“The Grid”: No Buyer’s Remorse for a Life Well-Lived

Dear Sunaina,

First, let me prepare you for the weight of this letter, for it may not be the easiest to take in with a light heart.

Following up on my last letter, “The Grid” is something that everyone hears of at some point but few people think much about. It’s the network of power, communication, water, transportation, and sewerage that allows us to enjoy our daily lives without actually having to think much about the who/what/when/where/why/how. Often people will use “sustainability” and “off-grid” in the same way, but they are not the same and in fact they are different topics all together. There is no reason that someone cannot be both on grid and living in a sustainable manner at the same time, nor is there any reason that a person can live “off-grid” and yet not live in a sustainable manner. Both can, and do, happen. “Sustainable” living is a great topic for the next letter, it’s the reason for my web site and a topic that brings me great joy. I look forward to sharing that with you.

Maui off the grid. Gardens galore, tons of work to do.
Maui off the grid. Gardens galore, tons of work to do.

The reason I find it important to talk about “The Grid” is because it’s extremely fragile, and its vulnerability and the impact of its disruption is actually quite scary. When Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana, in 1991 I believe, we lost power for 21 days. If you have ever lived for 21 days without electricity, in nearly 100% humidity and temperatures reaching 98f in the shade, you know that it’s absolutely miserable as far as comfort goes. This was before our awesome cell phones, household internet and computers, and before everything went digital, so people really just missed out on A/C, refrigeration, TV, and lights. In fact, if a person was lucky enough to have a generator they did not miss out on anything at all. The hurricane was incredible, tornadoes tore through my neighborhood, bending and twisting trees into unbelievable shapes without breaking the trunks or uprooting them, it was amazing. I actually had a lot of fun as a 12yr old boy that loved being outdoors. During the hurricane I wore a big poncho and would jump in the middle of the street to see how far the wind would take me, which was never far enough. I remember the atmosphere being orange as the eye of the hurricane passed over, and was simply in awe of the magnitude, power, and beauty of nature. What allowed me to enjoy my time was the fact that I still had water, still had sewerage, and still had the land-line telephone, all functioning perfectly well. My needs were met, and I was a safe little boy loving life. It was just hot and humid, and boring at night.

Fast forward to 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. Luckily, I had just moved to Portland, Oregon, in fact Katrina hit the day before I arrived, and as I took the first steps into my new house my roommates had the TV on and we watched New Orleans flood after the levees broke. I’m sure we both remember what happened next, pure chaos. The people of New Orleans faced a complete collapse of the grid. Sewerage flooded the streets, water mains failed, there was no power, land-lines were broken, cell towers were destroyed or without power, and the few that worked were completely flooded by call traffic, roads were flooded, and people were stopped at gun point and sent back by police when they tried to leave on the few roads that were still passable. The neighboring towns did not want to accept the people who refused to evacuate before the storm, and they didn’t accept them. Thousands of people died, tens if not hundreds, in truth, were murdered by everyone from gang members to police and military. As painful or as enraging at it may be, it’s the truth. The people so depended on the grid that in its absence, in the matter of hours after the storm passed, there was rampant looting, and in just a couple of days there were corpses floating in the streets, massive amounts of suicide (especially among police and emergency workers), and in the following weeks there were packs of displaced dogs trying to kill cattle, and anything else, for food, and I imagine they were even eating bodies of the dead. It was bad enough that the military started killing the displaced animals, to end their suffering and destruction. This horrific event was caused by peoples blind dependence on the grid, and their stubborn faith in that the grid that we so clearly take advantage of today would be there tomorrow. Their faith was stronger than the grid, and the reality of what they were facing.

One may argue that in a storm of such magnitude, there’s really nothing that could be done to prevent the things that happened, dependence on the grid or not. It may have been the case, even for someone living completely sustainably, that the problems would have been unavoidable. Someone who thought consciously about their location, collected rainwater, built out of or higher than the flood zone, gardened, canned, and dried/preserved their food, generated electricity through a gravity fed water turbine, utilized short wave-radio, had an ATV of some kind, and that had a composing toilet, sure they may have had the same exact problems as everyone else, but lets be real, it’s not likely. Even if they just had a couple of those things going for them they’d be less likely to suffer like those that had no form of self-reliance.

The thing is, it doesn’t take a Hurricane Katrina to destroy a grid. These days “terrorism” is the big threat, supposedly, so we’ll address that in regard to the grid. How would you feel if I told you that just a few people with bad intentions could completely disrupt the water and power supply of half of California and Nevada? I know that this is the reality, and it does not make me comfortable. It’s the unfortunate reality of the entire “grid” as we know it, nationwide and even world-wide. When I think of the suffering that is literally on the brink of reality, potentially just a moment away it makes me sad. In this modern day, with our technological marvels, everything we need to be able to survive is able to fit into the pockets of a persons school backpack, with the books in the bag, and yet there are millions of people who would potentially face death because they didn’t want to think about these things, and were left unprepared. A person can get a water filter that is the size of a Snickers bar that could provide years of clean drinking water for multiple people, for less than the cost of a night out at a bar. But still so many go unprepared, even embarrassed to be prepared. It takes so little to live, and the grid is failing all around us. The infrastructure cannot last forever, and the maintenance is impossible keep up with as our population, consumption, and waste grow.

However, to brighten this up a little bit, every tool that people need to survive, without the grid, is available to everyone in the “first” world. People are becoming more and more aware of what is going on around them as well, in large part due to the unregulated internet. The great thing about reason and truth, they are contagious. We like being right, and we like being logical and reasonable even if we’re dreamers at heart.

I’ve had people pick on me about my “Bug Out Bag”. It doesn’t bother me, because I know what it’s all about, and it’s completely reasonable to have. A “But Out Bag” is just a bag that you could grab in an emergency situation, and it has what you need to make it out. It doesn’t have to be extensive. It could be as simple as a little pack with a water filter, fire starter, sewing kit, first aid kit, multi-tool knife, para-cord, eye protection, breathing filter, and Mylar blanket. Imagine how many people on the streets would have survived 9/11 had they had just a little breathing mask from the corner store, something to keep them from inhaling all of that dust. You can get a box of 20 for less than $5 at the pharmacy, and they work a lot better than a piece of cloth! I even carry them when I fly, in case some sneezer is sitting near me. Like I said, fits in the pockets of a person’s school bag. It wont stop the grid from collapsing, but it could stop a person and their family from collapsing with it.

The grid is a very comfortable, luxurious, place to be a part of. As I sit here, 3300ft up the side of an active volcano, in total darkness, using the light of my screen to correct my seemingly infinite typos, on battery power, with the solar panels stifled by persistent clouds over head, I can tell you without shame that I enjoy what the grid has to offer. But, it’s not worthy of faith.

Sunaina, we are so lucky to be alive in this age. We’re going to see this world change in so many ways, maybe even more than it did during the industrial revolution, and I am confident that the changes will be for the better. Day by day, the more we deliver the truth about the folly of blind consumption, the more we promote reason and thoughtfulness, the more the world will accept it. There is no buyer’s remorse for a life well lived!



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