It is long forgotten now, but when the automobile was first invented, most thought that its main benefit would be to rid cities of horse dung, and perhaps (if people were lucky) horses altogether. To put it mildly, horses were hard to maintain, messy and stinky. Automobiles, by comparison seemed a lot easier and cleaner. The automobile succeeded brilliantly in ridding cities of horse dung and horses, but that seems like a side show compared to its main accomplishment. The automobile made it possible to develop a transport network that brings the entire globe within our range. In approximately one century, for better or worse, we have laid out a huge grid of paved roads over a significant portion of the planet. Now one can only rarely hear “You can’t get there from here”. To the contrary, most of us need to hire a tour company to find places where there are no roads, no cars, and no petrol stations. And it is hard to believe that none of this existed one hundred years ago.
To get a sense of how big the change has been, consider the story of Johnny Ringo. Ringo appears in lots of movies and songs about the Wild West as a legendary gunslinger. In at least two films, he gets killed by Doc Holiday in a gunfight. The real story of his death may be stranger. A few months after the shootout at the OK Coral, a depressed and drunken Ringo got on his horse and rode out of Tombstone. Here is what might have happened next:
Ringo was preparing to camp in an isolated spot, far from the city. He tied his boots to his saddle, a common practice in Arizona to keep scorpions out of them, but the horse got loose from his picket and ran off. Ringo tied pieces of his undershirt to his feet to protect them … and crawled into the fork of a large tree to spend the night. As evening came on, despondent over his overall state, Ringo shot himself.
Most stories suggest that Ringo was not a very nice guy. So, we might not feel all that sorry for him. But imagine his situation. No roads. No cars. No phones. No GPS. Without his horse and boots, Ringo was in deep trouble. His death also carries a cautionary tale. For all of Ringo’s legendary toughness in town, just a day’s ride out of town, he was as vulnerable as a babe in the woods. If one takes us out of our grid, are we even more vulnerable?
To get a better sense of this, imagine that one evening you are watching football on TV. Suddenly all of the electric in your city shuts down. What would you do? The once burning question of who would win the game might become a bit less important than finding the toilet without knocking over tables and chairs. Do you know where your candles and matches are? Do you have any?
This type of blackout actually happened in New York more than once. The first time was back in the 1965. The whole region blacked out for a day. For years afterwards, one heard the question “Where were you during the blackout?” There was even a movie made about it starring Doris Day. It happened again in 1977. Did you know?
So when we think of grids, we are not just talking about replacing horses with automobiles, getting paved roads and more conveniences. The 20th century has been the great century of building all of the grids that we now rely on and generally take for granted. There are the telecommunications grids. The power grids. The heating grids. And commercial grids (like franchising). And financial grids (with automated teller machines making it possible to get cash almost anywhere). And let’s not forget the mother of all grids, the internet, which multiplies the potency of all the other grids (like Tolkein’s one great ring that bound all of the others to it). Virtually overnight, we have become inter-connected via grids to a degree that no other culture has ever been before, and it appears that “grids” are getting more and more pervasive.
By the way, we might wonder how did we get here so quickly? There was a common path. Grids generally evolved from luxuries to necessities. Not so long ago, for example, indoor plumbing was a rarity. If you wanted light, you lit a kerosene lamp. If you wanted heat, you lit a fire. Even more bizarre to us, if you wanted milk, you might put a cow in your attic. In most places now, however, developers are required to build out all of the grids first (roads, plumbing, electricity, etc.), and then sell living units to people before we can start forming a new “community”.
And as grid technology develops, our homes have to be retro-fitted in order to keep up. Indeed, legal protections for the operation of grids now can even trump core fundamental rights like freedom of expression. Interesting. We have moved from luxury use to required use of grids.
On the plus side, there is no doubt that our reliance on grids makes our lives more secure and convenient. If you don’t believe me, stop paying your heating bill. But at the same time, we might also ask whether we are losing something. Couch potatoes around the world might shrug their shoulders, but are we in danger of losing our capacity to be free? That is a scary question. Let’s flip all the cards and pose the question directly. Would you welcome or shun an invitation to live off the grid?
The invitation sounds dangerous. A bit like the invitation that Morpheus gave to Neo in the The Matrix. In a dramatic moment, Morpheus says “This is your last chance …. Take the red pill and … (you will be off the grid)”. Indeed in the movie, the red pill was dangerous. Taking the red pill meant Neo got flushed down a massive toilet. But is that an apt analogy for living off grid in reality? I wonder.
Ever since grids were being constructed, people have been talking about living off grid. In the seventies, going off grid was something that both aging hippies and survivalists dreamed about. Remember the hippies … who in their dreams played the flute in the nude, and kissed their goats, while sleeping in a water bed heated by a solar power grid in the backyard paid for by their bewildered parents? Of course, the survivalists had a different sort of dream. They dreamed about how they and they alone would be prepared to fight to the death to protect what they needed to survive after civilization melted down. The two groups were opposites, optimists and pessimists. But they shared the dream that independence from the grid was a good thing. Why?
But going off grid was not that easy, nor was it socially acceptable. The British comedy “The Good Life” made fun of the hardships. Other views were not so light-hearted. Here is a link to a tongue in cheek video that gives a more somber picture. Anyway, it meant giving up comforts, and living an alternative life style. The ultimate message was clear. Going off grid meant that you became an outsider. Like the “runners” from the 1978 Science Fiction film Logan’s Run. From society’s point of view, it was indeed somewhat like getting flushed. I can hear you saying already (using the Matrix analogy) “The blue pill, please. I want to stay on the grid!”
Keep taking the blue pill, or you can consider looking at going “off grid” another way. How about answering this question, “Are you happy?” For most people, this is not such an easy question to answer. Most of us (except my cat) are happy sometimes, but not always. Let’s rephrase the question: Can you say that you are satisfied with the life that you choose to lead? Dot.earth, a blog written by Andrew Revkin and hosted by the New York Times, asks the same question in a more generalized way:
“How do you measure progress and gauge your well-being?”
Revkin writes further:
“In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan’s newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation’s priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.”
By the way, G.D.P. (or gross domestic product) is the most commonly used measure of a societies well being. It aggregates the value of all of the goods and services that society produces each year. Using it as a measure of well being implies that our well being and happiness are linked to how much we produce. I don’t know about you, but this is clearly wrong for me. In fact, while I am no Oblomov, I rather enjoy going home from work early, and if I can get away with it, producing less. But here’s the rub. My individual happiness in being idle might make society less well off. So, I have to persevere, and take whatever happiness I can find within the system, staying on the grid. But is this what you would call a well balanced system? Not necessarily.
King Wangchuck of Bhutan has pursued the idea that society should try to better balance individual happiness and societal well being. Society should try to help you be happy, and you should try to make your community happy. Production is only one part of this. In this context, the question that I posed before, “Are you happy?” becomes more important, relevant and interesting.
According to Revkin, enlightenment era philosophers thought that our happiness depends on how we connect to the public good. The stronger the link between what we do and what we think is right, the more happy we tend to be. In the book, “Flow”, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that happiness comes to us when we are “immersed” in activities. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the enlightenment philosophers and Csikszenthmihalvi are both right. Then you may be most happy when you are immersed in activities that strengthen community. It is an interesting thought. And it suggests that the King of Bhutan may be onto something.
Unfortunately, this is also a bit like taking the red pill offered by Morpheus. Because this is definitely not the way modern culture depicts happiness.
The great English character Jeffrey Bernard said it in a funny way:
“When I was a boy, I naively thought that this thing called happiness would be something I would wake up to find every day once I could smoke, drink and fornicate.”
Putting it mildly, Jeffrey Bernard was an extremist. But isn’t it true that modern culture promotes the idea that we find happiness by getting hold of (possessing or consuming) more of the good things in life? More money? More leisure? More beer? Damn … then more exercise? The mantra is “more is good” and conversely “less is bad”. So, there is a strange sort of logic to the on the grid life style. If we produce more, we get paid more. And if we make more money, we can buy more of what we want. So in the end, we are happier. Right?
Sorry. Not according to those enlightenment philosophers, or Csikszenthmihalvi. They would argue that this is a recipe for a rather hollow life because it does not connect us to the public good, or immerse us in what we do. Instead, it generates weird incentives to “game the system” (like Madoff, et al) rather than to connect with community (like the ultimate off gridder, Gandhi). I begin to see a serious disconnect between the messages we get from modern culture, and what make us all happy. Perhaps I should re-think my attachment to that great film, the Thomas Crown Affair and watch Gandhi again. But … am I ready to take Morpheus’s red pill? Are you?
Even if we still hesitate, we may be able to see another view of what going off grid is all about. It is not necessarily about learning to love compost toilets, or waiting for the wind to pick up so that you can run your smoothie maker. And it should not be about getting flushed as a societal outsider. It may be about learning how to get rid of excess baggage and search for life styles that make us all a lot happier. What’s so bad about that? Perhaps the fight should be about making off grid living more mainstream. Is that happening?
Here is an example of the attitude I am talking about. Check out this short video about Keith Thompson who went way, way off grid a long time ago. Notice how he talks about his happiness. Notice also how Keith is immersed in how the things inside his house actually work. Notice also how this knowledge supports the way he wants to live. He believes he is free, he also is a regular guy.
Here is another and much wilder view of finding happiness off the grid. It is from an old book called The Good Life written back in the 1930′s by Scott and Helen Nearing. Before, I say anything more about the Nearings, they were communists of the old school. In case this conjures up images in your mind of the NKVD, this was before the Second World War. Before McCarthy. Before it was understood in the west what Stalin was really doing.
Back in the 1930′s Scott and Helen Nearing left New York and moved to Vermont to find the good life. They went off grid because there was no grid where they were going. In their book they describe how they found the good life by re-learning how people thrived before modern conveniences made these tasks unnecessary. Like making maple syrup. Like building stone walls. Like taking time out during the day to rest and write poetry and make music and dance. Like collecting and sharpening their tools every day. Lots of simple things. They were immersed in these things, and they were excited about how working together this way allowed them create and build a community. How it strengthened the connection between individual and group. The philosophers of the enlightenment and Csikszenthmihalvi would say they were onto something.
Go a bit further back in time, this was exactly the way William Morris was thinking. Morris was a Victorian rebel who didn’t like how the industrial society of his day was changing the way people worked. He asked the question, “What type of society made it possible for people to build the great cathedrals of Europe?” His answer ,“It must have been a society that valued and rewarded high levels of craftsmanship”. And so he created an earlier version of off grid living, the crafts movement in England in the 19th Century.
Once again, the philosophers of the enlightenment and Csikszenthmihalvi would say that Morris was onto something when it comes to creating happiness.
So, let’s sum up. Thinking about it, we should thank the Lord that the 20th century gave us grids. We definitely do not want to end up like Johnny Ringo out in the wild without a horse and boots. And we do not want our cities full of horse shit again or to go back to lifting cows into attics for milk. Grids and connectivity in general give us a lot of great things. The ultimate grid, the internet, will give us much more. But, and here is where the argument starts, we may want to admit that relying on the grid does not necessarily deliver the good life. Instead, we can get hooked on the convenience and lose touch with things that are essential for building happiness. Those things include connecting to community, and getting immersed in challenging learning. So perhaps there is a grid mentality that poses a growing risk to everyone. Perhaps that grid mentality blocks our opportunities to learn how to live better. And here we should be mindful of Malcolm Gladwell’s great point in his book Outliers. Learning how to get really good at something (like Mozart at creating music) takes a lot of repetition over time. So barriers that hold us back from trying things out and building a learning curve through repetition are serious barriers.
The best way I can think of to fight this grid mentality is to make off grid experiences a regular part of our vocabulary and our lives. This means looking for and celebrating ways to go off grid in order to learn. To keep an eye out for opportunities to connect with people and things that are off the grid. Simple things. Fun things. Anything from growing vegetables to building boats, to volunteering, to installing solar panels. I am reminded of that great program that started up when I was a youngster. It was called Outward Bound. Outward Bound took small groups of city slickers on several week vacations out into the wild. It was fun, and one learned a hell of a lot about how to survive in a group, and alone in the wild. Well, we may not need to go way out into the wild to learn to be off grid. Why not do outward bound at home and all the time? Hey! That sounds like fun!
Want to go further down the rabbit hole? By the way, I think you may have already swallowed the red pill.
Michael Gallagher is an Estonian/American lawyer who came to Tartu in 1994 and has been living and working in Tartu since then. From 1994 to 2007 he was primarily involved in developing professional legal education systems with the Estonian Law Centre, and interdisciplinary education within Tartu University. Since then he has been teaching, consulting, and developing projects in law and business.
Csikszenthmihalvi Doc Holiday gross national happiness Helen Nearing Jeffrey Bernard Johnny Ringo Keith Thompson King Wangchuck of Bhutan Logan's Run Malcolm Gladwell Matrix Scott Nearing Tartu William Morris