Going Off the Grid Is a Lot Harder Than You Think

By Philip Brewer on 15 December 2016 1 comment

The term "off the grid" has taken on an expanded meaning of late. It used to be used in a literal fashion, to refer to disconnection from the grids supplying power, gas, water, and telephone services. Lately it's come to mean something broader: disconnecting from what whatever parts of "the system" seem objectionable to you.

Some people want to disconnect from the financial system. Some people want to disconnect from the surveillance state. Some people want to disconnect from the globalized economy or industrial agriculture or consumerism. Any of these choices have both costs and benefits.

Take a look at some of your options.

Off the Grid on the Low-Tech Path

To go fully off the grid is to become self-sufficient — to produce all the things you need for daily living. This is only sort-of possible. That is, the technology to produce everything you need to live is very low-tech indeed — pretty much everybody lived that way for the past 100,000 years — but there are two problems, one of which is insurmountable.

The Surmountable Problem: It's a Hard Way to Live

There are two historical routes along the low-tech path. The more recent is subsistence farmer.

You can't just decide "I'm going to be a subsistence farmer" and expect to succeed at it. It takes capital (in the form of land and tools). It takes skills (that your grandfather may have had, but that you probably don't). And if you can acquire both of those things, it then takes long hours of year-round backbreaking work to eke out a meager existence.

You can live at a much higher standard of living if you work for money (whether at a job or at your own small business) and then use that money to buy the things you need. Even if you don't make much money at all — part-time work at minimum wage, or whatever you can make as a freelancer at this or that — you're still going to be able to live as well as a subsistence farmer.

Oh, the subsistence farmer will get better food. It doesn't get any fresher, more local, free-range, or organic than the stuff you grow yourself. The subsistence farmer also gets the huge satisfaction that comes from supplying your own needs with your own two hands. But if you really want to produce everything yourself, you're going to have to do without a lot.

You have to make a lot of choices about how pure you want to be. Each thing you want to learn how to make yourself — nails, let's say — means another big investment in tools (forge, anvil) and skills, and another huge amount of work that you have to do to produce enough nails for a project. And each thing you decide not to make for yourself — cellphones, let's say — draws you into the money economy, meaning that you need to produce a surplus, so you have something to sell beyond what you need to live on.

Although it would have been a lot easier in your grandfather's time (his parents had and could teach many of the skills that you're going to have to learn from YouTube videos), it's probably easier now than it was in the 1960s, when a lot of hippie types gave subsistence farming a serious try. At least you've got the YouTube videos.

There is a lot of stuff out there to help, if you're serious about giving something like this a try. You might start with my review of The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It here on Wise Bread from a few years ago.

Just for completeness, I should mention the even older low-tech path: The lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer.

As a practical option, this one probably doesn't even exist. Virtually all the land that is suitable to support hunter-gatherers is more valuable for some other use, and so it has been taken for that use. (Hunter-gatherers couldn't win fights with farmers even before firearms were invented.)

I suppose a wealthy person could buy a hunting preserve on a tract of land big enough to provide enough fish, game, and plants to support himself. If he did his hunting with primitive weapons and processed the carcasses with primitive tools (and kept to himself), he could probably get away with violating the rules on hunting seasons, fishing licenses, and the like. But it would just be a fantasy of living as a hunter-gatherer. As a landowner, he'd still be on the grid. (As a rich person, he'd no doubt be on the grid in all sorts of ways.)

Having said all that, hunting and gathering are both useful as ways to improve whatever lifestyle choice you end up with. Anything you can take from the wild is something that you neither need to grow nor buy. I talk about that in my post Foraging: Not Insane, Useless, or Impossible and Andrea Karim has posts looking at hunting and fishing for food and at gathering edible weeds. (Of course those barely scratch the surface of what hunting and gathering can do to supplement your diet in modern times.)

The Insurmountable Problem: You're Still on the Grid

A farmer needs to own land, and all kinds of grid attachments come along with that. You have to pay your property taxes, so you have to earn some money, so you're probably going to have to file an income tax return as well. If you need to earn money you're probably going to have to be able to market your products, so you need a truck, which means even more money, and even more grid attachments (license, plates, safety inspections, dependence on foreign oil).

There are other ways you can't get off the grid. The state is going to check and make sure your kids are getting a proper education. You can teach them yourself, but you need to be on-the-grid enough to do the paperwork. You need to have health insurance even if you don't want to avail yourself of modern medical care. Zoning regulations will affect how you can use your land. Federal marketing orders and agreements affect what crops you can grow, and the EPA regulates what you can do with wetlands on your property.

Because of these issues (and a hundred more like them), I've become enamored of late by the possibility of a different sort of path to off-the-grid living.

Off the Grid on the High-Tech Path

If you accept the fact that there simply is no way to live completely off the grid — if you abandon the purity aspect of the notion — another option opens up: You can go off the grid a la carte, picking and choosing where connecting to the grid is worth the cost, and where disconnecting is the bigger win.

The question you need to ask is "Why do you want to live off the grid?" If you understand the answer to that question, you can decide where to put your effort.

The Satisfaction of Providing for Your Own Needs

If this is what moves you, you can start right away. Think about what you need and start producing it.

Food? An intensively worked suburban plot can provide a large fraction of all the food a family needs, but you can start with just a garden. If you can have chickens where you live, you can easily be self-sufficient in eggs. You can certainly raise a few rabbits and substantially augment your household meat supply.

Clothing? Learn to sew. Learn to knit. Learn to weave. Learn to spin.

Shelter? Look into the "tiny house" movement. (There are several tiny house articles on Wise Bread.)

Producing your own stuff is only sometimes cheaper than buying it, but stuff you produce yourself can also be better than what you can buy (once you get good at producing it).

The Safety and Security of Providing for Your Own Needs

One downside of "the grid" is that you're so terribly dependent on it. If the power goes out, you're sitting in the dark. If a backhoe takes out the wrong cable, you've got no landline (or no Internet, or no cable). If the water company starts piping in water that's contaminated with lead, you're drinking from bottles until they clean the system.

You can replace most of these things in a grid-free fashion, although it often takes capital.

You can put solar panels on your roof and produce your own electricity. If you live out in the country, you can drill your own well and pump up your own water. You can even set up a biodigester and produce your own methane gas (although it might be simpler to harvest the occasional tree and burn wood rather than gas).

There's really no way to go grid-free for telephone and Internet, because the connection is the essence of the thing. But if you wanted to do it, the technical chops required to set up your own local network — one that covered your home or your neighborhood (or your walled compound) — is not beyond the capability of an ordinary person. Throw in some access points capable of establishing a meshing network and a server with ample disk space and you could offer folks very local networking that was completely independent of the larger grid, providing voice access to everyone within your local network and offering whatever you wanted to spin up on your server. (A local copy of Wikipedia wouldn't take up much room at all.)

The Morality of Providing for Your Own Needs

Things that you produce yourself can be produced in accordance with your own values.

You can be confident that no produce from your own garden was harvested by poorly treated migrant labor. You can be confident that no garment that you sew yourself was made by slaves or prisoners. Eggs from your chickens can be cruelty-free, cage-free, free-range, and organic to exactly the extent that you choose — and will certainly be extremely local.

Using power produced by your solar panels funds no overseas terrorist organization, drains no cash to money-center corporations, nor does it enrich the shareholders of the firms endangering our air and water with fracking, offshore drilling, or poorly maintained pipelines.

Where morality is not implicated, you can choose to stay on the grid. I don't live in a tiny house: I live in a town house — but it's a town house owned by a cooperative that I'm a member of. In essence, I rent it from myself. It's on the grid, but it's very much in accordance with my values.

Living large on a small budget makes it easy to live light on the planet, and that often goes hand-in-hand with high-tech, off-grid living.

The Flexibility of Providing for Your Own Needs

The technology of the digital nomad makes it possible to go off the grid in a very different way.

On the one hand, the digital nomad needs regular (although not necessarily constant) access to the Internet. That's as grid-connected as can be.

On the other hand, once you've arranged your life to allow you to be location-independent, you can be pretty indifferent to exactly which bits of the grid you choose to depend on, and you can shift around based on the circumstances of the moment.

You can live out of a suitcase and laptop bag, using the power and Internet available wherever you happen to be.

You can outfit an RV (or a van) with some solar panels and some batteries, add a few gigabytes of data to your cellular plan, and live and work anywhere you choose.

You can connect to the grid, work for as long as seems appropriate, and then disconnect whenever you want.

Being able to make these choices — and then make different choices when the circumstance (or your thinking) changes — is what I mean by the high-tech path to off-grid living.

High-tech or Low-tech, Capital Makes a Difference

There's a big trade off between self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and the more of what you need you can produce for yourself, the more options you have.

The grid is part of this. Replacing it requires a lot of capital. Doing without means taking a hit to your standard of living. This means a lot of hard choices, but each additional chunk of capital can turn one more hard choice into an easy choice.

I mentioned at the beginning that a subsistence farmer needs capital for land or tools. Many of the other strategies I've mentioned — such as getting your power from a solar array — involve substituting capital up front for monthly bills (and a reliance on the grid).

There is the option of going big on capital. If you've got enough money, you can be as local and off-grid as you want in sourcing your food, power, water, and so on.

If you lack capital, you're going to have to pick and choose which aspects of grid you chose to unhook from. Or else, you're going to have to accept a very low standard of living indeed.

In the end, it comes down to your values. Why do you want to live off the grid? What lifestyle choices support those reasons?

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Guest's picture
Chris

Interesting article with a lot to think about.

Guest's picture
KMcGarrett

Always love your posts, Phillip.

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Yvonne

Every book or article I've come across where people chuck it all to live "off grid" ends up being the same story. They drain their entire savings, are forced to live in near poverty (some with kids) and almost freeze to death in the winters. The result? They always end up back in the "city" working a regular job at least half a year so they can sink more money into their money pit "farms". Ultimately, a responsible way to live means you can afford the basics… like medical insurance for that injury from a tractor! LOL The topics of funding college educations, family vacations or even retirement is never discussed while they're trying to build that chicken coop. Sorry, but this is not sanity. If you want to live by your values make sure you do it with some rational thinking.