• UO Interviews: Life Off Grid

    What do you think of when you hear the term "off grid?" The first thing that usually comes to mind is someone on the run, or someone trying to be unfindable. Well, while that may be right in some ways, people that live off the grid do it for an entirely different purpose: to live with the land they reside on rather than living on it. It's simple, really. If you can generate power and heat for yourself, you are officially living off the grid.

    After being intrigued about people leading off-the-grid lives during a research project, writer Phillip Vannini, along with photojournalist Jonathan Taggart, trekked across the whole of Canada to tell the individual stories of people living this way. The end result after two and half years and 65,000 miles traveled: a documentary film and book called Life Off Grid about the people choosing to disconnect from the grid and live with the land they occupy.

    With Earth Day happening this month, it's inspirational to see how some people are choosing to live in a more environmentally friendly way. We can all learn a little from them and start making changes to better ourselves along with the world around us: from conserving energy to taking a shot at growing our own food. We had a chance to sit down with with Phillip to talk about his travels, the people he was able to meet and learn through, and how everyone can start making steps towards a more renewable lifestyle.

    Above: Solar array. Solar energy is the most commonly utilized source of energy in the off-grid world.

    For people who don't know, what does "living off the grid" really mean?
    Despite all the various and often incoherent ways in which the expression is used, it simply refers to a home disconnected from the electricity and natural gas grid. In other words, if you generate your own power and heat, you're off-grid.

    Where did you first hear about your subjects who were living off the grid?
    During a research project on the culture of small West Coast Islands that I was working on several years ago. I walked into a home that was off-grid and became fascinated with the idea.

    Above: Solar home in Edmonton, Alberta.

    What are some of the reasons the off-gridders gave for choosing that way of life?
    The most common is a romantic one. Someone will fall in love with a place out in the country, buy some land, and soon after realize that the nearest electricity pole is so far that stretching the power lines all the way to their newly-built home is too expensive. At that point virtue is born out of necessity. That is when that person may realize that living off-grid can be a more sustainable, resilient, adventurous, and independent way to live than hooking up to the grid.

    What made you want to traverse the country and document how they were living?
    We constantly hear about energy scarcity, about how uncertain the future is, about all the sacrifices we will all have to make to live more sustainably. So we wanted to look into the lifestyles of people who are making the choices today which we will all have to make tomorrow. Their homes are like experimental labs for a new (and yet also old) way of life.

    What do you find most inspiring about your subjects?
    Their creativity: their ability to confidently solve problems and learn (often on their own) about what works and what doesn't.

    Was there any one person in particular you thought you connected with?
    No. We were equally amazed by everyone. But we were particularly enthralled with those who managed to make the most on the least amount of money.

    What were some of the ways that your subjects were surviving off the land they lived on?
    Honestly, this is the most surprising thing. One thinks of "living off the land" as a mythical, poetic way of life that harkens back to the past. It's not like that. Living off the land means living WITH it, and not in spite of it, or in ignorance of it like we tend to do. Living off the land may simply mean waiting for a sunny day (when solar energy is more readily available) to run appliances.

    Above: Green house on Lasqueti Island. It's much easier to grow food on the West Coast than other parts of the country.

    How do they get food?
    Not all off-gridders grow food. Those who do often only grow a portion of their caloric intake. There are some farmers who manage to grow a lot of it, but no off-grid home (especially in a country like Canada, where you can't exactly grow oranges) is independent from the rest of the world. 

    Do they use electricity?
    Yes, they all do. They just use less than we do because they make their own. And when you make something yourself you're more careful with it, you tend to conserve it much more.

    Were there any specific houses/living spaces that you were completely blown away by?
    Yes, and of course here words fail us. Our photos and film tell stories like these, which words can't easily allow us to share. What surprised us were the beautiful villas: homes where you wouldn't even know you were off-grid.

    Above: Green house on Lasqueti Island.

    Was there an area in Canada that you thought was the hardest place to pursue this type of living?
    The farther north you go, the harsher the climate. Cold makes everything harder. You need more insulation, more materials, bigger back-up systems, more ingenious solutions to conserve water, batteries, etc. On the other hand places like the West Coast—where it is much easier to live off-grid because of climate—are characterized by a very pricey real estate market that can price some people out, since typically you do need a bit of land to live off-grid renewably.  

    What life lessons did you learn from these people that everyone should know?
    It's not as difficult as it may look, and more importantly it can be as comfortable and as convenient as a "normal home." Sure it requires a great deal of involvement and awareness, but shouldn't that be a condition of a responsible life for all of us? 

    Above: Monolithic dome, Alberta: one of the homes whose design and structure most vividly caught our attention and inspired our imagination.

    Is living off the grid something just anyone can look into doing?
    Theoretically, yes, but if you want to be highly self-sufficient you'll need more skills and more physical capacities than most people have. On the other hand, one can live off-grid with limited knowledge and strength if they are willing to rely on others for procuring some resources. Living off-grid does not mean living in any pre-determined way: you can make whatever you want out of it depending on your resources, your chosen lifestyle, your values, where you live, the size of your home, your income, etc.

    Are there any ways everyday people can maybe not live FULLY off the grid, but maybe move their life a little in that direction?
    Off-the-grid is a very black or white thing: you either are or you aren't. But one can live on the grid and still develop ways of living more renewably. Nothing prevents us from installing solar panels and solar hot water collectors to rely more on renewable energy. You can start that way, of course, and if it works for you then you can eventually disconnect and go off-grid. But being on or off the grid is not what matters. Being more responsible about using energy is what matters. We can all conserve water, buy local food, waste less, and do more to live sustainably.

    Above: Wood stove in Manitoba. Many off-gridders utilize wood stoves to cook and heat their homes.

    After your travels, what are some things you realized modern society takes for granted?
    Our 24/7 life. We can turn on lights or appliances regardless of the time of the day or the weather, and regardless of our proximity to resources. In the off-grid world you learn to do with the resources you have when and where they are available. When and where they are not available, you need to more careful or simply do without.

    Above: Road side attraction, Manitoba. Naturally air-conditioned.

    Do you have any plans to further document people living off the grid? Maybe in other countries?
    We hear that a lot of people live off-grid in Hawaii. We'd be happy to receive invitations to go and visit. Our operators are standing by!

    Do you guys have any other projects coming up?
    For this project we travelled 65,000 miles in two and half years. Our next priority is a little R&R!

    Life Off Grid is currently making it's way through the festival circuit through the summer and is aiming to be available in the fall. Check out the full trailer below!

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