Plugging in


Cross-posted from The Last Word on Nothing, a blog about science

Two weeks ago, for the first time in 15 years, I flushed the toilet inside my house.

This — and by “this” I mean the 15 years of non-flushing — was not quite as gross as it might sound. Until very recently, my family and I lived off the electrical grid in rural Colorado, in a straw-bale house with solar panels, minimal plumbing and a limited water supply. To conserve electricity, we had few appliances, and to save water we used a composting toilet (we had what is delicately called a honey bucket). It was fun and cheap and wonderful in unexpected ways — even the honey bucket had its charms — but over the past year it became clear that my family needed a less isolated place to call home.

Michelle Nijhuis' former off-grid abode in Paonia, Colorado.

Our off-the-grid life and our move is chronicled in this new piece from the public-radio show BURN, but to make a long story short, we rented out our straw-bale nest, bid tearful goodbyes to our neighbors, and moved to a still rural but larger town in the Pacific Northwest, close to both family and old friends. And then we promptly plugged back into the grid.

No matter my living situation, my carbon footprint is anything but petite. I travel frequently for work, and even at home, as HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson recently pointed out, many of the things all of us use daily are manufactured with the help of dirty power. But in Colorado, the direct energy diet of my household was tiny, and it was strictly enforced: I couldn’t have a toaster, or a waffle iron, or an external monitor for my laptop. We had a very small array of solar panels, and we just didn’t have enough juice for those things. We lived comfortably but frugally, with hot showers and Netflix but no hair dryer or TV.

Now, I can have any and all of those things, as often as I like. And 10 years ago, even five years ago, I might have been quietly pleased to loosen my hairshirt. But two weeks in, I’m surprised to find that I’m just not tempted. The hairshirt, it turns out, has become damn comfortable. Why would we want a vacuum cleaner, anyway? Easier to just maintain our lowish standards of cleanliness. And a TV? Please. I look at a screen all day long. (The flush toilet in our new place, alas, is non-optional.)

The old adage that it takes only three weeks to form a habit is pretty much baseless, but actual research suggests that it takes between two and a half and 36 weeks for various daily-activity habits to take hold. After 15 years, I hope our household has formed something like a positive addiction to energy frugality, and can maintain its diet even in the face of a seemingly limitless supply. But just in case, I’m insuring my habit with the threat of public shame: If you ever find me sprawled in front of a brand-new large-screen TV, indulging in a late-night marathon of BBC dramas, remind me about this post.

Michelle Nijhuis is a High Country News contributing editor.

High Country News Classifieds