Grid-down

Updated: Jul 17, 2018


Life on the canal: a preparation for prepping?


For 10 years I lived on a canal boat in the centre of London, my closest experience to an ‘off-grid’ lifestyle. Well, it was only off-grid when the boat was unplugged to go driving, or when things broke down, as they often did. Once as we were getting ready to reverse the boat out of the mooring I shouted from the helm to a friend who was acting as a crew member for the day: “Are we unplugged?” “Yes!” Was the reply. I put the engine in reverse to pull out. We weren’t unplugged - and wrenched the whole socket out of the post. No electricity for 2 weeks.


When the hoses were left out in the winter and froze - no way to top up the water tanks. When the pump out station broke down - no way to empty the toilet tank. When the gas bottle ran out and the spare had not been replaced - no gas cooking. When the diesel ran out and the delivery boat was not due for 2 weeks, or the pump broke - no diesel fire.


Some of these things were within my control and so happened due to poor management, some were beyond my control. But what it all meant was that the ‘grid’ I was connected to was not invisible and taken for granted. I could see and needed to manage the entry points to my little private space, actively, every day. I was conscious of how much water was used for different activities, how much electricity different appliances used, how much diesel I used to heat the boat for periods of time, who not to invite for dinner because they used up half the toilet tank capacity (sorry, tmi). I also had strategies and back up plans to deal with minor set-backs, break downs and outages.


There was a social etiquette that governed how to interact with other boat users’ infrastructural flows: never ask to use another boat owners’ toilet: go back to your own (or for guys, take a leak off the end of your OWN mooring berth); you can borrow hoses if you ask but always carefully roll back up; always offer a ride to portaloo users when going to the pump-out station for a ‘poo-run’; never take a spare gas bottle from another boat, even in an ‘emergency’, and so on.

Now? I’m vague about my annual heating and electric bills, uneasy about the amount of water we use (I’m sure, with all the kids’ baths, that we use as much in a day as I did in a month on the boat). Research suggests that I’m not alone in this disconnection for infrastructural flows.


Social scientists argue that network infrastructure – our electricity, water, gas and sewage systems - are invisible (or ‘blackboxed’) when they work well, and only become visible to most people when they break down. Preppers seem to agree: I have noticed numerous references to the way in which non-preppers take ‘the grid’ for granted, and how they would be defenceless (or become a rioting mob) if widespread infrastructural collapse happened. Academics and preppers also point to the potential for cascading failures across different networks, with electricity networks intersecting with monetary networks, petrol pumps, communications etc.


Having back-ups for key services seems to be a central part of prepping, as well as stockpiling for situations in which food delivery systems to urban areas collapse due to cascading failures of modern systems. We have read numerous posts about home energy generation (e.g. solar panels or generators); water purification and different modes of cooking without the usual services.


But, to return to my boaters’ obsession with managing the toilet – there seems to be comparatively little attention to alternative home latrines in the event that water and sewage systems collapse. We’d be interested in your thoughts on why this is – or if you disagree?!


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Funding Partners

The Wellcome Trust, through Birkbeck ISSF fund