Power is an interesting word. For most social scientists “power” stands for authority, control, sovereignty, economic capital, military-industrial hegemony, social stratification, and similar ideas. But power—especially in everyday usage—is synonymous with something seemingly more immediate, proximate, and concrete. Thus we may commonly talk of “engine power” that allows us to drive faster, of “physical power” that enables us to jump higher, or of “domestic power” that permits us to live comfortable, connected, and convenient lives. What is truly interesting about this is that the dictionary definition of power—the ability or capacity to act—refers to all of the above, an idea that only a handful of scholars have capitalized upon.
It’s an irremediably cloudy, intermittently soggy day on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. But not even an unexpectedly miserable stretch of bad late spring weather can cast a wet blanket over the elation in the air. It’s the last interview—with informants number 173 and 174—of a two-year long fieldwork project that has taken me and photographer/videographer Jonathan Taggart across all of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories to document the day-to-day lifestyles of people living off-grid. Few events can jostle an ethnographer’s body more intensely than the end of fieldwork. The feeling is so powerful that melancholia, or anxious thoughts about writing this whole thing up, haven’t even started to settle in yet.
Off-grid is an abused expression. I’ve heard people say they’re off the grid if they switch off their cell phone for the weekend, or if they go on holiday somewhere quiet and remote. But people can’t quite be off-grid. The official definition passed on by engineers refers to a house or an entire community, not a person, in state of disconnection from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a region. It’s the definition Jonathan and I have gone by to understand how comfort, convenience, cleanliness, sustainability, connectivity, and sense of place can be re-assembled when the powerful life lines entangling homes into the modern world are severed.
We’ve come to think of off-grid homes as unique power constellations. We view a power constellation as a historically and geographically specific pattern of power generation, distribution, and application. A constellation is an assemblage of practices, experiences, and narratives that make sense together.
Power and energy resources are moved around, thus they are subjects and objects of practice. Power is experienced through sensations, feelings, emotions, moods, and affects. And power is talked about, mapped, politicized, debated, thus it is the matter of multiple representations. We understand all practices, experiences, and representations of, and about, power as inevitably entangled in more-than-human relations and therefore knotted in meshworks of organic and inorganic materials and objects, technologies, infrastructures, food-, land- and waterscapes, regional and international boundaries, and multiple other forces.
These meshworks are the sites where everyday power is lived and differentially enabled—sites that may be locally unique or globally hegemonic, temporary and idiosyncratic or historically recurring. There are arguably many more components of power constellations but we have been working with ten: motive, friction, route, sensibility, interconnectivity, availability, cost, externality, pace, and efficiency.
Take the idea of motive, for example. People need power for different reasons. To some degree we are compelled to use power by sheer survival needs, but in most instances our use is informed by degrees of choice. The concept of motive force captures these dynamics of compulsion and choice and the degree of their imperativeness. Off-gridders for example need power to light up their home, keep warm, refrigerate their food, extract water, and operate a few appliances. This is unsurprising—as they, like others, take pleasure in domestic comfort, cleanliness, and convenience. But the real question here is why do they, as opposed to much of the rest of the Western world, seek to do it on their own, off the grid? In other words, how are the motive forces of off-grid households different from those who live connected to the grid?
Many off-gridders elect to live off-grid for the sense of independence it begets. Take Murray and Naan, for instance. Their independence is relative, of course, but the heightened sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency they enjoy allows them to hold a sense of sovereign power over their home. Their quest for sovereign power does not come without its downsides. Off-grid living requires toil and onerous involvement, so the force of the motives for living off-grid must be intense enough for them to embrace such onuses, or at least make them feel bearable. Living off-grid also demands mindfulness, knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that many of us living on-grid are much happier to delegate to experts, planners, and distant infrastructures.
The concept of motive force, in sum, prompts us to ask not only why people need and want power, as well as what they need it and want it for, but also what people are willing to do to obtain power; what type of power assemblages people prefer and why; what kinds of power applications people are willing to sacrifice if necessary; what reasons, values, and ideologies inform people’s choices for power; and what lifestyle philosophies inform the choices behind different groups’ motives to do with or without certain kinds of power and certain power applications—only to name a few possible questions.
The tortuous “Irish Route” winds its way slowly to St. John’s along the spectacular coastal views over the Atlantic, weaving through sleepy communities gazing forlornly at the former bounties of the sea. We pull over at an old lighthouse to record a final file of b-roll for our upcoming documentary. The wind is blowing with great force. Free clean energy which off-gridders have learned to enjoy, so much more than the rest of us. I wonder if their lessons will be powerful to teach us all something.
Phillip Vannini is an ethnographer and Canada Research Chair working in the School of Communication & Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. His off-grid ethnography blog can be found at: http://publicethnography.net/off-the-grids-blog
Jonathan Taggart is a Boreal Collective photographer and Ph.D. student in Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His website is: http://jonathantaggart.com/