Off the grid

Off the grid, literally.  Own work, Public Domain.

Talking with a member of my own local world, they brought up a scenario where a friend wanted to put up solar (photovoltaic) panels on their house for independent electricity generation in a suburban area. As attractive as that might be, we both were cognizant of the difficulties (battery maintenance, inverter life, solar panel degradation).   What we both voiced was that this was a bit of an off-the-grid pipe dream.

There’s a fantasy that some folks think of from time to time, that of being completely ‘off the grid.’  Put solar panels on you roof, put in a well, and grow your own food – all are part of the vision. The idea is that you could withdraw yourself from the world, and go back to a ‘simpler’ life.   A few communities have done it; the Amish is one prime example in the US.   There are a few caveats with this wish, as far as actually carrying this out:

1) Simplicity –  A simpler life may mean removing some, if not many of those modern conveniences, like the Internet, smart phones, and fresh strawberries year round.

2) Community – In being off the grid, you’ll need a community of like-minded people who share your vision.  If you don’t want a community, and you want to be ‘off the grid’, you either have resources (i.e., money) that allow you to insulate yourself (and pretend that you are disconnected from the grid), or you will live a life with few luxuries. That life might look like that of Ted Kaczynski before he was captured, eking out a life in the wilderness (but still using resources from the larger world).

3)  Maintaining What You Have – As mentioned, without a community of people to trade with, or to specialize, your off-the-grid world, maintained by only yourself will be a lot of hard work, and any technological advantages you started with have may not be maintained for long.  Eventually, you will have to go ‘on the grid’ to solve some of your problems, or live without those trinkets.  New electronics, advanced healthcare, and even simple technologies like plate glass, bolts, and screws can take a large bit of doing which one person or even small groups can’t supply.

Part of this desire may stem from that independent American streak that many folks have been told about growing up.  But that ‘independent’ streak is a fiction.  Most people, in most places, need a community of people, and a wide suite of specializations to have a decent life.   Even the toughest folks in the military at the ‘tip of the spear’ need a huge group of folks in the back taking care of all of the things that make them so efficient at what they do.   It may be that we are so interconnected now (worldwide!) that some want to have the pendulum swing back entirely the other way, and a complete off grid “solution” is the ideal.  Like most things, extremes aren’t a good situation.

The middle path to this may be a community of like minded individuals or families that can work together in their own generally independent grid, and live a decent life.  The question may then translate to “What is the smallest off-grid community you can create that gives the life you want?”  And what does ‘generally independent’ mean, anyway?

The upper limit is that of our entire planet; our civilization is run on sunlight, stored ancient sunlight, and whatever other resources the Earth provides, including its 7 billion plus inhabitants.  How far could we take this down?   Could North and South America, for example, have the standard of living we enjoy, without any input from the rest of the world?  How small might a community get, if they wanted a self-sustaining 1970s level of technology, or a 1890s level of technology?   These sorts of questions are the same reasons that Mars colony plans seem a bit off to me – as cool as these sci-fi ideas are – you need a lot larger community/infrastructure to make these kinds of things work over the long term, and the ultimate ‘off grid’ experience isn’t very ‘off the grid’ at all.

What sort of population and land scaling could apply here, for each level of technology?  For Stone Age ‘off the grid’, it is very few people; for our modern world, it is the entire world.  What sociological law might we invoke, to get an idea of the size of any sort of self-sustaining community with a particular technological base?




1 thought on “Off the grid

  1. Alice (@Cererean)

    Really the question is, what do you need to build a motorcycle from scratch. If you can build that, then you have the chemical industry, metallurgy, and electrical capability to build radio, aircraft, railways, electric lights, refrigerators, printing presses…

    There is this –

    Primitive Technology (on Youtube) has managed to smelt iron before, and he’s just one man. Who knows what we could achieve if we actually set out to try?

    I don’t know what proportion of the population were blacksmiths in the medieval times (or are in Amish communities), but from what I gather, villages were pretty self contained when it came to the necessities. Obviously with more efficient farming, more people can train as blacksmiths so more can be done.

    To just *maintain* a late 19th/early 20th century skill set, I’d put the number in the low thousands. That’s just maintenance, though – don’t expect mass production at that size, and there would likely be a lot less steel use than we’re used to (why do lamp posts need to be steel, anyway – telegraph poles are wooden). Wood can be used for most things we use steel for today, and it’s a lot easier to produce and work with.


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