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Could You Live Off the Grid?

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Could You Live Off the Grid?

By Randy Swaty with Jeannie Patton, The Nature Conservancy

This summer, my two boys and I spent a few days with a couple who live off the grid in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 17 miles from the nearest paved road. Victor and Claudia build canoes by hand for museum collections, using local cedar for ribs, birch-bark for the covering and a mix of spruce pitch, charcoal and bear fat to seal the seams. The boats are lashed together with spruce roots. Except for cutting the cedar, they use four tools in the whole process.

Victor kindly volunteered to help us build our own canoe. It has an ash frame lashed with artificial sinew that is then covered with “space-age textiles,” as Victor put it (it’s Dacron®). The ash is in danger due to the exotic emerald ash borer. I have no idea how many tools went into making the half dozen or so materials that we used while just building the frame.

Other than building canoes, Victor and Claudia spend most of their time thinking about how to get what they need to survive. They mostly eat food they can grow, salvage from dumpsters or trap, and they heat their small log cabin exclusively with wood. Their way of life looked to be about as earth-friendly as it gets. At our first meeting, Victor greeted us with a shot gun nestled in his arm and served venison stew for lunch (woodchuck was on the menu for dinner).

All of this made me wonder: could my family follow Victor and Claudia’s example, living close to the bone and to the earth, using as few natural resources as possible? What would be the consequences in terms of health, energy expenditure and general well-being?

I started by calculating my family’s carbon footprint. Nursing a cup of Guatemalan coffee (made with water heated by propane) I fired up my computer, clicked on The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator and entered my best guesses regarding the family’s carbon output.

The results indicated that we emit 65 tons of carbon annually, or roughly half of that of the average family of four in the U.S. I, alone, contribute almost half of our family’s carbon emissions. My personal tally is 27 tons annually, with 10 of them coming from work-related plane flights. Therefore, almost a third of my carbon emissions are due to travel for my job.

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3:01AM PST on Dec 29, 2011

Would love to live this way, except I wouldn't be killing anything to eat. I do my best, although have to admit I do like some mod cons, but I grow my own veges and some fruit and run free range chickens which supply me with eggs to eat and sell/swap and manure for the compost.I don't own a car, don't have a washing machine. This world has gotten way too high tech for my liking. Back to the basics :)

6:26PM PST on Dec 27, 2011

I'd like to do this one day, it's definitely on the cards for retirement :)

9:09PM PST on Dec 16, 2011

As a child, I dreamed of having a small house in the country where I would work as an artist. I would have a horse to go into town for groceries etc and my best friend would be a mountain lion. My house would be surrounded by trees and close to a lake where I could draw water and travel in a canoe (I used to take my grandmother into town for groceries during the summer in the canoe when I was about 12). I never did solve the toilet problem because I really do hate the smell of the outhouse, but now know there are such things as composting toilets. I still think of that dream from time to time, but admit that I fell into the standard lifestyle of the 70's after graduating highschool. Now I'm 60 and looking at simplifying substantially, but going off the grid is out of the question. I couldn't catch and kill animals for food (I'd rather adopt them) and when I try to grow something . . . well let's just say that one look from me and plants die. I'd die of starvation without store bought food stuffs. But that dream has never really died. Important would be my companion --- I'd have my three babies (cats) who I love dearly.

2:31PM PST on Dec 12, 2011


9:22AM PST on Dec 5, 2011

Thanks for the glimpse into their life.

2:26AM PST on Dec 5, 2011

Thought provoking for many. Action provoking for some!

1:10AM PST on Dec 5, 2011

Living off the grid will destroy my academic career, and later, my professional career, so no thanks.

12:31AM PST on Dec 5, 2011

With the technology available today one can comfortably live off the grid. In cold climates it would be a challenge to grow one's own food during the long winters.
I thought I would enjoy reading this article until guns and trapping were mentioned. By no stretch of the imagination is that in line with what is commonly associated with "The Nature Conservancy" ? ?

10:51AM PST on Dec 4, 2011

I read a book years ago that explained why the choice of automobile, how long you keep it on the road, and the number you own are the biggest ways you can control your carbon footprint. This is primarily due to the large number of resources that go into and get wasted when producing an automobile.

Food is the next biggest. Cutting out beef products is an easy way to lessen the footprint because of the huge amount of resources needed to produce a pound of beef compared to other meats, and because feeding cows corn and factory farming practices increases the carbon output compared to the traditional practice of free-range grass-fed cows. After that, buying in season and locally cuts down on transportation wastes.

10:40AM PST on Dec 4, 2011

No way!

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