Off the Grid

Off-the-grid expert Nick Rosen offers a portrait of some of the Americans who have opted for freedom from the utility grid.

Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America By Nick Rosen Penguin 304 pp., $15

Most of us take the grid for granted. We don’t want to think beyond the swirling of the drain or the flip of a switch. We like our creature comforts – hot water for our shower, a bright light at the end of the day – and we don’t give much thought as to how those resources get to us.

But a growing number of Americans are challenging the belief in the necessity of the massive utility grid that connects us all. These men and women, in classic American pioneer spirit, have moved off the grid to homes powered by alternative energy. In his broad and sweeping new book, Off the Grid, Nick Rosen explores this subculture – a group to which he himself belongs.

There are as many reasons and ways to move off the grid as there are people who choose to do so. Rosen gives us portraits of novelist Carolyn Chute, who lives heavily armed in the Maine woods; Carlos Proffit, who owns a home on five acres near Albuquerque, N.M., that doesn’t even show up on Google Maps; Allan Weisbecker, who lives on a beach in Mexico and claims that we are on the “verge of true catastrophe”; and Daniel Staub and Kristin Brennan, who, along with their children, live off the grid, homeschool, and grow their own food in residential Springfield, Mass.

Rosen himself has a flat in London and an off-grid home on the island of Majorca. One of the lifestyle’s most vocal advocates, Rosen runs the website and published the 2007 title “How to Live Off-Grid” in Britain.

Living off the grid, as Rosen states, “happens to be exceedingly good for the environment, fostering lower energy consumption ... and introducing a radical approach to cutting consumption of everything in our domestic lives, not just energy and water.”

In our national frenzy to be green, we talk about reducing our carbon footprint in terms of turning the water off when we brush our teeth or switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent ones. But too often we fail to ask a fundamental question: Why do we need to consume so much?

Early in his book, Rosen gives a compelling history of the grid in America and includes a statement by a power executive that there is an “ever-increasing demand for electric power.” Rosen wonders, “Why should there be an ‘ever-increasing demand’? What rule of nature dictates that electricity use can only ever go up, especially during a recession?”

Rosen explains to readers that going off the grid isn’t just a set of physical choices. Many off-gridders have rejected the mainstream culture in myriad ways.

Some people are looking for space, for control over their homes and properties, and for the peace of mind that comes from opting out of the consumer-driven culture.

Vonnie Mallon was an executive with Urban Outfitters when she decided that her long commute and city dwelling were detrimental to herself and her marriage.

She and her husband now live in an isolated community of 20 or so eco-friendly homes called STAR (Social Transformation Alternative Republic) in New Mexico.

“I needed to be silent within myself, and get rid of all the distractions around – the constant society expectations, the work expectations,” Ms. Mallon told Rosen. “It was easy to lose myself ... never really being in the present.” Mallon’s story, like many stories in the book, raises the questions: What do we value? How do we define success?

Rosen succeeds in giving readers a good survey of the off-grid landscape. He misses an opportunity, however, to delve in deeply, to create even richer portraits of the colorful men and women he encounters on the road. Nearly to a person, these characters practically begged to have their full and intriguing stories told.

Instead, Rosen dips in here and there, always staying in the shallow end before quickly running off to the next spot.

The book also lacks photos, which would have made the off-grid life more accessible to the reader. We don’t want to just hear about the popular Earthship, a home made of recycled tires; we want to see it. We want to see the Clivus Multrum, the “Hummer of composting toilets” (though not necessarily a photo that shows the hundreds of roaches that Rosen finds inside the compost container).

Pictures of these wonderfully inventive and unique off-grid homes would go a long way, but perhaps even more intriguing would be photographs of those homes that fit better into the mainstream, but who run completely off the grid.

Such households do exist, and the sight of them might help convince those of us who simultaneously cling to our two-car garages and bemoan the oil spill in the Gulf that there is another way.

Kim Schmidt is a writer in Champaign, Ill.

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