As a boy, I had a fantasy of living off the land. It was an unformed idea, a mixture of Huckleberry Finn and making camps in the woods, and I never got far with it. I had a friend who held on to it longer, because his dad was planning to move to Alaska and live off the sea. His dad did it, too; he went to live on an island near Ketchikan, leaving his wife and kids, including my friend, back in the suburbs of Seattle.
It seemed a lonely thing to do.
At the university I met a libertarian who was living in squalor, smoking dope and living on pizza. His enthusiasm of the moment was to create a self-sufficient farm. He had never lived on a farm and knew nothing about it. He didn’t even have a garden, and I thought if he wouldn’t get off his butt to sweep the mat of dust under his furniture he wouldn’t make it as a farmer. Even then I knew that self-sufficiency means work.
Some folks have done it. For water, they have rainwater tanks, wells, or a handy creek. For power, they have solar panels, windmills, diesel generators, or car batteries. For heat they have wood. For waste they have an outhouse or a composting toilet.
I can imagine the satisfaction of unplugging from the electric utility and turning on my own power. Independence! I remember the day I began telephone service over my internet cable and cut the wire that connected me to the telephone monopoly. It felt good, though it was only swapping one connection for another. What if I had moved off the grid?
In his new book by that name, journalist Nick Rosen (www.off-grid.net) sets out to find off-the-gridders and tell their stories. He has sympathy for them; he is attracted to ideas of radical simplification, and as he seeks out interview subjects he keeps an eye out for land for himself. Rosen is British, but he can- not do this in his home country: “In all areas of the UK, one simply cannot get permission to so much as pull a trailer onto a lot, never mind to reside there full-time in it.”
In America you can do that, in some places. The places Rosen visits tend to remoteness — Maine, west Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and the redwood country of northwestern California.
Much of the book is about reasons and motives. Rosen himself is an anti-corporate green who detests “the hyper-consumption of the past 30 years” and people’s dependence on corporations and the state. “I want neighbors who solve their problems themselves instead of calling the police or county commissioners about every little thing,” he writes.
He is emphatically not a commune- ist. He visits a commune in Maine, and the people are stuck in a meeting. “I must confess my heart sank. . . . Much as we may all rail against the impersonal State, to which we hand over so much of our individual power, the alternative requires that we exercise that power ourselves, and in a responsible way.” In a commune, that means meetings and voting and rules. “I am not into cleaning schedules, interminable meetings and the need to reach a consensus with others about every aspect of my life. . . . I don’t want to join a social experiment.” He just wants to decouple.
Most of his subjects are “pro-market, pro-environment and pro-freedom, and merely want to live a decent life, free of debt, free of utility bills, growing some of their own food, and making a living according to whatever skills they have.”
He sets out to find them.
Some are only part-time off-gridders. One is Denise, who works in Manhattan as a tattoo artist, living in a tiny room. In her off time, she retreats to her ten acres in Connecticut, where she has a cabin and a treehouse in the woods along a river. Why has she bought the land? “Freedom,” she tells Rosen. “Privacy. I want as little government involvement in my life as possible, and that sounds like a really Republican thing to say, but it’s not. I’ve been trying to make a life where I can disengage from corporate and government serfdom as much as possible.” “Serfdom” strongly suggests Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” but Rosen doesn’t pick up that thread. He does say that this was “one of the most political statements” he heard. It is also one of the more rational.
Another subject is Jim, 50, a Ron Paul voter who moved out of Brooklyn to upstate New York. Jim is a scrounger whose life, Rosen says on his web page, “is dedicated to not paying the market price for anything.” Jim has built his house from bricks of “papercrete,” which is made of sludge from the local paper mill and 20% masonry cement. Jim worries about a societal “spiraling down” to collapse. He has stashed away a year’s worth of rice, barley, and oats, and has plans to convert his car to fuel he can grow. He tells Rosen he “feels increasingly aligned with the Amish.”
One of Rosen’s subjects is Amon, an Old Mennonite who uses horses to power machines designed for electricity. Another is Jassen, a Colorado libertarian who lives out of his car. Rosen respects the Mennonite for his achievements but dislikes his clannishness. The car dwellers lifestyle, he writes, “feels exciting to me, albeit slightly artificial.”
Rosen puts much of himself into his book, which could be annoying but isn’t. He is critical of his subjects but leaves the final judgment to the reader. At bottom, he is a reporter and writer, and lets the ills show through, along with the zeal.
Consider Carolyn Chute and her husband Michael, of Parsonsfield, Maine. Chute is the author of the novel, “The School on Heart’s Content Road.” It was reviewed in The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2008, which carried a photo of Carolyn and Michael dressed in country rustic and proudly carrying guns. The Times reviewer seems put off by the weaponry but likes the novel.
She calls it a “depiction of contemporary American poverty: of the slow, relentless grind of never quite having enough.”
Rosen visits the author and finds that the poverty she portrays is her own. Carolyn got no care during a pregnancy, and her baby died. She and Michael decided not to try for another child because “it’s a mean world.” Now they are getting old and will need looking after. They don’t want to sell and are considering doing a deal with the Maine commune previously mentioned: in exchange for care, the commies can inherit her land. But there are more risks in this than in a simple capitalist sale.
Then there are Daniel and Kirstin, “urban homesteaders” in Springfield, Massachusetts, who live in a city house they have taken off the grid. They have no car and no TV. They eat mainly homegrown food, light their house with candles, and heat with wood. In the winter, they are cutting and haul- ing wood all the time. They don’t have health insurance, life insurance, or a pension plan.
“Because of their purposely low income,” Rosen says, “Daniel and Kristin know they will never put their kids through college. They have thought it through and are happy they are not subscribing to that particular con.”
Will their daughter, 14, or their son, 6, ultimately appreciate this? Daniel and Kirstin are homeschooling them, sort of. The kids are learning by doing. As they teach their daughter to follow a recipe, they ask her to double it, “so math is incorporated as well.”
Maybe college won’t be an issue.
Reading stories like this, I ask: is this worth it? Bob and Wretha retreated to the Texas hills to be away from regulations and rules. Bob says, “I like being able to build what you want without having to get permission from Nanny.” That’s swell, but they live in a shack among “a mess of old appliances, salvaged lumber, and other junk,” and they eat nothing but canned and dried food.
It is a lifestyle issue — but also an intellectual issue, an issue of consistency, if you care about that sort of thing. The rule that off-gridders are try- ing to follow is to be disconnected not just from the state and the regulated utility grid but also from the economic grid of global capitalism. And they can’t do that.
Here is Melinda in Big Bend, Texas. She is off the utility grid — but she makes a living by doing research on a laptop, connected to the internet through the Wild Blue satellite service at $60 a month. She powers her laptop with a diesel generator. I draw a parallel to myself. I heat my house in Seattle with natural gas, which is piped from Alberta. I am on the grid. If I switched to fuel oil, as Melinda has switched to diesel, would I be in that respect off the grid? In the way Rosen uses the term, I would. But in my view, the fact that my fuel would come by truck rather than by pipe is not important. I am still on the economic grid, and so is Melinda.
Carolyn and Michael in Maine are living on the royalties from Carolyn’s novels, which have been promoted by The New York Times. Is that being off the grid? Is the actor who makes a living in Hollywood and has a million-dollar house in the Rockies with its own power plant off the grid? His house may be disconnected from municipal water and power, but is that what matters? A Hollywood actor making a living from global film royalties is not off the grid.
And how about the scavenger? He is scavenging the castoffs of global capitalism. If mass consumerism weren’t creating all this wonderful throwaway stuff, scavenging wouldn’t pay.
Rosen recognizes this. He asks: is it a fatal flaw? “I don’t think so,” he says. “There will be avid consumers for years to come.”
Surely he is right about that. But there will also be water and power companies for years to come.
The urban homesteaders, Daniel and Kirstin, are more fastidious. They refuse to scavenge or patronize thrift stores, because such acts are connections to global capitalism. Rosen remarks: “I am not sure if I agree with his logic, because if you take it all the way, if Daniel is seriously committed to severing his dependence on the global economy, shouldn’t he have built his house himself?”
That’s right. And if Rosen had refused to use petroleum-fueled vehicles and a laptop computer while researching this book, and had, instead, pedaled a bicycle from Maine to California and taken his notes with a pencil — well then, where would the bicycle and the pencil have come from? As anyone who has read Leonard Read’s famous essay, “I, Pencil,” can attest, even a pencil is tied to the vast, encompassing network of world trade.
Rosen’s answer is not to demand consistency, either of his subjects or of himself. And it is a sensible answer. Off-griddism is not an idea you can pursue consistently while living a modern life. Rosen couldn’t make a living off this book if he refused to fly and rent cars and use a cellphone and a computer. So he does those things. He lives with the uncomfortable fact that his anticorporate book is published by Penguin, which is owned by Pearson plc, a London-based multinational corporation that also owns the Financial Times. And I don’t complain either; but I do point it out. His ideas can be pursued only so far, beyond which lie the nuts.
And there are some of them in his book. My favorite is the dogged fellow who, after consuming a plate of food, picked up the plate and licked it “clean.” “No doubt it saved both energy and water,” Rosen comments, “but I’d never seen anyone do that before.”
If Rosen were a fanatic, he wouldn’t have reported that. But he does. He tells you what he sees. When he visits a “tent city” encampment in Sacramento, he does not push the lefty line about victims cast off by global capitalism. They are not. Some are in an illegal drug business. Some are “professional homeless” living in tents “for political reasons.” Some are men sporadically working and saving their money by not paying rent. “The residents I spoke to were not people who had recently lost their stable homes and stable jobs.”
I like Rosen. I like his honesty. I like the clarity of his writing. He brings an attitude, and I don’t always agree with it, but I smiled when he called Boulder, Colorado, “the smuggest town in America,” because it’s full of government workers piously “buying organic veggies and recycling their wine bottles.” Rosen has written a fun book, and one that libertarians will want to read.
As for his theory about our being subordinated to the economic machine — he has a point. We work, we are paid, and we lock ourselves in with what we buy. Detaching oneself does create a kind of freedom. But detach from what? I can understand detaching from an employer and working for yourself. I haven’t done it, but I respect it. It is a capitalist right. I can understand turning off network TV; I have done that for most of my life. Finally, I can under- stand a revulsion against the culture of compulsive shopping. My parents, who married during the Depression, taught me to moderate my wants, and I thank
them for it. But detach myself from municipal water and electricity? No.
I have detached myself from something much more important. Though my house is connected to water, sewer, electricity, gas, TV, telephone, internet, mail delivery, garbage pickup, and, through the property tax, the state, it is not connected to the bank. The heaviest load of all was the mortgage, and it is gone. The others I can live with.