Going off grid: a study in Australian history

Going off grid: a study in Australian history

Exorbitant house prices, soaring utility bills and climate change are some of the reasons why more Australians are choosing to live off grid.

Once considered a ‘radical way to live’, off-grid PhD candidate Rachel Goldust says it’s now seen as being economically and socially savvy. ‘Many more conservative people are now looking into this way of life.’

Why off grid?

Two percent of Australians currently live off grid, which typically involves disconnecting – or not connecting at all, if you’re building – from municipal water, sewerage, gas and electricity services.

Going off grid means growing your own food, collecting your own water, generating your own power, recycling and connecting with your local community to share skills and supplies. It’s a lifestyle underpinned by self-reliance and sustainability.

Goldlust, who studied an undergrad in Environmental History and Honours in Environmental Planning, says it was her personal interest in this area that led to her PhD.

‘I’ve always been really interested in alternative visions of how we can attain a more harmonious and balanced living. I’m interested in rural living – although off-grid in itself can also be in the cities – and in people who are providing for themselves and doing it themselves.

‘I realised no-one had written about it in Australia, so that’s how I got into doing it for my PhD.’


What can we learn by looking at history?

‘This is not a new movement, this has happened before,’ Goldlust emphasises. ‘At the moment, I’m writing about the Eltham mud brick scene. I’m exploring where it came from, why it evolved and also pointing out that it was pretty spectacular and unique.’

Goldlust explains the movement of bohemians and artists moving to Eltham in the 1950s is hugely significant as it was counter to a very conservative and conformist Liberal society and the way they chose to express their dissent was to try and build their own homes as expressions of anti-progress and living counter to industrial materialism.

‘The revival of mud bricks in Australia came through this movement, it hadn’t been seen in America except in Indian or Spanish communities in the desert, and Europe retained some traditional building traditions but certainly weren’t re-building after the war using mud and straw.’

Off-the-grid no longer seen as ‘alternative’

‘What I’m actually trying to do with my thesis is get away from off-the-grid living being a hippie mantra and demonstrate that it’s no longer seen as particularly alternative, as it was at one point,’ says Goldlust.

‘At one point it was exceptionally radical to want to build your house out of mud. Now, it’s not seen as being that radical. So my idea is really to breakdown the stereotypes around what alternative looks like and say “hey, this has become totally mainstream now”.

‘I’m trying to use history as a kind of human response to a lot of situations. This is actually a human response to uncertainty, chaos and environmental concern,’ Goldlust continues.

For example, ‘people were concerned about pollution and bad soil, or were worried about landscape protection so moved out to these blocks and set up their own little mini-protectorates.’


How hard is it to live off the grid?

Goldlust says in some ways it’s easier to live off grid today than it would have been 25 years ago. Although there’s more regulations today around what you can and can’t do on your own property, ‘now, there’s models. There’s five different version of compost toilets to choose from, and there’s this many models for alternative dwellings.’

Also the founder of Earthship Australia, Goldlust says the group was set up to be a network to connect those interested in this lifestyle to the right people, precedent and to share information.

‘The organisation was set up to go: you’re not alone. There’s a lot of people out there doing the same thing. We use each other’s stories to educate.’

As part of this role, Goldlust also runs natural building workshops and information seminars to help and inform others, which in turn helps her keep in touch with what’s going on while working full-time on her PhD.

Beyond the PhD

1.5 years into her PhD, Goldlust says she’d love to get her thesis published into a book or turn it into a documentary.

‘I think most PhD students would like to get their work published to be able to access a wider readership, and for it to be a lot more accessible than just a thesis.’

In terms of a career, Goldlust says her PhD is more ‘a personal journey’ and ‘an opportunity to read, write and share some knowledge and information.’

Doing a PhD is difficult, Goldust notes, and ‘I think you have to really want it when you’re my age. To come back and start a PhD at 34, I think you do it for completely different reasons.’

Goldlust adds, ‘I enjoy being here at La Trobe because the History department is very strong and very supportive. It feels really connected.

‘Other people might not have that. They might struggle to keep themselves motivated. They might not have the professional and intellectual debates and interactions we have here. I think being at La Trobe has definitely made a difference in that way.’

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