PacificEdge
Published in

PacificEdge

Travels in the Off-Grid…

1. Introduction

Quote: https://www.offwiththegrid.com.au/the-ultimate-guide-to-living-off-grid-in-australia/

IT WAS A VAGUE IDEA, a rough sort of intention. We would move to Tasmania and buy some land, preferably with an existing farmhouse. It would have to be somewhere not too far from the city as we would have to earn our living there, yet it would be rural. We would be self-reliant in our most important needs, like water. A garden would provide at least some of our food. We would not be completely off the grids of modern life, only partially disconnected.

It didn’t happen. It did happen for others, however, and their story provides some of the subject matter for this book.

Origins

The book has multiple origins. Its basis rests in road trips I made either alone or in company with my partner. It was through her friends that I learned much about how people were living disconnected, even if only in part, from the grids of modern life.

It also originates in the search for better ways of living that have punctuated Australian social history since the late-1960s. Contact with people immersed in what was variously known as the ‘alternative subculture’, the ‘back to the land movement’ or the ‘counterculture’ and adopting elements of that life, informed me of the social undercurrents then reshaping how those out on the innovative social fringe thought and acted. Also influential was Lloyd Khan’s 1973 book, Shelter, with its photographs and stories of people in the US building their own homes and living the off-grid life. The stories it related had their parallels in Australia.

I was co-producing a drivetime program and radio documentaries for a Sydney educational radio station when prominent Australian permaculture educator, Robyn Francis, found me in the editing room. Robyn’s gave me two media passes to the first-ever international permaculture convergence at Pappinbarra, inland of Taree. Attending that set me on a new course in life through which I met people engage in what would become known as off-grid living.

A term of many definitions

It will become apparent in this book that there is no single definition of ‘off-grid’. It is a term with multiple definitions. They span the distance from living completely off the energy, water, communications, economic and social grids, as much as is possible, anyway, to decoupling from just the energy and reticulated water services and supplying a portion of our own food needs from the garden. Multiple definitions make off-grid a slippery term.

The off-grid life is an idea that is now undergoing something of a renewal thanks to new technologies making it easier to adopt elements of the lifeway. Now, you can buy technologies off the shelf that the off-gridders of the 1970s had to do without or make for themselves.

Off-grid in more than the technologies and tools it takes to adopt the lifeway. It is also a state of mind that has to do with independence in life’s basic needs. Its drivers are multiple and are based on the sense of security that comes from not relying on the energy and water grids, of having food growing in the garden and being able to deal with your household wastes on-site. The state of the world is another driver, especially the potential impacts of our warming climate and our reliance on long supply chains for food, equipment and liquid fuels. Their vulnerabilities were disclosed first by shortages of foods and groceries during the Covid 19 pandemic, then by the Russian war in Ukraine. Now, defence authorities have warned of our vulnerable liquid fuels, food and other supply chains (Our warming climate: from food security to national security and What happens if the oil stops running?).

Off-grid living is a variable practice. Some of us do it without identifying as participants in the social movement around off-grid living. For example, our present home in a coastal town with its rainwater tanks (our town is not connected to the water grid), space for a garden to produce some of our food (what is left after the pademelons get in and raid our garden beds), on-site grey and blackwater treatment and a grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) system is only partially off-grid. Although we sell more electrical power from our rooftop PV array to the energy utility than we use, without a house battery we still rely on the power grid for cooking (we use an efficient induction stove), pumping and filtering the rainwater in our tanks and for lighting. It is much the same for others in town and demonstrates how the technologies used by off-gridders have been adopted by people in mainstream society. What we do have that the early off-gridders did not is access to knowledge through the internet. That is a boon to those considering a wholly or partial off-grid life.

Travels in the Off-Grid

Travels in the Off-Grid is not a book about recluses who want to hide away from society and avoid human contact. It is not a book about preppers. Nor is it about how some libertarians disconnect from society’s service, communications and governmental grids because of their distrust of government and corporations. That is a not-uncommon phenomenon among some in the US, however it is far-less common in Australia. Travels in the Off-Grid is about people seeking more autonomy in life and a better way of living by adopting at least some of the ideas, technologies and mindset of the off-grid way of life. In saying this, I recognise how off-gridders rely on others for some of their needs simply because we have neither the knowledge, skills, tools or time to provide all of our necessities. That makes cooperation a cornerstone of the off-grid lifeway.

A travel book

This is a travel book, of-sorts. It is not a how-to guide nor is it instructional in any way. It is a travel book because it was while traveling that I visited the places and the people I discuss and encountered their approach to off-grid living. We also travel trough time, through the past 50 or so years so that we can see what the first wave of modern off-gridders did, because they set the starting conditions for what followed.

It is also a book about technology and society. Their interaction has long-interested me. I trace this back to the 1970s when I discovered people like Buckminster Fuller, EF Schumacher and the Whole Earth Catalog, the internet-before-the-internet as it has been called.

It was Fuller’s attitude to technology that resonated with me at a time, in the late-1960s and 1970s, when people in the counterculture/alternative culture scene were rejecting modern technology, or much of it. I still agree with what the Buckminster Fuller Institute says of Fuller’s attitude to technology:

…industrial and scientific technology, despite their disruption of established habits and values, was not a blight on the landscape, but in fact for Fuller they have a redeeming humanitarian role.

The application of both low-and-hi-technology in enabling off-grid, lower-environmental-impact, lower-carbon emitting, semi-independent living enacts Fuller’s attitude to modern technology.

In Travels in the Off-Grid, we consider the gamut covered by the term ‘off-grid’. We look at the origin of the idea in recent times, from around 1970 that is, up to the present day when many of the early off-grid technologies have been improved and have been absorbed into the social and economic mainstream.

This is very much a personal journey through off-grid living and reflects the subjectivity which comes with that.

I am grateful to the people I have met and whose life experiences in off-grid living contributed to this book.

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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.