Sunday, 27 May 2007

How to Live Off-grid – Nick Rosen ***

I need to say straight away that I can only give this book a maximum of 3 stars however good I find it, because in all fairness it’s not a popular science book – not even one with a technology slant. But I think the subject will be of interest to Popular Science readers, and as such I’ve allowed it to slip in anyway.
The subtitle rather sums up what the story of this book is – “journeys outside the system.” In part because he owns a very isolated shack in Europe, Nick Rosen got interested in the idea of living off-grid – away from the grids that we generally rely on for support: electricity, gas, water (and in some respects the whole economic system). After a bit of soul searching, he buys himself an old camper van (technically a minibus converted into a camper) and sets off to find those leading an off-grid lifestyle, so he can learn lessons both to impart to the reader and for his own development.
To some extent, then, the “journey” bit is his physical journey in the bus, but it’s also the mental (and some would say spiritual) journey in his changing attitude to disconnecting from the country-wide support system. There are two quite separate things to review here – the content of the book, and Rosen’s position. Rosen proves an engaging storyteller, and really brings the reader into his journey, complete with the small disasters of the “we’ll look back and laugh, but right now there’s nothing funny about it” variety. It’s not at the Bill Bryson hilarity level, but there is some amusement in the account.
The centre chunk of the book, when Rosen is visiting the whole range of off-gridders from purest-green anti-capitalists to traditional farmers to eccentric aristocrats is often also enjoyable, though after a while, it gets a bit samey as he visits yet another yurt (or whatever the next person happens to be living in). Towards the end we get onto his conclusions, and some good, practical advice for those who fancy this kind of lifestyle (though occasionally the advice is a bit too personal, for example, “if you want to do this, then speak to Fred at Windfolly.” I paraphrase, but Fred’s real alter ego surely couldn’t cope with helping every reader of the book.)
So – a good travel guide round an interesting subject and some fascinating insights into the whys and wherefores of off-grid living. What is less comfortable is Rosen’s attitude to the whole thing, which comes across as irrationally romantic. One of the experts he speaks to says “all you do is move from one grid to another,” and given Rosen’s admitted dependence on his mobile phone and the internet, plus gas bottles (themselves forming nothing more than a virtual grid), and so on, there is a kind of feeling of seeing what you want to see. When you read about the complexities of providing your own electricity on a large scale – nothing less than running your own miniature power station – there does seem to be a minefield for all but the most technically ept.
I find this frustrating because I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of the reasoning behind being at least off-grid ready. I do think that there are going to problems with many of the grid-provided “essentials” and sensible people should be making sure they have alternatives to hand, but there seems no need to couple it with some of the trappings of alternative living that seem to pervade the spirit of the enterprise. You just know that Rosen would much rather have a clapped out old van rather than an efficient modern one, because it’s, like, the image man. (He doesn’t write like this, I ought to emphasize). You get the feeling the whole exercise has an element of conformity (if conformity to the anti-establishment mainstream) that is surely the entire opposite to what’s intended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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