Book Review: Off the Grid

Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America by Nick Rosen.

I've always used the term "off the grid" in a literal sense to refer to houses that aren't connected to the electric, gas, water, or telephone systems. When Nick Rosen uses the word "grid" he means more than that — something closer to what the 1960s counterculture types meant when they talked about the system or the machine.

The book is fascinating. It's not at all a how-to manual. It's more an anthropological study of people who chose to live off the grid, together with some history of the grid itself.

In the history, Rosen makes no attempt to present a balanced view. To him, the history of the grid is largely a history of corruption and cronyism; a history of monied interests using government influence (and often violence) to seize what belonged to ordinary people.

In looking at the ordinary people who — for a myriad different reasons — have chosen to make their homes off the grid, though, Rosen shines.

People choose to live off the grid for many reasons — several of which echo concerns that I've heard many times from Wise Bread commenters:

  • Some want to own land, and land on the grid is too expensive.
  • Some want to live very cheaply and would rather make do than pay the monthly bills for gas, power, water, etc.
  • Some are so wealthy they can choose not to depend on polluting sources of power, building homes that are self-sufficient on solar and wind power.
  • Some fear society is about to collapse and want to be self-sufficient when the grid goes down.
  • Some fear the government and want to keep off its radar.
  • Some hate the government and choose not to be complicit in its misdeeds.

The book is a gentle, often almost loving look at individuals with all these motivations (and others). Rosen talks to (and often spends a night or two at the homes of) all manner of people: rich folks, their caretakers, poor folks, right-wing wackos, left-wing kooks, homeless people living in their cars, pot farmers, their neighbors, and ordinary, sane Americans who just want to live as best they can according to their own values.

Having said that, Rosen does seem to have some odd reactions. He always notes whether the people he's interacting with are good-looking or not — and somehow the good-looking ones seem much more likely to come across as sensible, reasonable people. Perhaps related to that, his overall sense of his subjects' reasonableness is sometimes quite at odds with my own — but in a way that does no harm, because he clearly makes an effort to lay out their stories in a plain fashion before he presents his conclusion, leaving the reader free to draw his or her own.

I was particularly interested in Rosen's take on Eustace Conway (having previously read Elizabeth Gilbert's book The Last American Man, which is about Conway, the noted naturalist and self-sufficiency educator) and was pleased to learn that Conway has come to have more nuanced views on community sufficiency versus self-sufficiency.

The scope of the book is broad enough that anyone with an interest in self-sufficiency or self-reliance will find things of interest. As I said, this book is not a how-to guide. Don't expect to learn how to size a solar power system or how to hook up a 12-volt inverter. But do expect to come away with a new appreciation for the many ways to live Off the Grid.

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Guest's picture
Jay Sax

I find it hard to believe that you seem to be taking issue with the author because he doesn't present a balanced view on the history of 'the grid.'

Support for Mr. Rosen's dim view is, I think it's fair to say, vast and easily found.

Just one recent example that piqued my interest: The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott, reviewed here -

Philip Brewer's picture

I didn't mean to take issue with the author. He's right not to fall into the trap of striving for "balance" where there's clearly a right and a wrong. I just wanted to contrast his handling of the history parts of the story (where he takes a strong position) and his handling of the people in his story (where he provides a careful statement of what they've said, even if it doesn't match his own view).

Guest's picture
Jay Sax

Thank you very kindly for that clarification. Makes perfect sense to me, and I appreciate it, and your pleasant tone.

I have put the book on hold at the local library, thanks to your review.