‘Ever wanted to unplug from the rat race?’ asks the front cover, ‘free yourself?’ For those described in this book, freedom has meant disconnection and self-sufficiency, breaking the dependence on the national water, electricity and gas grids, and going it alone. It’s a bold step. For some, in remote areas, its a necessity. For others its a statement of independence, a commitment to live more sustainably, or a paranoid precaution against future disaster. Nick Rosen meets all types in this travelogue of off grid homes and communities.
There are lots of ways of living off the grid. The most familiar ones are narrow boats on our urban canals, caravans, and traveller or gypsy communities, and of course remote farms. Less well known are the communes, the renewable energy pioneers, the backwoodsmen and hermits. In his own off-grid converted bus, Rosen travels the country to interview these various types. He meets a man with seventeen children, an armed survivalist community in an old manor house, a utopian robotics engineer, gypsies, horse breeders, millionaires and subsistence farmers. Most of the book details this adventure. In fact, over half the book is one long chapter called ‘meet the people’.
The diversity is fascinating, and there are different things to learn from each. Unfortunately, the author gives more or less equal amounts of time to each project. I found myself skimming ahead over more hippies in the woods, and wishing there was more on some of the more practical social experiments, such as Hill Holt Farm. There are dozens of examples here. A little editing wouldn’t have gone amiss, choosing the best cases and exploring them in more depth. The book could stand to lose some of the travel detail too – some sections narrate little anecdotes, like how Nick got his van stuck in a ditch on the way to see someone, leaving only a paragraph at the end to talk about the project itself when he finally gets there.
After meeting the people, the rest of the book deals with more specific issues. There are chapters on generating your own electricity and the various advantages of solar, wind and water power, sections on water, toilets, and buying land. Planning permission occupies a large amount of any off-gridders attention, and there is some good advice here about the best way to proceed. You can’t just buy a plot of land and live on it in the UK, no matter how low-impact and sustainable your intended lifestyle.
There are asides too, into foraging, the pros and cons of living in a commune, the best place to buy land if you want to be prepared for a complete breakdown in society (buy woodland, near the sea). The introductory histories of the grid and of planning permission are also quite enlightening.
If you’re after a practical manual for off-grid living, this isn’t it, despite the title. This is more of a source book of ideas, an inspiration for off-grid living. For the detail, see Rosen’s extensive website, off-grid.net.