Off the grid

Along with the dream hut (previous entry), the modern solitary dreams of being “off-grid,” at least as a symbol of autonomy and self-sufficiency. After becoming dependent on modern civilization’s provisions for the three essentials — food, energy, and waste management — the notion of addressing these necessities without the grid is inspiring both practically and philosophically, especially for the solitary who already has a disengaged frame of mind when it comes to society’s structures.

But as Dave Black points out in his little book Living Off the Grid, we are never really completely autonomous from it using modern solutions. Food can be grown and bartered almost exclusively by simple, even primitive, means. But energy feeds on itself. To go solar means to go to the grid for the equipment, tools, infrastructure, transportation, and — most importantly — maintenance. Production costs for solar components remain high, and so do end user prices. But most telling is when something goes wrong, breaks, needs maintenance, or additional components. We go to the grid to get them. So we are not entirely “off the grid” regardless of the type of alternative energy.

This is not to say that the effort is not worth it. On the contrary, the degrees of autonomy are important to approaching sustainability. Like solitude, there is no absolute degree, only positive ones.

The same is true for waste management, where virtually every municipality insists on expensive waste disposal for anyone contemplating living on a piece of land, however economically. And it is the grid that requires, verifies, and builds septic systems. The vagabond may make easier provisions, but merely passes on the burden to the grid if they are passing through that system.

We can use the past as a model, necessarily retrograde, unraveling the layers of administration, institutions, customs — and most importantly, the technology. But, again, the technology of the past was based on smaller populations and scientific knowledge-base. It was not free of errors, disasters, or bad effects like pollutants and disease. But the latter are still with us, in different forms. The technology of the grid is a structure, but the real control belongs to those who hold what Foucault calls “power/knowledge.” So we have to get used to the idea that the grid was never “ours” but was part of a material progress lurching back and forth to the unintended but foreseeable goal of expiration.

Black identifies three relationships to the grid — he calls them “subcultures.” They are:

  1. the “welfare subculture,” wherein people driven to marginal socio-economic circumstances depend on public assistance to stay on the grid while unable to move out of this subculture. We will see more and more of these people as the global economy first shrinks, then unravels;
  2. the “vagabond subculture,” wherein people capable of productively settling into a stable relationship to the grid refuse to do so, existing on the fringes, living as cheaply and autonomously as possible while using the grid selectively, and,
  3. the “career subculture,” wherein people work regularly, consume regularly, and have come to depend on the regularity of the grid and the presumed limitless responses the grid uses to provide food, energy, and waste management on its (the majority subculture’s) behalf. Many here, too, will enter the welfare or vagabond subcultures as the economy and the grid downsize indefinitely.

The majority subculture in the developed world — the career subculture — is characterized by an unsustainable level of consumption and equally unquestioning expectation that that consumption level and expectation should continue both as structure and entitlement. The welfare subculture is equally dependent on the grid, if not so optimistically. The vagabond subculture has the attitude of opportunism that distinguishes it from the other two, but may not have the ability to compromise and participate in sustainable alternatives. Of course, those alternatives, such as transition towns, may reproduce if not the economics of the grid, perhaps the social dynamics, with a new class of controlling elites who can produce and a larger dependent subculture of exiles from the grid who accept the authority of the new elites.

Is there a fourth subculture? The disengagement from society characteristic of the hermit has affinities with the vagabond without the element of opportunism. The historical hermit also had rid himself or herself of the acquisitiveness of the rest of society, the adherence to social structures and the desire to fit into them, to conform to its authorities and customs — all characteristic of the “career subculture” and its historical antecedent. At the same time, historical hermits made no demands on the “grid” of their age, preferring to seek their own sustainability in remote areas, or becoming part of the “welfare subculture” by begging or bartering their labor but with no strings attached and no expectations about the future.

At least in mind and heart, the solitary is always “off the grid” of society. Whatever new model may emerge in the future, eremitism will always have a more lasting set of values. The future hermit will be like the old hermit, wondering, as the ancient desert hermit Paul did, “What new cities have arisen? What empire holds sway these days?”