Living Off the Grid vs. in Town

Green Acres

Carbon Footprint. Peak Oil. Energy Independence. All of these are different ways to talk about how fossil fuels are a finite resource and supplies are running out, quickly*. Given that crude oil, dirty coal and natural (methane) gas reserves are at, or near, peak production how will you prepare for short supplies and high prices? In other words - Do you move off the grid or stick it out in town? Doug Fine has staked his claim on the Funky Butte Ranch in the backwoods of southwestern New Mexico while I'm here in suburban Santa Fe, NM. Is living off the grid the answer or is a sustainable life easier in town?

Doug Fine, journalist and author of 'Farewell My Subaru', has jumped in headfirst to a rural, low-carbon life. I am taking slower steps towards fossil fuel freedom in the middle of suburbia. Here's a quick comparison between our two lifestyles. Doug and his family live on a solar-powered, 41-acre ranch with goats, ducks and chickens and drives to and from town in a veggie oil-fueled diesel truck. My wife and I live in an 'on-the-grid', ranch-style house on a 0.15 acre lot with two honeybee hives and I ride my bike around 'the big city'. Doug farms and I garden while we both try to buy as much local food as possible either directly or via a CSA.

Is either way better? In short, I think it's a wash. Doug has the advantages of rural life with acres of open space, peace and quiet, balanced against the hassle of driving 28 miles each way to the store. I have a 10 minute walk to the store and I can bike to any point in town in 25 minutes or less (though I still occasionally drive a car). But, I have the noise, traffic and usual hassles of 'city life'. Doug probably has a smaller carbon footprint than I do, IF you discount his travel. Give me some time though, I'm working on more ways to significantly reduce my fossil fuel use.

Toby Hemenway, author of 'Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture' put in his vote for living in town. In 'Urban vs. Rural Sustainability' Mr. Hemenway makes the case that 'that urbanites have a smaller ecological footprint per capita (than modern rural Americans)'. With higher population density comes shorter travel distances and more efficient use of roads and utilities. The greatest shortcoming of urban/suburban living is our ability to grow food. But, this problem can be solved with intensive home and community gardens.

So, are you moving off the grid to live as a rugged individual or will you stick it out in town with your interdependent neighbors?

* In an interview with The Independent, Dr Birol (the chief economist at the International Energy Agency) said that "...the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated. ... The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong."

More Info: - Warning: Oil supplies are running out fast - Doug Fine: On My Ranch, Ready for the Great American Meltdown - Dispatches From The Funky Butte Ranch

Lannan Foundation - Lester Brown with Doug Fine

Urban vs. Rural Sustainability by Toby Hemenway - Toby Hemenway


Balancing Act

Under ideal urban conditions (which much of Santa Fe lacks, to say the least) it is possible not to own a motorized vehicle. Bicycles, feet, rollerblades, ... and buses--sometimes light rail--make getting around doable.

Few rural folk can get along without the private auto -- but some rural ecovillages have car co-ops,
and activley encourage and develop local economic opportunities for dropping out of Commute World.

Myself... I'd prefer to live in a full-on rural ecovillage. Or an urban one, crafted out of a neighborhhood perhaps. I'd also enjoy a rural homestead, but I really don't want to depend on fossil fuels -- and that can be tough in all kinds of ways.

But here I am in the city (Santa Fe), and it isn't so bad. I'd rather have more gardening space, and less exhuast fumes, and less non-natural noise. But wherever we are is the right place for us at the moment; and anywhere's a good place to engage in greening the world. And now SF has a growing Community Garden movement! And yard sharing is possible, etc.... And homeowners can do much to green their houses-- e.g., solar thermal, greywater, rainwater catchment, urban permaculture....

Too bad the people (on average) in the freaking cars aren't looking out for bicyclists and pedestrians in this town! Eeek! Careful out there, my green friends.

[P.S., I'm wishing to share my blog space, making it a group blog. Any takers? Also, I'm willing to contribute on other sites and blogs. I'm a better writer than is apparent at the moment, but I've been skipping the polish process for now, and need a good copyeditor/proofreader.]

jrivermartin [at] gmail [dot] com

Food For Thought -