Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Off the Grid"

An episode of the FX series "30 Days"
Aired week of July 13, 2005

Without preparation, for most people transition to a post-industrial culture will be a shock. The "guinea pigs" of this show, Vito and Jahari, are no exception.

Typical Americans from the Bronx, they live a high tech, energy-guzzling, unsustainable lifestyle that would require 12.5 Earths to support humans if everyone lived that way. That's called the ecological footprint.

I assumed while watching that they were tallied together, or 6.25 each, but maybe not -- I tried the test purposely putting in all of the most energy-using answers with a randomly selected Manhattan zipcode (10080) and came out to 13.5. When I took the test for my own lifestyle, it came out better than that, but still falls well into the unsustainable realm:

FOOD... 5.4
SHELTER... 6.9


Not good! I know a fair part of my lower than average score is because I try to recycle a lot, have a fairly fuel efficient car, try to make sure things get turned off, and basically like natural darkness. But I also drive a LOT more than I want to -- there's no public transit near home, and as a freelance reporter I have to go where the news is, although the plus is that I frequently work from home and don't have a daily commute.

A few days ago, a thunderstorm knocked out our power for about 4 hours... and I liked it. No background hum, no idiot box squawking, plenty of candles for light. I actually grumbled when it came back on, but know it wouldn't have been easy for a long period since our well is electrically-pumped, most of our food's in the fridge, our stove's electric, etc.

In short, my lifestyle is beholden to the grid... and I don't like that. But I don't have the money to install solar panels (if the trees around my house would even let enough light in for them to be useful) or to reinsulate the house more efficiently. I'd love to live in an ecovillage like the show's Dancing Rabbit village (outside Kirksville, MO), and want to convince Jenn (my gf) to do so... but she's a lot less concerned about this stuff than I am.

Anyway, back to the show:

Despite what some naysayers argue, ecovillages are NOT abandoning modern technology & trying to live like ancient people. Common sense says we cannot practically do that, for several reasons, including our much larger population and the fact that most people know about as much about our ancestors' methods of surviving off the land as they do about particle physics.

Instead, many ecovillages & similar groups espouse what is in fact high technology, but not wasteful technology -- things our ancestors would still find to be magical -- and combine that with practices our ancestors would indeed recognize. For the Dancing Rabbit folks, that's solar panels, fluorescent lights, a computer, and a car fueled by biodiesel and alcohol alongside hand-hoed crops fertilized by "hu-manure," insulation based on straw and plaster, heat and hot water provided by wood fires, and indoor lavatories resembling old-style outhouses with sawdust(?) as deodorizer.

The one thing I have a little problem with is their veganism; while our ancestors probably did have a much higher percentage of vegetable food in their diet than we do, they also had meat. I like meat. I understand and agree with the DR point that corporate husbandry practices are notoriously bad for the environment and that beef-raising is especially wasteful, but there are other ways of raising meat, and hunting it wild is something people have done since we came down from the trees.

I might be wrong, but my feeling is that a vegan lifestyle is something that can only be sustained in an advanced society. In times of subsistence, meat is usually the fastest way to get most of the nutrients the body requires for survival. I seriously doubt there's ever been a tribal culture that avoided meat in some form (including fowl or fish) when they could get it, and in some climates meat is the only food source capable of supporting human life. (The Inuit tribes before Europeans came are agreat example; the Arctic has almost no plant life, and their food supply was almost entirely hunted.)

Vito had a problem with that; and both "guinea pigs" had issues with several elements of the DR lifestyle. For them, however, there was always the knowledge that the change is temporary -- if they choose to, they could go back to their consumptive ways once home in the Bronx. # Losing the products and ease of our everyday lifestyle upset them, and if it were permanent, would make even those of us who are sympathetic to a DR-like lifestyle realize just how addicted to the complex web of national/global commerce we are.

# Vito & Jahari said they'd adopt some conservation methods, but I found Jahari more likely to actually do it. It would be interesting to see how they live a month or so after returning from DR.

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Blogger Bird said...

I really liked the show and would consider the lifestyle, especially if it meant I was left ALONE by the world in general. My husband is interested in reducing our eco-footprint but considers the Dancing Rabbit a little extreme. I still love the first episode the best. There was a time when I was a single mother subsisting on minimum wage. It was rough but made me who I am. So many people are still where I was.

7/17/2005 7:59 PM  
Blogger Jay Denari said...

Hi, bird, & welcome to my blog!

The fact that too many people are barely getting by, while others have so much of everything, is a huge part of the problem our society hasn't been able to deal with. That's one big advantage of an well-run intentional community -- everyone's in it together, and if somebody isn't willing to do their share or is trying to "lord it" over others, they get booted.

Our society has an unbelievable amount of unecessary duplication of products. Every single house in most neighborhoods has a washer, dryer, multiple TVs & radios, computer, one or more cars, etc... and most of those things spend most of every day sitting idle. ICs share those things (if they even use them).

As far as being "left alone," how far would you want that to go? How much contact with the outside world do you think is good? How would you protect that privacy?

Personally, I like the idea of having a network of connected ICs that trade ideas, unique creations, and people b/c that will ensure that individual communities don't stultify and may help prevent some from sliding into miniature dictatorships that harm their members. Beyond that, every community should be free to pursue its own ideals and methods as long as they don't harm others.

7/18/2005 12:47 AM  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

I like the RC idea for what it potentially has to recommend for future communities on the moon or Mars.

These are the places where low-energy consumption and ultra-efficient resource usage techniques will most likely be discovere/invented.

And if they could make a Tofu-Porterhouse 1.5" thick that I could barely tell from the real thing, I'd not miss meat at all. Especially if my General Pracitioner had some basic training in Nutrition and could help me formulate a relevant and efficacious regimen of dietary supplements.

Forward Ho! ;}

7/18/2005 10:36 AM  
Blogger Bird said...

Hi! I love your blog. I wrote about you at mine:

Compared to my family, my husband and I are an IC. My mother's neighborhood offers CURBSIDE pickup of recyclables. They provide the bin and you don't even have to separate them. My mother still doesn't recycle. SICK!!! I remember one of the most exciting things about moving up here was that there were actually recycling centers in my area.

As for being left alone, I think the key to that is self-reliance. The less dependent we are on others for stuff, the less they can tell us what to do. Or even know what we do.

My husband has a good blog you should check out:

7/18/2005 6:30 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

Opps! I gave you a busted link;

The correct one is

7/18/2005 9:01 PM  
Blogger Jay Denari said...

Hi, Michael,

I think we'll have to have these kinds of ideas pretty well established before we take them off-world b/c space is not forgiving of mistakes. (Of course, they'll still happen; occasionally, you hear people opposing space exploration b/c it's too dangerous, but if we acted that way, we'd have never left the trees...)

We've already seen some glimpses of what they might be like in scifi, and I'd much rather see independent communities create the bulk of our space program than the military. Some argue that we shouldn't deal with space until we've solved ecological and other problems here, and while I agree those issues need to be dealt with, I feel a good space program will help unify us and that unity will in turn help us deal with the other issues. It should be an international effort, not one of nations striving to one-up each other, with plenty of space for independent groups to strike off on their own but remain within the framework.

Colonies in space are the only protection we have against some kind of astronomical catastrophe. Although such things are very rare, something like the dinosaur-killing asteroid will eventually happen again, and humanity's best chance at survival is to have some of us not here when it hits...

7/19/2005 1:07 PM  
Blogger Jay Denari said...

Hi, bird,

Yeah, I know people who recycle next-to-nothing, and that bothers me, too. Unfortunately, hearing occasional stories about companies who are simply trashing recyclables doesn't make the effort look good.

What we probably need are "trash-mining" companies -- ones that actually go into landfills and salvage all of the good stuff they can find -- and legislation that requires a lot more reuse at the industrial level than we now have. Organizing our industrial areas differently will also help; Denmark, for example, has prototypes of areas where several kinds of businesses use each other's waste products in their own mfg processes.

7/19/2005 1:26 PM  
Blogger Tonya said...

Love it, love it.

7/19/2005 4:32 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Here in Germany, recycling is mandatory. Many Germans think it's annoying, but they seem about as annoyed about it as most people are about taking out their trash. Most of them think that it's somewhat necessary to prevent the country from becoming one big landfill.

I've gotten to where I'd prefer that something come in a paper bag rather than a large plastic container simply because the paper gets picked up; plastics do not, and the large plastic container just hastens the day that I'm going to have to take the plastics out. You have to take those to the town recycling center yourself.

8/02/2005 12:39 PM  
Blogger Jay Denari said...

Hi, Amanda,

Technically, recycling is mandatory in many parts of the US, too, but the recycling infrastructure isn't very good and little is done about recyclables that simply get trashed.

The best approach, I think, is to simply use less. I also prefer paper bags to plastic, but when possible, I'll bring my hiking backpack and shop with that instead.

8/05/2005 2:33 AM  
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