In the City or Off the Grid: Which is Greener? Lloyd Alter and Nick Rosen Debate (Podcast)

Lloyd: I do feel good about living in the city. I do feel that my footprint is lower. First of all, on your statistic about how much energy is being used to move a bicycle versus moving a car--96% of the gasoline burned in a car is moving the weight of the car. The people are just 4% of the weight. One hundred percent of the energy exerted in using a bike is moving the person, because it weighs so much less in proportion to the person. So the canard that you're burning a steak, which is more expensive than the gasoline, isn't there, because you're not moving all of that weight.

Second of all, I don't believe that when you're out in the country that you ultimately do have true independence and less government. The government is still defending you. The government is still running hospitals. There are still all these ancillary grids of technology and services and things that people use. They have a cost and are connected to grids, and you can't run away from them.

I know that there are people out there who are living without anything, who don't have health insurance and are self-reliant. But there are others who have made the choice that they want to be part of a society that provides these things, that has good education and hospitals close to where they live.

TH: Nick, what do you think? People who are living off-grid, are they truly cut off, independent, and sustainable? Or are they still tied into that network, maybe just to a somewhat lesser degree?

Nick: It's a matter of degree, as you said. We're not talking about living in a situation with no government, but just living in a situation with less government. Self-reliance can never be total, nor would we want it to be. In a way, there's a straw man here, which goes back to Thoreau and "Walden," this guy who lived experimentally in a cabin on his own. Even at the time when that book came out, The New York Times criticized it for what it called its "cold and selfish isolation."

There is something a bit cold and selfish about wanting to go off and live in a cabin or, indeed, even worse, in a great, big house on your own, off-grid and miles from anywhere and anyone. It's a kind of a survivalist approach, which I personally don't subscribe to.

But what I'm much more interested in is large, off-grid communities. I don't necessarily mean communes, although they might be. I'm talking about areas of the country where many people are living off-grid near each other. Taos, New Mexico, is one example.

I visited an area near Ukiah in California. Greenfield Ranch. Where there are hundreds of people living off the grid in the same small area, about 5,000 acres. Or Big Bend in Texas, where communities have just sprung up, where for one reason or another--because they've been allowed to, because the land was available, probably--people have just chosen to live that lifestyle.

The first thing I'd like to say is it's great that people have got the choice to do that. Of course, they're never going to get completely off the grid. In a way, you're always just exchanging one grid for another, so you become less dependent on the utilities, but perhaps a bit more dependent on the Internet, and sure, you're dependent on your car.

But there seems to be something that people get out of it, something that people admire in that lifestyle. Reducing the dependence on the vast, intricate network that we call modern society isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Being able to provide your own medical care in a community, for example. I noticed that most successful off-grid communities have got a nurse as one of their residents, which is pretty good, especially in America, where health costs have soared out of the reach of most ordinary people.

TH: Scalability is one of the big questions here. If either of your approaches are going to have any kind of significant impact ecologically, you really need it to be a very large trend. Lloyd, what you think about scalability? How do these two measure up?

Lloyd: Well, cities obviously do scale. They've been doing it forever. They scale from Vienna to Hong Kong, which are two ends of a continuum. But does off-grid scale? How much land is there that you can have everybody go out and try to live at this super-low density? If it extended beyond a small proportion of the population, would it not start encroaching on forests, on preserves, on watersheds?

I don't believe it's scalable. I think it's probably a very nice thing for a very small number of people.

TH: Nick, does off-grid living run the risk of sprawl?

Nick: In a sense, it does. But not sprawl as we know it, because people are living such a different lifestyle. But yes, we are talking about a very scattered off-grid population, globally. In fact, one thing that I'm trying to do on is I've got a service called LandBuddy, which is there for anybody to use. You just put a marker on a Google Map mash-up so that we can get a situation where perhaps thousands of people are placing themselves on the map. Then they can get together and go off-grid together, share skills, share money, share ideas. Because at the moment, the off-grid population is too scattered and doesn't really add up to a movement or a community, as much as I'd like it to.

Really, I think it's a kind of movement and a community in development, and I'm trying to nurture it, because I think there's something there worth nurturing. I'm trying to help make it happen and make it more cohesive, because I think that we haven't yet seen the sort of scale that we need to see and that many people would like to see.

I think if we could get off-grid communities of 3,000 or 4,000 or more, then we'd get some of the things that Lloyd quite rightly points to in the cities. We'd get communities dense enough that all the services are there. They're just off-grid.
Actually, there's nothing to stop modern cities going off-grid in the sense that they actually make all their energy locally, that they deal with all their waste locally. I'd love to see cities going off-grid. Sydney, Australia is in the process of trying to do that with its power at the moment, and I wish them every success.

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