Sunday, May 15, 2016

Off the Grid

Off the Grid:  Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America
© 2010 Nick Rosen
292 pages

When Nick Rosen put up a website to help his fellow Britons find resources and land reduce their carbon footprint by living off the grid, he was astonished at all of the interest his site received from the United States. He had more American readers than English readers, in fact,  and decided to investigate.  Off the Grid records his visits with various communities which operate outside the electrical grid. Although its subtitle refers to a coherent movement, there is nothing like that actually here. Rosen's account includes many people who simply happen  to be without power, like the homeless and the residents of a small Florida key ("No Name Key") who balked at the enormous cost of electrifying their island. Some of the persons included are positively dull, like the numerous wealthy types who maintained a 'vacation home' off the grid when they needed a retreat from their busy lives.  There are far more interesting characters present, though: an aging woman introduced as the founder of the 2nd Maine Militia, who has a working relationship with a local commune of anarchists,  and another woman who gave up PBS videography to teach SCUBA diving and drive trucks, instead.

 The majority of these interviews take place in the Southwest, where land is cheap and the population sparse. While some of the people included here are gridless because of poverty or remoteness, most have chosen it  while trying to find a more meaningful life. They want freedom from the constant distractions, simplifying their lives to the point of being free from utilities: they aim to put to rout all that was not life.  Another element present in these interviews is fear, of people withdrawing from a system that they view as either criminally exploitative or doomed to failure by its excesses. (While Rosen's grid-free interest mostly stems from environmentalism, he has a contempt for power monopolies that gives him plenty of common ground with this last category.)  Most of the people interviewed have a shade of...quirkiness to them, a possible consequence of living either in their heads or in echo chambers. Rosen brings to life quite a few tangential topics like microcurrencies, the pot economy, and the ins and outs of living in cars during these interviews.

Although I found several of the characters of interest, ultimately Off the Grid disappointed me. Far too many of the subjects just happen to be without power, rather than deliberately choosing to live 'outside the system'.   Those who remain don't share a worldview, and the groups that would (that anarchist cult, for instance, or the hippie commune) aren't explored in a great deal of detail.   Practically nothing is mentioned of how they're getting along, aside from the constant mention of solar panels and a one-paragraph visit to a composting toilet,  and Rosen is a grating narrator who makes fun of his subjects to the reader while he's talking with the people.  He does offer some thoughtful commentary though, especially in discussion with one man who lived by himself until he realized he had it wrong: it's not about self-sufficiency, it's about nurturing healthy and self-sufficient communities.   In connection with others, there is meaning --  off the grid or on.


  • Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey. Kind of like Walden, but in the Southwest. 
  • Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, Eric Bende. This is one I read a couple of years ago and should review, as it's the thoughtful work of a married couple who decided to live for a year with a Mennonite community to ponder the role of both technology and labor in their lives.
  • Folks, This Ain't Normal, Joel Salatin. Read three years ago, and is also about  humans, tech, and the right balance. I also need to re-read- and review this one.

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