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January 26, 2021

Planet Watch: Living off grid and accepting nature’s limits

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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).

Human activities have led to four out of nine of these planetary boundaries already being crossed.
Image Bela Geletneky – Pixabay

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.

Cartoon by Stuart McMillen.

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.

The Earth is on track for its hottest year. (file pic)

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. Photo supplied.


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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  1. Rather than ‘off-grid’, we should be developing a network of smaller community-scale renewable energy micro-grids. Design these to power a water cycle micro-grid, which in turn can irrigate a regenerative agricultural system. Integrate these food, water amd energy systems with a live and work hub and a small fleet of shared electric vehicles and you have a comprehensive system-based village, with basic necessities provided at zero marginal cost.
    The transition to a distributed network of these Circular Economy Villages offers the necessary shift from centralised to distributed political economy, from an extractive to a regenerative attitude and from linear to circular economy. Circular Economy Villages are thermodynamically stable, steady-state systems.

    • Barrow, Barrow, Barrow, again you show your Denial. But then again purposely choosing NOT to acknowledge The Science is the bulwark position of Deniers like yourself. There is a difference between one day’s weather and climate but of course to cherry pick one day is all that Deniers have got to grab hold of, yes. The IPCC has said many a time, that the consequence of global warming and climate change is extreme weather events will become more extreme ( which we are already seeing and living with ) and that global warming does not mean ‘cold weather events’ vanish overnight, just that those ‘cold weather events’ will become less and less frequent as increased global warming impacts the climate. The Arctic, still snows quite a bit and it still cold there as well. The changes in The Arctic should finally be the alarm for you to wake up. But then you being a keen hunter of information already knew all that, you know about ‘weather’ and ‘climate’, it just that you choose to ignore and pretend it all just not happening. Barrow old son, Denial does not make any of it go away.

      • Joachim if anyone is in denial its YOU !
        You just dont get it do you ? Cannot even provide
        Me ,or this useless byron shire Council
        A example of the declaration of the Climate emergency.. look up the Meaning of the word
        Joachim Emergency??? Your Greens the whole
        9% and of course the indoctrinated few from the
        Labor party are the only ones that believe in this
        Global Warming hysteria !! The Majority just laugh
        At people like you Joachim, really do feel sorry for
        Your obsession with this Nonsense.. the World is getting Greener , if anything we are about to ramp up into a iceage !! Not one Scientist in the past fifty years has had a prediction come true Joachim!!
        Including the Stupid Tim Flannery !! Absolute embarrassment not only to himself but scientists
        In general… okay Expert Joachim predictions
        Come on give us one for the Future? And by the way even the Article writer here or Flannery, or the
        IPCC , or the UN , the ABC , the Guardian can explain the Roman Warm period.. oh maybe you can Joachim ? You love to talk the talk Joachim
        Now walk the walk..with some Answers.?? .

  2. Living off bananas can teach an individual about living within the limits of their immediate environment and how to climb trees.

  3. Barrow, stop yapping at Joachim just because
    she does not agree with you. Flannery’s no
    fool – he’s doing his bit quite sensibly along
    with others. As for the ‘EMERGENCY’ word it
    is exactly what the Oxford dictionary says it is.
    The bloody planet is in dire straits. Society
    needs to change its greed & control & get on
    with living. Emily’s got it. Go eat a banana &
    learn to live within your limits – that way the
    planet’s got a chance of survival.


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