Part I: Life on the Grid
Or should that be the anti-social experiment in off-grid living? There is that aspect, too, though there’s more to life off-grid than a simple wordplay. Or unbearable isolation. There’s the experiment itself, which has to be longitudinal – meaning same conditions over an extended period – and has to transition from living on-grid to living off, with all the upheavals that entails. For all those who aspire to living La Vida Loca – offline, unhitched, and possibly unhinged – the experience goes a bit thus…
Before entering the spartan realm of minimalist, I was a maximalist. Whereas today I can claim to tiptoe on the Earth with a size-4 carbon/ecological footprint, pre-watershed I used to make the Earth shake with a megafauna-sized carbon footprint. You know the type: Crusty the Clown outsized shoes, freak show dimensions, gargantuan metatarsals. Three years ago, but it seems like only yesterday (to quote The Carpenters), I was following a high-octane consumption pattern.
Living twixt the ocean and the deserts of the Arabian Gulf, I drove a car whose off-roading capabilities rendered it a gas-guzzling behemoth. Not that quenching its thirst for fuel mattered much, as costs at the pump were absurdly affordable. I lived in a business hotel in a spacious apartment high up on the 18th floor. For nine months of the year the air outside was so sultry that the air-con inside was on 24/7. A simple walk around the vast mosque near my home, while pleasant, often resulted in a complete body sweat blended in with atmospheric dust and other nasty particulates. The only self-purification was to lose oneself in the apartment’s planet-sized, walk-in shower cubicle. I dread to think what the water consumption was per shower. And yes, in summer one shower could easily morph into three scrub downs per day. That in itself wouldn’t be too egregious an act of environmental vandalism were it not for the fact that in the entire Arabian peninsula – an area about the size of Western Europe – there is not one single watercourse viewable from space. That means that ‘sweet’ water has to be sourced from somewhere other than the traditional go-to place for the native Bedouins, the well.
Arabia’s carrying capacity for humans is naturally small. To elevate it in order to invite millions of migratory workers in, engineers had to build a series of water desalination plants along the coast. Turning seawater into the salt-free solution that comes through the plumbing requires phenomenal amounts of oil to burn the salt off millions of gallons of water in steam condensers that run day and night. This process accounts for a surprising percentage of all oil production. That aside, the point I’m trying to force through here is that just to have a shower required an industrial process that burnt mind-boggling quantities of oil from water sequestrated from the ocean. The Persian Gulf, all 700 miles of it, is turning saltier because of the desalination required to sustain millions of migrant labourers. This brackish chemistry puts stress on the aquatic ecology, too. Most famously, sea grasses are suffering, which brings big problems downstream to grazers such as the manatee.
At work, we used machinery in a profligate way. Printing worksheets and other paraphernalia for the sake of it resulted in towers of waste paper, un-recyclable laser jet cartridges, and overworked Xerox machines. Air-con ran all day through unmanned corridors, empty classrooms, bare staff rooms, and even little panic rooms where you go to escape the madness. The utilities bill alone must have been equal to the GDP of a small principality. Lights were routinely on in empty rooms. Just switching them off was an act of radicalism.
Workdays there are kinder than in the slave-driving West. One of the reasons so many venture there in the first place. Instead of being bolted to one’s desk until long after dark, privileged expat Europeans (Brits included) would finish work with the sun still high in the sky. That exacerbated our carbon footprint, as at 4 o’clock there’s much life left in the day. Invariably, myself and friends would do some form of physical exercise in an air-conditioned gym, on equipment often running on mains power. In fact, the treadmills often needed their own national grid to operate. Once the aerobic fun and games were over it was time to decamp to the bar for a cold one. Except, for the Guinness to reach chill factor 10 required power beyond power. When outside the temperature is touching 40 celsius with a wet bulb humidity level of 80%, and inside the beer tap has a designer layer of ice around it, you know you’ve got an addiction to mains power. Is there any wonder a pint costs the equivalent of $15?
Of course, this power audit i’m describing is not the half of it. One of the great mass movements of expats in the carbon-rich Gulf is to descend en masse to the airport on the first day of school holidays. It is far from unusual to meet a colleague, neighbour or even drinking buddy in the queue for check-in. Their intended destinations are myriad, but all of them are linked by one carbon-relevant fact: flight time is seldom less than five hours, and sometimes fifteen. That’s a lot of vapour trail.
But this mass gathering of folks sharing similar socio-economic status is by no means confined to the air travel industry. If you want to visualise another airport analogue, but this time for the domestic market outside of school holidays, look no further than the mall. The great emporium of the 21st century – beloved of Arab rulers who see a historicity with the ancient bazaars and souks of the Middle East, as well as a source of great internal revenue – draws the crowds in all weathers, be it hot or hotter. Some, such as the Dubai Mall, are so sprawling as to contain more shops than some cities (Dubai Mall has circa 1,200 individual rental units within its great perimeter walls).
Once inside these 21st Century temples of consumer worship you see the level of food waste. That, in itself, is staggering. If I had a dollar for every plate of leftovers I witnessed, I’d be a wealthy man. Buffets barely-touched. Takeaways partially eaten. Quantities of cooked food that no society without an agricultural base should ever rightfully have within their means. The profligacy of quality food would appall any good Presbyterian. There, in the Arabian Gulf, apportioning little or no value to a precious thing as fresh, quality food is a fact of life in a burnout society gone badly wrong. Now, if these generous helpings of leftovers would go to feeding the pitiful canine waifs and strays that mill around behind malls and hotels, I could almost justify the waste. But they don’t, as a matter of policy. The Muslim rulers would rather legislate for a situation where uneaten food is binned than to nourish an animal considered to be vermin.
Like any superstructure, be it an international airport hub or a world-beating shopping mall, the maintenance costs of the mall are almost as environmentally disastrous as the industrial legacy of building them from their foundations. While I don’t profess to having the data on how many megawatts per hour the Dubai Mall uses in order to keep the lights on, the air-con nippy, and the customers happy, I’ll wager that its not far off the levels consumed by the whole country thirty years ago. A graph showing the mains power consumption over a thirty-year period would likely resemble a hockey stick: from sustainable to a complete loss of perspective in a single generation. The point being here that I was one of millions far exceeding a carbon footprint expected from the average consumer in their home nations. It’s the gift that keeps giving, the party without the hangover.
So much raw power consumed from relatively few sources. We’re not talking PV solar panels blanketing the desert, drawing in abundant current from the Arabian sun. We’re talking good old fashioned oil-burning power stations sending carbon consumption through the roof for many. We’re talking industrial output from raw materials extraction that has had a deleterious – in places catastrophic – effect on the specialist ecology and wildlife of the desert. Arabian leopard, down to two hundred individuals across two million square miles. The Arabian wolf, dwindling away to nothing, unable to halt their own human-led persecution. Hyrax, under threat. Corals, wrecked by coastal degradation. About the only wild things to have prospered are the feral dogs that cling on, unloved, in the derelict quarters of the city. Oh, and the ubiquitous camel, too cherished as a commodity to be in danger of extinction.
It doesn’t take a visionary to see that consumption levels of both power (delivered in cheap abundance by the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels) and commodities (imported on oil-burning container ships in exchange for crude oil and gas) are disturbingly high. After five years, I was reaching a moral dead-end. I couldn’t go on enacting a lifestyle that I myself criticised for its crimes against nature. To be sitting at a bar in the desert drinking Irish beer from a tap that’s chilled not by the air outside but but a long chain of industrial processes demanding huge quantities of power, while having discussions about how to bang the world to rights, that’s wasn’t going to cut it long-term. That’s when the small footprint plan kicked into action.
The transition from energy elephant to mouse has been a steep learning curve. Contrastive, to say the least. It’s not all peaches and cream when you’re trying to atone for your former environmental crimes. The challenges of acquiring power off-grid, of limiting daily usage, and of scrimping on water, are in their own right as equally immense as running power stations for cities such as Dubai. Ethically, living off-grid you’re on firmer ground. However, in a practical sense could we all do it? Or is off-grid living destined to be a strictly niche affair?
In my next blog, I’ll illustrate some of the day-to-day rituals required to keep the lights on, the fire going, and the water running.