culture off the grid

What makes someone want to live “off the grid”? Who would willingly forgo the advantages that modern infrastructure affords them? As Jonathan Taggart and Phillip Vannini have noted of their extensive research ethnography of people living “off the grid”, the definition is not so simple.  They explain:

The official definition passed on by engineers refers to a house or an entire community, not a person, in state of disconnection from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a region. It’s the definition Jonathan and I have gone by to understand how comfort, convenience, cleanliness, sustainability, connectivity, and sense of place can be re-assembled when the powerful life lines entangling homes into the modern world are severed.

They view off the grid homes as power constellations, or a “historically and geographically specific pattern of power generation, distribution, and application. A constellation is an assemblage of practicesexperiences, and narratives that make sense together.” With this characterization they can understand these sites as “meshworks” of debate, understanding, and representation of the object/subject of practice, power.  But what motivates these people to live off the grid? Is it the sense of autonomy and sovereignty that is gained by producing their own power, not being reliant on experts, planners or distant infrastructures? Is it a desire to have a tangible relation to power, or to use the vast, free, open energy resources of wind and the sun? These motives are certainly influenced by values and beliefs, but the will, the wherewithal to actually follow through on an off-the-grid lifestyle takes serious dedication.  What is the tipping point for these people, the point at which they say, “eff it, lets do this”? Or is it something they have always done, grown-up off the grid?  Does it have to do with self-sufficiency, an American parochialism? As  William T. Vollmann writes on BookForum.com :

Were there such an animal as national character, then I might define an American as follows: longing for and half-expecting perfect freedom and happiness; disappointed by the authoritarian constraints of present necessity (which we’ll call “the grid”); unnerved by the conflict between aspiration and reality; uncertain whether to blame oneself or others for imperfection; ready to “reinvent” oneself to achieve self-sufficiency, profit, or peace.

The motive is only one piece of the discussion.  As Vollmann discusses, there is also an appeal of rediscovery of the self, as if moving to a new place, off the grid offers an opportunity to redefine your character, your goals, ambitions, and to accept or conceal history.  But is there such a place where one can be off the grid, in the wild? I think we have to come back to the emphasis on power, because as soon as we expand the definition of “the grid” then we realize that such places where you can be “off-the-grid” might not exist.  In a much more poetic and thoughtful idea of going off the grid than I can articulate, Vollman, in the context of reinventing himself in course of his worldly travels and immersions into different cultures, asks:

So where could an American go? It needed to be to a gridless place, and by some measurements there never had been any. Perhaps that is why I may stay an American until I die, even if Homeland Security gets positively monstrous. There never was anyplace to go, except for transients or for conquerors who extended the grids they came from. If we see the other, then we must see his past, which now rules him. So careful, my fellow Americans! Fall into his orbit, and his obligations may become yours. Again, what’s an American to do?

Although Vollmann is referring more to the political and social aspects of the grid, I think his lessons can be translated into thinking about others’ reasons for going off the electric grid just the same.

Is this your vision of off the grid living? (treehugger)

off-grid-wind-energy-solar-power

Or This? (eric valli)

7_evotg15

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About anthony

Urban.Studies.Energy.Politics.Ecology.

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