The term "off the grid" can mean many things: refusal to partake in a nation's power or water distribution source, political nonconformity, religious self-sufficiency, an escape from financial chaos or simple paranoia. As in the case of Thoreau, it can denote "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust," in which a person drops out of civilization, away from its existential excesses and crises. And, perhaps forecasting the urge to flee the grid, Walt Whitman wrote, "The secret of making the best person: It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth."
In Off the Grid, British documentary filmmaker, journalist and amateur land reformer Nick Rosen intends the phrase to cover a large miscellany of the back-to-nature population as he chronicles the lives of disparate and desperate people so far off grid they're on another grid altogether. From a former vice president of Urban Outfitters who quit her job to be a virtual recluse, to a Mennonite machine-tool producer with a yearly revenue of $4 million, Rosen conducts an inquiry into the burgeoning outcry for more space and less interference.
"Most of the people I met on my tour of America," he writes, "are losing faith in the grid...They don't feel a sufficient advantage to being inside the fabric of society."
- Off the GridNick Rosenpaperback, Penguin304 pages, $15
Off the Grid is an adequate peek into the psyche of the "new survivalists," a robust movement whose unnoticed adherents—spurred by mortgage nightmares, unemployment and societal unease—are becoming more numerous and outspoken about what they see as a grave "legitimation crisis" in American politics. Well-stocked with the necessities for surviving and documenting his cross-country odyssey (laptop, cell phone, digital camera, etc.) all tucked compactly in a rucksack, along with an endless cache of quotes from Walden, Rosen interviews the overlooked of America, the urban homesteaders, nature zealots and obscure multi-millionaires, who, as of 2007, were collectively numbered at 300,000 households in the United States alone. After a highly selective analysis of the corrupt practices of General Electric and its kin, Rosen turns to the alternatives of the system—power co-ops, microgrids, solar panels, wood burning stoves and composting toilets, and the difficulties of maintaining each one.
Rosen divides his time between a bevy of contrasting interviewees, such as Davia Derringer, a woman who lives trailer-bound in distressed poverty, and eco-architect Mike Reynolds, the man who has built more off-grid residences than any other as the founder of Earthship Co., which constructs dwellings completely out of recycled tires. He explores the unconnected town of Big Bend, Tex., where the American Legion is the only bar for 40 miles and whose citizens live dispersed across 100 square miles; the Dillo Hour, a kind of rustic currency given for an hour of labor; and a man in upstate New York called the "Sultan of Scrounge" for obvious reasons, one of which involves "papercrete", a resilient concrete poured from recycled paper waste.
The gift economy, a major facet of the Burning Man Festival, has supplanted the "doomed" market economy to hordes of off-gridders, while smoking pot is a strong incentive to hundreds more. Visiting the notorious Emerald Triangle, the author makes the not-quite-startling discovery that marijuana sales dominate the "glocal" community, with minor criminals, Russian mafia and gun-toting Mexican drug kingpins taking advantage of the latent state drug laws to transform the area into something like a balkanized country within a country. The dark perimeter of survivalism is also fairly represented, filled with obsessed, drug-addled lunatics, 9/11 truthers, stubborn conspiracy theorists, paranoid libertarians—the vast, neurotic catalog of those who are convinced that civilization is collapsing.
Unfortunately there are contradictions and prejudices that make Off the Grid intolerable non-fiction and sometimes worse environmentalist commentary because of its aloofness from the psychological motives of the off-grid citizenry. The book strives to be too many things at once: quirky guidebook, survival manual, autobiography—and yet it never reaches fully into any one genre to be particularly informative.
Instead of being inspiring it poses as inspirational, hounding the reader with an oppressive voice that is too loud and insistent to have anything remarkable to say about this remarkable American sub-culture. Although passionate about these individuals who embody Thoreau's idealized seclusion, Rosen is smug and preachy toward those who do not. There is far too much Nick Rosen to achieve any sort of broad purview.
Additionally, Rosen's research is often cursory, as witnessed by the number of times he attempts to interview someone, finds that the person is unavailable and quickly abandons the enterprise. Mentioning a group of young anarchist land reformers, he hastily remarks that he spent the night with them in the woods and fails to detail anything concerning the ostensibly fascinating encounter. Mostly, it's his heavy-handed, humorless tone that severely undermines any virtue of the book's ambition, with much of his attention fixated on insubstantial characteristics of the land and its inhabitants. Had Rosen simply allowed his off-grid colonists to speak without interruption, the book could have been a success on every level.