Nearly a million Americans (ranging from eco-purists to gun-toting isolationists) live off the grid, unplugged from the sprawling infrastructure that the rest of us have learned to both love and hate. But how green is it, really? This week we pit our own Lloyd Alter against Nick Rosen, the editor of OffGrid.com and author of the new book, Off The Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America (check out Lloyd's review of the book here). To Rosen, these off-gridders are pioneering the new sustainable paradigm, while Alter holds that dense, urban living is the greenest way to go.
Full text after the jump.
TreeHugger: Lloyd, why is it greener to live in a dense urban environment than rural and off-grid?
Lloyd Alter: First of all, I would like to say that I do have tremendous respect for the self-reliance and the independence of people who do live off-grid. To be able to do this is not particularly easy.
But it's also not particularly green. I would say the main reason is that the thing people are going off-grid for--that Nick mentions in the title: more space and true independence--means that they're generally further away from other people, further away from towns, from schools, from doctors, from beer stores, and they're driving everywhere to get it. That driving is using primarily gasoline. Some of them will make their own bio-diesels and other fuels, but it is still primarily on gasoline.
Sure, they're not taking any electricity off the grid, but they're making it up in fossil fuels, either the propane that they're cooking with much of the time, or the gasoline that they're putting into their generators, or the gasoline they're putting into their cars. They drive everywhere.
Now in the city, on the other hand, the higher the density, the lower the per capita energy use. There's a graph that we'll put up TreeHugger that shows the comparable energy use from Hong Kong at one end to Houston at the other, and the difference is absolutely phenomenal.
You've all probably heard of "Green Metropolis," David Owen's book, where he talks about New York being the greenest place in the world to live, because people are packed at a higher density and they use very little fuel.
Well, the fact of the matter is I don't agree with David Owen. When you look at that United Nations graph, you find that there are lots of smaller cities, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Vienna and Toronto, that are in temperate climates that are walkable cities that have far, far lower energy consumption per capita than New York City.
Hong Kong is the real outlier, way off the scale: it's incredibly dense and uses the least amount of power per person. But I would make the case that being on the grid is inherently more efficient, because all of those things that you need are close to you, including medical care, shopping, and education.
In Houston, they define a person who's walking as someone who's looking for their car. You've just got a culture that is depending on the consumption of gasoline.
TH: Nick, what do you think?
Nick Rosen: I'm always slightly puzzled when I come across this critique of off-the-grid living, that it should be, in a sense, accused of being less green. I completely agree with what Lloyd says, people who live in remote areas tend to be more dependent on their cars. Nevertheless, the whole mindset of somebody who's living off-grid already presupposes a much more inclusive attitude towards the environment.
Take, for example, the bin bag test. You live in the middle of a city, just think about the trash that you're going to be disposing of if you're a fairly typical city dweller as opposed to, let's say, an incredibly careful ecological country dweller.
By living in the city, you're subscribing to the consumer society. Just imagine for a moment trying to use your trash as fuel in the citym, or trying to compost in the city, or trying to grow a little bit of your own food in the city. These are just not very plausible concepts. Whereas if you're living in a more rural area--which needn't be miles from anywhere of course--you're just automatically more connected to nature.
If you're living off-grid, then you're probably dependent on solar or wind or some other renewable form of energy, and you're automatically much more aware of nature. You're more aware of what the sun and the wind are doing, because you depend upon them for your comforts.
Now it doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to be greener, but it just tends to be the case, from my observations and my travels meeting people who live off-grid, that they are more aware.
Take something as simple as washing and detergents. If the place that you're living is the place where your water ends up--if you don't have a sewage system that's going to take your effluent away to some nameless service that will deal with it for you--then you are just going to be more careful what you let go out of your kitchen sink, and you will make sure that you use more eco-friendly detergents. That's just a small example of the way that you cannot help thinking if you're living off the grid.
Let's take another fact. People who live in cities drive cars. Not all of them do, and you don't need to, but a lot of people who live in the city drive cars. And a lot of the people who live off-grid don't drive cars. I met people living 15 miles outside Taos in New Mexico who insisted on cycling into Taos to do their shopping. That's pretty impressive, and they must be very fit. But I'm not even sure that that makes them greener, because actually, the amount of energy you use to cycle 15 miles to buy your shopping might even be greater than the energy required to fill up your car with gas.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter, in a way, which is these calculations of carbon footprints and greenness, they're all still in their early stages. They're all perfectly well intentioned, and I'm sure in time they will become an exact science, but at the moment the carbon footprint is a very rough-and-ready guide. You never really know what's been included and what hasn't been included.
When Lloyd, for example, says that one city has a lower per capita energy use than another, I don't expect that he's taking into account all the embodied energy in that city in the first place. Most people are just thinking of the amount of energy being used on a particular day to travel to work or to the shops.
These calculations remind me a bit of medieval priests with their indulgences. To say that it's more ecological to live in the city is telling urban dwellers what they want to hear, which is that it's okay. They can feel good about living in the city if they just compost a little bit and walk a little bit.
In fact, by living in the city, you're subscribing to the great consumer society. The idea that you can somehow subscribe to part of it and not all of it and not be blamed for the vast, embodied energy and the huge transport system and the vast number of roads is trying to make yourself feel good, and no more than that.