Off the Grid

Last week I had the opportunity to perform as Jefferson for a national conference of representatives of energy producing states. When I embody Jefferson I don’t work from a script. I free-form the Sage of Monticello and I try to focus on issues of importance to the audience before me.

For days I wondered what Jefferson could possibly have to say to people in the energy production business of the Twenty First Century. This group spends its time thinking about fracking, natural gas shale fields, flaring of methane, carbon capture, and interstate pipelines. Not to mention OPEC and greenhouse gases.

I’ve been living in the heart of that energy paradigm for the past decade. North Dakota is now the second largest oil producer in the United States and the landscape of my beloved state has been overwhelmed with a kind of industrialization that nobody could ever have predicted for the northern Great Plains.

Then the Jeffersonian insight struck me. Today we talk about being “off the grid” as something that Thoreauvians or hippies undertake. A few tens of thousands of people nationwide do what they can to sever their dependence on our civilization’s supply lines of water, electricity, heat, and communications networks. Back in Jefferson’s time, when there were six million Americans, everyone was off the grid. Even Jefferson, a man of privilege, had to build his house from bricks baked on site, and with timbers from the forests that enveloped his “little mountain.”

If Jefferson wanted to heat his home, he had to obtain firewood. If he wanted water, he had to dig a well or construct reliable cisterns to capture water from off of the roof. If he wanted to go to Philadelphia, he had to harness horses. The light at Monticello came mostly from the large Georgian windows of the era—think of them as light gathering lenses on the world—and from the thirteen skylights he installed. The people of Jefferson’s era tended to go to bed when it was dark and rise at first light. Jefferson was able to extend the day a little with candles made on the plantation and with whale oil lamps. Just how spermaceti oil found its way up the mountain all the way from Nantucket I do not actually know, but it would be worth knowing.

The price of Jefferson’s low-tech world was discomforts we would not choose to renew—including the exceedingly primitive privies in and around his Palladian neoclassical mansion. The price, too, was slavery, that source of labor that now permanently blots the reputation of Jefferson. The benefit of Jefferson’s low-tech, decentralized world was that it was just possible that we could be a genuine republic—a nation of independent, self-reliant, self-governing farmer citizens whose relationship with things larger than themselves was voluntary. Jefferson’s vision of America required sturdy Vergillian farmers who could feed, clothe, and shelter themselves even if the Constitution and/or the economy collapsed.

The benefit of our world of high-tech miracles (from satellite communications to shale fracking) is material comfort greater than any generation in human history, and an incredibly widespread emancipation from hard manual labor. We are, as the Eighteenth Century’s Samuel Johnson put it, “wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.” Never have so many had it so good, at least in the developed world. And—we should never forget, especially when talking about a man who lost four of his six children in childhood and a fifth as a young adult—we doubled the longevity of the first world’s people in the Twentieth Century.

But here’s the cost, though I’m not sure my recent audience was willing to hear it. The price of our luxury—to use the Enlightenment’s term—is gigantism. A global capitalist system based on Industrial gigantism to provide all of these technological and material wonders, and government gigantism to manage and regulate the stupendous complexities of the modern industrial economy. In other words, the price is Hamilton. Think of the power of the individual against the forces of big government, and unprecedented accumulations of capital.

No farmer citizen of North Dakota could ever bring up by himself a single gallon of oil from 13,000 feet under the surface of the earth, much less fracture a shale deposit to drip out its impregnated treasure of carbon. We are rich, but we are now utterly dependent on entities we cannot control and cannot always even understand. Next time you hear the libertarians and the Freedom Caucus say we should govern ourselves in the manner of the friends of Patrick Henry and James Madison, ask them where their electricity and natural gas come from. Who heats their houses? What happens when the gas pumps run dry, or there is no food on the grocery store shelves.