Experiences from our first year off-grid
Experiences from our first year off-grid
Planning for the Kadagaya project started in mid-2013 in Copenhagen where we were working as scientists in a research laboratory. Despite enjoying our work and the comfortable living conditions in Scandinavia (arguably some of the best in the world), we felt unfulfilled. During a long process of self-education regarding the current economic, social and environmental problems we realised that the majority of the problems are a direct result of the monetary system. We decided to leave our jobs, separate ourselves from the system and join a community. The system that most closely aligns with our values is that of a resource-based economy (RBE). There are only a few groups (e.g. One Community and RBE10k) developing communities based on RBE concepts, and these are still in the planning phase, so we decided to start a community of our own, which would eventually be coupled with a research centre for appropriate technology. We have learnt a huge amount over the years and we want to share some of our experiences.
- Patience! Everything takes longer than expected.
We live in a fast-paced, highly competitive world where “time equals money” and being busy and productive are valued as signs of efficiency. Our highly technologized society allows us to have immediate access to information, fast communication and satisfy many of our desires without having to wait. This instant gratification is training us to be impatient and get disappointed when rewards aren´t delivered as fast as we expect.
Although we recognised the ill effects of such a stressful lifestyle and chose a simpler life, it was very hard to slow down at the start! It is difficult to shake the feeling of being lazy and unproductive when “doing nothing” (i.e. resting). We are learning that everything takes a lot longer than you initially think (especially in Peru where the work ethic is highly informal yet plagued by bureaucracy). Slowing down has helped us appreciate the time to think through our plans and projects and enjoy our new life.
- Life is easy.
This lovely TED talk “Life is Easy: Why do we make it so hard” somewhat mirrors our own experiences in journeying away the system into a simpler life. We learnt that we are more than capable of looking after ourselves; we designed and built our own house and workshop, installed our own electricity and plumbing, built a rainwater collection and wastewater system and started growing some of our own food. We were not experts in any of this – we used the vast resources of information on the internet, got help from friends and volunteers, learnt from many mistakes and experimented a lot.
We have shed a mountain of stresses and burdens (most of which we were not even aware we had) and are now valuing very different things in life. We never worry about what to wear or how we look. We have improved our lives beyond anything we could have imagined, are happier, healthier, less stressed and enjoying every day doing something we are passionate about. We get as much sleep as want and it rarely matters what day of the week it is. As a couple we appreciate having so much time together, facing the same challenges and being able to really understand if one of us has had a bad day. We look forward to having lots of time to spend with our children, being their teachers and friends instead of being in work and day care.
- Achieving self-sufficiency can be expensive.
The most common questions we are asked, and the biggest doubts and criticisms we get about our lifestyle and project are related to the financial aspects. This is a topic that we really believe deserves open and honest discussion and we are happy to share these details to help others who might want to undertake something similar.
Achieving self-sufficiency of the basic needs (land, housing, water, energy, and food) can be expensive in the early stages of setting up infrastructure. The first challenge was to stop analysing the value of a resource through its monetary value (which is simply a measure of scarcity and the market forces, not a real value). For example, we are planning to spend over 20,000 USD constructing a hydroelectric plant on our river. Although this will supply enough power for 20 families, it is not “economical” compared to running cables and connecting to the power supply for a few dollars per month. However, we know that we are gaining reliable energy (the local grid often has blackouts) and security (we know how to fix anything if it breaks and are not dependent on the outside world). We strategically chose a rural area in a developing country in order to minimise our living costs, where we could afford to buy land without going into debt. Within the first year, we were supplying all our own water (collecting rainwater), basic energy needs (with a small solar photovoltaic system), waste management (dry toilets and grey water processing) and built communal housing for ten people (no rent or mortgage to pay). Although initial set up requires some investment, it is possible to reduce living costs significantly quite quickly.
- Finding a location
Living off-grid and adopting an alternative lifestyle is becoming challenging (and even illegal) in some parts of the world. In some states of the U.S. it is illegal to collect rainwater or plant a vegetable garden in your front yard! Most developed nations have strict regulations and it is difficult to experiment with different types of housing, energy systems and agriculture. For this reason, we chose to begin our community in Peru, where the cost of land and living is low and there are fewer regulations regarding how you can use your land and what type of infrastructure and housing you can build. We chose a remote rural area as we thought it would be more efficient to start with a blank piece of paper instead of reworking infrastructure of an old, unplanned system. We chose land with good access (to the nearest town about an hour away and the capital city), with a river as a source of water and energy and some existing food sources (native plants as well as old agricultural crops). We chose a semi-tropical climate that is pleasant for living where we could initially build simple houses that don´t require heating/special design. We spent a lot of time evaluating potential areas, talking a lot with the locals to avoid potential health, political, environmental or social problems (risk of diseases, natural disasters, mining, drug trafficking, sewerage plant upstream etc.) We also chose a developing country for the opportunity to provide assistance to those who really need it. We can quickly have an impact on people´s lives by providing education and resources (particularly for obtaining basic needs) that are not easily available here. Poor communities feel they have a lot less to lose (or more to gain) and are often more open to opportunities for change.
It is unfortunate that developing a project and lifestyle such as this requires some degree of isolation (from the monetary system, society and governing structures). However, we have found it much easier to experiment with a new lifestyle without the distractions of the current system. Internet access is extremely important for research, communication and sharing experiences. Getting a reliable internet connection in a remote area was challenging, and took nearly a year, but it is a critical tool for our project (which relies heavily on research and technology).
- Building the community
Initially we planned to develop our project within a native community in South America. We thought that these communities would be less influenced by the monetary system, and share our ideals of self-sufficiency and strong community and have fewer social problems due to an abundance of resources. A two-month trial in a native community in Junin, Peru proved that this was not the case. This community was embedded in the monetary system, viewed us as a source of money (and were eager to exploit us), were very suspicious of foreigners, and struggled to understand our motivations. It became clear that the most important factor for developing a strong and successful community is the mindset of the people. Hence, we decided to privately buy land and build a community of like-minded people (with the view of including locals in the future when we have results to show).
Over the years, we have encountered an increasingly large global community promoting, advocating and discussing intentional communities and alternate ways of living. When we decided to develop a community we expected to have a lot of interest from people willing to collaborate and join the group. We have no shortage of volunteers (mainly travellers) excited to spend a few weeks or months in the jungles of Peru helping us build the community, but finding long-term/permanent residents is much more difficult. There are a number of possible reasons why this might be the case, including difficulties in exiting the current system for financial or familial reasons and the fear of trying something new (caused by the fear-mongering and social conformity promoted by society). It would be preferable to have a consistent group of people, learning and growing together during the development of the community from the ground up. This would promote cohesion, a sense of identity and allow the community to benefit from a range of skills and inputs. However, in the early stages while the basic infrastructure is being constructed and daily life is not as comfortable as that in the system, it is easy to understand why joining the community is not as attractive as it might be for an established community.
In addition to building the physical community and research centre we are working hard to build our network of like-minded people and promote Kadagaya to those who might be interested in visiting and living with us. We use our website, social media, blogs, articles and scientific literature to share our experiences and connect with volunteers through various websites. We also interact as much as possible with our neighbours, trying to discuss our motivations and projects and get to know people personally (to reduce some of the suspicions and superstitious myths about foreigners that are deeply rooted in the culture of this area).
We are very happy to share our accumulated knowledge and experiences, so please feel free to contact us with any questions, comments or suggestions.