Dr Willow Hallgren
Living off-grid can teach an individual about living within the limits of their immediate environment. Some might call it an ‘alternative’ lifestyle but it can teach us how to live within the constraints of nature – a lesson we need to learn as individuals and as a species. We are well on the way to tipping the Earth beyond its ability to support the myriad lifeforms, including us, that are here.
‘Planetary Boundaries’ refers to the nine Earth System processes that scientists have identified as the limits, or boundaries, which, if transgressed, will push the Earth’s systems into a new, much less hospitable, state. That means more heatwaves, droughts, fires, floods, and death.
The nine planetary boundaries are; climate change, loss of biodiversity and species extinction, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows (e.g. phosphorus and nitrogen cycles), land-system change (e.g. deforestation), freshwater use, the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere, and introduced novel entities (radioactive materials, microplastics etc).
Four boundaries crossed
Professor Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University, led research published in the respected journal Science showing that human activities have led to four out of nine of these planetary boundaries already being crossed. These are climate change, loss of biodiversity, land-system change, and altered phosphorus and nitrogen cycles.
‘Crossing the planetary boundaries produces a great risk that the entire Earth system, the complex interactions between land, oceans, atmosphere, ice sheets, biodiversity and humans, becomes destabilised. Ultimately this can push the Earth system into a new state‘, states Steffen.
‘This would lead to “a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries”.’
Coming from city life, moving to the country and living off a small off-grid power system has given me a different perspective on energy use. I’ve been made aware of the lack of energy efficiency in the majority of modern appliances. Most of us assume there is an endless supply of low cost energy and take it for granted, using and wasting crazy amounts of energy
Living with constraints on the amount of energy that is available every day has taught me to appreciate what it takes to generate it, and how the majority of grid-connected urban dwellers have become so disconnected to the source of, not only energy, but food, fibres, etc. Many have lost all concept of the real value and cost of these things. Being yoked – even to a limited extent (thanks to having a backup generator) – to the proportion of the solar budget that my 3kW of solar panels can capture, has awakened my awareness of this disconnect. With no constraints, energy consumers on the grid are far more likely to use energy without regard to its cost (to the planet) or true value, in terms of what it takes nature to create that energy.
In his wonderful cartoon Energy Slaves, Australian cartoonist Stuart McMillen illustrated Buckminster Fuller’s ideas on how modern industrialised society is propped up by (and shackled to) vast numbers of fossil-fuel powered energy slaves (the human equivalent of horsepower) that assist each of us in our everyday lives.
Cheap energy costs the planet
We are awash with unrealistically cheap and abundant energy here in the industrialised West. People have become accustomed to having as much cheap energy as they can pay for. This cheapness and abundance have led to astonishing levels of waste. We don’t value the energy it takes to power our lives, or our civilisation – because our energy is not priced according to its true value. As Fuller said, the cost of energy in our society is much closer to the extraction cost, not the replacement cost.
Until the impact of COVID-19 clipped our wings, 21st century humans thought nothing of hopping in a winged chunk of metal weighing 50,000 kilograms, for a flight that requires more fossil fuel generated energy than whole continents used during the entire stone age, to travel to the other side of the planet. People popped over for a couple of days for a meeting, a wedding, or a weekend holiday somewhere exotic and instagrammable, or where the snow is good. We continue to do this, even as climate changes are occurring that are predicted to make parts of the planet uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children.
This isn’t a problem of education – many of the most highly educated people think nothing of travelling overseas several times a year, not recognising the burden they are placing on the environment and planet. Often, there is a massive disconnect between what people do, and what they know is environmentally unsound.
Endless growth, a failed economic theory
You don’t need to live off-grid in order to gain an appreciation of the constraints of nature and how wasteful our society and culture has encouraged us to become. However, it is important to try to cultivate an awareness of the energy and water that our immediate surroundings can provide at any given time, and recognise the energy demands, and cost to the environment, of power-hungry tools and appliances. Imagine you could run the washing machine only when it’s sunny, or had to pump water from a creek at the height of a drought? This aspect of off-grid living contains a valuable lesson on the true value of power and water that it is all too easy to take for granted when connected to grid power or mains water.
Many off-grid dwellers have learnt these lessons. But we need to learn them as a species, and quickly. We need an economic theory based around natural constraints, not a fantasy of endless growth and consumption, to underpin our societies, otherwise we will continue to push beyond the critical planetary boundaries to the detriment of humans, civilisation as we know it, and all life on Earth.
Dr Willow Hallgren is an earth-system scientist who studies the impact of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity, the feedbacks between vegetation and the climate, and how policy can influence climate change, by changing how we use the land.
Willow has previously worked as a climate and biodiversity scientist in government, industry, and academic roles in both Australia and the USA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was also previously the Science editor of Monash University’s student newspaper Lot’s Wife.
She is a city escapee of many years now and is currently hiding out among the hill tribes of the beautiful Tweed Valley.
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Living off grid can teach an individual about living within the limits of their immediate environment – a lesson we need to learn as individuals and as a species. We are well on the way to tipping the Earth beyond its ability to support the myriad lifeforms, including us, that are here.