The Illusion of an Off-Grid Utopia
By Brett A. Fernau
I attended a presentation the other night from someone who sincerely believed that living off-the-grid was a goal toward which we all should strive. That was not the first time I have heard this idea presented as a goal worthy of achieving. The idea is somewhat pervasive within the preparedness “community.” I reject the notion that we all should be working toward getting ourselves off the grid. Instead, I believe we should be working hard at building a better, more sustainable, more resilient and durable grid.
First, let’s look at what life off the grid would be like. To do that we have to define what the “grid” encompasses. Technically, the grid is the electrical distribution system that delivers power to your home or office from its source or sources. I’ve heard the term used to include all public utilities and, indeed, to some degree that is true. Almost, if not all, the resources that come into our houses are dependent upon electrical energy in some way or another. For natural gas, water and sewage, there are pumps and valves and systems that depend upon electricity to operate. Landline and cellular communications are both electrical by nature, as is television, radio, and computer technology. Oil refineries would cease operations. The gasoline and diesel fuel in the underground tanks at the gas station would have to be dipped out of the tanks by the bucketful. If the electrical power grid stops working, everything that depends upon electricity to operate eventually stops working, too.
Life off the grid, then, would mean no phones, no computers, no television, no running water, no toilet flushing, no hot water heaters, no video games, no refrigeration other than ice, no air conditioning, and no leisure time. Your time from sunrise to sunset would, by necessity, be spent in obtaining enough food, water and fuel to survive. Our ancestors lived this way. Their lifespan was short and their lifestyle consisted primarily of hard work, callused hands and sore backs.
Okay, so you don’t actually want to live off-grid, you just want to live independent of the grid. You’ll get yourself some solar panels and some batteries, a couple of wind turbines, maybe and you’ll be off the grid. Of course, on a calm, cloudy day, you’ll have your batteries to see you through, so things will be just fine. You realize, don’t you, that all that technology that you are dependent upon to get off-grid depended upon there being a grid for its manufacture. And when your batteries wear out, or a hail storm destroys some of your solar panels, or the bearings in the turbine seize, you will need to go outside where the grid exists to get replacements.
Unless you want to go back to life the way it was lived on the frontiers of the United States in the early 1800s, you will need for there to be a grid. You will need modern technology, including modern medicine, modern sanitation, modern water treatment, modern communications, etc., or you will need for everyone else to have those things so that you can enjoy the luxury of your off-grid lifestyle. If you believe that we’d all be better served by going back to that “simpler,” “more sustainable,” life style of the frontier days, you’ll have to figure out how to accommodate all the additional people that have come into being since those days. They’re each going to need some farmland, and a few goats, sheep and cows. Plus, they’ll each need a good clean water well with enough capacity to not only meet their own personal needs but to water the food crops they will need to grow. They’ll also need an enormous variety of skills, from sheep-shearing to spinning wool to knitting and weaving, from animal husbandry to farming, from midwifery to general medical practitioner, from miner to blacksmith, from lumberjack to carpenter and, well, you may begin to see the problem.
Regression is not the answer. We need to move forward, be more creative, make better and wiser use of our resources, find new resources, create new technology, so that instead of becoming more primitive, we become better at doing what humans do best; and that is adapting the environment to our needs. We need to learn to do that while husbanding our resources. We need to create methods of operation which will bring prosperity to ourselves and everything around us. We need to create an environment and a society where we all work together; and isolate and quarantine those who pit us against each other for their own nefarious ends.
To do this, we must get down in the trenches and work at it. It won’t happen if we withdraw into little insular, off-grid communes. If will only happen if we actually create a civilization on this planet. An excellent first step would be to get a good, workable moral code in place planet-wide. The best one I have found is called The Way to Happiness. This little booklet has proven effective in a wide array of countries and cultures and has created peace and understanding wherever it has been read and accepted. Getting us all working together to solve problems is an achievable goal and would be a step into a better, more prosperous future.
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