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/
During the first year of the Obama administration, there was considerable optimism that the United States might finally catch up with other industrialized countries by developing a national renewable portfolio standard and carbon regulation. However, the hope was dashed by the compromises of the Kerry-Lieberman bill in the Senate and its eventual defeat. Likewise, the rise of the Tea Party movement and influence of fossil-fuel money in the Republican Party has made green-energy policy an increasingly partisan issue. It is hard to believe that in 2008 both McCain and Obama agreed that climate change was real and needed policy attention. By 2012, the pervasive influence of fossil-fuel money and the Republican Party’s anti-green strategy had led even the president who promised five million green jobs to adopt a strategic silence on the issue.
In the Arctic in 2012, the planet passed a significant milestone: the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 ppm, a level that the planet has not had for at least 800,000 years. The summer ice melt also reached new levels. Unfortunately, climate change is occurring slowly enough in temperate climates that it is easy for political leaders to ignore the severity of the threat. Human societies face an adaptation problem that they have never experienced before, and it will be exacerbated by the 2-3 billion people who will be added to the planet during the next forty years. As ethnographic field research has shown, the effects are often magnified in marginalized populations located in coastal areas, in urban slums, and in polar regions.
My recent work has been oriented toward what I think of as the “problem behind the problem,” that is, the lack of political will to address the twin problems of environmental sustainability and social fairness that are becoming worse every year. I have written a three-volume series that looks at the role of “alternative pathways” (loosely social movements plus other kinds of reform efforts, including in the private sector) as historical agents that could open political opportunities for sustainability politics. In Alternative Pathways in Science and Technology, I reviewed a wide range of industry-oriented reform movements and showed both their potential and limitations; Localist Movements in a Global Economy focused on the small business sector and community enterprises as another source of countervailing power to the anti-green segment of global capital; and Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy explored the much more mainstream politics of labor-environmental-green business coalitions in federal and state energy policy. Although the work is written for a scholarly audience, I have also been involved in the local living economy and state government policy fields by writing policy reports, engaging in public speaking, and also cofounding an independent business association with a living economy mission.
More recently, I have been working on a project that tracks the record of Republicans on environmental policy issues with the assistance of a very promising graduate student, Jonathan Coley. In both Good Green Jobs and a paper in Energy Policy, we track the reversals that have occurred since the election of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Although green-energy politics and policies have subsided from the national stage, in states where Democrats are in power there has been ongoing action. Furthermore, we also found that there are some areas of bipartisanship, especially if proposed legislation does not involve a reform that can be understood as a regulatory burden.
Although my work is highly interdisciplinary, and my institutional home is a sociology department and an energy and environment institute, I find that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform my thinking. For example, I am particularly interested in the role of political ideologies as cultural systems in policy fields, and I am interested in ideology as way in to the study of change in political culture. In addition to the mainstream polarity of American politics between a neoliberal right and social liberal left, I have been building a case that there is a growing influence of other ideologies, notably localism and developmentalism. For example, in Good Green Jobs, I argue that the United States of the twenty-first century is showing signs of a return to its developmentalist politics of the nineteenth century (in the sense of support for industry and trade defensiveness), largely due to the general shifts in the world economy and the aggressively developmentalist policies of emerging industrial powers.
By understanding neoliberalism in the political field as one ideology among others, I am especially interested in the capacity for other ideologies to become embedded in both discourse and policy outcomes, often as compromise formations. The focus is less on the micropolitics of everyday practices than on the broad contours of the political field and its potential to undergo tectonic shifts similar to the transition in dominance from social liberalism to neoliberalism that occurred in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The approach allows me to ask the empirical question of “after neoliberalism—then what?” in a way that is not clouded by utopian hopes.
Although there is a green transition in place in both the United States and many other countries, I remain pessimistic that the world’s largest countries will be able to act quickly enough to avert the multiple environmental crises of climate change, desertification, persistent toxics in the biosphere, and exhaustion of land and water resources. The future of the anthropocene looks grim indeed.