Royal Roads University professor Phillip Vannini is exploring the lives of people living 'off the grid

Falling off the grid

It worried Phillip Vannini when he struck out to find people in B.C. living “off the grid” that he might meet a cliché

It worried Phillip Vannini when he struck out to find people in B.C. living “off the grid” that he might meet a cliché: self-righteous idealists or Luddite-types who ignore technology.

It turns out neither was true. What Vannini, a Royal Roads University sociology professor, found were rugged people interested in trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle and on their own terms, but who were also deeply interested in staying connected with the world.

“I was hard pressed to find a TV, but I met only one family who didn’t have the Internet,” Vannini says. “A couple in the Yukon used Facebook to have wood delivered to their house. That’s one grid you can’t get off.”

As part of a $500,000 federal research grant, last fall Vannini and photographer Jonathan Taggart set out to explore what life is like for people living off the power grid, off the water grid and for the most part, off the highway grid. Vannini expected to find a small handful of people scratching a living off the land, but found there more out there than he ever imagined.

“I had planned to talk with 16 people, four per province (and territory),” he says. “I’ve spoken with 75 people at 39 off-grid sites and homes.” Last fall he crisscrossed B.C., Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. This month he spent a week in Nunavut and the Arctic.

Cleverly, he started his hunt for “off-gridders” by contacting solar panel distributors for coastal B.C., which drew him into a loose network of people living, for the most part, in backwoods areas with minimal power and on well or lake water. Many blog about their experiences and were eager to share with Vannini.

“The fair share are environmentally mindful and aware of their carbon footprint and the need to consume less,” he said. “But I didn’t meet hard-core environmentalists or neo-Luddites.

“There is a lot of work and compromises, and it comes with inconveniences and complications. But at the same time its very rewarding. People get great satisfaction being self sufficient.”

Typically, “off-gridders” enjoyed tinkering with technology, including at Vannini’s first stop at a home in East Sooke. The owner built his own high-efficiency washing machine. Other off-gridders dabbled in micro-hydro projects, built windmills or found novel ways to insulate their homes – one person in Alberta amassed 5,500 four litre jugs of water under his floor.

Vannini visited an older couple in Lake Laberge in the Yukon, who had moved from Duncan years back. They wanted to get away from urban life and operated a goat farm and made cheese. In the winter the husband, Brian, would drill holes in the lake ice to pump water.

“We visited the man who was warm when speaking, but wouldn’t make a great deal of eye contact,” Vannini says. “After a while he mentioned casually he was 100 per cent blind.

“People develop skills and adapt to places they want to be. It speaks volumes about the fact that others can do it.”

Off-grid lifestyles promote a rugged individualism, but Vannini points out almost no one can be truly self sufficient, or free of consuming fossil fuels. Most off-grid people had a truck, backup generators and propane stoves.

“You can’t be completely self sufficient and grow all your food,” he says. “And everyone needs propane. I didn’t meet anyone without propane.”

Many people he met weren’t sure if staying off the provincial power grid and using renewable resource technology was more cost effective in the long run. “Some say yes (solar power) has saved them money, but most say at best they are even.”

Ultimately, he said people living off-grid are engaging in a kind of lifestyle experiment that leads to consuming less and connecting more with the environment. At the same time, most haven’t sacrificed a great deal of comfort.

“I ask whether they feel they are missing out. The answer is always ‘no,’” he says. “It’s satisfying to live life on your own terms, to determine when how we connect with the rest of the world. So far everyone has a very good life being off grid. The story so far is a very positive one.”

Check out Vannini’s blog at publicethnography.net/off-the-grids-blog.