The topic for tonight’s blog arrived on my radar because of the story of a Florida woman who went to court in an attempt to legally get herself off the grid (ref and ref). Her story created a pretty significant storm on my twitter feed and so I thought it would be a useful to further discuss the basis for laws requiring our connection to various grids. As I wrote in my earlier posts about Ecomodernism and Degrowth and Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: “Moving Back to the Land” and the 100 Mile Diet, there is a movement out there to get “off the grid”, to simplify and to live closer to the land. This mode of living is proposed as an ideal by the Degrowth movement and is the topic of any number of web sites explaining how to “live off the grid” (ref, ref, and ref). In this post, I hope to demonstrate that these grids are not there, as suggested by some, in order to enrich faceless corporations but rather to preserve our shared ecological and natural resources. Moreover, I hope to show, that at least in the case of sewer and water services, getting as many people as possible hooked into communal systems is the only way to help improve our shared resources. On a slightly different tack, connections to common grids also form a necessary initial step in any Ecomodernist future. These grids enhance our ability to un-couple and reduce our per capita drain on our natural resources. Just a note, this blog post is nowhere near long enough to go into the complexity associated with solar power and electricity grids (see this Scientific American article for some basic details). That is a topic for a blog post all of its own.
Let’s start with a tiny bit of a background. As described in the linked news reports, the news story deals with a Ms. Robin Speronis who currently lives off the grid in Southern Florida. She used a rainwater cistern for drinking/cooking and solar power for her electrical needs. Her sole connection to the city services was a connection to the sewer system which she used to flush all her excess wastes (ref) before the city shut the line (arguably for lack of payment). Many, (including myself in this specific case) would consider her decision an acceptable one, but her local community took it a bit differently. The case is sufficiently convoluted that it does not serve as a useful case study since both Ms. Speronis and the city appear to have been less than pure actors (the city for shutting off sewers and she for non-payment of bills and possible animal cruelty issues) but the story did bring out a class of activists who view connections to our communal grids as a means for the government to maintain control over the populace (ref and ref). The truth, however, is far less menacing and far more straightforward.
Those of us who were taught our social history in school are reminded that after physical protection of the person, the primary role of governments in early communal societies was to ensure the provision of basic services. In earlier feudal societies, basic services were reserved for the rich and the powerful. Anyone familiar with the rise of cities in the Middle Ages in Europe will have heard of the regular outbreaks of dysentery. In the Middle Ages dysentery was a disease of the cities and was the second leading cause of death by disease (ref and ref). It was caused when human waste got into the communal drinking water supplies and was particularly deadly for the very young and the very old. One of the major advances in the Roman Era was a system that allowed for clean water to be supplied to their cities via aqueducts and one of the hallmarks of the rise of responsible and representative governments was when they started to ensure that basic sanitation and water services were supplied to all levels of society. I was taught in my high school social studies that you can establish a pretty reasonable gauge of the level of representativeness of a government by the types of services provided by the government to all its citizens. While this topic is a pretty huge one I would direct you to Marq de Villiers’ book “Water” which presents a terrific history of water in societies and discusses how we are using, misusing and abusing our shared water resources and the roles of governments (historical and present-day) in its supply, protection and allocation. The take home message from this paragraph should be that: governments aren’t using services as a means to control the public, but rather the primary reason for governments in a modern society is to ensure the fair allocation and provision of services.
So why is the provision of common services an important role for government? Well as the human population has risen, our ability as humans to rely on natural/ecological services to provide us with clean, potable, water and to dispose of our waste has become unbalanced. Rather than depending on natural systems to address these needs, we have developed engineering solutions to these problems. Were we, as a society, to move back to the land and get off the grid we would encounter the scenario described by Garett Hardin in 1968 in the seminal paper The Tragedy of the Commons. For those of you not familiar with this important work, it recounts the tale of the mistreatment a common resource (the British common lands) by competing private interests (farmers with their personal sheep). Given an absence of personal stake in the ownership of the common land, and the benefits accrued by exploiting those common lands for personal profit, the commons were overgrazed and ultimately the resource was lost to the community.
For a direct case relating to water/sanitation, let’s consider my local community: the Township of Langley. The Township of Langley is located in the Metro Vancouver region and is part of the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD) and the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District (GVS&DD). Unlike the majority of the users in the GVWD, 23% of the Township is not supplied with potable water by the GVS&DD and residents in these areas rely on private wells (ref). The Township is underlain by 18 identified aquifers with five being big and shallow enough to be used for the provision of water (ref). Four of these five aquifers are “unconfined” (ref). An unconfined aquifer is an aquifer that is refreshed via surface water percolation (ref). Another feature of the Township is that over half its surface area is in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and is used for various farming practices. Even with only 23% of our population in Langley relying on groundwater, our groundwater aquifers are in trouble. Water levels have been receding and the local salmon-bearing streams reliant on water from these aquifers are under threat. As a consequence, the Township has had to spend millions of dollars hooking communities like Aldergrove into the main GVS&DD water system (which is primarily fed from reservoirs in the North Shore Mountains. Were 100% of the Langley population made reliant on our limited groundwater reserves that water would be gone in a generation. From a naturalist’ point of view, it would also mean the end of the Nicomekl River, the Salmon River, The Little Campbell River and Bertrand Creek as breeding grounds for fish as all depend on flow from these aquifers and all would dry up in the summer absent those flows, destroying those fish habitats. It is only through the provision of potable water via the GVS&DD that we can maintain our population in this region. Now consider that we live in a coastal rainforest area? If we can’t depend on groundwater from unconfined aquifers in a coastal rainforest with our current population densities how will the populations in the Eastern Seaboard described in my post Ecomodernism and Degrowth: Part II Future Scenarios make it work?
Now earlier in this post I talked about dysentery. Now in a future “off the grid” Langley we could mostly avoid the threat of dysentery through the use of septic tanks and septic fields. The problem with septic tanks is that they need to be maintained and if not maintained can fail (resulting in a risk of dysentery). One of the issues with septic fields is that they require space. The size of your septic field is dependent on the percolation rate of your soil but a typical septic field for a family of four is about a quarter/half acre. The problem is that too many septic fields, too close together, can cause too much stress on aquifers. The US EPA suggests that any more than 1 system per 16 acres puts a community at risk to groundwater contamination (ref). Moreover, at high densities even perfectly functioning septic fields can harm an aquifer as was discovered in the Santa Ana Region in California (ref). The reason for this is that septic fields are not magic, they cannot eliminate all waste and one of the serious concerns with high densities of septic fields is nitrate contamination of the groundwater. Due to their chemical nature, even a perfectly designed and operating septic systems flushes nitrates, pretty much undisturbed, into groundwater (ref) and nitrates are recognized as a cause (or arguably at the least a co-factor) of blue baby syndrome (Methaemoglobinaemia) (ref). Nitrates can also build up in aquifers over agricultural areas due to poor farming practices and over-fertilizing (as is the case in Langley Township). Nitrate pollution represents only one of many chemical issues associated with too many septic fields in too small an area and anyone interested should read the Santa Ana case study to see the other problems they can cause.
I hope this blog post has made it clear that going “off the grid” is not simply a personal choice, as suggested by Ms. Speronis, but one that can affect a whole community and all the animals and plants that live in that community. Thus the community has a stake in ensuring that as many people as possible are connected to the grid. This control is not to keep the utility users in the pockets of big government or big corporations but rather to preserve our shared resources and avoid a collapse of our commons similar to the one described by Hardin in The Tragedy of the Commons.