Monday, February 2, 2015

Connecting through disconnection: learning from 'Life Off Grid'

by Jonathan Taggart, CHANs Lab PhD student

Could you imagine a life where water didn't flow automatically from the taps? Where electricity wasn't simply accessed by flicking a switch? A life in which networks of power, water – as well as food, heat, and waste disposal – were only available if you built them yourself? It sounds like a stretch... but the lessons might be worth the leap.

Between 2011 and 2013 I travelled across Canada with Dr. Phillip Vannini (Canada Research Chair II in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography and my Masters supervisor at Royal Roads University) working on an ethnographic project that aimed to characterize and describe the lives of people living “off the grid” in every province and territory. The project revealed much about the challenges, motivations and practices of people who have chosen to disconnect from Canada’s electrical and gas infrastructures: many off-gridders, we discovered, are inspired by a profound attachment to, and concern for, place. Many believe that a good life is one characterized by deep and bodily involvement in the architecture and infrastructure of living – buildings, energy, food, water – and have taken up the challenge of producing these niceties and necessities for themselves.

In coastal British Columbia off-gridders can use surface water to generate power year-round because it rarely freezes. The prairies are typically sunnier, even in winter, and those on the east coast get plenty of wind for their turbines. Off-gridders use a variety of technologies (some home-made, like this stream engine on Lasqueti Island) to make electricity, each choice, or combination of choices, guided by the unique affordances of their surroundings.

In two years we interviewed nearly 200 participants in over 100 households, roughly 10 from each province and territory. With a mandate to make our research as accessible as possible, we designed the project to have multiple outputs, including magazine articles and a feature-length documentary film in addition to numerous academic articles and a monograph. The reception so far has been remarkable, and has shown how successful research can be in connecting with non-academic audiences: at last count, the film’s trailer has had nearly 21,000 views online, driven in large part by articles in Canadian Geographic and the Huffington Post, as well as by ongoing guest blogs we have written for the Huffington Post, The Tyee, and Mother Earth News. The story, in short, seems to be one that people want to hear.

But to what end are we pushing this research so far and wide? It’s easy to package and pedal the romance of wanting to “live deliberately”, as Thoreau put it, but surely there must be more to living off the grid than the self-satisfaction and solitude of living a cottage life year-round. Living off the grid is by no means the solution to the challenges facing our planet – “it’s colossally selfish”, observed one interviewee, pointing out the inequalities evident in his privileged access to the land, technology and education that have made his life possible – but the values espoused by many off-gridders are things we can all learn from.

If we agree that the path to living within planetary boundaries is marked as much by social as it is by technological change and innovation, perhaps off-gridders can show us what life might look like if we not only use less energy and fewer resources, but also what a world might look like if we shift to a paradigm in which we want and need less[i]. It’s a paradigm shift fueled in part by increased involvement in the production of what we consume, and by awareness, in the words of another interviewee, of “what things actually cost”. In consideration of these externalities and “actual costs”, living off grid is also an act of deconcession or divestment: while their individual impact may be small, off-gridders are ‘voting with their feet’, moving their financial resources away from large utility providers and, by taking control of their own energy and food production in ways that respect their particular bioregion, incrementally shifting demand away from the corporate entities they view as responsible for threats to biodiversity and the environment[ii].

Imagine cooking your meals using the power of the sun: tracking its path with your solar oven, waiting longer for dinner when it’s overcast, and maybe firing up the wood stove instead when the winter rays are low. This solar oven on an off-grid Manitoba farm is essentially a giant reflector that uses reclaimed printer’s tin to redirect the sun into a glass-fronted insulated box – just one example of how some off-gridders work with the weather rather than around it. On a sunny day it is relatively easy to bring an oven like this up to 400°.

While the life being lived by a handful of people in the deep woods and far reaches of Canada may not be broadly scalable (the necessary land base alone is prohibitive: off-gridders generally agree that 10 acres is the minimum parcel needed per family for food, water and firewood), the associated attitudes are admirable and adoptable. By advocating for a life dictated by the whims of wind and weather (a reality in many homes powered by renewable energy), they are exchanging an anthropocentric worldview for one that is more relational and arguably more sustainable.

Life Off Grid is currently touring film festivals: it will be appearing at Ethnografilm2015 in Paris, April 8-12, 2015. ‘Off the grid: Reassembling domestic life’, co-authored by Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart, is available from Routledge here. A collection of Jonathan’s off-grid photographs from across Canada will be on display at Liu Institute for Global Issues as part of the Capture Photography Festival throughout April 2015.

You can also connect with Life Off Grid on Facebook and Instagram for video snippets, photographs, and for news on additional media and festival appearances.

Life Off Grid was made possible by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[i] Vannini, P., & Taggart, J. (2014). Making sense of domestic warmth: Affect, involvement, and thermoception in off-grid homes. Body & Society, 20(1), 61-84.

[ii] Vannini, P., & Taggart, J. (2014). Growing, cooking, eating, shitting off-grid organic food: deconcession, convenience and the taste of place. Food, Culture and Society, 17(12), 319-336.

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