Like a scene from an overly dramatic Hollywood film about childhood, your best friend tells you he or she is moving away. You feel empty, scared, or even jealous depending on where they’re going and why. But when your friend says they’re “going off the grid” to live more self-sufficiently and to minimize their carbon footprint—you might feel a little like a jerk. That’s how I felt last year when my friend Lenny told me he was moving over thirty miles away from his then home to a newly purchased ten-acre plot of land “off the grid.”
I started to think about my own carbon footprint and if I could do the same thing. I fantasized early about how I could save up a little and just head East; set up on my own land; try to live like Chris McCandless and go “Into the Wild”, but this time, I wouldn’t eat the berries. It all seemed so easy at the time. I felt good about making a difference by choosing an alternative lifestyle and that was very attractive to me. Aside from doing some research of my own, I talked with Lenny often as he started his process of setting up on his own land. As time went on and we both started doing our own thing–he building and setting things up and me poking around here and there–I started to discover some hurdles and potholes that became bigger and bigger for both of us.
One of the first things I did in my research was to think “big picture”. I wanted to see if EVERYONE could realize the dream of being self-sufficient: throw down the tools of industry, abandon the reliance on fossil fuels and live off the land. What I found at first was encouraging. I checked the most recent population numbers on Earth and found that there are approximately 7.1 billion Humanoid, upright ape-descendant beings on the face of the earth. The real hope shot is that despite our home world being covered mostly by water, there are 36.5 billion acres of land on this planet, enough for over 5 acres per person. Let’s do some simple math here and be fair. We’ll cancel out the deserts and frozen tundra, the uninhabitable regions on earth. Let us say roughly 26 billion acres of land for everyone which is still almost 4 acres for every man, woman and child. That sounds pretty great, if population stays put.
Not so fast. Let’s shrink that picture to the here and now, the United States population stands at around 319 million people. There are 2.3 billion acres of land, however, with the Federal Government owning 640 million acres. The rest is already owned by private citizens, oil and coal companies or leases, industrialized agricultural and more. Purchasing your own literal piece of America doesn’t come on the cheap. The average price for farmland in the United States is valued at around $4,000 an acre–almost two month’s salary for a working class citizen. But if you do your planning right and you run into a deal from a friend of a friend, like my friend Lenny did, you may be able to find more land than you can handle.
So you’ve done your budgeting well and you get a great deal. You’ve got your own land, now what? Well “going off grid” implies minimizing your consumption. “The Grid” is where the grocery stores are. You will need to plant food, and know how and when to harvest. Perhaps this should be taken into consideration before you sign on the dotted line. Make certain that your plot of dirt isn’t just dirt. You’ll need soil for growing fruits and vegetables. Along with that goes water, which you can live without for a much shorter time than food. Fresh water is necessity number one, and setting up a well costs time and money. If you’re lucky enough to be near a spring then some effective engineering skills will help. Otherwise you’re in for some hard labor lugging five-gallon buckets of water everyday. Speaking of hard labor, you’ll need to build yourself an actual home on your homestead.
Building materials are another large factor in the “off-grid” equation. Lenny, along with most others I’ve seen chose to set up a temporary structure such as a trailer or a yurt (tent structure with wooden supports) as they build their own home. This can be a cost-effective way to “rough it” a bit while you prepare for something more permanent. In this environment you must take into consideration the most dramatic changes in weather. Typically, these temporary structures are effective for keeping out either the cold OR heat. Depending on where you live you may be in for six months of pain. Leaving behind the comforts of A/C or gas furnaces can be a tough transition in this phase. One also has to remember that living more among nature means just that. You’re sharing the environment more with the conditions, the dirt and wildlife. It’s their territory. No matter how much we reuse and minimize waste, it’s a matter of fact that we still create trash, and it can and will be treated as a food source for wild animals (bears) if you’re not careful. From someone who is deathly afraid of bears, no thank you.
Building your own home can be immensely satisfying. People discover things about themselves in the process that they didn’t know they were capable of. It can also be back-breaking work. If one doesn’t have the free-time, the process can take years or high additional expenses while hiring a crew. Lenny had decided to build his own home over the course of a year. Breaking ground, he found that the soil was not sturdy enough for a foundation. His property was littered with gum trees and dogwoods, neither worth much in construction. The additional cost of lumber and relocation started to sour the process.
Once even the most temporary structure is up, energy becomes a legitimate question. There are many different ways to power a home that don’t burn energy from fossil fuels or leave a large carbon footprint. None of them are simple or cheap. The solar panel seems to be the preferred way of power by those in the know, with the relative cost of a solar panel decreased roughly 60% since 2011. Installation for these solar panels is still a smaller market and can run up to $20,000 or more depending on their location, size and number. If you cannot install them yourself, you will be dealing with the cost of labor.
I hope to have illustrated that a large undertaking overall and such a dramatic lifestyle switch like this certainly is not easy. If it were feasible for the everyday Joe, more people would be making the move off the grid. Unfortunately, most of the people going “off-grid” seem to be those with either a large expendable income or trained engineers. Even Lenny was a carpenter and contractor. I don’t try to discourage. I only put forth that we think before we abandon ship. If we could all be taught how to do this sufficiently, it would be a dream. However, in the process of shipping materials, creating landscape changes, waste and commuting to and from the home site, my friend left a much larger carbon footprint than he would in a regular year. There is a price to be paid for everything and we have to consider that cost; if we stay here, or if we run off into the wild. Creating something of our own does not come cheaply.