11. Living Off-grid

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Whenever you try writing about off-grid, the biggest challenge you face is actually defining it. Back in the day it was easy. It meant no electricity (and therefore no gadgetry), a well or a clean stream or river for water (once the norm), rapeseed oil candles for lighting and fields of produce. Except they didn’t call it ‘living off-grid’ back then. They called it living.

In today’s globalised and ubiquitous monetary economy, the lines have become blurred. The term ‘off-grid’ refers to homes which could survive by themselves even if civilisation collapsed around it; or, more technically, homes which are autonomous and do not rely on public utilities such as electricity, gas, water and waste management, by using systems and technologies that allow them to produce everything their inhabitants need.

In reality, it’s not quite so clear-cut. A house which uses solar photovoltaics (PV) for electricity, a bore hole and rainwater harvesting techniques for water, and a passive solar design and a woodburner for heating is generally considered off-grid; and by definition that is correct. The debate surrounds the issue of whether or not people who rely on the grid to produce the things that allow them to then live off-grid are still reliant on the grid, albeit in a marginally less direct way. Many of the component parts of guttering systems and PV are made by processes that require a vast global network to come into existence. It can be argued that these products are just a proxy for the physical grid networks they’ve been produced to replace. Over the last decade the lines have become even hazier with the introduction of wireless mobile phones and internet dongles – if these networks are intangible and invisible, are they still part of the grid or not?

This is a debate that could go on long into the night, and in the absence of a bottle of raspberry wine I’d suggest that we leave it there. In the end it doesn’t really matter how you define off-grid. The reasons you do it may be completely different to the reasons I do it. My passion for off-grid living stems from a fascination in designing systems that allow us humans to live in harmony with the bigger organism we are a part of, instead of being perpetually at war with Her. I want to explore what a truly sustainable way of living is. You may want to live off-grid to regain some peace of mind, or because you want to reduce your carbon footprint, your bills or break free from the shackles of the monetary economy, at least for large portions of the year. Another reason to be ‘free’.

If I was asked to clarify the blurry lines of off-grid living, I’d explain it something like this: in the event of an apocalyptic scenario that caused all industrialised systems to magically evaporate in an instant (one can dream, can’t one?), I would say the extent to which you were off-grid would be equal to the amount of years you could survive afterwards. If you could live the rest of your life in the same manner, that’s ten out of ten. If you got into trouble after year five because your leisure battery died and your electric pump would no longer send you water, then I’d personally say you weren’t as far off-the-grid as you could have been. Therefore the key to truly off-grid living is keeping it as simple as possible, reducing your reliance on an economic system you have no control over, so that if the shit ever does go down, you could be unaffected by it all. The further off-grid you go, the more resilient you will be to external shocks, whether it be hikes in oil prices, complete financial meltdown or the landing of aliens in London, Washington and Beijing. The purest form of off-grid living is the fully localised gift economy.

To help you make the choice that works best for you and the biosphere at this moment in time, I suggest you choose from the menu of moneyless tools below and then draw yourself a POP model so that, over time, you can evolve to the way you ideally want to live.