Why does a social scientist cross the country? In Canada, one of the world’s wealthier countries, utilities such as electricity, heat, and water are taken for granted. So also did ethnographer Phillip Vannini, until he encountered water scarcity issues at home.
Vannini is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography at Royal Roads University. He recently studied the movements of the island-hopping ferries that service his native Gabriola Island, as well as British Columbia’s other Gulf Islands, the much larger neighbouring Vancouver Island, and the North American mainland.
However, in the course of examining the way vessels affect lives, water scarcity on his home island impelled Vannini to the drastic academic move of travelling across Canada to study ‘off-the-grid’ lives. Interviewing hundreds of people and learning their ways, he eventually wound up delving so deeply into the subject that Vannini is now himself adopting ‘independence’.
He lives on 10 acres in Gabriola Island, which from the outside appears as a paradise – drawing in tourists, pumping out arts, and producing local crafts and foods. But the island has its share of problems; instead of sharing an exotic getaway, residents often deal with the mundane. Amongst a range of natural and social difficulties which face this humming community, the most significant is water.
Although it may seem like the last cause for concern on an island, naturally surrounded by water, islanders vie for scarce sources, and water security features prominently in their minds. Dry summers and dramatic tourist influxes put pressure on the community’s aquifers, and the topic comes up casually in conversations. Vital resource limitations are now studied by Vannini.
He said: “It was a shock for me to move to a home where I experienced for the first time in my life independence with regards to a vital resource, which is water. I had lived in Europe, the States, and on Vancouver Island, and I was always provided by my kind municipality with the things that I needed. I never thought anything of it. But the minute I got here, and I could see my water supply dwindle, it dawned on me that these resources are limited, and we should take care of them, because if we don’t, we run out, and that’s a problem.”
Soft-spoken Vannini, with windswept hair, jokes that he’s going for the look of an eccentric intellectual. Waters gently rumble in the background, forming an ongoing island groove. He added that the island “really puts you in touch with limited resources. If you try to dig anything in this place, you’ll find rock, and more rock. So much so that if a pet ever dies, you can’t bury it unless you’ve got a lot of top soil. There’s so much rock that extracting the limited water is really difficult, and you’ve got no sewer lines, which means that every one of us here has to have a septic field”.
Resource limitation compels accountability. “It’s mind-boggling once you understand these facts. Our history shows us that we have come to expect, and take for granted, conveniences like flushing toilets which our species never had before. You move to an island like this, and you’re like, ‘oh wait, I can’t flush much because I don’t have that much water.’ You start to adopt very basic techniques, like ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’, you know?”
Water security forms a perennial concern on Gabriola Island. In crossing the country, Vannini discovered why people choose to live without ubiquitous modern amenities like running water, heat, and power; these include reasons which are environmental, social, financial, and personal.
In the course of his travels, Vannini has encountered surprises, both in Canada’s diverse environment and in the various adaptations that Canadians have made to live off-grid. He has driven on the frozen ocean in a region of the Northwest Territories above the Arctic Circle. He also investigated the energy-saving devices of an inventor in Manitoba – such as a solar-powered tray that descends six feet below the kitchen, for a refrigerator – and has come across enough bizarre situations that when asked, he instantly mutters “oh, God.”
Vannini makes a point of noting that going off-grid does not imply living ascetically. The lifestyle is “better for some”, depending on disposition. “I’m not saying that these solutions are universal, or that everyone should be that way. I’m actually saying the opposite - that conformity is potentially noxious. Often the idea that we have to do things a certain way to keep up with the Joneses instills values of conformity”.
“In a way, the whole off-grid research points to this lifestyle of autonomy and freedom to do things as one pleases, which makes for a good lifestyle for those who enjoy it, and possibly provides good lessons for the rest of us.” Going off-the-grid technically refers to electricity independence, although many people informally apply the term to any utility.
He adds that “off-grid homes are generally independent for other resources as well, such as water, sewerage, and garbage. I’m independent for water, which is the reason I started studying off-grid; I’m independent for sewage disposal, and I’m also disconnected from other technologies and infrastructures. Thus I’ve never owned a mobile phone, I don’t have television, I’m not on Facebook, and I cannot be reached by highway - you need to get a boat. I do grow some food”. Vannini even likens resource independence to the geographic independence of islands – another topic he has studied.
As an ethnographer, Vannini publishes his results in the form of multimedia reports. His research takes him as far afield as all ten provinces and three territories, and as close to home as, well, home, since “the off-grid field site is vast - it's the whole of Canada.” He has conducted field studies by bicycle, seaplane, and motor vehicle, and says that “ethnography is going to interesting places, meeting interesting people, and writing interesting stories. That’s what I do.”
In general, ethnography is a strange beast. The method documents a subject in broad, sweeping, qualitative terms; yet its goals are scientific – to understand, analyse, and compare. It delves into a subject in a very direct, impressionistic, experiential way. Vannini’s reports read almost like novels, which is no accident, as he specifically draws inspiration from “lyrical inquiry and arts-informed research”, as he explains in an article on islands.
His unconventional take on life off-the-grid sheds new light on old practices. In comparison with quantitative research, the study places knowledge in broader contexts. What would we learn from statistical data on off-grid life, in contrast to Vannini’s visceral ethnographies? The deeply human impact of words and images shares the experience of what people do, why and how they do it, and the events’ environments.
“I don’t like math, particularly”, he laughs. “I like writing. I think every one of us has different skills.” Applying skills appropriately leads to insight. “When you ask people to name sources of inspiration in their life, their list will generally include a good book, maybe a good movie, maybe even a song that is meaningful to them, or a poem. And that’s what I try to do. I try to give them something that is just as inspiring and evocative.”
Vannini mentions that ethnography “comes from anthropology, as well as from sociology, and geography. It’s the idea that by taking a look into other people’s ways of life, we’re not just satisfying a curiosity, we’re able to step into their shoes and view the world from a different perspective. That ability teaches us a lot about the ways we do things. It really gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves how life could be different, and how things could be otherwise”.
The value of this kind of work is that it puts in our faces the very concrete, intimate, personal details, and shows, ‘hey, this is the way these people live.’ It’s not the way you live, but what can you learn about them, and what can you learn about yourself? The value of ethnography is in facilitating that reflex.
To understand something as inexact as what drives a family to trade in their water hook-up for trips to the well, one has to apply tools which are suitably flexible for the subject matter. One of those tools – Vannini’s public ethnography – goes on the road to go off the beaten track, goes offline to go online, goes away to go home.
He comments: “I think there’s a great potential that so far has been unexploited. And I think that as a result of all the things we’ve done scientifically, we’ve lost a little bit of the romance and the imagination that can help make positive change. That’s why I do what I do; besides, honestly, for me, it’s more fun.”
Asked where he sees his research going, Vannini says: “If all goes according to plan, July 2013 is when I’m supposed to be in Newfoundland. After that, I’ve just got to put the final touches together for the book.”
Eagle Gamma writes about adventure science, highlighting discovery through amazing research.