The back cover of Nick Rosen’s Off the Grid says the book is “essential reading for anyone who’s ever thought about going off the grid.” It’s not.
Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of anecdotes loosely hung together around the theme of utility-less living. I doubt that anybody in Off the Grid would have read, or benefited from, this book before they unplugged. What fails to come across in this featherweight book is the seriousness of the times and of the people whose response to today’s USA is, in part, to move off-grid.
This is supposed to be a layman’s guide based on the author’s conversations with various off-gridders met while he toured the US. Rosen seems a pleasant enough fellow, and the book reads like the collected scraps of a paid vacation, which it surely was. It skips around a lot, as the subjects – I’d hesitate to call them interviewees – are all over the place geographically, and they pop up seemingly at random. In the end, I wondered more how Rosen arranged, and afforded, all that travel, than I did about how or why folks live as they do.
Trouble is, people living off the grid, or contemplating it, already have the resources, and the support networks they need; they’re only a Google away. In these golden days of the information era, the survivalists have survivalist sites; the homeschoolers and the religious have places to congregate; pot-growers don’t Bogart their intel; enviros have Real Goods; and even the nomadic car dwellers have groups, such as the enormously busy Van Dwellers Yahoo Group, for advice and support. I’ll give out a shout here to “Hobo Stripper,” who successfully parlayed a web site written from her van while making her living as an itinerant sex worker, into an off-grid Alaskan retreat she now owns and calls home.
Off-gridders owe more to Stewart Brand, still living on his tugboat, and The Whole Earth Catalog, than they do to any other single source. Yet they don’t rate a mention in Off the Grid. Now there was a book that deserved the paper it was [ecologically] printed on. The Catalog, “Access to Tools,” sparked the off-grid, back to the land movement 40 years ago. Those myriad sparks of knowledge – including the Internet – still glow all around us, informing us and lighting our way.
Rosen does nothing to add to the conversation(s) the Catalog started, either by compiling source information or digging out obscure but useful sites. There are no notes, no bibliography, no index.
He clearly hasn’t done his homework when it comes to the political side of off-grid living, either. Perhaps it’s his British perspective, but on this side of the Atlantic, it’s easy to understand how intelligent, well-read, conscientious individuals are – at best – deeply distrustful of their government. I’m certainly no expert in any of the many government lies, conspiracies, and cover-ups of the past 60 years – my lifetime – nor do I want or need to be. But I’ve seen enough to understand that our government is essentially malign in many important aspects.
For example, it’s bizarre that Rosen only “vaguely remembered” a conversation with Larry Silverstein, owner of the World Trade Center, and recipient of something like $750 million in insurance money, about the rationale behind the pre-arranged, controlled demolition of Building 7 on 9/11 (p.268). And because this is not just some historical footnote to many people, including his subject of the moment, Allan Weisbecker, Rosen dismisses him – and them – as paranoid kooks in his chapter entitled “Fear.”
As for Peak Oil, Rosen betrays a lack of understanding that disserves both his subjects and the reading public. He makes an error of fact by mis-defining Peak Oil as “the point in history at which the amount of oil consumed each year exceeds the amount of new oil found each year” (p.273). Consumption has outpaced discovery for many years. Peak Oil is when worldwide oil production reaches its highest possible point, ever and for all time. It’s a basic, but critical distinction. According to the International Energy Agency, that point occurred in 2006, in line with what many others have predicted.
It’s important for this book because Peak Oil means that the whole 150-year era of petro-industrial growth – of which the grid is a big part – is over. The grid is almost certainly on its way out, whether through irreparable infrastructure deterioration, terrorism, copper- and aluminum “mining” vandalism, fuel shortages, financial shenanigans, or some mix of the above.
Rosen addresses none of this and condescends toward those of his subjects who take politics and energy seriously. It’s not just that there’s bad scholarship here, though there’s that, it’s that there’s no indication of any critical thinking or reading.
There’s no help here for people who are already off-grid and want to get better at it. Nor is there enough intellectual meat to help concerned readers make informed decisions about their place on- or off-grid.
If you must read Off the Grid, at least take it out of the library, as I did. And spend your hard-earned cash elsewhere – like on your utility bill.