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Living Off-Grid: The "Quiet Revolution"
Because it is the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement I was recently asked by a member of the press whether people who live off the grid are planning to unite, like in some kind of social movement. My answer was skeptical. I doubt that individualists who take great pleasure in cutting off ties will be keen on building an extensive and cohesive network.
At a time when jumpstarting a mob is as easy as creating a new Facebook group or signing the latest Avaaz petition, any disinterest in political activism might seem just careless, apathetic, and even lazy. But the lack of an "off-gridders of the world" organization seems to me to speak to a completely different sense of involvement and an alternative way of doing politics.
In a society dominated by the logic of light, speed, power and the virtual mobility afforded by connectivity, to be "unplugged" constitutes all but a revolutionary move in itself. But this is a quiet revolution fought by a small minority, not one fought in busy public squares, but one enjoyed in the buzz-free silence of idyllic countrysides.
Our homes -- our grid-connected homes -- are intertwined to one another through extensive lines. These lines connect us together and bind us to governmental, para-governmental, and corporate hubs that provide us with light, heat, power, water, food, and consumer objects. These lines take care of us: they bind us to one another and make our everyday existence rather comfortable and convenient.
But these lines also make us quite dependent on the operation of distant infrastructures whose complex functioning escapes our comprehension and control. It is this complexity, this anonymous un-involvement, and this (costly) dependence that off-gridders reject. By severing these ties off-gridders migrate away from these broad networks and create in their place de facto safe-haven "islands" where they can start afresh on a lifestyle of their own choosing.
People often move off the grid to get away from a neo-liberal society that spreads its tentacles farther and farther into private homes and personal lives. Their move is an escape in search of an alternative, autonomous, and protected zone. Similar to the "hippie" generation who "dropped out" of mainstream society in the late 1960s and early 1970s and sought a better life by getting back-to-the-land, today's off-gridders disconnect from "the grid" and all "it" stands for in a quietist attempt to take care of their personal lives and their "autonomous" (at least in part) zones.
Quietism was a label applied to 1960s' and 1970s' back-to-the-landers who sought personal peace in rural refuges and who abdicated their former activist commitment to social change. Quietism is an old doctrine. Within both Christianity and Islam, Quietism refers to a retreatist withdrawal from political affairs motivated by disinterest and/or skepticism in one's ability to affect change. Instead of open rebellion toward heresy and sin and instead of militantly pushing for collective amelioration, religious Quietists generally sought personal serenity by way of contemplative stillness and communion with God. In the case of non-religious back-to-the-landers Godly devotion was generally substituted by more or less intense pantheist forms of mysticism.
In their diverse ways most contemporay Canadian off-gridders have obvious Quietist-like tendencies. Disenchanted with mainstream living, neo-liberalism, consumerism, large institutions, the power of the state to affect change, and even many of the available political counter-hegemonies, off-gridders seek personal contentment by moving "to the bushes," where they set up a relatively self-reliant home in an idyllic setting. In these spaces they first and foremost take care of their own existence by cultivating peace and quiet, and by rarely engaging in direct, confrontational, collective struggles.
In contrast to Quietist godly devotion and mysticism the New Quietist quest for a better way of life draws great sensual enjoyment from secular pleasures. Off-gridders may in fact deny the value of some technologies, infrastructures, and material possessions but do not at all dispossess themselves of sources of comfort and convenience. Indeed the asceticism typical of Quietism is replaced by a rather hedonist orientation in the off-grid quest for a better way of life.
But theirs is an alternative hedonism. Alternative hedonism is the name of a philosophy championed by British cultural theorist Kate Soper. Alternative hedonists pursue the enjoyment of life's pleasures, but do so in a socially and environmentally conscious way. Their hedonism is an alternative to mass-consumerism but also to the gloomy defeatism and fatalism of much of the environmental movement.
The New Quietist quest is both negative and affirmative. On one hand it negates the mode of unchecked consumption typical of Euro-American society and culture, and criticizes the pursuit of a standard of living that forces a person to work more in order to spend more.
On the other hand New Quietism affirms the value of comfort and convenience and the gratification drawn from the simple pleasures of life. This affirmation deeply values alternative goods and objects that are as sustainable and as local as possible -- objects that have been wrestled away from the production and distribution networks of global capitalism. Objects like, for example, carrots grown organically in one's garden, or a dark evening spent under a starry sky rather than in front of the telly, or electricity generated with the energy of the sun.
So, call me apathetic (and a sucker for the romantic life), but to me this all seems more revolutionary and long-lasting than forwarding a petition the government won't bother to read. And isn't revolution supposed to feel good?