Life unplugged

Mary MacKay
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British Columbia researcher is travelling the country to get a first-hand look at what life is like off the grid

Phillip Vannini, left, professor and Canada Research Chair in public ethnography at the school of communication and culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., speaks with Jim Bertling at Pioneer Farm in Glenwood.

What is life unplugged from typical power and heat sources like?

This is exactly what one British Columbia researcher hopes to find out as he travels the country interviewing people who live off the grid.

And Phillip Vannini, professor and Canada Research Chair in public ethnography at the school of communication and culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., was on Prince Edward Island recently to add three more examples of off-the-grid living to his five-year research project.

“Contrary to what most people think, people who live off the grid are not hermits. They want to be found,” he says.

“You would be surprised how many have blogs or websites or have spent time with journalists discussing their lifestyle. It’s because they want to education others. A lot of them view their lifestyle as an experiment that others can learn from.”

Curiosity was the catalyst behind Vannini’s interest in this lengthy research project.

When he moved to the small island in B.C. he was immediately struck by the need for water conservation because of its finite nature there.

“I suddenly realized how important water is and how precious this resource was, which I had taken for granted all my life. So I thought if this is the case for water what about all the other resources that we use on a daily basis that we have no consciousness of how much we consume,” he says.

“So that was what (piqued) my curiosity. I asked myself what would it be like to live off the grid and be self-sufficient for all these resources . . . ?”

Vannini was also intrigued by broader social, political, cultural and environmental question: if several of the resources that Canadians rely on are destined to run out or will become increasingly most costly, if the dependent on renewable energy increases how will people adjust to the change in lifestyle that may accompany that?

And so he decided to take stock of the people who are already living this way — exclusively or almost exclusively on renewable resources — and see what it’s like to live like that.

“It turns out they’re having a pretty good time,” he laughs.

For his study, Vannini is focusing on people who are self-sufficient for electricity and heat although many were also self-sufficient for things like water, in that they had their own wells, and sewage disposal and more.

While on P.E.I. he interviewed three different off-gridders, including Jim and Judy Bertling on Pioneer Farm in Glenwood in West Prince and Terry and Dianne Brennan in Launching.

Vannini says off-gridders in Canada are typically middle-class, highly educated individuals who are environmentally aware and are socially and politically conscious of the role that energy plays in everyday life.

“So we have very, very remarkably educated conversations about the future of the planet with people who are living the future of the plant. And also people who have regular jobs and have regular salaries and nice homes too.”

The study focuses on the everyday life aspects of off-the-grid living.

“We ask for a tour of their place and we try to understand how things work. How they refrigerate their food? How they make phone calls if they do? How they heat or cool their homes? How they cook. How often do they have hot water? Do they have to wait for a sunny day to bathe? Those kinds of things. We really try to get at their everyday life . . . ,” Vannini says.

“People will (often) wait until they have more power available to do certain things so it makes their lifestyle very different.”

To date, Vannini has interviewed more than 150 subjects across Canada.

“There are mild inconveniences. We ask all the time ‘Are you sacrificing on comfort?’ and no one really sacrifices on comfort. We’ve seen very comfortable homes. But each and every one of us has different thresholds for comfort,” Vannini says.

“Chopping wood is something that most people would see an inconvenient. It takes time. It takes effort. You’ve got to go out in the cold at times. But they say oh, it’s better than going to the gym. So it’s really a lifestyle adjustment. It’s a way of looking at your life differently and that way it’s not inconvenient anymore.”

Vannini has been sharing his what he has learned to date though media interviews and magazine articles and is planning to publish a book when the research is complete.

“(I hope) to show that with a little bit of ingenuity and a little bit of resilience and a little bit of adjustment we can live using renewables a lot more than we do now,” he says,

“If there is one positive message that we hope to spread it’s that — that the future is not scary if you do something about it.”

Organizations: School of Communication and Culture, Royal Roads University

Geographic location: British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Victoria B.C. Canada West Prince

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Recent comments

  • Wallace Cameron
    June 11, 2012 - 16:54

    OFF THE GRID, obviously you did not read the story or if you did your lips got tired half way through and you stopped reading. Living off the grid does not mean you have to give up all modern things like the automobile. Wikipedia explains living off the grid this way - Off-the-grid homes are autonomous; they do not rely on municipal water supply, sewer, natural gas, electrical power grid, or similar utility services. A true off-grid house is able to operate completely independently of all traditional public utility services. There are also various reasons for going off the grid and not all are to save the environment.

  • off the grid
    June 11, 2012 - 16:26

    I see two vehicles. One is from the researcher, the other is owned by????