Sunday 12 September 2010


I don't often link to other people's blogs, but this blog by Bill Sepmeier does a good job of describing how difficult it is to be "off the grid" in any meaningful sense.

Because of my writing and the taglines often posted below it by the Daily, I am known locally for “living off the grid," Sepmeier writes.

It’s true, to a degree. Over the past several years I have built and installed enough renewable electric power systems at my home and office to provide all of the electricity I need to live and work as I do, where I do. There are many grids in modern life however, and living without them is not a simple matter, even if one’s personal lifestyle systems; one’s house, hearth and energy supply are sustainable and, compared to most, irrevocable.

As long as people have been dissatisfied with the direction of mainstream society, they have desired to be self-sufficiency, from the Irish monks at Skellig Michael or Glendalough, to the Shakers or New Harmony colonists in 19th-century USA. In recent years, it seems, the desire has increased, undoubtedly because people understand the mainstream society will not continue its exponential growth for much longer. And if we were used to the life of 19th-century settlers, we could do so easily: set us loose in a Wal-Mart of inexpensive tools and dry goods, give us a car for cheap and fast transportation, and we could make a homestead easily.

The problem for us, of course, is that adopting such a life would be hardship. It would be for me, too -- I want medicine when I am sick, daily showers, deodorant. Most people have little experience even cooking meals, much less planting seeds, growing vegetables or caring for animals. Most of us are spectacularly ill-equipped for a "self-sufficient" life -- it only arises as a goal in the minds of people who see it as an ideal in the misty distance, as children might think of being married.

Thankfully, we don’t need to. Little House on the Prairie images aside, most pioneers did not travel alone across the prairie – they moved in long wagon trains with the intention of forming communities when they settled. Irish monks, Shakers, Oenidans – none of them aspired to live and die alone, but with others who believed as they did. We, with our inexperience at traditional living, need such company far more than they did, and need self-sufficiency far less.

A friend of mine used to work with County Waterford farmer John Seymour, who ranks with Wendell Berry as an idol of Greens, back-to-the-land evangelicals, crunchy cons and others. Seymour wrote the book – many books – on self-sufficiency, and my friend was shocked to hear Seymour say that he had placed too much emphasis on that idea. What he should have emphasized more, he said, was mutual sufficiency. Most of us now already live lonely lives, and we aspire to make them lonelier, believing that such a life could ever be sufficient.

Photo: The girl at an altar in the ruined cathedral atop the Rock of Cashel.


House Mother said...

The Camphill movement is yet another example of an intentional community which strives to be self-sustaining.

During our time there we referred to it as being in a 'bubble'. Living off the mainstream grid could be another way of describing it.

I don't think most people would be willing to give up their privacy or individualism to live in a community where 'me' is less central than 'we'. It isn't easy but perhaps it's a small step towards true self-sufficiency or even a better alternate. Closer to mutual sufficiency.

Doyu Shonin said...

This is an outstanding post. I noticed that Seymour had modified his views, and in later editions of his stuff, was praising the wisdom and the companionability of his neighbors more and more. This was right and fitting and I'm glad he did. Remember Metropolis: "Between the head and the hands must be the heart." What was shown there was the heart between the hands and the hands.