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How To Be Happy Living Off-Grid

Reduce your carbon footprint and still enjoy a modern lifestyle

Jenni Ogden
The Road Home
Source: Jenni Ogden

I spotted a home page feature coming up soon on Psychology Today titled “Off the Grid.” My blog post is subtitled "A neuropsychologist muses on brains, books and being happy," and I usually write about brains or books, but hey, I live off-grid, so this happiness post is a no-brainer! Off-grid living tends to bring to mind living in the woods far from anywhere, and doing without the internet, a computer, and a TV. But it is possible to live off-grid and still maintain a modern lifestyle, including the limited use of some of those electricity-guzzling appendages. People choose to live off-grid for multiple reasons, but two of the most important are probably those of limiting our carbon footprint, and living closer to the natural world.

My husband and I have lived off-grid since we retired from our university positions. We sold up and moved from the biggest city in New Zealand to our holiday home on an island 100 kilometers off the coast of northern New Zealand. We’d had plenty of practice as we’d been spending increasingly longer times on the island over the past twenty-five years. When we first bought our house it was much more primitive, with only gas lamps and candles for lighting and definitely no computer, internet or TV. We—with four children back then—were always on holiday when in residence and it was often summer, so we missed none of the trappings of on-grid living.

The island is quite large (285 square kilometers) and mountainous with untrodden white sand beaches, clear blue seas, and a temperate climate, so it is no sacrifice to live here. As the entire island is off-grid, if you want to live here there is no choice; all 800 residents make their own power, sort out their own water and sewage systems, and manage without public transport. The one service supplied "on-grid" is a rather hit-and-miss telephone network, and in some parts of the island there is now cell phone coverage (not where we are). The few roads were all shingle and mostly single-lane when we first came here, and over the last few years most have been sealed and some widened, but we still need our 4WD to get up and down the steep drive to our house, especially after heavy rain when the long grass is as slippery as snow. Snow we never have—winter temperatures are around 12-18 degreees Centigrade, and summer a pleasant 25 to 30 degrees Centigrade. The bay we live on has a few summer houses, but outside of school holidays there is often just us here. I fully expect to be undisturbed by another human on our long sweep of perfect beach except for six weeks in the main summer holidays, from Christmas until the end of January. Even then everyone can find a spot on the beach that is at least fifty meters from the next person.

Now that our holiday home is our main dwelling, we have two satellite dishes on our roof; one for the internet and the other for the TV. Our water comes both from our roof and from a spring through a hosepipe buried in meters of mulch that winds down a hill for about half a kilometer. Our toilets are perfectly normal flush affairs but their contents disappear into a septic tank at the bottom of the garden, where the grass grows longer and greener than elsewhere. On our roof are also ten solar panes that deliver sufficient electricity (inverted from 12 volts to 240 volts) to run a normal household. When the sun is not shining for a day or two, our diesel generator pumps up our big solar batteries. Some electrical appliances like hairdryers, microwaves, heaters, electric kettles and toasters drain the batteries and are therefore banned. One stove runs on bottled gas, the other is a wood stove. Most of our hot water comes via the special solar panels on our roof. In winter our two wood fires warm the house and also heat our water via a contraption of water pipes at the back of the stoves. Water flows through these fire-heated pipes into our big solar water tank. That tank is in a cupboard in our bedroom and makes it toasty warm in winter and sometimes too warm in the summer. Air conditioning is an open window or door, and curtains closed against the sun. Our clothes dryer when it is raining is a clothes rack that we haul by a pulley system high into our ceiling, which is ten meters high at that point. To remove the cobwebs (about once a year) my husband has to put up scaffolding and balance on a beam. When he is not doing that he is chopping wood (carefully culled from the bush on our property), or mowing lawns, or gardening. Inside I write books and articles, looking out my study window onto a multitude of greens. The garden produces most of our needs from the spring to fall, and we buy other vegetables as well as eggs from hens that range over many acres of organic garden from a local couple who work long happy days to provide locals with extra food. Fish and sometimes crayfish and scallops along with green-lipped mussels are harvested from the sea, and we even eat the occasional rabbit. But we buy other meat and dairy products in the usual way, either from one of the three small general stores in the three tiny settlements on the island; the nearest a twenty minute drive from us, or for reasons of economics and choice (we still like our olives and blue cheese) ordered online, delivered to the small airline in Auckland and flown over here in one of their 8-seater planes. When we want to go to the mainland, we use the same planes, or occasionally the car ferry which takes about five hours, sometimes on rough seas.

There is a truly wonderful health center where the doctor and nurses know everyone on the island and take no nonsense when it comes to getting annual check-ups, flu jabs and so on. As New Zealand has an excellent public health system, a helicopter comes over and collects us and drops us on the roof of Auckland Hospital should we cut off our arm with a chain saw or have a heart attack.

One of the pleasures of living off-grid is the intimacy with the weather; if the sun is shining it is filling up the batteries, if the rain is pouring down it is filling up the water tank and watering the garden, if the wind is blowing it is turning the windmills many islanders use to supplement their supply of electricity. We are also well acquainted with exactly how much power a lightbulb or a computer uses; how much water we guzzle up on unnecessarily long showers during a dry summer; and how much effort it takes to warm a winter house with firewood, or grow food for a family. It is impossible to deny the size of our carbon footprint, and when the house abruptly plunges into blackness in the middle of a particularly gripping TV program, the batteries emptied, the value of consistently turning off all unnecessary lights (including all those little lights that glow continuosly on appliances not turned off at the wall) is gently reinforced.

In short we live an idyllic life, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Like any small rural community—and this is even truer for a small island community—there is a vibrant social life if you want it. A monthly farmers market, a Santa parade, and a feast of long lunches and dinners at the homes of friends. Artists are attracted here, and the island art gallery is a cooperative venture that displays the creations of any local who wishes to join. There are three “clubs” or bars, so drinking is always an option (with the usual consequences). We have our own extensive wine cellar—essential for the life style we are accustomed to— and as a balance to debauchery, a large library to indulge another of our passions. The percentage of island residents who vote in local and government elections is higher than elsewhere in New Zealand. The conservation of the island ecology is the most important issue for most islanders. That is the reason most of us are here, and we want to elect a government who cares. Living here is definitely not about becoming rich, as the resident island community has one of the lowest mean family incomes in NZ. Of course the summer people who arrive at Christmas to stay in their modest-looking (even when architecturally-designed) holiday pads, are usually well-heeled but share the same love for the island as the residents and generally become indistinguishable from them within hours of arriving. They do widen the conversation considerably, and the barbeque chat expands from the evergreen topics of the best alternative energy system, the size of the fish, and the best surf spots, to the politics of the wider world.

There are downsides of course. Everyone knows your business (but the support for anyone who needs it is instant and generous). In the winter it can rain a lot and sometimes low sea mists can prevent boats and planes from coming and going, isolating us here. If we have an important event on the mainland or an international flight to catch, it is wise to travel to Auckland a day or more in advance just in case that mist descends. Children have three tiny schools to choose from until they reach the age of twelve and then they must be sent to boarding school on the mainland, or parents (with more patience than I) home school them. The kids here are bush-wise, sea-wise, and mostly shoe-free. Sometimes the family leaves the island when their first child reaches their teens, and this means most of the residents are either young couples or retirees. Work is scarce and those who do work usually manage three or four part-time jobs. Single people without a weather-proof house and very little money can get lonely and depressed stuck here over winter.

We are luckier than many and have the means to leave the island for a few months in the coldest and wettest part of the year. We spend a few months in the Australian tropics or traveling (on a budget, often in a tent) to see the rest of the world. But always the road home is the best road. Looking out the window of the little plane as it flies over ever-clearer sea and seeing the rugged green hills and white beaches below before we turn and land on the grass (not the sealed runway as that is harder on the plane's tires), our hearts soar.

So as you can see, for us off-grid living is a very hard life, and not to be recommended. When asked why we live here, our answer is simple: it makes us happy. And if you want to see some pictures, you will find plenty on my website, “Writing Off-Grid.” You might even decide to sign up for my monthly e-newsletter where I occasionally share a few island tales.

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