Tools and strategies for living "off the grid"
With the economy tanking and people increasingly finding it next to impossible making ends meet within the system, many ordinary citizens are beginning to look into ways to live "off the grid", either in whole or in part. If you haven't yet considered your options in living self-sufficiently, now is a great time - in America alone, the economic situation is getting so dire, we're diving into a scenario that will make the Great Depression of the 1930s look like a beer hangover in comparison. In my last Hub, I've shared tools and strategies for making the existing system work for the average citizen. Here, we'll be taking a look at some approaches for living outside the system, and doing it well.
In-home 3D printing
Living off the grid doesn't have to mean living poorly, or going back to the Stone Age. We may be looking at achieving self-sufficiency again by doing many of the same things our great-great-great grandparents used to do, but we can use modern technology to do them much more quickly, easily, and effectively than they ever could have. Not only do we have the internet, which will allow us to swap processes and techniques, and rapidly learn the skills we'd need to live "off the grid" once again, but a staggering new technology will allow us to get things up to speed in nothing flat. Machines that "print" like a printer does, but print actual 3D parts out of plastic and other materials, are in development. The machines, called "rapid prototypers", currently cost upwards of $42,000, and are primarily being used by large corporations. But help is on the way! Two fellows over in Britain have designed the RepRap, a 3D printer that can be had for about $730... and can actually print the parts necessary to copy itself!
Above: A RepRap-made gear train
Below: A RepRap-made pair of child's shoes
The first version of the RepRap has already been released online, with people around the world collaborating online to build the next model - as well as downloadable computer files to tell the RepRap how to build parts to make other machines. What does this mean for self-sufficiency and those living "off the grid"? It won't be long until we can download the plans to have our RepRaps build us a spinning wheel. Or an electrical generator. Or a windmill, or solar panels. Or an automatic loom that we can plug into our computers and use to create our own designs. Or the parts and machinery needed to create our own computer-automated farms! With the ability to live off the grid, free from the monopolistic pricing structures that those within the system have been locked into, this technology substantially allows us to renegotiate the social contract - we're no longer a "captive audience" to whatever rules and prices those offering groceries would like to set. We're no longer capitves, and we're no longer hostages to the system. With independent engineers collaborating on development of the RepRap online, it's advancing at breakneck speed - if you're an engineer or know one, consider getting involved with the RepRap project. Not only can it provide self-sufficiency, it can set the entire manufacturing-based society on its ear. Although it may seem far-fetched, just over twenty years ago a couple of guys tinkering with electronics in their garage changed the world - and brought personal computers into the home.
Above: Traditional Irish spinning of linen thread from flax fibers.
Below: Children in the Andes playing with toys that actually hand-spin yarn from wool.
Learning the skills we'll need
Alright, we know we'll be able to download plans to print out our machines, plans to weave our clothes from thread, plans to automate our small home-run farms, and all kinds of things. Now we'll need to know how to give our machines the things they'll need, from raw materials we can come up with ourselves. Hands up, does anybody know how to make thread and yarn for a loom? Bio-diesel and lubricating oil to make the machines go? Solar panels? Anyone?
Fortunately, we've got the world's largest knowledge base at our fingertips. Through the internet, we can learn to do the things our great-great grandparents used to do, and reacquire the skills we need to live self-sufficiently again. People are already doing this. Sites like HubPages, Instructables, eHow and Wikipedia's Wikiversity are great for sharing information and techniques for learning to do and build things. We can quickly be back up to speed in no time - faster than was ever possible at any point in history.
Making it go
Alright, so let's assume we've got the machines we need, and the necessary knowledge to improve upon them, construct them, and fuel them with the raw materials they'll need to work for us. How do we make them go? We're going to need electricity, and a lot of it.
Solar power is an increasingly cheap and efficient option, but one that is making very slow strides. In December of 2007, a Danish company called SunFlakes announced a new technology to make cheap solar cells with 30% efficiency using carbon nanotubes called "nano flakes". Their release, publicized in Nature, made the rounds across the internet as one excited reader sent a link to another. Nearly a year later, SunFlake's website lists the technology and 30% efficiency mark a "goal", the story has quietly ebbed, and the major solar technology news is that the Japanese have used flexible solar cells to develop a plastic potted plant with solar cells for leaves. While the act of waiting on mainstream researchers to develop a cheap and efficient solar technology comes to resemble the act of trying to herd cats, we may have recourse to other, unofficial, technologies that were nipped in the bud around the start of the twentieth century.
If you're lucky enough to live by a stream, you would surely be able to use a RepRap to make the parts necessary for a waterwheel. On plains, windmills and solar-collectors (the sunlight is collected to heat pipes filled with oil, which are used to boil water to make stream, which in turn spins magnets past turbines and creates electricity). You can certainly build solar panels out of solar cells, but the cells are expensive and you'll end up waiting all day to charge a 12 volt battery. Or you can say, "Screw it, mainstream technology! What have you ever done for me when it wasn't in your own financial interest?"... and resort to the realm of weird science.
He played with lightning on his fingertips as if it were a toy. He broadcast electrical power through the air. He manufactured earthquakes. Secret inventor of radio, high-voltage electrical genius extraordinaire, few today dare breathe his name or even know of it... Nikola Tesla. He discovered phenomanae of electricity that we still don't have an explanation for, such as how he was able to complete a circuit using a single wire, rather than two, and how he was able to broadcast power through the air. He invented the Tesla coil, a resonant transformer circuit that could intensify high voltages while making them safe, by bringing the current into a more effective harmony with itself. Aficionados of his work still build their own Tesla coils today, bringing electrical current from their utility company or their own solar cells into greater harmony and intensity, making much more efficient use of the electricity. Their utility meters actually begin to spin backwards as the extra electricity is routed back to their electric company, who then pay them for providing them the extra power. While mainstream science regards mention of this kind of unexplored technology with the equivalent of a stuffy, authoritarian glare, it nevertheless works - and could be exactly the kind of technology we'll need to get enough energy from our solar panels and windmills to make a functioning society off the grid.
In 1901, Nikola Tesla began construction on Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, Long Island. The tower was to use the ionosphere to generate and broadcast free power to everyone, without the need for power lines, and to act as a world communication system. Initially backed by wealthy investors like financial tycoon J.P. Morgan, Morgan eventually asked Tesla how users of the electricty could be monitored and charged for it. When Tesla replied that they couldn't, Morgan pulled out his backing and the project floundered. In September 1917, during World War I, the U.S. government ordered the tower demolished with dynamite, alleging that German spies were using it as a landmark. The plans for Wardenclyffe still exist today, and the tower could be easily reconstructed anywhere using modern technology.
Growing your own crops
So we can download plans from the internet, print our our own machines, built them, and automate everything. We'll need the raw materials to process - not to mention food to eat! What do we grow, on our computer-automated farms? Here are some excellent suggestions for nutrition-rich and multi-purpose crops.
You'll definitely need a source of protein, and growing animals is not only time-consuming and resource-intensive, it's also a pretty vicious way to live. If we're going to revisit what our grandparents did and do it better, it only makes sense to improve upon it by being less cruel. We can easily get our protein from plants quicker and more efficiently, and quinoa is an excellent means of doing this.
Pronounced KEEN-wah, it's a rare crop that has between 12% and 18% protein - and remarkably complete protein, at that, making it more easily-digestable. Quinoa has a mild, slightly nutty flavor and a rich, satisfying texture. It can be cooked up pretty much like rice, and used anywhere you'd use rice. Quinoa is gluten-free, and contains lots of magnesium and iron as well. Quinoa is very easy to grow - it's coated with mild toxins called saponins that keep the birds from eating up the crop, and the saponins come off easily after a couple of rinses. And you can always mill it to make flour - a vital ingredient to any self-sufficient kitchen.
Flax is tremendously useful - you can do so many things with it! You can eat the seeds and the sprouts. You can spin its fibers on a spinning wheel to make rope or linen. You can make dye and paper with it - both essential, particularly when you'll be weaving on an automated loom with its fibers. You can make fishing nets and soap out of flax, and flax oil (linseed oil) from pressing its seeds. Not only is that linseed oil very healthy, but it makes a good wood finish, and an excellent lubricant for machines. Mix linseed oil with white vinegar for leather treatment. Mix it with chalk powder instead, and you have a glazing putty for putting in windows!
100 grams of ground flax seeds has 28 grams of fiber and 20 grams of protein! You can mix it with water to create a binding agent for recipes, replacing eggs. At minimum, milled flax seeds stores for 4 months - much longer in the fridge. For a single crop, flax has so many uses it makes for a very versatile choice.
Bamboo is another one of those amazing choices for self-sufficiency. It's the fastest growing plant in the world, growing up to 3 inches a day! Not only does that mean you'll have plenty of construction material, you can eat the tender shoots as well, provided you're not innundated by roving gangs of pandas. You can weave it into baskets, and use the leaves to wrap things. You can turn it into charcoal, you can mill it, and - are you ready for this? - you can spin it into a weaving fiber that's as soft as silk! Just the thing to throw into your automated loom for those clothing designs you'll have downloaded.
Using a Tesla coil and some form of power, you'll actually end up with surplus electricity. Some of it will go to automate your farming system - but chances are you won't be in an area with a lot of land (even assuming you move out of the populated areas, which will probably be your only real hope of survival in the coming crisis). So with a shortage of growing area, an excess of electricity, and a constant need for food - what do you do? You use modern technology to do something our grandparents could never have done. You grow your crops with hydroponics instead of regular soil, you use your Tesla coil to power grow-lights... and you build a farming skyscraper.
It's not all that far-fetched. You'd need a multi-level structure tall enough to accommodate the height of your crops on each "floor". You hang powered grow-lights from the "ceiling" of each floor, and have hydroponics trays set on the "floors", with nutrients delivered through tubes automatically at regular intervals, run by computer automation systems like X10 or Insteon. If you enclose the structure with sheets of transparent plastic, you can keep the temperature and humidity set to whatever you'd like. And you can use one area of land multiple times at once. Hydroponics is also amazing in that it uses as little as 1/20th the water as regular farming does. Automate the system to bring the trays from the upper floors down one at a time in sections for planting and harvesting, and you have a machine that makes food and raw materials. All this from simply harnessing and effectively using the sunlight or other electricity-generating resources you have on hand. With enough car batteries, you could even keep the system going night and day, growing your crops that much faster.
Hopefully, this Hub has given you lots of options when it comes to pulling out of the collapsing system. As cool as self-sufficiency is, if all of this seems too much like Gilligan's Island to you, you may find it a lot less work to overhaul the system we already have instead, and make it work - the first Hub in this series provides a lot of tools and strategies to do that.
In the next Hub in this series, we'll look into an approach that we can all use, in or out of the existing system, to keep a money supply that won't inflate, that won't be siphoned off or controlled by governments or corporations, that will prevent anyone from being taxed into oblivion, that doesn't have exchange rates or allow higher-ups to cut wages and widen their own profit margins, and that does away with banks, accountants and bookkeepers. It's quite possibly the perfect monetary system, and is now possible with the advent of a new technology developed in the 1970s. We'll also be looking at some of the problems with the current monetary system, and why pulling out of it could literally save not merely our way of life, but our actual lives as well. I hope you'll join me.