Chris Farley portrayed Matt Foley on Saturday Night Live in the early ’90s. Foley was a “motivational speaker.” His way of motivating the youngsters he spoke to was telling them that they were going to amount to jack squat and end up “rolling doobies” and “living in a van down by the river.” I couldn’t help but think of Matt Foley as I read Nick Rosen’s book, Off the Grid. This is not to say that the book is as silly as an SNL skit. It simply made me ask the question: is there still a stigma, a “you’re-a-whacko” stigma, attached to off-gridders?
Rosen explores the lives of those who are eschewing the modern conveniences so many of us are accustomed to: electricity, air conditioning, trips to the mall for totally unnecessary items, sewers, some of which Scott Huler wrote about in his recent book. Rose traveled the United States to meet people and groups who have chosen this off the grid life and tells us their story, usually with a witty apprehension, a vague respect and an underlying sarcasm. He wouldn’t mind being an off-gridder, part time.
Why are some pursuing this lifestyle? During an economic crisis, which we are still grappling with, people begin re-thinking consumerism. Part of consumerism is our connection to the all-powerful grid. Is there a way to survive without paying for electricity, gas, water, etc.? People did it for thousands of years, right? Sometimes the idea of not having a utility bill of some type appeals to me — especially when utilities want to hike their rates. If it’s not the utilities the city government, like that of Kingman, AZ in which I live, increase their costs.
But there’s a deeper reason for the current trend of seeking an off grid life, a reason tied to our essence, not our budget. Rosen indicates this early in his book and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by stating some of it here. He implicates the marketing world on page six, and rightly so:
… marketers pushed ‘ideal lifestyle’ scenarios that included fridges and washing machines and electric gadgets of all kinds … dependence on the grid became a fact of life in America.
I certainly can’t deny the truth of that. Advertisers continue to foist gadgets and dependency upon us. Just today the desire for an iPad was engendered within me. Well, maybe that’s not completely detrimental to the environment, but at some point I would have to connect it to the grid to recharge it. Anyway, the point is that dependence is still encouraged.
In addition to rebelling against this American dream there’s a desire to fulfill the off the grid dream. Rosen puts it as such on page 12:
What I am interested in becoming part of is a society or group that has turned away from the hyper-consumption of the past 30 years, the pointless acquisitions, the hopeless materialism, and the obsession with celebrity trivia.
I love that he throws that anti-celebrity barb in there. Aside from that he does begin to paint a vision of independent, self-sufficient, establishment-defying people living the way we really should — on our own and part of a small community. It sounds right. There is another side to that vision, though. The losers, the oppressed, the beaten, escaping to a grimy life without access to water and electricity. And growing pot. And sleeping in their cars. Yes (just as Matt Foley prophesied, oddly enought), there is a post-consumerist generation maturing by sleeping in cars and building tee-pees on college campuses. I’m not making that up and I don’t think Nick Rosen is either.
Rosen breaks up the off-gridders he visited into about four categories. Almost all the categories Rosen speaks of share a common feeling — the need for escape and disconnect. That alone speaks more than volumes about the culture we live in. To be sure, the first half of the book drags but manages to keep you intrigued. He inserts a little too much exposition. But stick with the book and the stories pays off. There is a message in the lives of those off the grid. You’ll have to figure out what that is.