by Dan Neil
LA TIMES MAGAZINE, September 23,2005
Don’t mean to alarm you, but the world is going to end soon. Maybe not the world, per se, just civilization as we know it. When it comes to such predictions, it never pays to be too specific, as any number of red-faced eschatologists will tell you. But something is coming, and I’m not the only one who feels it. The whole nation seems restless, stamping its feet like a herd of antelope, sniffing the wind, which carries the dolorous scent of New Orleans.
One of the reverberations of Hurricane Katrina is the sense, widely felt if not quite articulated, that the “grid”—the infrastructures of power, water, communications, police, sanitation and fire services, the tangible usefulness of the social contract—can no longer be trusted. How strange it is now to feel curiosity when I throw a light switch. Will it work?
This is actually a healthy, fact-based apprehension. As a technical matter, America’s electrical infrastructure, relying on millions of miles of transmission lines, has the tangled inefficiency of Christmas tree wiring.While the Gulf Coast was still trying to string up its power lines, a blackout hit L.A., snarling traffic and crashing computers from Burbank to the sea.
The same week, the New York Times ran a story about the sunny investment forecast for solar panels, the flat hats of 1970s enlightened architecture. Business is booming. Since the storm there has been a noticeable up-tick in the number of stories about energy independent homesteading, greenhouse gardening, home water purification, and composting.
A TV ad for Direcway satellite Internet service slyly suggests customers will be able to surf the net no matter what. Do they know something we don’t know?Even before Katrina there had been a surging interest in off-the-grid living. A recent episode of “30 Days,” Morgan Spurlock’s TV series modeled on his “Supersize Me” documentary, has Spurlock attempting to spend a month without the benefit of Edison. Producers for PBS put together two shows featuring primitive communal living, “Frontier House” and “Colonial House,” both of which play like “The Real World” in leather breeches.Dwell magazine—a progressive architecture and sustainable-living version of Vogue—has all sorts of ideas for people with a million dollars or so to establish their own solar-power city-states in Humboldt County, safe from the grid’s vagaries. Far from rejecting materialism, the Dwell mind-set suggests hauling it into the woods to your glass-walled Miesian redoubt. Of course, this means not everyone will be able to reach the off-the-grid lifeboat.
Emotionally, if not literally, people are running for the hills. And I’m way ahead of them. In the summer of 1982, even as I was trying to find a job in New York City, I was reading the Foxfire book series, popular primers of Appalachian craft and folklife. As the traffic bleated below my window, I could imagine no finer life than sitting in a Red Oak rocking chair playing my homemade dulcimer. Somewhere in my papers are drawings of my dream house, roofed with solar panels and flanked with twin turbines. There’s a barn and a greenhouse and rain cistern.
When I described to my wife how it would be her job to mill whatever grain we grow, she looked at me as if I had an owl on my head.The Foxfire books, Mother Jones Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalogs were all products of ’60s-era neo-agrarianism, a rustic cool that inspired many to move out into the country in search of a simpler, less toxic existence, a la Walden’s Pond. These publications—once printed on dingy recycled paper but now reborn in sterile cyberspace—were devoted to the practical aspects of living off the grid, though the phrase was unknown at the time.
Except for their hippie Weltschmerz, they had a lot in common with the back pages of Popular Mechanics, where ads for wood stoves, maple taps and home-canning supplies appealed to do-it-yourself—which is to say, cheap—dads.The Aquarian ruralists were idealistic but inept—think of the starving, clueless commune members portrayed in “Easy Rider.” It turns out the grid had some advantages after all. The corporate oligarchy was evil, but on the other hand, there was indoor plumbing and phone service. One by one they came back to the city, dragging their children, Sky and Meadowlark, with them.But the difference between the back-to-the-earth movement of the ’60s and the off-the-grid ethos of today is about more than style. In the ’60s, barefoot progressives wanted to reject the System.
Today we’re bracing ourselves for the day when the System disappears.