What We Can Learn About Sustainability from People Living Off Grid

I recently watched a very interesting documentary called Life Off Grid that looked at all aspects of living off of the grid: what drives people to live without the convenience of utilities that the vast majority of us take for granted such as power, water and sewers, and what does life look like for these families? If you’re curious to learn more about the various ways that people off grid build their homes, generate power, access water, deal with waste water and human waste, grow and cook foods, and entertain themselves, this is the documentary for you.

I am absolutely fascinated by people who chose to take the path less traveled, who forge a path that is authentic to them in spite of it being highly unpopular or misunderstood by the rest of society. I think that even if alternative lifestyles like living off grid are not for you, that there are important lessons to be learned from them. People who chose to live fully off grid are incredibly self-sufficient, powering their own homes, providing their own water, managing their own waste, and have to be incredibly mindful and pay attention to a lot of little details that the rest of us have the luxury of ignoring in daily life.

I personally cannot see myself living off grid, because I am drawn to things that come with living in a densely populated area like public transit and hanging out in coffee shops, yet there are some key lessons around sustainability that I took away from the documentary that could be applied to help those of us living on grid lead a more sustainable life:

  1. Pay careful attention to your energy usage. People living off grid are completely responsible for powering their homes. They use many different methods to generate power (usually a combination of wind, solar or in one example, hydroelectric) but a common theme is that they do not have an abundance of power and their eye is constantly looking at how much they are using versus what they are generating.
  2. Design your homes around fuel efficiency. If you have limited electricity and limited supplies of fossil fuel sources like natural gas, it is imperative to design your home intelligently to live as comfortably as possible. Ensure your house is well insulated so that it stays warm in winter and cool in summer. Consider using a water heater that heats on demand rather than using energy to always keep water hot.
  3. Wash your clothes less frequently. Water is not as abundant living off grid and so people cannot wash their clothes as often. Break your habit of automatically tossing your clothes in the hamper at the end of the day; fold and put away clothes that are clean, and wash those that are dirty. Buy wool over cotton or polyester to avoid getting stinky after a single wear; you may find you can go a few days before your wool shirt starts to smell.
  4. Buy food in bulk and learn to preserve fruits and vegetables. When you live off grid, you typically don’t have a grocery store right next door and it becomes important to stock up on foods. Many people living off grid grow some of their own food, preserving anything they cannot eat now for winter to ensure they have food to eat all-year long. This reduces food waste, a major emitter of greenhouse gasses. They also buy in bulk large quantities of things they cannot grow, which reduces packaging waste (and saves money)!
  5. Reduce how much trash you generate. People living off grid typically lack municipal garbage services and thus have to deal with disposing of waste on their own. Imagine if you did not have a garbage truck coming weekly; you would likely change what you buy and how you buy it, or face the consequences of a massive trash pile in your yard. Zero waste blogs have lots of tips on how to do reduce the trash you generate down; check out Zero Waste Home, Zero Waste Nerd and Going Zero Waste for excellent tips.
  6. Compost. Since you’re managing your own waste, composting food scraps (and potentially human waste from your composting toilet) becomes imperative to turn your waste into useful soil that can be used to grow more food in the future. Composting reduces greenhouse gases (compared to sending your trash to the dump where it can take an absurdly long time to break down due to a lack of oxygen – read more here).
  7. Take shorter showers. It takes a lot of energy to heat water for a shower. When living off grid, both energy and water are both in short supply, if you want to take a hot shower, it is going to be a quick one unless you want to give up other things later in the day. Off grid living is a constant battle of immediate trade offs due to a limited supply of resources; do you use the energy for a hot shower or to power your TV? On grid living is technically also a battle of trade offs with limited resources, but the trade offs are felt less immediately and typically involve higher utility bills in exchange for longer showers, meaning less money to use elsewhere.

We can’t all live off grid, there simply isn’t enough land for everyone to have their own homestead and few of us are truly cut out for it, but we can bring some of the the mindfulness that off grid living requires to our daily lives and live more sustainably on grid.

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