Monday, September 14, 2009

Off the Grid

What's the meaning of this? More than the rather obvious concept of removing oneself from the big guys who supply power, the more insidious consequence is that persons who actually do move off the grid, do so as a form of insulation from the rest of us, in community. In and of itself, this movement wouldn't concern me. There is nothing new here. What does concern me is that the leading proponents of environmental reform, including a MacArthur genius grantee, have moved themselves off the grid, and model a totally irrelevant mode of existence. They also give ammo to those who argue against eco reform by exploiting the hypocrisy of those who don't "do as they say".

My personal top four include Bill McKibben whose home was featured in the Sierra Club magazine.

Mr. McKibben has actually argued for strengthening community. Consider the title of a book published about the same time he was finishing his house: "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future." Community isn't driving to the farmers market. Community is a network of goods and services that supply ones daily life with the riches that far surpass what one could or should assemble on their own. And what does he model? A free standing single family home in the countryside. So if we extrapolate. Even if the billions of the rest of us could afford this "style" of life, can we imagine what the planet would look like with billions of homes sprawled across the earth.

A quote from the Rocky Mountain Institute website reads: For many supporters and visitors, Rocky Mountain Institute® is synonymous with Amory's private residence in Old Snowmass, Colorado. Completed in 1984 and upgraded continually since then, the facility remains a state-of-the-art showcase of efficiency ideas. Amory Lovins' house was just featured in a WSJ article which they point to on their website. In the article it is demonstrated that the current set of retrofits to the 4000 plus square foot house in which Mr. Lovins grows bananas, are really not affordable, yet they demonstrate the possibility of the retrofits we might attempt to our existing housing stock. Well the guy in Houston who tried it rejected most of the technology, and again one has to wonder what are we modeling here? Oh to be rich and afford a home in which I can grow my own bananas.

The staff of the institute has been moved to a nearby preserve and the best I could discover was that the nearest food coop was 19 miles away.

When we visited Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti and arranged a lunch the attendant acolytes were so nervous they literally surrounded the great man and answered my questions for him. Questions such as why is there a question mark on the web page "an Urban Laboratory?" Is the idea to be self sufficient, living as they are, in the desert, 65 miles north of Phoenix? There was a lot of mumbling.

When on the web site click on the Solare project and realize that what Soleri has always had in mind is a rejection of the current fact of life of the cities we now occupy and instead dreamed the possibility of what his vision of the future might look like. But Arcosanti exists in the here and now. What are we to make of the tension between the guy who is trying to grow food on his small plot at Arcosanti, fighting the folks who budget concrete building material in front of his need for water? True story. People cycle thru here. People don't ask the tough questions and are being diverted from the hard work of repairing their own lives.

Another project that gets a lot of ink is Earthship.

Drive 15 miles out of Taos, into the desert, and come upon the early adopters of rammed earth, funky, alternative structures. One of the ironies is that most of them are for sale, aftermarket sale. They range in price from the low 160s to 500K and boy are they off the grid. Again so what's the biggee? Desert rats have been doing this for years. But if you polled an average population of persons plugged into eco-friendly design- build concepts, processes liked rammed earth and recycled tires would come up a lot. The Financial Times did a piece on the build your own movement and if you visit these sites you will see groups of young people rediscovering the quality crafts of post and beam construction, rammed earth, cob walls, and hay bales construction. Great for them. And some of them are looking for plots of land as I write this. They also have interesting bedfellows. I am sure that both groups cringe at the thought they are moving in the same direction.

But, the facts of life as we live them are that now most of us reside in cities.
And these numbers are growing.

David Owen is releasing a new book; Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability
that expands his original New Yorker article on NYC being the greenest city.

Living within one of our built existing environments of course places us squarely on the grid. Would that the champions of rebuilding these places got as much attention in the pop culture as did their back to the earth cousins.

Click on the image of Majora Carter and be taken to her TED talk

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