By Tracie McMillan
Rodale’s Organic Life • July/August 2015
The first time I reconsidered what off-grid meant, I was in Detroit’s North End, trailing the Reverend Joan C. Ross. Red-spectacled and in a second career after selling off her McDonald’s franchises, Reverend Ross was showing me a solar demonstration house, a once-abandoned beauty she had helped bring back to life. There was fine trim in a Victorian parlor, a porch that screamed for a summer afternoon, a toilet that used wastewater to flush, a yard designed to catch runoff and prevent flooding, and a thatch of solar panels on the roof.
“You’re not paying into companies who are burning fossil fuels, or destroying the planet,” she said. “You’re relying on the sun.”
I would have expected this from someone with blond dreadlocks and a beard, someone who had traded a normal house for a souped-up campsite in the woods. Off-grid as I knew it was a mix of awesome and weird and marginal; it was bohemian. But, between working in the North End and having McDonald’s on her résumé, Reverend Ross wasn’t marginal or bohemian. She wasn’t all that weird. And that, oddly enough, makes her a pretty typical off-gridder in America today.
“I really do think about how I can do good just in my everyday life.”
The term off-grid began to circulate around the turn of the millennium. On the one hand, it was associated, in the wake of crises like 9/11 and fears over the Y2K bug, with “prepping” for apocalypse. But it also described survivalism’s utopian opposite: the persistent American compulsion to do for oneself, to live simply and in consort with nature. This latter definition of off-grid had a recent precursor in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when solitary sorts, families, and offbeat communes eked out a living in the wilderness and away from mainstream society.
“Many of those people dreamed of escaping modern society completely,” says Dona Brown, author of Back to the Land, a history of the movement. “They were thinking about opting out.”
Today’s off-grid movement is different. It’s focused less on individual households than on the greater social good, and it encompasses many ways of life. While some of the modern off-gridders I’ve met are who I would expect them to be, others have surprised me.
Denward Wilson and Kristy Klaiber are the types you might think would opt off the grid. A retired professor and schoolteacher, respectively, they hand-built a passive solar house called an Earthship outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, using mud, used tires, and wood. Their home, where the sun-bathed kitchen is lush with herb plants irrigated with wastewater, reflects their inspirations: “a religious regard for the wilderness and its unparalleled beauty,” they say; and the writings of farmer-poet Wendell Berry, who exalts the agrarian life. Similarly, Joseph and Shelly Trumpey, another professor-teacher couple, are passionate about self-reliance, high-quality food, and reducing their carbon footprint. The self-identified homesteaders built their solar-powered home outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, by milling their own timber, raising walls with stone from their land, and plastering it all together with adobe and straw bales as a tangible “rejection of the fossil fuel thing,” says Joe.
But to understand the motives that drive others from the grid, consider what the grid truly is: a formal, collectivized network that facilitates modern life. It arises because it makes our lives infinitely easier, at least initially. Within the grid, we can be warm or cool whenever we like, we can travel where we want, we have light and water at the flip of a switch and the turn of a knob. But the grid comes with phenomenal costs, too: global warming, pollution, drained aquifers, the devastating effects of fracking.
Most infuriatingly, because infrastructures are social creations, the grid reflects the inequalities of the society that created it. Simply put, people living in affluent areas are better served by it. In and around Ann Arbor, going off the grid may be a choice that reflects earth-friendly values; in a place like Detroit, a struggling city with staggering poverty and notoriously unreliable public services, an off-grid strategy is increasingly necessary. With thousands of street lamps dark across the city, Reverend Ross raised money to put solar lights in the yards of people like Norma Heath, arguing that the illumination was planet-friendly and, better yet, free of charge. Says Heath, who is no longer left in the dark, “Everybody is saying, ‘Why didn’t I get one?’ ”
I found another urban variant at the Eco-Village in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Here, more than 40 Angelenos—Hispanic, black, and white; working class and professional—share a former resort outfitted with solar water heaters and a gray water recycling system that irrigates a courtyard garden dotted with bananas, papayas, and pomegranates. Arguably the most striking off-grid practice in the Eco-Village is one that resident Jimmy Lizama introduced to me. Outside his kitchen, underneath his banana trees, he stores an impressive machine: his cargo bicycle, fitted with a plywood hold big enough for his young son, Joaquin, to ride in. Lizama eschews Los Angeles’s infamous automobile and gasoline grid, solely biking for transport.
And then there are people who go off grid in ways that perch delicately between idealism and practicality. Mark and Kristin Kimball, owners of Essex Farm in New York’s Champlain Valley, use solar arrays for a third of their power now, and they’re aiming to push it to 100 percent by year’s end. They feed an entire community themselves by producing a complete organic diet of produce, grains, meat, and dairy for all 222 members of their CSA. Their farm, like any other, is a business, but it’s one that’s in every way independent of the industrial food grid. “I believe farming can be a regenerative force in this age where agriculture has been a destructive force,” says Kristin, who wrote a 2010 book about the family’s experience called The Dirty Life.
Despite their ideals, the Kimballs don’t think they can go it alone. Today’s off-grid is not about leaving the world behind; it’s about being as socially engaged off the grid as on it. Just ask Reverend Ross. She’s working on adding Wi-Fi to those solar street lights to get her underserved neighborhood online, and she’s launching a community radio station that she plans to power with solar, too. Says the pastor of her burgeoning off-grid strategy, “It’s meant to expand the things that benefit the community. It’s not meant to detach us from what’s going on.”
Essex, New York
Off-grid for food and much of farm’s power.
I’d say 80 to 90 percent of our calories come from our farm. For breakfast, we had pancakes, and the flour came from the mill one town south of us. The lard came from our pigs; yogurt, from our cows; eggs, from our chickens; and cheese, from our milk. For our little Sunday after-church meal, we’ll have our own roast beef and roast mutton heart with pickled beets, cheese, and pancakes left over from breakfast.
There aren’t very many people in the world who get to eat as well as we and our CSA members do. That feeling of connection to this place deepens the enjoyment of that good food. In a very real way, we’re made of this place.
Farms have to fit your personalities, or it doesn’t work. As farmers and parents and people who care about the people who come after us, it’s important to us to be able to say that we tried to do something about climate change. We go out and think, How can we maximize the growth that we are getting from the sun in real time? We’re making a regenerative form of agriculture real in our lifetime.
Learn more about the Kimballs’ Essex Farm.
Los Angeles, California
Off-grid for transportation and gray water
I’ve never owned a car in my life. The whole time I’m in a car, I’m stuck inside this box. I go from one box to another box to another box, and the interaction between me and the environment is not there. For me, that quality of life is awful. Bicycling really raises my quality of life on a daily basis, hour by hour.
We live about 4 miles away from my son Joaquin’s school. I make sure he looks decent for school, then put him in the cargo bike. We bike on Sunset all the way to Chinatown, and I drop him off. I get to places just as fast as most people do.
I really do think about how I can do good just in my everyday life, and how I get around, and how I consume. I have a gray-water system, I compost, I grow bananas, I bicycle everywhere, and it’s really fun doing it this way. If I had it my way, everybody else would be on a cargo bicycle, and I’d be just a normal guy out there with everybody else.
Grass Lake, Michigan
Off-grid for food, water, power, and building materials
If you’re growing your own tomatoes, once you run out, you don’t go to the store and buy Prego. You just wait until the season comes back. From there, it’s a logical extension to start to think about your electrical use.
We could be on the grid here pretty easily if we wanted to be. But a lot of the power infrastructure here is closely tied to coal or fracked natural gas. Somewhere there’s a plant spewing something unpleasant for the atmosphere and the neighborhood nearby. So we’re not taking part in that system.
We wanted a house that was really energy-efficient. Eventually, we became enamored with straw-bale houses: the deep walls, the windowsills, the texture of the plaster. The straw was grown across the street, so the transportation costs were minimal. The mass of the adobe on the walls is all local. All the stone is out of our field.
In the wintertime, we wait until there’s sun to do laundry. In the summertime, when we’ve got lots of electricity, we can do whatever we want. We have a TV and a refrigerator and toilets and a dishwasher and a microwave and all this other stuff. But, man, we do it with a lot less energy.
Learn more about Joe Trumpey’s strawbale home.
Off-grid for street light
I’ve lived at this location 16 years. Twelve years ago, it was a big thing about the blackout. It was all over in Detroit, and all the cities and New York were out. We didn’t have lights. I think that went on for three days. I was like, “Oh, no!” Me and my husband, Kelvin, were out on the back porch, and said, “If we had solar lights, we wouldn’t have to worry about this.”
I met Reverend Ross because I volunteer so much in the community. She came in with the idea for solar lights, and I told her that would be great. The light was put in in November. In December, a transformer went down. Everything went out, dark, for 10 blocks, and I was glad I got my light.
If I could put solar in my house, if I had the funds to do that, I would. Reverend Ross says all those things that God put on Earth, we should not be paying for. You don’t have to worry about an overhead bill, and you can get that from the sun? That’s a wonderful thing.
Check out the latest about the North End Woodward Community Coalition, which is pushing for more solar in the neighborhood.
Las Vegas, New Mexico
Off-grid for water, power, and most building materials
Since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to be a pioneer, to go out in the country and build my own house. My husband and I knew we wanted to be self-sustaining as much as we could. We were retiring from our jobs, and wanted to be less of a burden on the earth. The architect said, “You can do this yourselves,” and we just thought, Okay, let’s do it!
I was a recycler, and I was, like, I can recycle tires! We came out for eight summers while we were teaching in Arizona, and we would stay here for a month or two, pounding tires. I counted to about 600; each tire is pounded with three wheelbarrows of dirt, about 300 pounds. The bathroom is all made out of aluminum cans; they’re like bricks. You’re just recycling.
We’re doing fine. We’re dependent on the solar, and New Mexico has lots of sun. There’s just something wonderful when you think, I built this myself, and it actually works, and I’m not being a burden on the earth.
Learn more about how to build an Earthship.