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Of Canoes and Calculators: Living Off the Grid

Randy Swaty with Jeannie Patton  


Recently my two boys and I spent a couple of days at a small cabin that’s 17 miles from the nearest paved road in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We’re working on a canoe with a man who lives off the grid, mostly eating food that he can grow, salvage from dumpsters, or trap. Victor spends most of his waking hours thinking about how he’ll get what he and his wife need to survive.

Victor and Claudia build hand-made canoes for museum collections, using local cedar for ribs, birch-bark for the covering and a mix of spruce pitch, charcoal and bear fat to seal the seams. The boats are lashed together with spruce roots. Except for when cutting the cedar, they use four tools in the whole process.

Victor kindly volunteered a couple days to help us build our canoe. It has an ash frame – in danger due to the exotic emerald ash borer -- lashed with artificial sinew that is then covered with “space-age textiles” or Dacron® as Victor put it. I have no idea how many tools went into making the half dozen or so materials that we have used while just building the frame.

Victor’s way of life -- off the grid, growing/killing/salvaging most of his food, heating exclusively with wood in a small log cabin -- seems to be about as earth-friendly as it gets. At our first meeting, when he greeted us with a shot gun nestled in his arm, I wondered what his “home-range” is as the top predator in his territory. He served everyone venison stew for lunch and planned on woodchuck for his dinner.

All of this begged many questions, beginning with, “What is his carbon footprint?” I wondered what it would look like if seven billion world inhabitants tried to live off the grid, realizing that many do, and not by choice. And, at the core of the issue: should my family and I follow Victor’s example, living close to the bone and to the earth, using as few natural resources as possible? COULD we do it? What would be the consequences in terms of health, energy expenditure and general well-being?

Not being a social scientist, human ecologist or demographer, I went to those who know about carbon footprints. Nursing a cup of Guatemalan coffee -- water is heated by propane -- I fired up my computer, clicked on The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator ( and entered my best guesses regarding the family’s carbon output. The results indicated that we emit 65 tons of carbon annually, or roughly half of that of the average family of four in the US.  I, alone, contribute almost half of our family’s carbon emissions. My personal tally is 27 tons annually, with ten of them coming from work-related plane flights. Therefore, almost a third of my carbon emissions are due to travel for my job.

Calculating Victor and Claudia’s carbon footprint was a trickier because TNC’s system is designed for an “average” household, and many of the template questions simply did not apply. For instance, TNC’s calculator prompts people to consider what they have done to change their environmental impact, e.g. have they installed efficient lighting?  Victor and Claudia have no electric or gas lights -- not an available answer on the template.

Do you use energy star appliances?  They have no appliances, also not an available answer.  What have you done to change the impact of your food and diet? Shooting and dressing one’s own meat certainly wasn’t among the choices.  Then there’s the question, “How many meals include meat?” Generally speaking, the more meat one eats the more carbon is emitted thanks to an agricultural system that prompts dependency on factory farm-raised products.  Since Victor and Claudia eat only wild-caught meat, I chose “never” for the answer, assuming that wild-caught meat has negligible carbon impacts.

The last question on the calculator is, “What do you do to negate some carbon impacts?” Claudia works at a food co-op promoting organic food, “slow food,” and recycling. Should I subtract from their tonnage total?

Results of my best guessing:  Victor and Claudia emit 37 tons of carbon per year total (53 tons is the US average for a two-person household), with 18 tons due to occasional flights to Europe to visit Claudia’s family.  As a couple they emit 10 tons less than I do alone.  

Calculating carbon emissions is tricky. But even given possible errors due to guessing, the nagging question remains: what should my family do to dial back our carbon footprint? 

I decided to look at one daily activity as a starting point: eating.  Mark Bittman’s article in the September 30, 2011 New York Times Sunday Magazine “Food and Drink” issue, poses thought-provoking questions, including, “How can food change my life? And how can food change the world?” Bittman notes that “for people to eat well, to live well, to thrive and be healthy (and for health care costs to become more affordable), for agriculture and rural areas and even towns and cities to be sustainable — that is, for agriculture and land and water and labor to endure — the food system has to change. That means working locally, nationally, globally.”

My small family faces a hugely dysfunctional food system and needs a starting point for change.  Bittman suggests that people “fix school lunches. Support a farmer, or start growing your own vegetables. Work for a member of Congress who is committed to making Big Food pay its way. Support fair treatment of workers — and of animals too. As a friend [of his] said recently, ‘there's plenty of good work to do.’ With food it can really have an impact, not only on your life but on everyone's.”

Living off the grid – seven billion people living off the grid – is impossible. Killing my own food is impossible in my neighborhood with my resources. Flying to critical conferences and meetings – a requirement to do my important work at The Nature Conservancy -- must remain an option.  But I can start with the possible. As Bittman says, however I choose to live and whatever changes I make, I have to begin somewhere.  And why not at my table?

Contact Randy Swaty