We are currently living in a way that is indisputably unsustainable. The ecological resources on which modern housing depend are becoming increasingly scarce, and the excessive carbon footprint left behind by "McMansions" and sprawling suburban developments are leading more and more people to seek radically greener housing alternatives.
This is the fourth of a five-part series called "Off the Grid," in which we explore environmentally sustainable, self-sufficient communities across the globe. We'll attempt to answer the question: Is green, off-grid living our future? This week, we take a look at a self-sufficient island community off the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.
Canada's Lasqueti Island is a remote mass of land east of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, blanketed in towering, moss-colored firs and lush plant species. Surrounded by the inky waters of the Georgia Strait and bordered by 12 miles of scenic, rocky coastline, it's appears to be a Shangri-La of sorts. But before you pack up and haul out of the suburbs to start afresh in the idyls of the Lasquetian isle, be warned: You might not have electricity.
We're not just talking off-the-grid here. Though -- like the Earthship dwellers of New Mexico and the eco-villagers of Missouri -- many Lasquetians generate their own renewable energy via solar panels, wind turbines and watermills with inverters, many also choose to live completely without electricity. Yes, that's right: no electricity, period.
Sound primitive and distressingly backward? It's anything but, if you ask the 426 residents of Lasqueti Island (who, according to Census Canada data, are the most highly educated community in all of British Columbia). In fact, many Lasquetians believe that complete liberation from the trapping dependency on non-renewable energy sources gives humans the power to live "the way they were meant to" -- self-sufficiently, and independent from the whims of money-hungry utility companies.
"Historically, Lasquetians have rejected a centralized system of energy generation in favor of taking individual control of the means of production," explains Paul St. Pierre, a 59-year-old English professor and installation artist who has been living on Lasqueti for over two years. "They learned from the native people, who lived in harmony with their ecosystem."
Unlike the treehouse residents of Costa Rica, who were forced to resort to renewable energy options due to their elevated rainforest location, Lasquetians made the deliberate choice to remain off-grid despite readily available utilities (earlier Lasquetians resorted only to candles and kerosene to generate light and heat). According to St. Pierre, throughout the years the Lasquetians have continually shot down attempts by utility giant B.C. Hydro and Power Authority to connect them to the mainstream grid. This includes rejecting a proposal for an underwater pipeline to pass overland on Lasqueti from mainland British Columbia, and another for a large centralized gas generator to provide power to the island.
As a result of this conscious decision to shun access to mainstream utilities, St. Pierre says Lasquetians possess a heightened sense of resource awareness, and in extension, a much deeper sense of self awareness. ("[We] are people just like our ancestors," St. Pierre muses.) And it's a way of living, many Lasquetians believe, that our overstimulated and material-driven society might eventually revert back to: a more meaningful lifestyle that's grounded in sustainability, simplicity and community.
A Change of Pace
That certainly was the case for St. Pierre, whose life at Lasqueti began as an experiment of sorts. For eighteen years, the professor was the typical homeowner -- he owned a traditional brick-and-mortar townhouse, lived in a strata complex in Vancouver, and paid regular maintenance fees -- until he decided, in July of 2010, that he no longer wanted any of it. ("I decided this way no way for me to live," St. Pierre revealed). He immediately sold his house, armed with the intention of committing to a more purposeful, environmentally responsible and self-sufficient lifestyle. And mainly, he wanted to prove a point to himself.
"I wanted to test the thesis that a digitally literate and highly media-tized human being could live in an ecologically responsible manner and meet basic survival needs like shelter, food, clothing and energy," St. Pierre told AOL Real Estate.
"I wanted to see if I would be able to repair my shelter, grow food, mend and make my clothing, and generate energy," he said. "If I could do these things on my own, instead of relying on the state to provide them, I might be a human being and my life have meaning."
Twenty-seven months later, St. Pierre's self-assigned "thesis" is going quite swimmingly, though not without its challenges. Like many of the residents on Lasqueti, St. Pierre's everyday life is refreshingly self-reliant. Power for heating and cooking is generated mostly from renewable fuel in the form of wood. Drinking water is collected via rainwater harvesting canisters with filtration systems. Human waste is collected and treated through homemade composting toilets made from steel drums and wooden boxes (a more comprehensive explanation of this process can be found on the Lasqueti Island website's aptly-named "How to Shyte on Lasqueti" section). Organic vegetables and fruit are grown and harvested across the island, and fresh seafood like mussels, clams, prawns and crabs are caught regularly for consumption. (Some residents also keep chickens for egg production. There are no grocery stores on the island). Additionally, many homes are built using re-purposed structures, or designed and constructed sustainably using local and recycled materials, by Lasquetian builders and architects.
One of these builders is Toronto native Mark Young, who was initially drawn to Lasqueti Island in 2003 due to his "repulsion" of the expanding, unsustainable city that was Toronto. He was particularly disturbed by what he viewed as its wasteful urban infrastructure and improvident building and housing design.
"I was dismayed as a child by the inefficiency of housing, in how much energy they required to heat and maintain and eventually demolish," said Young, who was raised in the outer city limit of Toronto. "From the rooftop I saw the shingled peaks as a waste of space and inefficiency."
Such observations propelled Young to explore the design and construction of more sustainable structures for living, which made Lasqueti -- a community with no building inspectors -- the perfect ground for experimentation. (So far, the six buildings that Young has built on the island have been "experiments" in sod-roof structures and rooftop garden designs. The buildings are comprised of mostly wood, clay, sand, straw and horse manure, and there is no insulation, drywall, paint or caulking). Young's most current project will experiment with utilizing the plastic from the island's recycling center (compressed into 500 pound blocks, to otherwise be shipped off the island to a larger recycling facility) as building insulation.
St. Pierre and Young are certainly not the only ones who have made the transition from being grid-reliant to living more sustainable and self-sufficient lives. (In fact, on Lasqueti you'll find an incredible diversity of occupants -- artists, musicians, physicians, designers and more). According to Nick Rosen, author of "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America," though off-the-grid living is not yet mainstream, there is a huge "pent-up demand" to live that way -- with an increasing number of individuals choosing to inhabit boats, cabins and yurts instead of standardized, 21st century housing.
Rosen's findings are supported by green housing expert Sheri Koones, author of "Prefabulous + Sustainable: Building and Customizing an Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home." Koones says that a move toward a more ecologically and economically effective lifestyle is not uncommon and that more and more people are shunning the dream of the 10,000-square-foot McMansion (what is now being dubbed the "Voluntary Simplicity Movement").
"Living more economically is becoming more sensible and in some ways more fashionable," Koones told AOL Real Estate. "I don't believe there is any stigma today attached to being environmentally practical."
'Simpler' Doesn't Mean Less Complicated
A life that is simple and "environmentally practical," however, does not mean a life that is necessarily less complicated. One of the overarching lessons learned and shared by the residents of off-grid communities across the world is that living a simple, off-grid life isolated from the culture of materialism and overconsumption does not mean a "simplistic" life.
Ironically, St. Pierre says, it takes a whole new set of skills to live simply. Without the excessive resources that come part-and-parcel with conventional "modern living" at his disposal, St. Pierre was forced to learn how to make his own food, construct his own wooden gates and fenceposts, connect light fixtures and use battery hydrometers. Similarly, Young grows the majority of his own food and has learned the practice of car-pooling and even hitch-hiking (a generally uncommon practice in large cities or even suburbs) across the island to attend events. Young also adds that the sheer isolation of Lasqueti Island adds to the general complications of day-to-day life.
"You're not just off-grid from electricity, but from everything. We have an irregular ferry service that is interrupted by storms and has very expensive freight fees," adds Young, who stockpiles on coffee, chocolate and bananas during shopping trips. "That makes it necessary to grow your own food, provide your own power, heat, building materials and shelter."
Because of such challenges, the Lasquetians, like the eco-villagers of Missouri and Earthship dwellers of New Mexico, concede that their lifestyle is not for everyone. Despite its environmental, economical and personal benefits, it's a largely isolated way of living -- it takes three days of "household work" just to survive -- that should not be romanticized, and whose complex challenges must be properly understood. ("Is living off the grid the future? I only know it is my future," said St. Pierre). That said, many Lasquetians wouldn't have it any other way.
"Off-grid living presents challenges, but my power never goes down in a storm like I hear on the radio of my surrounding communities. The power will continue to come from the sun, and we will continue to harness it," Young told AOL Real Estate. "I do not feel vulnerable. I feel self-sufficient."
Young adds: "When visiting this island, it may appear that you have walked back in time by 40 years. But it may also appear that you are looking at the future."