Friday, June 10, 2011

The need to reduce energy impact and the nonscalability of off-the-grid living

In this weeks Radio Ecoshock Alex Smith interviewed experts in off-the-grid living and they did their best to present this as a wonderful alternative to the financial, technological and biological doom facing our civilization. There are plenty of dangers facing our society, peak oil leading to an energy supply decline leading to collapse of everything we know, to environmental change destroying our biological ability to continue as a society, to deep financial crisis causing another long running deep depression of the global economy. The solution is a form of personal resilience, where you find a homestead out in the wilderness, put up solar panels and wind turbines, and satisfy yourself with whatever you can grow on your land or trade with your neighbors. The speakers did a great job in demonstrating you can do this without having to revert to a stone age style of living. However I heard a different question than what I think Alex wanted us to hear.

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The first speaker was Cam Mather, the owner of AZTEXT, a publishing house which focuses in books on off-the-grid living using renewable energy and other stuff. Cam himself is living the off-grid live in a homestead a few hours from Toronto. In the show he and Alex had some good reminiscing time with Alex fondly (I suppose) remembering his own homesteading years. Cam's homestead is far enough from wired civilization that it would cost $200,000 for the utility to set up wiring to get them on the grid, so he doesn't do so and instead has solar panels, wind turbine, passive solar, wood he harvests from his own land, chickens he grows for eggs and food, gardening that provides 30% or more of their food, and a job running AZTEXT to provide income to pay for anything they need.

It's a kind of simplicity living in action. Why do we need to have a lifestyle dependent on massive consumption in order to be happy? Well, as one of the voices Alex found later in the show said, a reason for this pattern of massive consumption is that the utility companies worked hard on our society to convince our society to build itself into a pattern of unsustainable growth of consumption. Utility companies make more money the more electricity we consume, and therefore if they encourage us all to be greedy consumers of electricity then they make more money. (Patterns of Unsustainable Growth, Enslavement Economics)

What I heard while Cam was speaking is that as cool as that sounds (I've wanted to do an off-the-grid home since the 1970's) it's not sustainable. He describes it as sustainable, many people think off-the-grid living is the epitome of sustainability, but I think it's not.

Consider:

  • A homesteader in the wilderness has to drive more to get to town for socializing or buying stuff
  • The land required per person - if every one of the 7 billion of us follow this dream, each with their own 5 acres of off-the-grid nirvana, is there enough land on the planet?
  • The factories to build the gizmos his life depends on - they aren't made by people who themselves are living in off-the-grid nirvana. The reason solar panels are so much cheaper today is because production has shifted to Chinese factory cities.

Okay, I could go on a bit ragging on this guy even though he's doing something I think is way cool. In fact, I did, until it broke through my consciousness that what he's doing is demonstrating to us a truth. Perhaps not the direct obvious idea of we should all live as he is. But instead demonstrating the plausibility of living comfortably on a smaller energy and resource footprint.

There are certain kinds of buildings which by their design force you to closely examine resource cost of your lifestyle. Some examples are the live-aboard sailboat lifestyle, the live-aboard recreational vehicle lifestyle, the homeless street bum lifestyle, and the off-grid homesteader lifestyle. In each case your lifestyle isn't subsidized by the grid, and every resource you bring into your life is brought from outside your living arrangement. It makes the cost of resources much more obvious than it is for those of us living in the city hooked up to the grid and everything is available nearby.

That's what Cam and others like him are doing. They're putting their lives into an experimental mode so they can teach others something they've learned about a different lifestyle. That doesn't make their exact lifestyle what all of us should adopt. But it's a useful experimental chamber within which to experiment with the means of living.


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