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Book reviews: Going 'off the grid' — what it means and what it takes and why

Eight books about moving away from the city and living without power, running water, cars and in some cases, companionship.

July 18, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It's all Thoreau's fault. In the whirring, churning American imagination, that vast and lovely virtual world — fed by books and stories — with territory one can still "light out" for, Thoreau is the guy who showed it was possible to get off the merry-go-round, the constant forward movement, and still walk into town from time to time. Plant yourself within spitting distance of civilization, refuse to participate in the orgy of commercialism, refuse to pay taxes if you don't agree with how they're spent. You don't need everything they tell you that you need. You can do more for yourself than they tell you that you can. The message was political, spiritual, practical and environmental. It contained a fine amount of humor, a pinch of self-doubt and a smidgeon of hypocrisy. Today we would call Thoreau's move to the banks of Walden Pond going off the grid.

Although books about carving out your own piece of the pie have been written ever since the Transcendentalists took issue with the direction that American democracy was taking, never before have I seen the current deluge of books on how to escape the American Dream. I grew up in New York City in an apartment full of them — my mother spent her short life trying to get out of Dodge and into the hills, though the schools she attended surely did not teach survival skills. I've chosen seven new tomes that represent various approaches, or should I say escape routes, but there are at least a dozen more. Why? Why now?

Nick Rosen sees going off the grid as a political choice. In "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America," he writes that corporate greed, massive layoffs, healthcare wars, ecological disasters have caused many true believers to question the American Dream. "Most of the people I met on my tour of America," writes the British Rosen, "are losing faith in the grid, both in its literal and metaphorical sense. They don't feel a sufficient advantage to being inside the fabric of society." The grid was created, he writes, relying on David Nye's 1990 book, "Electrifying America," to "optimize efficiency (and hence, profitability) for the producer. Society has organized around this approach to business, and in doing so, I believe, has tied itself in knots." And Rosen adds: "The growth of the grid and the growth of the amoral corporation went hand in hand." He travels across the U.S. visiting individuals, families and communities that have chosen to live free of the "Meter Man." He distinguishes between the back-to-the-landers, the hippies, the anarchists and the survivalists and writes about the issues they face as they go off-grid — zoning problems, permits and social ostracism.

In "On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work," Scott Huler sets out to better understand the infrastructures that bring power, water, telecommunications, transportation, sewage treatment and other amenities to his corner of North Carolina. He's "more interested in minutiae," he writes, than in the big political questions, though he does report that the U.S. infrastructure is on shaky ground. "27 percent of the country's bridges are obsolete or deficient," he quotes a recent study from the American Society of Civil Engineers, "the federal government funds less than 10 percent of our clean water needs; you can plan to spend 46 hours a year stuck in traffic — meaning actually motionless — helping waste 5.7 billion gallons of gas. And that's just the public works portion of our infrastructure." Huler explains the genesis and evolution of the electrical grid and writes a bit on hopes for the new Smart Grid, "a virtual power plant" that will improve "use patterns instead of building capacity," and will "respond much more effectively in real time to changing demand loads." It will also allow people who create their own energy (wind, solar, etc.) to sell excess energy back to the grid. Huler reminds his readers that the grid is nothing more than an extension of our own greed ("our infrastructure, ourselves.") "I feel like a late-empire Roman," he writes, just hoping things hold out long enough for my kids to stay relatively safe."

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