Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart started on a study of off the grid living across Canada last year in B.C. They have been traversing the country, talking to people and learning about the self-sufficient lifestyle for the last year, and plan to continue for another year before returning home.
Earlier this summer, the duo was near Neepawa for stop 7 of 13. "We are documenting the lifestyle of people who live 'off the grid' across Canada," said Vannini. "While we have no way of having a precise estimate of how many people live this way, the lifestyle is increasing in popularity for many reasons. It promises to guarantee some sense of self-reliance, independence, and sustainability in a time when those are growing concerns to many people." To define off the grid living, Vannini says they are focusing on people living with no outside reliance on electricity or heat. "We see people who rely on solar and wind energy, even a few micro-hydro setups," said Vannini. "These people must give up dependence on infrastructure that makes everyday life as comfortable as it has been. Not being able to rely on technology and electricity means you have to find ways to do things on your own." Vannini became interested in off the grid living after he moved to a small island on the west coast. Previously living on Vancouver Island, this small island was not too far away, but it suffered from water scarcity during the summer months. "It was a really serious issue for me to deal with at first," said Vannini. "We had to start taking shorter showers, be more careful while brushing our teeth and doing dishes – I even had to tell my kids to live by the 'if it's yellow let it mellow' rule." "Now that I was for the first time in my life dependant on a resource like water without having it supplied, I became very aware of how precious it is," continued Vannini. "I thought that if just living like this during the summer months taught me such meaningful lessons about conservation, I started to wonder what being fully independent would be like." According to the study so far, many Manitobans practice two different varieties of off the grid living: self reliance for power and food, as well as the self-sufficiency of the northern First Nations communities. "For this study we are mostly focusing on off the grid farms in Manitoba," said Vannini. "It's something we don't see much of in other areas in Canada. Living off the grid can create a great deal of reliance on a sustainable food supply, and that is something Manitoba is able to do more efficiently than almost anywhere else." "Manitoba also plays host to large communities of off the grid families. There are lots of old orders of Mennonites that are entirely self-sufficient," he continued. "The availability of inexpensive land in Manitoba is another boon for people wanting to live off the grid. Typically the rule of thumb to live off the grid says that you need at least 10 acres of land to be self-sufficient. Here in Manitoba you can buy an entire quarter-section for cheaper than you can get a single acre in B.C." Southern Manitoba is also a solar radiation hot-spot, having the highest exposure to solar radiation in the country, a very useful thing for solar power that Vannini says should be exploited much more. "My hope, with this study, is to show that the kinds of adaptations people need to make when they learn to rely on their own are not so hard to make; living off the grid can be full of comfort and convenience just like normal living," said Vannini. "It's not as scary to be off the grid as it sounds. In a time when we hear so much about dwindling supplies, escalating costs, necessary sacrifices and a need to learn to live differently – while these warning are all true, they are always being received by a great deal of panic.
"But when you see homes that are already off the grid, they are very comfortable homes for well-balanced people and families." While it may seem daunting to set up your own power and heating systems, there are many often overlooked ways to solve these every-day problems. "We've met some very interesting people throughout our study who are incredibly skilled," said Vannini. "We've met people who have fashioned working heating systems out of recycled jugs of water, people who have created micro-hydro water wheels with kitchen spoons...We've seen so many inventive solutions to every-day problems that we don't need to worry about so much.
"We've also seen lots of much simpler solutions, like drying laundry on a clothesline outside or just not playing video games as often to save on power until a sunnier day." Off the grid living is getting more popular in Canada, but not only with extremists and environmental activists. "There are several great 'how-to' manuals out there that people can find at most bookstores or online that can teach how to manage water supplies and food, ideas for do-it-yourself heating and power supplies, and other tips," said Vannini. "Lots of handi-men are getting more and more interested in the challenge of living this way. The majority of people living off the grid are families who just wanted to see if they could meet the challenge." Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart have a few more stops on their cross-country study, going all the way out to Newfoundland before the end of the next year.
They also run a blog together than can be found at http://www.publicethnography.net/off-the-grids-blog/faqs-what-are-we.