The Social Experiment: Going Off-Grid

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, boats, Canal, climate, conservation, Ecology, England, environment, ethics

Part II: Life Off-Grid

There can be fewer acts of homegrown radicalism quite like going from mains power hook-up to living off grid. But what is it to live off-grid? Everyone is familiar with the term, though few are familiar with the kind of life that entails. Think of it thus: if mains power is similar to taking antibiotics through an I.V. drip, then living off-grid corresponds to foraging for your own medicine from nature’s own root & herb garden. The contrast couldn’t be greater, the results more startling. Sometimes wondrous, oftentimes disturbing. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment in the pursuit of the dream of living off-mains.

Before I embarked on what i call life unplugged I had seen glimpses of how it’s done. Having trekked the Himalaya a good few times, I had seen how the teahouses that operate as hostelries from the foothills to alpine altitudes managed to run their entire operations without the aid of AC power, or mains gas and cable telephony, for that matter. Naturally, these mountain people had no choice in the matter. Geography dictated Nepal’s infrastructure perhaps more than most places on Earth. Being poor didn’t help things either.

I marvelled at how these resourceful Nepalis ran an entire trekking operation with only two bottles of propane gas, a couple of 12V leisure batteries, a diesel generator, and a simple 12V wire loom coming off the batteries and leading to the only plug in the whole teahouse establishment. How they transport them up there is a whole other story. You see it, plain as day, a mess of plug adapters clustered onto a head adapter leading out from the wall sockets. From this higgledy-piggledy mess of cables, every mobile phone belonging to every paying guest is drawing electron juice from the auxiliary power source (in the absence of solar panels, usually the genny). There they are: a brood of mobile phones pulling like octuplets on their suffering mother’s teats, in the corner of the mess room where everyone spends their evening relaxing by the pot-bellied stove at 10,000ft.

That was the limits of my understanding back then. About the most i could discern from off-grid living was that when too many appliances try to draw current from a 12V/24V/48V system – one far lower than an AC voltage of 110v (USA) or 220v (UK) – there what’s called a voltage drop. You know when the bare lightbulb suddenly and inexplicably dims before shining brighter again. This, I later learned, is attributable to a fall in electrical pressure, which is essentially what voltage is. The phenomenon of this can be best imagined in cosmology documentaries where a distant star becomes a supernova, suddenly dimming before emitting a brilliant light in the night sky. Anyway, point is I had no inkling at all into the practicalities of surviving off-grid until I actually decided to try it. And try i did.

Initially, the feeling was euphoric. No more utility bills. Atonement for all those ecological crimes i partook of in the Gulf. Rapid diminution of carbon footprint, from gargantuan to nearly invisible. When the experiment in living commenced, it was the height of summer. Solar panels on the boat’s roof trickle-charged batteries, creating a false sense of power security. So convinced was I of the limitless benefits of going off-line that for that entire summer of 2019 I lived like there was no tomorrow: effectively consuming similar joules of energy than i had in a house. Unfortunately for me, gauging the true depth of discharge of those batteries, to whom i owed so much, did not become apparent until the gloomy autumn set in. By this time, so late in the year, long-term damage had been done to the 880Ah of lead-acid batteries. Plus, the solar panels were about as much use through a sunless English autumn/winter as a propeller in sand.

Sometimes the most enduring lessons to learn are also the hardest. It just so happened that the winter of 2019 was among the wettest on record. Noah would have been able to profit handsomely from starting an ark-building business had he been alive in that year. From the first ominous spatter in late September, that rain did not abate until the middle of March 2020. Living under the miserable deluge infinitely complicated the process of surviving off-grid life with relative comfort. Instead, as the batteries began their slow descent into decrepitude and death, the boat’s voltage meter reported a sorry tale of exhaustion with every reading. Just to get through the long evenings with a modicum of lamp light, heat and hot food in my belly, the trade-off was either to run a droning 2kw suitcase generator for hours on end each and every day under the rain, burning unleaded fuel and ruining my chances of salvation, or else run the boat’s powerful diesel engine. Restrictions applied by both methods. Running the genny meant, lest it end up stolen from a public towpath, i had to be in residence while it was going. The noise was incessant, not altogether dissimilar to the thrum of a billion hornets all descending on me. Try keeping your concentration when that din is going all day, and while people parade past your window gawping in to admire the designer kitchen. While the other method for supplying raw power to increase voltage in order to run every on-board system from plugs to pumps to central heating – the boat’s engine – never really deep-cycled the batteries for the simple reason that every 12v battery responds to an input charge voltage of a certain capacity, which the engine could never reach (it needed 14.7v but only put out 14.4v).

Talk about the best-laid plans o mice and men going awry. 250kg of lead-acid battery dumped after one year of chronic abuse. A replacement set costing a small fortune. A tonne and a half of coal burnt to keep the chronic dampness and cold out. Hundreds and hundreds of litres of diesel burnt to run on-board central heating, as well as to partially recharge the batteries. Hundreds of litres of unleaded fuel used to keep the suitcase genny sweet. A sizeable investment in solar panels, panels which for the half of the year you truly need them are conspicuous by their absence to deliver any volts whatsoever. It’s not even the off-grid burning of so many hydrocarbons that bothered me the most: it was the almost permanent state of hyper-alertness, apprehension and even anxiety, just waiting for the red low voltage warning light to blink on. Moreover, that one’s life is now going to be totally dictated to by the whims of auxiliary power. You cannot stop thinking about it. Constantly monitoring the situation; always on edge, twitching to pay back the battery bank for every little withdrawal of amps you make on a daily basis. I mean, how is anyone supposed to relax when providing domestic power becomes an almost obsessional challenge equal to servicing personal loans and debts.

The 99% who turn to mains power as a solution for modern power-intensive living: how could they ever know how taxing it is to manage the off-grid life? I didn’t until I unplugged the cable from shore power. Once the brief honeymoon period ended, the reality hit hard. Now, I believe if you are blessed enough to live in a perennially sunny spot below Latitude 45 degrees, living off grid by means of a large solar array is definitely do-able. Equally, tapping geo-thermal hotspots in your Icelandic backyard would work nicely, too. However, the indulgence of trying such a modus vivendi in a kingdom of rains and dirty grey clouds, like this one, by my reckoning is a challenge too great for most mortals. It was for me. I don’t want to face these uphill struggles through the dark of autumn and winter any more. Not here. Not now.

Human effort is not measured, thankfully, in amps. All experience is good experience, save for murder, incest and animal cruelty. At least i tried. And no one can take that away from me.

The Social Experiment in Living Off-Grid: How Goes It?

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, boats, Ecology, England, environment, Lifestyle, social issues, Society

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.

To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.