Urban life affords much comfort. Electricity and plumbing are utilities that only cross the minds of city dwellers when we run into problems with their functionality.
For the individuals in Jonathan Taggart and Phillip Vannini’s documentary, Life Off Grid, living in a closed-loop system requires a high degree of responsibility when it comes to using what have remained hands-off necessities for the rest of us.
Taggart and Vannini spent the better part of three years travelling to each of Canada's 13 provinces and territories, documenting the lives of Canadians who have disconnected from the rest of the world, opting to live ultra-low consumption lifestyles in areas far away from any semblance of city life.
On British Columbia’s Lasqueti Island, one man’s home runs entirely on solar panels and wind turbines. Outside of Gatineau, Quebec, a woman’s house is built into the hillside, collecting rainwater and reflecting sunlight in such a way that a conventional heating system is not required.
Some cook on wood-burning stoves and can homegrown vegetables, while others have no shame in employing every kitchen appliance on the market. In some cases, outhouses and compost boxes replace flush toilets and garbage cans, and sources of protein are caught instead of bought.
The one commonality is that all of these subjects have found themselves not only better connected to their environments, but more in touch with the day-to-day processes that we too often take for granted.
“If my power goes out, I fix it,” says Karl, a resident of Lasqueti Island, in the film. “The learning curve for somebody moving out of the city to this place is straight up. You’ve got to understand plumbing, you’ve got to understand basic wiring,” he says with conviction.
Vannini, the film's producer, is an ethnographer, author, and professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria. Living on Gabriola Island, he maintains his own water supply and septic tank. It was this set of circumstances that spurred his interest in finding out how other Canadians maintain similar systems, but in more remote locations.
“He felt much more connected to that, to the consuming and eliminating of resources,” says Taggart of Vannini in a telephone interview. “He imagined that people across the country that were doing the same thing would be much more conscious about their energy use to start, but also food and water consumption, and their direct involvement with resources,” Taggart explains.
They set out with the intention of showcasing the lengths that off-the-gridders go to to not only survive, but thrive in harsh environments. The two-man team operated on a shoestring budget, stretching research funding as far as it would go. In a few cases, Taggart and Vannini found themselves using eclectic means of transportation like kayaking, canoeing, or snowshoeing to get to specific locations.
“We stayed with our subjects, because we wanted to experience it; to absorb the lifestyle a little bit, and to have a firsthand experience with those challenges,” says Taggart.
The technologies that people utilized varied from region to region. Most of the residences on Lasqueti Island ran on solar and wind power, with backup generators in place for cold winter months. Some used homemade micro hydro generators, but as they travelled east, reliance on hydro power was less common.
“In places where surface water doesn’t freeze as easily, people can run micro hydro generators year-round. The difference is that the further you go into the interior, you don’t see them being used all the time,” says Taggart. “In Alberta, where there is a lot of sun, we saw a lot of solar use. People would be very proud when they had winters where they didn’t need to use their generators."
Taggart stresses that it's important to recognize that the people in his film are not hermits. "There are all these sort of hippie-in-the-bush connotations to living off the grid, and by and large, that's not what we saw. They're just normal people living in normal homes, who are perhaps a bit more in tune with their energy production."
Sure, says Taggart, their homes are being built to reflect their quirky personas, but more than anything they are reflections of the local climate.
While the differences among homeowners were many—some were wealthy retirees while others had lived off the grid their whole lives—most were unified in their stance that off-grid living, though their personal solution to mortgages, heating bills, and reliance on industry, is not a solution for the masses.
“I’m not climate scientist, but if everybody on the planet was living on 10 forested acres, growing all their own food, tending to their own water supply, and burning wood for heat, it would be too much,” says Taggart. “It takes a certain amount of skill and knowledge that must people don’t have.”
The message of the film lies less in trying to convince viewers that off-grid living is a solution to climate change, and more in encouraging urbanites to adopt more environmentally friendly principles.
“Some of the things we’ve seen people doing, building smaller homes, being conscious with their water and electricity use, it translates to an urban setting in ways that are inherently sustainable,” says Taggart.
“When we’re looking at possible lifestyle solutions, it’s important to present these as things that are realistic. When we see these homes and people living very normal lives, not sacrificing comfort and convenience, solutions like that are a lot more likely to be picked up on a broad scale."
Life Off Grid screens for a third and final show on Sunday (November 29) at 6 p.m.