Getting Off the Grid

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Hundreds of thousands of people in this country live “off the grid.” If the power fails, food runs short or drought hits, their families won’t be hurt. Their houses have solar panels and electric generators; their shelves are stocked with canned food and seeds. They have wells in their back yard so they’ll never go thirsty. Some are retreating into farms. Others are bringing the countryside into their homes.

You’ll see vegetable gardens growing where once there were pools and barbecues. Bahia grass, golden rod, and azaleas have fallen to tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions, squash, and carrots. If they don’t have yards, people are growing vegetables indoors in a study or on the window sill. Heard of square-foot gardening? For a few dollars you can try it yourself. A professional square-foot gardener will send you prepared sod, seeds, and a prefab grid of small squares in which you plant your seeds. It doesn’t matter any longer if you don’t have yard space. And you don’t have to deal with bad soil, mulch, or pests. Apparently, you can grow twelve-inch carrots in six inches of soil on your office desk. You can grow luscious strawberries between your coffee-maker and your dish-rack. Last year, seed companies and garden shops saw the strongest uptick in sales since inflation took off in the 1970s. The biggest sellers were survival vegetables — peas, beans, corn, beets, carrots, broccoli, kale, spinach and the lettuces.

I have to laugh. It’s what I’ve been living on all along, even in the boom years. I love making salads with kale — a humble leafy vegetable that costs a dollar and yet has more nutrients than most others. Nature gives us everything we need cheap, but wastrels that we are, we’d rather kill ourselves fighting for what’s bad for us in the first place.

The off-gridders are independent in other ways. They’ve paid off their debts — if they had any — and sold what they don’t need. They’ve turned part of their money into gold and buried it where even their family doesn’t know.

Some of them have second and third passports. Just in case.

These aren’t raccoon country rebels (no slur to raccoons or rebels) who never saw a fight they didn’t like.

They aren’t polo-playing speculators winging off to a weekend in Chile. Or cranks picking at sea-weed and bee-pollen in a New Mexico colony.

They’re “regular folk” who sense trouble ahead and are getting ready for it. They’re acting on instinct.

There’ll be people to tell you those instincts are wrong. Instincts make people rob, rape, and kill. Instincts turn us into mobs, and mobs go crazy with greed and fear.

Well, we know that. We lived through the biggest bubble in history and there were mobs as far as the eye could see — mobs of real estate agents, mortgage lenders, borrowers and consumers, flippers and speculators, bankers and regulators, pundits, pols, and prognosticators. The pigs and the parasites — we saw them all.

It was mobs all the way up and it’ll be mobs all the way down.

But every group is not a mob and all instincts aren’t bad ones. Instinct helps jungle animals escape death. Deer run when they sense a lion lurking in the growth, and monkeys screech and chatter at the smell of fire. The hot stink of a carcass and vultures begin to descend.

The sky is dark with vultures now. And the stench rises not just from Washington and New York but from all over. Huge tracts of cities have fallen into foreclosure, in California, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, in Florida. Whole neighborhoods have been abandoned. The borders on the south are fracturing from gangs and drugs and murder. State surveillance and violations of civil freedom are becoming graver by the day. Things are unraveling at home. Abroad, the bombing goes on still, manufacturing the chaos it’s meant to control.

But who would expect anything different.

Take a look around you.

What do you see?

Fools parading their ignorance publicly, while those who know stay cynically silent.

Criminals flaunting their crimes like medals of honor.

Sycophants in the government fawning and flattering.

And the rest of us — gagged, not by the government but by our own stupidity, cowardice, and blindness.

That will tell you how we got here.

But what are you going to do about it? Wait around and see what happens next?

It may be too late for that.

In one sense, "what" has already happened.

In another sense, it doesn’t matter what happens if you’re prepared.

Predicting and panicking won’t help you now.

You have to prepare.

Fortunately, it’s easier and there are fewer people doing it.

Your preparation consists essentially of one thing — becoming more independent.

The foundation for that is to become — and stay — healthy.

Earlier, I outlined a simple ten-step program to good health — eating a largely vegetarian diet and drinking a lot of water; exercising and improving your posture; breathing correctly; cutting out smoking and heavy drinking; and cultivating your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life.

That should be your start.

The next thing you need to do is to remove some of the physical constraints on your life.

Here’s one way. If you need to drive a lot to get to work, think about moving closer, car pooling, or riding a train or bus. The amount of time you spend traveling imposes an invisible but huge burden on your well-being. It’s not just the time and money spent, it’s the wear and tear on your tires and on your body. Sharing the ride will cut your expenses. If you take a train, you can read, have a meal, or work. On a bus, you’ll be able to relax and watch the scenery. You’ll be able to enjoy a good conversation without endangering any one else.

If your commute is really stressful, you could try coming into the office fewer times but working longer hours. Or you could do part of your job from home. You might also think of transferring to another department. Or of telecommuting. I won’t tell you to leave your job, because jobs are hard to come by, but if you have enough money to go into business for yourself, this might be the time to do it. The other face of disaster is always opportunity.

Make yourself portable. You could work almost completely on the net. Internet marketing has become universal and it’s not small-time. Net marketers make big money. If you’re up to the challenge, you could too. Even if you don’t make enough to live on, it will give you a useful second income that will cushion you in case of trouble at work.

Telecommuting is also light on your wallet. You won’t need a car except for household needs. And with more time to plan, you’ll use your car more efficiently.

Becoming free of your car will free you up in other ways. Instead of making several trips to the grocery store in a week, you might go once in two months and buy in bulk at a discount. You could then put the saved money and time to better use.

You could grow your own food at home. Which means you’ll save even more. Suddenly, you’re eating better, having more time, more fun, and less stress. Now you have what developmental economists call food security. You’re feeding your own little population at home. You don’t depend on imports. You may even be able to export a bit. You can’t be threatened or bought by anyone. Whatever else it can do, the government can’t tax your home-grown peppers.

Meanwhile, you’ve also got a fascinating hobby.

Gardening is just a start. Try other ways of getting off the market economy. Exchange services or barter things to meet your needs. Give away that old guitar you never played and get something you need in exchange. You can look up craigslist in any city in America for people offering services or selling things. I recently found a work-out machine that would retail for a $1000 for about $200 that way. Another idea. Instead of booking expensive hotels when you travel, try exchanging houses with someone who wants to come here to visit. For people on tight budgets, try couchsurfing, a network which gets you a room or a couch in someone’s home. Although I’ve never tried it myself, it looks like a great way to meet people. Again, the government can’t tax it.

5. Recycle and reuse. Spending more time at home should make you acutely aware of the dozens of ways your house is draining you of your money and energy. Bad insulation, leaky pipes, and poor telephone connections all end up costing you. For minor problems, get a hammer, a screw-driver, and a how-to guide, and try fixing them. Don’t expect to produce a professional job. And don’t be too proud to give up and call a professional if you think you’re making the problem worse. Research and fit your house with fluorescent bulbs that use 75 percent less energy and last about 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Use recycled water for your garden and pay less, but make sure you understand what’s in the recycled water, or you might hurt your plants. Use dual flush toilets that can save you thousands of gallons of water.

Reducing water usage is not only thrifty it’s good ecological practice and has a direct impact on energy consumption. A large chunk of energy is spent pumping and heating water.

Start storing things. Use solar panels to store natural energy from the sun. Store water in tanks so you don’t run short in a drought. Store organic seeds. Store computer parts and electronic goods. Store anything you think you need which might go up drastically in price.

A quick recap now:

  • Live healthily
  • Grow your own food
  • Drive less
  • Make your job portable
  • Barter
  • Exchange services
  • Recycle/reuse
  • Store

You might have noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned financial independence, which is where most people start.

The reason I didn’t is that people rarely want just money. They say they do, but in practice they usually want something else — security, or admiration, or power, or status, or love. Money is simply a stand-in for those things. Investment gurus have built far-flung empires on this simple observation.

If that’s so, then the way to financial independence isn’t to think about money at all. At least, it’s not where you start.

Instead, think about what it is you’ve always craved — the glamorous neighborhood, the extravagant car, the high-status job, the high-status lifestyle. Learn to take them or leave them.

The way to financial independence?

Don’t worry about how little or how much money you make. First become independent of all those other things you think you can’t live without.

Lila Rajiva [send her mail] is the author of the ground-breaking study, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (MR Press, 2005), and the co-author with Bill Bonner of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007). Visit her blog.

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