Among the modern advances that make our lives longer, safer and easier than those of our distant ancestors, public utilities—abundant electrical and gas power, and clean water—surely rank near the top.
On the other hand, in this age of growing discontent with big business and big government—and what looks to many people like back-scratching between them to the detriment of regular folks—few things tie us to the "bigs" more irrevocably than our water and light bills.
Or do they?
In his new book, Off the Grid, journalist and documentary filmmaker Nick Rosen lays out the argument that you can live a comfortable life off the grid—or "off-grid," as the phrase appears in his native England. The term has a double meaning: Physical disconnect from public utilities is certainly one of them, but it also implies a willful turning away from the increasingly complex—and according to Rosen, increasingly nonsensical—structure of modern society.
Some of the characters Rosen writes about were forced into off-grid life by dire financial straits. Most of them, however, are firmly middle class and made the choice of their own free will. Some of them are positively wealthy. And most are older.
Rosen isn't advocating a paleolithic lifestyle or arguing that electric power and treated water are not excellent to have. In fact, it's the advance of modern technology like solar power that makes off-grid homes that don't sacrifice convenience and comfort possible. True, such lifestyles require extra planning and constant attention to conserving energy. But ultimately, big utilities—and the grid itself—are now unnecessary, Rosen argues. The payoff, he says, will be greater independence, a lower cost of living and smaller environmental footprints.
Rosen, who lives off-grid himself part of the time and advocates the lifestyle through his website, spoke recently with the AARP Bulletin about the advantages of pulling the plug on the utilities.
Q. Who is going off-grid?
A. I was very surprised as I became involved with the off-grid movement and became something of an evangelist for it. I assumed it would be a youth movement like in the '70s. In fact, 70 percent of the people using my website are over 50 years old.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. People go through life and realize more possessions and bigger, more expensive houses don't mean more happiness. I think about my off-grid experience: Come home, light some candles, make a fire, cook a meal. It's a much simpler, more spiritual life. It's not a race to see who can have the most impressive off-grid setup. It's something to make life happier.
Q. But I have to ask: If I go off grid, can I keep my house air-conditioned? It's horrible in Baltimore today. It doesn't get like this in Great Britain.
A. I've lived in the United States, so I know how it can be. Unfortunately, completely air-conditioning an American house off-grid would be very expensive and inefficient.
Q. So I must resign myself to sweat?
A. Not necessarily. It would be possible to cool one room as a retreat. And there are ways to manipulate architecture to make a house more comfortable—orient it to catch breezes, design the interior to promote air flow, point the windows to catch sun in the early morning instead of later. The building materials you choose can help.
Q. People made do in the past.
A. They did, and now we have modern methods like solar electric. I sometimes call living off the grid a combination of ancient wisdom and new technology.
Q. And with that combo, you live a comfortable, modern life?
A. Yes, one kind of off-grid life is completely modern. There are certain compromises you need to make. You can't run the washing machine if you're running some other device that uses a lot of electricity. You need to monitor power consumption. But otherwise you live an absolutely conventional life off-grid.
Q. How much does that kind of life cost?
A. Right now, the entry cost would be about $150,000. That won't last. Solar panels, for instance, are becoming cheaper and cheaper as manufacturing becomes more efficient. Water purification will become more economical. And remember, once you've paid that entry cost, you don't pay utility bills anymore.