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Off the Grid and Rural Sustainable Prosperity
Alex Steffen, 20 Jul 10

I am the child of hippies. I have spent a fair bit of time in country places with solar panels and generators, composting toilets (or outhouses), water tanks and hoses and gardens, self-built homes and hacked pick-up trucks and home-made furniture. I was even born into a group of people who have owned and cared for and tried to restore a big piece of land in rural Northern California since the early 1970s; it's a place I love deeply. I harbor the occasional fantasy about running off to that land to live. In some ways, I expect that I'm a perfect target reader for Nick Rosen's new book, Off the Grid.

The story Rosen tells in Off the Grid is an old one, and a quintessentially North American one, that of the noble soul stepping away from the entanglements of modern life, going back to the land and getting off-the-grid. By 'the grid' here -- and it almost begs ominous capitalization, The Grid -- we are of course meant to understand not just wires and pipes, but also the corporations and wealthy men who control them, and the demands they place on us of conformity and servile obedience. In other words, one of the main problems with The Grid is that it's owned by the The Man. Therefore, getting away from connection to The Grid is a primary step towards freedom (indeed, the tagline for Rosen's site about off-grid living is "free yourself"). If you already got that idea, say, because your parents belonged to co-ops and left copies of the old Whole Earth Catalogs lying around the house, there's not much to learn at that level from Rosen's book.

That said, if you are planning to one day go back to the land yourself, you'll probably love his book. It's full of great anecdotes and characters, and the author clearly admires and gets the back-to-the-landers he writes about. Rosen also does a good job of explaining the political fights still facing those who want to make their own homes, produce their own energy and live their own way; and he does a fairly good job of sampling the current thinking about how best to live the off-the-grid life.

What I was hoping for, though, was something he definitely doesn't offer, which is a glimpse of what a truly sustainable rural North American life might be like. If going back to the land is anything other than escapism, it has to be part of a larger movement to heal the country and the backcountry. For, right now, the state of rural North America is not sound. As I wrote earlier:

Rural North America is in sad shape. Rural poverty is perhaps even more startling than urban poverty these days, and the lack of jobs, education, health and financial resources is much more pronounced in rural areas. Virtually every measurement of human well-being is worse in rural counties (at least working rural counties, rather than rural suburbs) than in urban counties. Already, huge swathes of rural America are green and leafy ghettos, complete with welfare dependencies and drug addictions.

If managing in a catastrophe were just about growing your own food, many (but not all) rural people would probably be just fine. If it were about repairing your machines, maintaining your roof, keeping the well running, a good many rural people would be okay. But there's a lot more than that involved in running the kind of society we all demand, things like public health systems, communications systems, transportation infrastructure, energy supplies, banking and finance, good governance innovations, an effective legal system, etc. Places with these systems do a heck of a lot better than places without them, and these are systems many communities are in a poor position to provide for themselves. In much of rural America, those systems aren't even working very well today.

Going off-the-grid in rural areas needs to be, if it has any worldchanging aspirations, a part of improving that situation. That means, it needs to be based in thoughts about how it can help address systemic problems, especially in the United States where rural areas seem to suffer from a few major structural problems that make them less resilient than they deserve to be, and far less sustainable than some of us would like to think. Here are five examples of some of those major challenges in need of systemic solutions:

The first is that most rural areas have been run as resource colonies for most of their histories. An outside source of capital -- the railroad, the coal company, the timber company, the Feds -- came in and established the core infrastructure for the provision of a needed resource (corn, coal, boards, hydropower, whatever) to a distant urban market. The people who live in these resource colonies generally have little ownership and less control over either the resources or the infrastructure for delivering them to market. Generally, the result has been the economic necessity of exploiting those resources in unsustainable ways, weather it's blowing up mountains to get at the coal beneath or strip-mining topsoil to maximize crop yields. The way most of rural North America runs right now is flatly unsustainable.

The second is that rural people and places are poor. That, in turn, means they lack capital. With the destruction of America's small town banks and thrifts (you may remember the savings and loan crisis, the last big financial looting spree?), even the capital that had been accumulated was stolen away. It's very hard to make significant changes without capital, and most of the countryside has no access to it: indeed, much of small town and farm America is leveraged up to its neck, contributing to the on-going farm crisis.

The third is that country life is massively subsidized. The roads, levies, water supplies and railroads that make rural life possible in North America are almost all tax-payer supported (indeed, there is a net outflow of tax dollars from urban areas to rural areas in both the U.S. and Canada). Of course, most of those subsidies have been set up to benefit the kinds of resource extraction efforts mentioned above -- but rural life would become very much more difficult in many places if those subsidies were removed. Long expensive supply lines make places vulnerable in chaotic economic times.

The fourth is that much of the heartland of the United States and Canada seems particularly vulnerable to climate change and other environmental disruptions. Weather extremes, including prolonged heat waves and droughts, are predicted by some scientists to be at their worst in the Southwest and Great Plains. Climate shifts are already causing havoc with pollinators, leading to outbreaks of invasive species, devastating forests with pests, worsening floods and storms, and generally messing with the fundaments upon whose stability many communities are built. Already, the Southwest is essentially out of water, for instance.

The fifth is that rural life is extremely energy intense, especially in terms of oil, and we know that oil in particular, and energy in general, are about to get a lot more expensive. Here we need to acknowledge a side trend, which is exurban living in rural places. A significant number of people living in rural areas are living essentially suburban lives in a rural setting. They are not providing for most of their own needs; rather they're just depending on very long supply lines to live consumer lives with prettier views (hence the joke "When you move out to the country you move into a car"). These lives in particular are the most vulnerable and least sustainable, yet also, paradoxically the most needed in many communities, since it's these exurban residents who often bring needed professional and technical skills and capital back to rural areas (I read not too long ago about the trend of semi-retired doctors opening clinics in small towns, often providing people's only access to primary care).

So, set up as resource colonies, poor, tax-subsidized, vulnerable to climate change and peak oil: what's a rural community to do?

That's a question I'd really like to hear smart, non-nostalgic answers to. It's a question I hoped to find some answers to in Rosen's book.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear by the end of Off the Grid that Rosen doesn't actually really understand the problems facing rural North America, and has a fuzzy, romantic notion of what problems going off-the-grid actually solves. For instance, he is clearly not aware of the last decade or so of sustainability research:

"I'm not convinced that big, dense cities are greener than... lower-density towns and suburbs, where the bulk of Americans live. ...Vast amounts of gas are used to bring in food from around the country, and the same buses and trains that liberate commuters from their cars are still energy intensive and polluting."

There's more, but really, this is enough to show that Rosen simply hasn't done his homework well enough to understand the systems he's chosen to comment on. Because we know that big, dense cities are greener; that the energy used in shipping food is a small portion of its overall impact, that transit is more energy efficient than driving (and indeed, that cars are the largest contributor to climate change), and that the benefits of urban living in compact, walkable, wired communities can extend far beyond living in smaller homes, served by more efficient infrastructure and not owning a car, to include a dramatic overall drop in one's environmental impact. What's more, we know why these things are so (if you need a refresher, there are literally hundreds of other articles on the subject on this site).

Understanding why bright green urban living currently offers the best pathway to sustainable prosperity is a necessary precursor to beginning to imagine what its rural counterpart might look like. We simply know more about how to live a prosperous-yet-low-impact urban life than we do about how to live a rural life of equal prosperity with a small ecological footprint. It's counter-intuitive, but true. If we assume that a family wants a North American middle-class level of comfort, consumer affluence, access to services and interaction with others, it's currently much easier to provide them sustainably in an urban setting than any other. We have so far failed to imagine sustainable prosperity in a rural setting.

I can imagine cities that are intimately and equitably connected to not just their municipal watersheds, but their foodsheds and fibersheds as well. Cities which regarded themselves as part of an urban-rural fabric, and regarded the country people with whom they were enmeshed as partners in a way of life, instead of just mostly invisible poor people who grew their food and cut their trees. Some people bringing cultural interpenetration to that system -- essentially urban people living off-the-grid in the country; essentially rural people bringing some agriculture and forestry into the cities -- might really help strengthen those connections (indeed, at the moment, they're basically the only people keeping those connections alive).

I'd really like to read a smart book about how those connections might be grown and strengthened and made more resilient in the face of the kind of dramatic changes unfolding around us. I'd really like to read a book about the systems-level innovations we'd need to do that: policies, financial models, new designs, etc. I'd really like to read a book about how it might feel to live in a world where city and countryside felt themselves to be part of the same fabric, with mutual respect and affection.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen that book yet. We need it.

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There's a big, big difference between going Off the Grid, and stretching the Grid long distances for the convenience of a country life. For most folks in North America, it's the latter.

That said, in my work designing buildings, about everything comes down to Borders and Piping. Enclosures, shelter, the building itself is a Border. But most of the real action is the Piping: the tubes, pipes, wires, ducts, pumps, valves, vessels, etc. that really provide the life support. Often, there's extra Piping because the Borders are stupidly designed. Most buildings couldn't provide basic life support if the piping failed for more than a day or two. That's an interesting thing to think about: not going Off the Grid, but how is the grid designed and made, by who for whom, why? Who controls it? Is it the best way to do the job? What's the backup plan in case of failure? All good questions, whether rural or urban.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Jul 10

I have lived in both rural and city and have not seen any citizen connections between the two. It seems like there is a love-hate relationship between the citizens of each. Perhaps as a starting point we need to break down those false barriers and start working through the systematic connections you describe -- a great post. -- BARBARA

Posted by: FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK on 20 Jul 10

Alex, you could do worse that read over Ebenezer Howard's classic "Garden Cities of Tomorrow", having just passed the venerable 100 year mark.

No doubt you've seen it before, and yes there's a lot of argument that Howard's vision was translated & later used to fuel the suburban boom of the 20th century, but he was trying to address exactly the issues you raise:- how a significant population could live in contact with nature (and the benefits & responsibilities involved) but also with the modern city culture & its potential benefits.

Of course we can't re-build all our suburban towns as 'Garden Cities', but the pamphlet wasn't just about urban form - Howard laid out the kind of social & economic relations you'd need for such a place to be successful too.

In Australia we have massive rural enviro challenges too, but one positive sign I see emerging in Victoria is we've upgraded the train network from the metropolis of Melbourne to all the mid-size regional towns (of 10,000 to ~100,000 size) - many of which are regaining cultural capital and pushing hard for sustainability, e.g. and

Posted by: Pat Sunter on 21 Jul 10

Off the grid has gotten me curious. I've lived in rural areas, and cities both in 3rd and 1st world countries as a kid. Rural North America, is far from the rural 3rd world countries, but I'd like to see how far and what Rosen has to say about rural and urban.

Posted by: Michelle on 21 Jul 10

I have recently become intrigued with what is being called the "modern survivalist" movement. It is spearheaded by a guy named Jack Spirko who does a daily podcast called "The Survival Podcast.” This movement is an interesting mixture of seemingly dissonant ideas: permaculture and global warming denial, 2nd Amendment rights and community building, disaster planning and homesteading, libertarian-tea-party-esque politics and sustainability, combat tactics and food preservation, debt elimination and alternative currencies. The tagline for this podcast is “Living that better life if times get tough or even if they don’t.” The actions advocated more or less draw from the sustainability reportoire but the motivation is derived from personal liberty and survival rather than some sense of environmental altruism. I am beginning to think that this approach is more likely to characterize what rural sustainability will look like rather than the hippie back to the land stereotype because the people who already live in rural settings in most of the U.S. are already sympathetic to these ideas.

This might be a starting place to “imagine sustainable prosperity in a rural setting.”

Posted by: Brent Verrill on 21 Jul 10

The link you provide to prove that transit is more energy efficient than driving is not at all convincing. As the linked article points out, a diesel bus with half a dozen passengers and burning a gallon of fuel every four or five miles is not energy efficient.

Yet even in a heavily utilized transit system this is what happens at least 50% of the time: in rush hours, half the vehicles are returning to the suburbs empty in order to bring in another load of commuters to the city, and the only way I can see to avoid this is to have enough vehicles and parking for them downtown to have each bus make a single trip to the city in the morning, and a single return trip in the afternoon.

Furthermore, a transit system must have some regular service other than during peak hours if it is to be widely used: not everyone works fixed hours at fixed locations. These off-peak services are almost always lightly used.

The referenced article actually points out that the important thing is to fill a vehicle, rather than the type of vehicle.

I can't help but think an efficient private vehicle, which these days can travel over 50 miles on a gallon of diesel, travelling a direct route between destinations rather than making a series of connections between transit routes, can be about as energy efficient as a diesel bus carrying an average of a dozen passengers at four miles per gallon. If the private vehicle carries four people, it is almost certainly more energy efficient than a bus (which in reality is unlikely to have an average load of more than 20-30).

Of course, the 50mpg four-passenger vehicle is not exactly available in the U.S., but it is in Europe and many other parts of the world.

Posted by: L. Denham on 21 Jul 10

It is fun to learn about new ways to be more self sufficient. Off the Grid seems like a good resource to learn how to get off the grid. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: Susan Jones on 21 Jul 10

I agree with Alex that a large part of the back to land movement is escapism. However, the recent developments in photovoltaics is making a decentralized power grid possible. Dupont's recent release of the solar shingle will make it possible for everyday consumers to reduce or eliminate their need for power from the grid during the day. This would greatly increase the independence of individual families and provide for a more sustainable future. This would greatly effect rural America because they could reduce the grid in their area substantially.
The idea that people should just unplug from society and get out from under "the man's" thumb is counter to the opportunities that better communications technology provides. Rural areas are isolated and poor because opportunities are scarce. A focused effort on rural areas that provide opportunities using the internet and other communication systems could help relieve rural poverty. A call center or even software design could easily be done in rural areas with today's technology.

Posted by: Lance on 21 Jul 10

I dream to be off the grid. Have read just about every book on the subject. This is a good read. Thanks for letting the rest of the world know about OTG.

Posted by: John Dembowski on 21 Jul 10

My opinion, but I think everyone can learn something from this article and book. Thinking about our consumptions habits will help us live more responsibly, even if we do not want or can not live off the grid.

Posted by: KeithTax on 22 Jul 10

An additional comment to my one above: Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes were two other visionary urban planning figures to push ideas about better balancing regional and urban development in a holistic way. In the US Mumford was part of a group called the "Regional Planning Association" that advocated exactly the kind of issues Alex raised above of changing 'resource colonies' into a balanced network of settlements. Apparently during the FDR New Deal era they were given a fair chance to put some of these ideas into action, but then things were curtailed during WW2. Peter Hall's 'Cities of Tomorrow' gives a good overview of this.

"Spatial Political Economy" and "Regional Science" are 2 good terms to google about this sort of stuff too.

Posted by: Pat Sunter on 22 Jul 10

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