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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

There’s no such thing as going off the grid


And if there were such a thing, it’d be bad for the environment

If you kayak up the Mokelumne River from Lodi Lake, you will pass a section near the railroad trestle which is like a village. There are tents of transients and vagrants. You will see laundry lines, bicycles and a dog tied to a tent.

Without electricity or fossil fuel vehicles, the village may appear “environmentally sustainable” — if you ignore the litter or human waste that ends up in the river. It perhaps doesn’t add to environmental problems like pollution, or so it seems.

It’s easy to fantasize about a minimal, carefree existence — one that’s good for the environment and far from the rest of the world. I’ve been guilty of this fantasy, too. In my fantasy, I live in an Ewok treehouse, far from overpriced t-shirts, mirror selfies and loud trucks. There’s a certain freedom that comes from the statement: I don’t need you, World.

I am a rock. I am an island.

But the village and similar fantasies do not provide solutions to environmental problems.

Off-the-grid communities attract environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts with the promise of freedom and a smaller carbon footprint when, in reality, they can never really be off the grid. They only offer a fantasy, opposite to consumerism, which makes achievable environmental sustainability seem impossible.

Kathryn Schulz, writing in The New Yorker, called Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.”

“Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today,” Schulz said. “Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes […] He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends.”

I felt similarly skeptical when I read a recent story about a community of people in Wildroots, North Carolina. The off-the-gridders in Wildroots strive to live off the land and without technology as much as possible. But they haven’t abandoned modern civilization completely.

“To live without technology can be freeing, but it also is isolating. Once a week, several group members take a truck into a nearby town to use the computers at a public library to email family or read the news,” said Daniel Stone, senior editor for National Geographic magazine. “[Wildroots] now has a website and welcomes visitors.”

Wildroots calls the community a “‘work in progress” since they “are still to an extent dependent on the system, in many ways.”

Going off the grid does not just make people seem like hypocrites. It’s bad for the environment because it allows people to neglect the real problems that they’ve already contributed to. It’s the equivalent of starting a fire and walking away because the flames are too irritating, and the screaming people, who seem too concerned about saving their own skin to even notice you, act really annoying when they’re on fire.

Going off the grid does nothing to help the people who are left behind. It doesn’t stop big problems like global warming or modern slavery.

More importantly, going off the grid discourages ordinary people from choosing to live sustainably. I’ve heard frightened skeptics complain about the composting toilets in tiny houses, and I can imagine that it takes a special type of person to survive off of stew made from deer eyes — like the members of Wildroots.

I like the idea of living with balance. I like the idea of taking responsibility for the mess we’ve created and trying to make things better.

“Learning to honor the wild […] means striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions,” said William Cronon, an environmental historian. “It means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails.”

I used electricity to write this article on my laptop, but maybe after college I can invest in solar panels and give back to the grid. I can’t influence everyone to recycle their yogurt containers or believe in global warming, but I can do my small part. Maybe someone else can do their part, too, and together we can make progress.


Written by: Jess Driver — jmdriver@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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