ARTICLE
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By: Johanna Kinnock

Photos: Ken Hermann

Off the grid: Meet the people leaving modern life behind

When it comes to sustainable living, some of us are dipping a toe in the water, while others are diving in at the deep end. 5 meets the off-gridders who have left electricity behind to live off the earth – and found that they gained more than they lost.

Takeaways

  • More and more people in Europe and North America are saying goodbye to the comforts of modern life, and going off grid.
  • As well as offering independence, a connection to nature, and a sense of community, off-grid life is a way of living much more sustainably.
  • Some off-gridders generate their own electricity, collect their own water and grow their own food. Others live with some modern comforts but eschew others.
  • Despite the clear environmental benefits, there are significant practical, legal and economic hurdles to going off grid. Off-gridders are lobbying governments to make it easier.
  • Going off-grid means giving things up. But those who’ve done it feel they’ve gained more than they’ve lost.

Two years ago, Kirsty Tizard’s morning routine was exactly that: a routine. Every day she trekked up the road, checked into work at her café, spoke to the same people and completed the same tasks as the day before. On paper, Kirsty was ticking all the boxes of affluent middle-class existence – as a café owner her work-life was something many dream of. But just below the surface she felt restless with the repetition.

She and her husband had always been staunch believers in sustainability, and the idea of doing something radically different had been hanging between them for some 10 years, like an unfinished conversation. The ball finally dropped when, in April 2017, a close relative the same age as Kirsty passed away, prompting a moment of deep reckoning for the two. “I got an intense sense that life was short, that I should do with it what really mattered, and fast,” she says. So goodbye café it was. The pair quit their jobs, uprooted their four kids and left a comfy house in Devon behind to move 60 miles away into a wonky woodland cabin – and a brand new existence.

Tinkers Bubble is a 14-member-strong community of like-minded people in Somerset, England who have decided to untangle themselves from the bondages of modern life to pursue a simpler existence. Kirsty’s new morning routine goes like this: wake up with the sun, head down the hill, milk the cows, followed by communal breakfast complete with gas-heated tea, freshly harvested vegetables and eggs laid that morning. The rest of the day she spends weeding and tending to the flock while others around her cut wood, maintain homes and cook. When she washes, it is usually in the nearby lake.

Kirsty is part of a movement quietly spreading throughout Europe and the United States: the off-gridders. People who have, for whatever reason, decided to live off the radar, away from supermarkets, power bills and traffic jams, closer to nature and their own sustainable power solutions.

“I want to be the most sustainable individual I can possibly be”

Martin Burlund

“Grids” refers to the familiar spiderwebs of modern living: the criss-cross of phone and internet cables, roads and sewers, plus the intangible networks of finance and food supply. For most people who rely on these grids, they can at times feel stifling, and their environmental impact is hard to ignore. To go off-grid is to disentangle oneself from one or more of these systems. The Tinkers Bubble bunch – who don’t rely on any of these networks at all – are at the extreme end of the off-grid spectrum. “Extreme in a good way”, boasted Kirsty contentedly through the camps’ one communal phone. Most of the other off-gridders 5 spoke to begrudgingly deemed having a personal phone necessary, although predictably, few of them were quick repliers.

Sitting on his self-made porch admiring his self-made house, Martin Burlund feels “like a king”

One particular grid represents the ultimate obstacle for most off-gridders since it is by far the hardest to leave behind. The electrical power grid, its long transnational cables reaching across most developed economies, makes up around two fifths of carbon emissions (it is estimated that 30% of electrical power is lost on its journey across the grid). Emancipating oneself of electricity is therefore by most estimates the single most impactful step an individual can make towards carbon neutrality. To do so, off-gridders generate their own electricity in various ways, using water, wind and the sun.

It’s this promise of sustainability that provides the initial draw for many off-gridders. Living in a smaller house, powering it yourself and supplementing your diet with vegetables from a small plot of land makes you about as sustainable as it’s possible to be in 2020. Martin Burlund, a 35-year-old journalist from Denmark, is another such hardcore off-gridder, who has built his own tiny home south of Copenhagen which he self-supplies with power, plumbing and drinking water. For him, off-gridding is a kind of self-imposed competition. “I want to be the most sustainable individual I can possibly be,” says Martin.

“We talk a lot about what we can do for the climate, but we never talk about the things we have to give up. And we do have to give some things up”

Martin Burlund

His prize is a rewarding feeling of full ownership over his house and therefore his life. “When I sit there drinking coffee in my garden, knowing that I personally built every bit of the house I am looking at, I feel like a king. I trampled those walls into shape with my own feet and my walls combined cost 1,000 kroner [€120]. It’s sort of like a joke that never gets old.” Martin tells 5 he was inspired to go off-grid after reading the cult novel Doppler by Norwegian author Erlend Loe, in which a dad gives up his mundane suburban life in favour of pitching camp in a nearby forest and befriending an elk named Bongo.

The number of people living in off-grid communities in the US and Europe has doubled over the past ten years. This development is evident in the growth of Off-grid.net, a forum for off-gridders to share tips, hopes and fears about taking the big leap. In its chat rooms, the desire to escape the urban pressure cooker is palpable, with posts like “Looking for a fella to escape the rat race with” and “Wanting to live like a modern-day Thoreau, who’s with me?”, interspersed with practical tips for surviving without power, and a map to help people find off-grid communities in their area.

Nick Rosen is the founder of the website and the author of two books on the off-grid movement. He has also recently bought an acre of land in the south of England on eBay, where he plans to build a woodland shed. He tells me that throughout the 12 years he’s been studying off-gridding, its popularity has always increased in times of crisis: “When people feel insecure about the state of society, the desire to do something different becomes stronger.” This year’s coronavirus outbreak was no exception. Most of those messaging Nick at the moment are people who have realised they can actually work from home, “and that home can be anywhere with a phone signal”.

“There’s nothing not modern about it. Hydro-power, wind power, these are all highly sophisticated technological innovations”

Nick Rosen

But there’s another – differently poised – group who have been thrown into off-gridding post-corona: the recently jobless. Especially in the US, says Nick, “hard-working folk can come into a situation where they simply can’t pay their rent. At that point you might choose to buy a small plot of land somewhere inexpensive and start again.” This less glamorous version of off-gridding is not the one in evidence on Instagram and Facebook where the hashtag #offgrid brings up a swarm of voyeuristic snaps including designer-clad babies brushing horses and muscular men building clay houses. While this is the side of off-gridding most easily viewable to an outsider, and one that Nick agrees exists, off-gridders are actually a diverse mix of people. “I would say it is about 50/50, those doing it out of need vs. those doing it out of desire.”

Lars Keller is part of a community who wanted to get off the “economic grid”

Perhaps these internal variations are why the off-grid trend has not condensed into a cohesive global movement yet. Few of the off-gridders that 5 spoke to identified themselves as part of a larger cross-border campaign or community. Rather as local activists making small rings in large waters: leading by example. Lars Keller, for example, is one of the original members of Friland, a community of a hundred in western Denmark whose main ambition is to get off the “economic grid” i.e. the property ladder, and become debt-free. At Friland, people usually build their own house in around three-to-five years, in which a family can live for around €2,500 a year. “We end up having people from all walks of life here because it’s economically accessible. Including people who would struggle to find their place in regular society.”

“People can do what they’re passionate about rather than work out of necessity”

Lars Keller

At Friland people have little or no mortgage to pay off, which means that “they can do what they’re passionate about rather than work out of necessity”, says Lars. It’s a place where people paint, write or garden their days away. This, according to Lars, makes Friland a model of how society could be happier overall. Was this what Karl Marx was dreaming of when he wrote that a man will be free of alienation when he “hunts in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and criticises after dinner”? You don’t have to be a communist to understand the appeal.

For many, off-gridding is as much about community as it is about living sustainably. Laura Storm is a recently baptised off-gridder who moved to a sustainable farm in Portugal just six weeks ago. When asked what was the final straw for city living, she described her dismay at going to pick up her kids from daycare and watching the parents dart around, not looking each other in the eye. “There was no bloody community in that kindergarten” she says, “you couldn’t even get eye-contact with each other. There was no soul, no warmth”. She believes this mirrors a general trend in society, the washing away of community in favour of haste “We’re so busy in all spheres of life, even family life becomes an assembly line.” This affects kids as much as adults, Laura says. “We were so tired of telling our daughter to hurry up, tired of rushing her through her childhood”. There was, she felt, little time for family, let alone any meaningful larger community.

In a practical sense, there are also plenty of reasons why community off-gridding is a favourable option. “There’s this stereotype of someone going off into the forest to be a grid-less hermit, but that’s actually the least effective way to do it,” says Nick Rosen, whose research suggests that communities are far more likely to thrive off-the-grid than individuals. “It’s much better to share the skills.”

The two decades that Lars has spent overseeing Friland have taught him the same, he speaks of this in symphonic terms. “Living together creates synergy in terms of sustainability. One might be really into recycling; all the others can learn from and reap the benefits of her expertise.” The synergy isn’t boundless, however. As Nick tells me, “the idea of the private household is deeply ingrained in most people,” which is why most off-grid communities maintain traditional family units. They also don’t make unitary decisions or summon residents to formal roundtable meetings. As Nick puts it: “people want a tribe, not a commune”.

A homemade shoe rack built from materials from the site: branches, straw and earth

It all sounds lovely, but aren’t off-gridders just a bunch of hippies glorifying the stone age and leaving society behind when it needs sustainable thinkers the most? Nick Rosen is adamant that this is not the case: “Hydro-power, wind power, these are all highly sophisticated technological innovations. There’s nothing not modern about it.”

No one we spoke to suggested a total, immediate off-gridding as the answer to all the world’s woes. “We still need cities, governments and power sources, but much fewer,” said Nick when asked what his ideal version of the future looked like. “We just want to show that there’s a different way to do it.”

“I just need the space I need and not much more”

Jettie Nielsen

In fact, getting governments to listen, in small and big ways, is high on the agenda of many off-gridders. Martin wants to make straw one of Denmark’s go-to building materials. Lars is determined to get municipalities to ease building permit restraints. And Nick has spent the best part of seven years campaigning to start a 3,000-household-strong off-grid community somewhere in the UK. Right now, it’s baby steps, as it’s painfully difficult to even get permission to build a single off-grid house in most places in Europe, let alone a whole village. “Currently we are basically just little bulbs of inspiration,” says Martin. “If we want to make any serious difference, change has to be policy”.

The current wave of off-gridding builds on a long history – ever since industrialisation washed over Europe, people have been dreaming up alternative housing solutions. But there’s a sense that this time, it’s different. Jettie Nielsen, 63, has been an activist for more than 40 years and is currently leading the charge to build Denmark’s first totally off-grid community on the island of Funen. She believes there is something special about this movement, something she hasn’t seen before. “It’s got a totally different political broadness – people from all walks of life are getting on board because it can accommodate all sorts of agendas”. She’s personally very excited to move into the 25 sq metre house that she’s designed, having lived in a big two-storey with her husband for nearly 20 years. “I just need the space I need and not much more,” she says. What she has now, simply feels too big. “I’ve got all these rooms, and what’s in them?” she laughs. “A bunch of crap I never use, gathering dust.” When she puts it like that, what she’s giving up doesn’t sound so indispensable after all.

Jettie Nielsen is leading the charge to build Denmark’s first completely off-grid community

Still, life off the grid is not the romantic adventure that dreamy city-dwellers might imagine it to be. Laura has learnt this the hard way over the past six weeks. “Transformation is hard,” she says. “If you want to break out and do something radically different, there’s always a cost involved. If there wasn’t, everyone would do it”. Martin echoes the sentiment: “We talk a lot about what we can do for the climate, but we never talk about the things we actually have to give up,” he says. “And we do have to give some things up.”

In the climate vs. comfort conundrum, most have yet to truly pick a side. Not the off-gridders, who believe that waiting is costly. It’s clear that, for a movement full of idealism, packed with dreams and hopes for a better future, its followers are a bunch of stone-cold realists.