When Esther Emery and her husband had children, they looked at their lives and felt empty. Though their beautiful family was growing, they felt that they were living a life that wouldn’t last. “We worked very hard, we were career oriented,” Emery offers, “we found that right around the time we had children, we found our life was completely unsustainable. We felt we were living empty lives, living from moment to moment, and weren’t really living.” From there, the troubles began to grow. “We also had a marriage crises related to all of that. We felt like we couldn’t keep our family together. The life we were living wasn’t working. We wanted to try something different, so that is why we were motivated to make a pretty radical change.”
For Emery and her family, that radical change involved moving to three acres of land in Boise, Idaho, where they began to live a sustainable life. First in a camper, then a yurt and, eventually, they’ll move into a new cabin with solar panels and in-floor heating that won’t rely on generators or connections to any sort of public utilities. “With a minimum of negative impact on our environment, ideally making us responsible for improving our three acres of land, bringing health to the soil and natural life around us.”
The change has worked. Though Emery and her family still work very hard to keep this life together, “We can use all of our skills and hard work to make something beautiful and point us toward each other, so our project is our life. We don’t have vacations to have a life, we life our life — an integration of the work we are doing and our passion in our actual day-to-day living.”
While Emery’s transition to sustainable and off-grid living may seem extreme, the change wasn’t that foreign to her. She’s the youngest daughter of Carla Emery, who wrote the book on sustainable living. Literally. The Encyclopedia of Country Living has sold more than 800,000 copies, has had 40 editions and is known as one of the authoritative books on the off-grid and sustainable lifestyle. In the mid 1970s Carla Emery was even seen on several television shows, making appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Good Morning America. She even milked a goat on Donahue.
“I found that incredibly embarrassing as a teenager,” Emery explains. Now, however, she has followed in her mother’s footsteps, and is another authority on sustainable living. Most recently she delivered a TEDx Talk, where she talked about living without the internet for a year and her own decisions about returning to her off-grid roots. She has also written her own book, titled What Falls from the Sky, chronicling her 365 days without a single connection to the digital world. Emery also regularly contributes to her own YouTube channel now, offering a glimpse into her world, providing tutorials and stories from her family of her sustainable life. The first video they loaded was a little under three minutes, demonstrating how they do laundry off-grid with a bicycle-powered washing machine. It has more than 85,000 views so far.
Off-grid vs Sustainable Living
It’s important to note that sustainable living isn’t quite what many people refer to as “living off the grid.” The more radical approach involves attempting to live without any fossil fuel of any kind. It can be very extreme and very difficult to do. “We did that for two years,” Emery explains, “now what we do is a more modified version.” They have some solar panels that allow them to have a power source — mainly used to access internet — so Emery can contribute to her YouTube page and do her blog entries, and they have two gas-powered generators. They aren’t connected to any type of utility.
“The idea that anyone can be self-sustaining is, in my opinion, a myth,” offers Crystal Eisele, who used to live in Denver, where she first began her own sustainable lifestyle. “I consider ‘off the grid’ literally as not connected to the power/water/sewer grid. Everyone is ‘on’ the grid in some way. The human grid. Everyone needs resources, products, etc. that they cannot create themselves.” Now, Eisele lives off the coast of Seattle where she and her family live in a 38-foot sailboat. “We need each other. We need community and infrastructure that one person or family cannot build themselves. But what we need is to live smaller than we do.” For Eisele, that began with smaller steps when she was still living in Colorado. “You start with baking your own bread, then you’re making cheese, then you’re using cloth diapers, then you’re living on a sailboat, traveling with the wind to work on organic farms on islands in Puget Sound.”
Day to Day
Make no mistakes about it, living sustainably requires work. “Without artificial light, your day is structured by the sun,” explains Emery. “You start your day with the sun and you end your day with the sun. In winter, our day is very short, and in the summer it’s very long, so we kind of follow the seasons. We do have a lot of chores, particularly around what we eat and how we garden. It’s not uncommon for me to start moving and be non-stop. But I like that.”
When you have children, which both Eisele and Emery have, things get more complicated. “It’s not back-breaking, but pretty continuous. I home-school my kids, so it’s pretty structured,” Emery explains. Her day starts with the sunrise, where she first takes care of her own personal care before going outside. Then it’s time to care for the animals, “if it’s summer, it’s watering; if it’s winter then I’m melting water for the animals, or carrying water that isn’t frozen to the animals.” Then she’s back inside feeding her children and homeschooling them. “Then I take on some sort of project. In the summer it’s some type of gardening. In the winter it can be canning or exploring our skills or baking. Then, in the afternoon, the kids would finish their school work and get a lot of play.”
Emery feels it’s important for her three kids — ages three, six and eight — to get lots of play time on their three acres of land. “It’s one of the things I love about our lifestyle. It makes healthy kids. They get time to mess around, though it takes me an hour every single day just to wash my dishes.” After dinner, Emery gets the kids in bed and works on her writing life, “I’ll do that until midnight or so, then I fall asleep and do it all over again.”
Starting Sustainable Living
If the sustainable lifestyle speaks to you and you’re ready to reduce your own use of fossil fuels there are some specific steps you can take. “Start thinking of it as ‘living smaller’ and ‘learning to make or do more’ and ‘needing less’, rather than being more ‘self-sustainable,’” explains Eisele. “Start small with making more of what you eat, use or need. Pay attention to where your food and products come from. Support local merchants, craftsmen and farmers. More than anything, try to use less. Create less trash and recycling, use less product, buy less, drive less, etc. Find ways to entertain yourself and your family that are about connecting to real human beings, not technology. More than anything, pay attention. See what harm we are causing. When you throw something away, it doesn’t disappear. When you buy something, a human being was involved in its creation.”
If at first you don’t succeed, when going off grid, don’t be afraid to try again. “A lot of our culture has taught us do it right or don’t bother,” Emery offers. “You have to reverse that if you’re going off the grid. Of course you’re going to go wrong. And when you do, are you to going to give up or try again? Are you going to be empowered that you can change and become a more human person or are you going to give up? It’s important to change your own capacity to respond to adversity.”
Eisele also has had stumbling blocks as she’s learned about her new lifestyle. “I am learning all the time what I can and cannot do, how much energy I have to commit to research and creation over constant and overarching convenience. But this myth of convenience is what is blinding us to the real world, to those who are doing the hard, dirty or dangerous work to bring us our convenience. Being self-sufficient isn’t about you, it’s about the rest of the planet. About doing the work, sharing the work consensually, or doing without.”
In the end, sustainable living provides a more human connection. Eisele lives a happy and healthy life on her 38-foot sailboat with her husband and child as she finds her own connections with sustainably-focused communities of Puget Sound. And Emery’s life has improved drastically as well. “We would not have necessarily made it if we hadn’t been able to create a life style that was going to work for both of us. It just happens we are both passionate people that like to do big, exciting things,” she continues, “We have been taught that we need material things to be happy, but our life style proves the opposite. Personal happiness and internal peace actually can come from working hard, taking care of your space around you and being responsible for the impact on the same around you. You can be happier.”
Sidebar: Off-Grid in Colorado
Colorado is home to many off-grid and sustainable living organizations, each offering resources for anyone looking to live off-grid (or at least more sustainably.) Here are a few association and organization that can help you with your new plan to adopt this new lifestyle.
Sustainable Living Association: A Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to helping people and communities with sustainable choices. It provides workshops year-round teaching sustainable practices from building to cooking to renewable energy and more. www.sustainablelivingassociation.org
The GrowHaus: A Denver-based nonprofit, indoor farm, marketplace and educational center. It’s a huge 20,000 square-foot greenhouse that has been renovated to grow produce, teach about healthy living and to distribute the food it makes. www.thegrowhaus.org
Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute: Located in Basalt, Colorado, the CRMPI is one of the oldest continually-operating permaculture facilities in the country. You can get a hands-on site tour of its beautiful gardens, learn about passive-solar greenhouses and even try tropical fruits from its on-site landscaping nursery. www.crmpi.org
Rocky Mountain Sustainability Center: A hands-on learning center dedicated to providing Colorado with resources for sustainable living. It’s also the home of Sunridge EcoRanch, a facility built to showcase a completely earth-friendly design. www.rockymountainsustainabilitycenter.org
Slow Food Denver: Located in Denver’s RiNo District, this organization is dedicated to seed-to-table and community table practices, offering opportunities for you to work with the people that grow your food, learn about food production and to support a food system that’s sustainable for the planet. www.slowfooddenver.org
Sidebar: Going Off-The Grid: By the Numbers (Note to graphics: I see this as an infographic and not a bulleted list. I think that would look really nice in the piece.)
If you’re wondering about the cold hard cash of the situation, here’s a quick glimpse into what going off-grid could save you, and what would happen if you invested that savings each month. These estimates do not include food costs/savings, nor does it include other tangible expenses like clothing and disposable goods because, frankly, that gets complicated. But scaling the numbers down, here’s what you’d be looking at.*
There are some expenses involved with starting a sustainable lifestyle. You’ve got to install solar panels, a gray water disposal system, a septic system and a waterless toilet (among other things.) Of courses prices vary.
Solar Energy System: $18,000
Gray Water Disposal System: $2,000
Septic System: $4,800
Waterless Toilet: $1,500
Total estimated startup cost for going off-grid: $26,300
If you’re connected, then you’re paying monthly bills. Here are some Boulder County estimates for what people are paying for things like electricity, heat, water, trash and internet. These are the expenses that you’ll no longer have to deal with when you live off-grid.
Utilities (including electricity, heating, water and trash): $165.76
Monthly transportation (gasoline): $80.00
Car Insurance: $150
Total monthly expenses: $466.33
Total yearly expenses: $5595.96
Assuming you start living off-grid at age 30, and you live until you’re 80, you would save $253,498 over a lifetime, after you factor in the expense of going off-grid in the first place.
If you were to take that $466 every month, however, and invest it into a Roth IRA, starting at age 30:
$440 monthly contribution
9% interest rate
25% marginal tax rate
You’d have $1,015,803.65 at age 65.