ESSAY / LIVING OFF THE GRID
In light of the current dismantling the Environmental Protection Act, I could not help but think that at a time like this, we must all continue to do our part to protect our Mother (Earth). Eight years ago my husband and I built a surf cabin in Panama. The house is completely off the grid, and we spend as much time there as we can. This experience connects us to our environment, and has made me aware of how much less I can exist with, if I make an effort. Below is a Q and A that was published in Kinfolk Home regarding our efforts in our family to reduce our impact. I went back to reread this essay of sorts, and felt that the time was right to share it. I am going to make an effort to do even more as a citizen of this beautiful planet. Enjoy.
1. What are some small steps that people can take to convert their home into a more sustainable one?
The first step in making your home more sustainable is making your lifestyle more sustainable. Pick the low hanging fruit! Turn off the lights. Take a shorter shower. Set the thermostat to a more reasonable level. Once you have done all of those things, here are some other things you can do next.
I am reticent to recommend buying a bunch of new stuff in order to be more green. I am more of the mindset of, "keep it running, make repairs, replace as little as possible." However, when you eventually have to replace something, spring for something that is as efficient as possible. For example, buy a nice washing machine that doesn't use a ton of water, and then take great care of it. Wash full loads so you don't waste too much water. Buy LED lightbulbs. Replace your commode with a low water model and let that yellow mellow.
If you live in the cold, insulate your house really well! Spray on insulations works great to seal all of those little air leaks. Design for passive heating. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, make sure you have lots of south facing, double paned windows. They will let in the solar radiation, where it will be converted to heat on your floor and furniture, and that heat will stay in. My parent's house in Illinois gets so warm on a 20 degree sunny day that we have to crack the windows. Plant deciduous trees that will shade your home in the summer and let the light in in the winter. Nature is your accomplice. If you live where it is warm, design your space with cross breeze and shade in mind.
you have addressed all of your energy and water sucking devices, and have moderated your lifestyle, you can think about the big ticket items; solar power, grey water recycling, and rainwater collection. Solar power systems are amazing, but they need to be sized correctly and designed thoughtfully. Start with solar hot water heating panels, as they get you a lot more bang for your buck compared to photovoltaic cells. Once your hot water has been addressed, you can start to dabble in photovoltaic electricity. Again, cut your consumption first, and then you can get away with a much smaller array and battery bank (if you are off the grid).
Water is the big issue for us at the moment, living in Los Angeles. Here is part of the solution. Plumb your house so that grey water from your sinks, showers, and tub flows out into the garden via drip lines. This is pretty simple to do, and is legal in most places. Rainwater collection is quite easy as well. If you plan to use the water for irrigation, just hook your gutters up to a cistern and voila. If you plan to drink the water you collect, that makes thing slightly more complicated, but an on demand pressure pump and good water filtration system will do the trick. We drink unfiltered water in Panama, but I wouldn't want to to that here given the toxins in the air and on the roof.
2. What are some misconceptions that people have about sustainability and sustainable living, both in the home and how they go about their lives?
I think that people are confused about what it means to "go green." It does not mean rush out and buy a bunch of new stuff while you throw out your perfectly good stuff. That just leads to the production of more things, which in my opinion is the opposite of sustainable. We live in a disposable culture, where planned obsolescence is not even given a second thought. Sustainability to me means get great things, care for them well, and keep them in use for as long as possible. It means consume less; fewer clothes, fewer gadgets, fewer new cars, fewer processed foods. Sustainability is a lifestyle choice more than anything else.
3. What are some common mistakes people make when trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle or build a more sustainable home?
One common mistake that people make is throwing money at a problem in order to be more "sustainable." Yes, you may be able to buy a giant photovoltaic system to meet all of your power needs without cutting back on anything. But remember, those solar components don't come out of thin air, and they don't last forever. Bigger system = bigger waste. Scale it back first, and then look to technology for solving your remaining problems.
4. What have been the more challenging or difficult parts of adopting a sustainable lifestyle in your home, work and general life?
We are rarely challenged by the choices that we have made. Sure, when it rains for two weeks straight in Panama, the humidity is 100% and you can't sleep without a fan running, you may have to make some cuts. Perhaps you forego a computer charging and do without internet for the night. More time to read. For the most part, living more sustainably only enhances our lifestyle and rarely inhibits it. It provides us with a lot of pride and keeps us closely connected to our surroundings. That has real value that should not be overlooked. In any analysis of choices that you plan to make, don't forget to place value on a clean environment, and a slow, freedom-filled lifestyle. Freedom is wealth.
5. Why has it been important for you to incorporate sustainability into your Panama home and into your lifestyle in general? Why, in your opinion, is it so important for other people to adopt as sustainable of a lifestyle as possible?
In Panama, there is no other choice but to live sustainably. There are not water or sewer lines available where our home is, and even if there were, the water is contaminated and cannot be consumed without making you sick. There are no power lines available either, and the power lines that are available elsewhere are powered by a diesel generating plant, which is not the cleanest energy source. That being said, the point of spending time in Panama is to connect as closely as possible with nature, be that out in the surf, or at home on the deck with the birds and sloths. Running water and electricity are essential to living comfortably in the jungle, so we simply looked for the best available technologies and used them in our home. They work flawlessly, and the feeling we get from living off of nature's bounty is unbeatable.
As for the greater importance of leading a sustainable lifestyle...well, hopefully more people realize the importance already. We are extremely fortunate to be on the only known planet that supports life, at a time when the conditions are just right for our crazy species to flourish. In an infinitely large universe, possibly set among in an infinite multi-verse, the odds of being here are astronomically small. However, it won't last forever. Whether we humans destroy the planet's life support systems with the positive feedback loops that we have set into motion, or whether the earth is hit my a giant meterorite and we all die instantly, we are still obligated to do our best to minimize our harm to the Earth. Take a look around and see the ways that we have already changed the planet. We are like a global ant colony, changing the Earth at an alarming rate. We cannot stop the eventual extinction of humanity, but we should at least try to slow it down. We are a part of this global system, not apart from it. Trees have a right to exist, squirrels have a right to exist, fish have a right to exist, and so do humans. Let's do a better job of looking out for each other, and perhaps we can manage to extend our species' time on this beautiful blue planet.