This year, my family did our oh-so-secular Christmas gift exchange in an off grid log cabin in the mountains outside of Vancouver, BC. The first snow of the season had fallen a few days before, blanketing the muddy woods in several inches of magic and wonder. The cabin could only be reached on foot, hidden among the trees on an unmarked trail.
There is something exalted about stepping off the grid into nature's hush, and the very existence of this old hand-made cabin, a mere 45-minute drive from Vancouver's overblown real estate market, seemed miraculous.
We took the plastic tarp off the couch and started a fire in the big cast iron stove, stomped our feet and waited for the fire to warm first the oven and then the room. There were tea-candle powered LED lanterns for light and, to answer the call of nature, a spectacularly tall outhouse with a view over the treetops.
Everything was perfect. Our few needs had been anticipated, ritualized, over many years of cabin-stays: there were slippers so that we didn't track snow into the room, and a toilet seat that hung on a hook inside so we wouldn't freeze our butts in the outhouse.
And yet I couldn't help thinking of a half-dozen ways the cabin could be improved. I could almost see the heat escaping through the two snow-covered skylights overhead, and out the cracks around the windows and door. It only ever got up to about 50 degrees inside, though we burned wood for almost 48 hours straight. The stove smoked up the room whenever we opened the door. How much warmer might we be with the help of a tube of caulking and maybe some batts of insulation between the rafters?
But what if the persistent cold was an essential part of the cabin's effect? The cold kept us in our jackets, drinking hot tea, circled close round the fire. And then what is there to do but talk? Adversity brings us together.
How to reconcile these two reactions? How many improvements could you make before these primal pleasures would be softened into something more mundane?
Was the absence of electricity, road access and cell reception sufficient limits to maintain the cabin's enchanting atmosphere?
We humans are so good at circumventing limits; you might say it's our thing.
"I'm going to go off-grid to build a cabin in the woods… I'm going to make it with my bare hands, repurposing, recycling and reusing the best of what I can find." So begins Kevin McCloud's Man Made House, a BBC show from 2012.
"I want this bolt-hole of mine to be powered off-grid," he continues. "There'll be no power lines or 'mains gas' here." And so, with the help of friends – and eventually chainsaws – he fells a couple of oaks, splits the logs with dynamite, hires a mobile milling machine to saw the wood into planks and builds a gorgeous timber framed shed.
He sets out to make oak shingles by hand. It takes him 20 minutes to split and plane each shingle; at this rate he figures it will take him three months to make the required number. Just then, Kevin's sidekick Will pulls up in his souped-up VW bug; he's rigged a wood screw to the hub of one of the VW's rear wheels, to split the wood faster. As the wood screw tears into the oak, Kevin says, "in no way can this conceivably be called off grid."
Technically, using a gasoline engine to split wood is completely off grid – "the grid" generally refers to the electrical grid. Kevin and Will are standing in the middle of a field with no power lines in sight.
But I know what he means – it's the spirit of the thing. Calling a gas-powered engine an "off grid" technology is like "unplugging" from the internet by using cellular data instead of an ethernet cable. The outcome – having power or internet – is roughly the same, even if the method of delivery is different.
And if "the grid" is metaphorical rather than literal, aren't cell towers part of the grid? And the gas stations where we fill our tanks? The Internet is another grid, layered on top of the electrical grid. In A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan makes an argument for dimensional lumber as a kind of grid, allowing houses to be built far from the forests out of relatively light sticks. And then where does it end? Then the line between "on" and "off" becomes impossibly blurred. The grid is human society and every resource we share, every product we create.
Perhaps it's more useful to ask why we are so interested in going off grid in the first place?
There are three types of off grid impulse: prepping, environmentalism, and hedonism. A person can be motivated by one, or all three in varying proportion.
Prepping for the apocalypse will always be a poor bet statistically, like trying to time the market. Most preppers will never live to see the day. Prepping, in fact, requires a kind of optimism: that the apocalypse will go down the way you imagine it, that you will survive when the bullets and canned food run out. It also bears high opportunity costs: what else could you do with your life, time and money, if it turns out that quality of life on this planet is steadily improving?
If our faith in the grid is a proxy for our faith in civilization, going off grid may be an attempt to opt out of uncertainty, instead of engaging the problems. We evolved to fear strangers and sabre tooth tigers, and there is a direct line between that fear and prepping for, say, a zombie apocalypse. But the real threats now are environmental and social, problems we can only solve together.
Preparing to weather minor calamity, on the other hand, can bring people together, and living off grid can make knowing and relying on your neighbours a part of everyday life. A friend of mine lives with her family in a pair of conjoined yurts in the Southern California high desert, very far from the grid. In December of 2008 they got snowed in, the sandy roads impassable under five feet of snow. Even if the county maintained those roads, they don't have any snow plows. She couldn't get out for three weeks, until a neighbor came through with a rock-crawler. It was 8 weeks before the roads were passable by car. My friend is in the habit of vacuum packing large quantities of food ("I live a long way from the grocery store") so she and her husband used a 4WD quad to bring food and firewood to stranded neighbours.
If it's environmentalism that fuels your off grid impulse, you're better off moving to Manhattan than going off grid in the country, given all the driving involved in rural living. The banks of batteries required for an off grid photovoltaic system are expensive to maintain and miss out on the economies of scale offered by the grid. And you'll probably want to keep a diesel generator around for backup.
On the other hand, living off grid with limited-to-zero electricity offers engineering constraints that can produce novel solutions to universal problems (solar desalination, pedal-powered generators, permaculture farming, etc). It may also increase the cost of goods in a way that incentivizes conservation, as is the case for rural desert-dwellers who subsist on hauled water.
Thoreau built his house in the woods because it looked like a nice life. His cost of living was low, so he was able to work less, at a variety of interesting jobs, and still have time to write.
Kevin McCloud is playing the hedonist when he rhapsodizes about his off grid retreat and the pleasures of making something beautiful by hand.
I suspect the pursuit of pleasure lies under prepping and environmentalism as well. Ethan Mitchell's typology of apocalypses includes the "cozy apocalypse": an apocalypse where preparation means doing the things you already like to do, like having guns or doing permaculture. Certainly environmentalists like to be out in nature, whether it's good for nature or not.
For me, the pleasure of the off grid cabin had to do with walking, chopping wood and stoking the fire. In other words, a more direct, physical engagement with the world. My family, normally distracted from each other by our screens, instead sat close, cooked together, walked in the snow, played games and fell asleep in the flickering red shadow of the stove. It was a luxurious retreat, and when there was a chance to stay a second night I didn't have to think twice.
Obviously, the literal grid has something to do with it, but less and less, given that we can have electricity without being on the grid and internet without cables. Instead, we have to choose our level of engagement with a multitude of grids. How easy do we want our lives to be, and what do we trade for that ease?