Could You Live Off the Grid?

Editor’s note: This post was written by Conservancy ecologist Randy Swaty with help from Jeannie Patton.

This summer, my two boys and I spent a few days with a couple living off the grid in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 17 miles from the nearest paved road. Victor and Claudia build canoes by hand for museum collections, using local cedar for ribs, birch-bark for the covering and a mix of spruce pitch, charcoal and bear fat to seal the seams. The boats are lashed together with spruce roots. Except for cutting the cedar, they use four tools in the whole process.

Victor kindly volunteered to help us build our own canoe. It has an ash frame lashed with artificial sinew that is then covered with “space-age textiles,” as Victor put it (it’s Dacron®). The ash is in danger due to the exotic emerald ash borer. I have no idea how many tools went into making the half dozen or so materials that we have used while just building the frame.

Other than building canoes, Victor and Claudia spend most of their time thinking about how to get what they need to survive. They mostly eat food they can grow, salvage from dumpsters or trap, and they heat their small log cabin exclusively with wood. Their way of life looked to be about as earth-friendly as it gets. At our first meeting, Victor greeted us with a shotgun nestled in his arm and served venison stew for lunch (woodchuck was on the menu for dinner).

All of this made me wonder: could my family and I follow Victor and Claudia’s example, living close to the bone and to the earth, using as few natural resources as possible? What would be the consequences in terms of health, energy expenditure and general well-being?

I started by calculating my family’s carbon footprint. Nursing a cup of Guatemalan coffee (made with water heated by propane) I fired up my computer, clicked on The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator and entered my best guesses regarding the family’s carbon output.

The results indicated that we emit 65 tons of carbon annually, or roughly half of that of the average family of four in the U.S. I, alone, contribute almost half of our family’s carbon emissions. My personal tally is 27 tons annually, with 10 of them coming from work-related plane flights. Therefore, almost a third of my carbon emissions are due to travel for my job.

Next I wanted to calculate Victor and Claudia’s carbon footprint. This was a bit trickier, because many of the questions were designed for an “average” household and didn’t apply to Victor and Claudia. For instance, “Do you use energy star appliances?” Well, they have no appliances, which was not an available answer. “What have you done to change the impact of your food and diet?” Shooting and dressing one’s own meat certainly wasn’t among the choices.

Then there’s the question, “How many meals include meat?” Generally speaking, the more meat one eats the more carbon is emitted thanks to an agricultural system that prompts dependency on factory farm-raised products. Since Victor and Claudia eat only wild-caught meat, I chose “never” for the answer, assuming that wild-caught meat has negligible carbon impacts.

Results of my best guessing: Victor and Claudia emit 37 tons of carbon per year total (53 tons is the U.S. average for a 2-person household), with 18 tons due to occasional flights to Europe to visit Claudia’s family. As a couple they emit 10 tons more than I do alone.

So what could my family do to dial back our carbon footprint? 

I decided to look at one daily activity as a starting point: eating. In a recent New York Times article, Mark Bittman poses thought-provoking questions, including “How can food change my life? And “How can food change the world?”

Like many American households, my small family faces a hugely dysfunctional food system and needs a starting point for change. Bittman suggests that people “fix school lunches. Support a farmer, or start growing your own vegetables. Work for a member of Congress who is committed to making Big Food pay its way. Support fair treatment of workers—and of animals too.”

Living off the grid—7 billion people living off the grid—is impossible, though many do it and not by choice. Killing my own food can’t be done in my neighborhood with my resources. Flying to critical conferences and meetings—a requirement to do my work at The Nature Conservancy—must remain an option.

But I can start with the possible. As Bittman says, however I choose to live and whatever changes I make, I have to begin somewhere. And why not at my table?

Randy Swaty is an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy based in Michigan. His work spans from microbial to landscape ecology. In his spare time he gardens, builds bikes, canoes and has a violin under construction—all with his two boys and wife.

Jeannie Patton is the program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s LANDFIRE project, providing administrative, communications and web support. She is an enthusiastic skier, hiker and river rafter.

(Image: Randy and his son Ry working on their canoe. Source: Randy Swaty/TNC.)

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  1. Interesting article, but there’s a discrepancy in your numbers. You said you personally emit 27 tons, the couple 37 per year, equaling 9 tons less than you? That seems like 10 tons more… maybe you could clarify?

    1. Hi Barbara, Thanks for pointing the math error out. You are right, and we’ve corrected the language in the post.

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