When we were younger, my wife and I aspired to live ďoff the grid.Ē In those days the phrase meant a non-polluting house disconnected from power, water, and sewer lines, with its own independent and sustainable means of producing electricity and water.
It took decades, but we eventually achieved our goal, just not in the way we had imagined. We moved aboard a sailboat, and for most of two years we were either underway or at anchor somewhere. Our electricity came mostly from the sun. Our water came from the sea, desalinated at the rate of three gallons an hour. When the winds were right we could travel without burning any fuel, but even under power the boat consumed only about a half gallon of diesel an hour.
Now we are back ashore and plugged back into the civilization, living in a modern house with a two car garage. It is not always a happy feeling.
Living in a house is, well, boring. Everything is just too easy. Thereís a huge refrigerator that holds too much food, a dishwasher to handle the aftermath of the multi-course meals Annie cooks on a gigantic stove. The washer and drier do the laundry while we're off doing something else. There are electric outlets spaced every ten feet along every wall. And when it rains outside or the temperature drops thirty degrees, we don't even notice inside our insulated cocoon.
We've connected back to the power grid, but we've disconnected from the world.
Americans live in houses with big yards, porches and decks, but drive down any suburban street and those spaces are deserted, the occupants bunkered down inside in front of the television or computer. If weíre found outside, itís likely weíre walking across a parking lot. How often, here on land, will we spend some time just gazing up at a starlit sky? How many weeks or months will go by without us seeing a sunset? We used to watch the sunset every night, sometimes even blowing a conch horn to mark the moment that orange ball went down.
Every time I take a shower in our new home, Iím amazed by the warm water that flows endlessly from the spigot. I could never take a shower on the boat without thinking about the water levels dropping in our tanks, the battery power being used to pump the water, the grey water running out into the harbor. On the boat, electricity, food, and water were always limited and therefore more precious. You donít turn on a light or a faucet on for a moment longer than needed. On a small boat you try to minimize waste because you honestly don't have a choice. Youíre very much aware of how much garbage you produce simply because you may carry it around with you for days or weeks looking for a proper place to dispose of it. On inland waters, where pump-outs are all too rare, the holding tank is a constant concern. Every time you use the head, you know there is a price to pay.
Maybe thatís the trouble with living ashore. Thereís still a price to pay, but we donít see it.
We can argue about global warming, our dependence on oil, pollution and extinctions past and future, but perhaps the root of our problem is that most Americans are no longer connected to the natural world. We work hard, but at the wrong things, and in doing so weíve made life too easy for ourselves. Water, food, and power seem to flow so effortlessly and endlessly that we see no need to conserve them, when in fact they are just as precious and hard-fought as they ever were.
For all our conveniences and ease of living, has the quality of life in America honestly improved? Are we happier? Are we better people? Or are we just busy working a few more hours to pay for all our leisure?
Iíve always thought that if everyone had to slaughter our own meat, there would be a lot more vegetarians. Itís a useless thought, but if everyone lived on a small sailboat, we might focus more on living responsibly instead of just living easily.
Title Photo: This "Katrina Cottage" in Waveland, Mississippi is temporary
housing for victims of the 2005 hurricane, but maybe a house of this size would be a good idea for all of us.