes because of the ecological “emergency” we face.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Off The Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America by Nick Rosen.
Copyright © 2010 by Nick Rosen
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