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Domestic lighting and the off-grid quest for visual comfort.

Abstract. Drawing from ethnographic research in Canadian off-grid homes, this paper examines the notion of visual comfort. Like other types of comfort, visual comfort is an affective sensibility whose intensity and achievement are highly variable. Through their unique historical trajectories grid-connected homes have achieved and normalized visual comfort in particular ways, but--as the experiences of off-grid homes show--in no way is domestic visual comfort achievable only by flicking on an electric lightbulb powered by distant sociotechnical assemblages. Comfort is, in fact, not a uniform experience and off-gridders' practices show vividly what it means to achieve it differently--in variable intensities and through alternative entanglements of nature and culture. In particular, we argue that off-gridders' comfort is a direct reflection of their involvement in its production, ensuing from their participation in electricity generation.

Keywords: comfort, energy, light, off-grid, visual ethnography, consumption


"I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

"To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts." Henry David Thoreau, in Walden (2008, page 343).

If you've never lived in a yurt, and decide to move into one, you'll find that two distinctive characteristics of that dwelling will require a good deal of adaptation. The first is lack of privacy, as there are no doors or rooms inside yurts. The second is a dire paucity of windows. There is only one window in these structures, which casts light straight down from the ceiling, just like a fixture (figure 1). But the key difference from a fixture is that it can't be switched on and off. Because the amount of light it casts depends on weather patterns, the luminosity it generates can be at times quite limited and at other times too intense. Illuminating a yurt with electric lighting is of course possible, but when you live off-grid, electric lighting is not something you can take for granted. Controlling natural and artificial light and thus achieving visual comfort-a brief visit to a yurt reveals--is a demanding practice that can take many different shapes.

As Stuart puts on his coat and laces up his shoes (figure 2) to get ready to show me (Phillip) and Jonathan (my collaborator) his gas-fueled electricity generator outside his yurt, my eyes continue to fixate on the unique lighting and shadows cast by the perpendicular source of natural light. Even on an overcast day there is enough light inside the yurt during the daytime to read, cook, or do domestic chores, but the contrast with the amount and type of artificial lighting ideal for a comfortable Martha-Stewart-like home is sharp. Many homes nowadays tend to be furnished with task-specific lighting, so that different rooms and even different areas within the same room feature different lighting tools (eg, neon, iridescent bulbs, compact fluorescent bulbs, windows), different lighting angles (eg, ceiling mounted, wall mounted, tabletop), and different intensities and textures of light (eg, bright, dim, cold, warm) (see Wilhite et al, 1996). But despite the limited flexibility of his lighting, comfort is something Stuart finds he does not lack, and neither do any of the other off-gridders whose stories we share in this paper. Comfort, it turns out, is not a uniform experience. Off-gridders' domestic practices show vividly what it means to achieve comfort differently--in variable intensities and through different technologies.

Recent research and theory posit physical comfort as an embodied affective sensibility (Bissell, 2008).(l) Being physically comfortable is an evaluative judgment of one's sensory experience at a particular time and place. In a consumer world comfort is also a quality attributed to material objects in regard to whether they provide that sensory experience. Comfort is in fact a prized feature used to market anything from couches to air conditioning systems and interior lighting. For this reason comfort is especially important within the modern, Western home (Crowley, 2001; Shove, 2003; Shove et al, 2009). Together with normative criteria of cleanliness and convenience, notions of comfort shape how we value our dwellings and relate to them (Shove, 2003; Shove et al, 2008). Comfort is therefore not a neutral idea or universally objective condition. Historically and culturally variable definitions of the concept of comfort (see Crowley, 2001) and changing architectural and scientific practices which engineer it and normalize it (Shove, 2003; Shove et al, 2009) reflect directly on what people will consider comfortable and the practices they will undertake to achieve such desirable sensation.

In this paper we focus on a particular kind of physical comfort: visual comfort and, more precisely, domestic visual comfort. Domestic visual comfort can be basically understood as the evaluative judgment of the experience of lighting within a home. Over the last decade or so a sizeable amount of research on how we experience and manipulate light in indoor environments (eg, Crowley, 2001; Dillon, 2006; Kline, 2000; Nye, 2010; Schivelbusch, 1995; Shove, 2003) and outdoor spaces (Edensor and Millington, 2009; Gallan and Gibson, 2011; McQuire, 2005; Nye, 2010; Schivelbusch, 1995; Williams, 2008) has become available, but nuanced distinctions of how visual comfort can be variously achieved are scarce. We intend to contribute to this body of geographical and interdisciplinary literature by empirically outlining different sociotechnical avenues for the pursuit of domestic visual comfort and by arguing that visual comfort is an affective achievement.

Visual comfort is a type of affect (following Bissell, 2008): an outcome of the capacities of individuals to configure sensations and material objects. Because mainstream ideas of domestic comfort are so deeply imbricated with consumer ideologies, it would seem logical to expect that homeowners do not rely on common, large-scale assemblages--like centrally generated, grid-transmitted electricity--are somehow at a disadvantage in their capacity to configure the comfort of their homes. Our research aims to unsettle this easy assumption and asks how it is possible to create comfortable spaces through alternative assemblages. The particular individuals we focus on in this writing are inhabitants of off-grid homes. 'Off-grid' refers to a state of disconnection from regional electricity and natural gas utilities. Off-gridders live in a state of disconnection from large sociotechnical utility networks, but do not live in the dark. Indeed, thanks to nonmainstream lighting practices including use of passive solar design, propane fixtures, kerosene and candle lights, as well as DC (direct current), LED (light-emitting diode), and other low-wattage lighting, off-gridders live in conditions they find rich in visual comfort. The key to their practices is in an affective change in orientation as part of a lifestyle built on principles of voluntary simplicity [on that lifestyle philosophy, see eg, Gould (2005); Grigsby (2004)]. We call this switch the Thoreau effect. In very simple words this concept describes how one learns to appreciate the comfort of objects that one has assembled on one's own.

We draw our data from a larger ethnographic project. We have visited to date eighty-nine off-grid sites, and interviewed 159 off-gridders over the course of two years. Though our research is a broader, multisite fieldwork project unfolding across every province and territory of Canada, the ethnographic fragments we produce for this paper focus primarily on the practices and experiences of southern and central Ontario-based off-gridders. This is because we are keen to evoke a somewhat circumscribed sense of place and time and because our main empirical focus for all Ontario data-collection sites was indeed lighting. The off-gridders mentioned in this writing were selected from a pool of twenty-two interviews conducted during March 2012 at fourteen off-grid sites in that province. We searched for off-gridders through a vast variety of strategies, such as media announcements, referral from various organizations, networks, and suppliers or retailers of off-grid-related technologies, and word of mouth. We found a total of twenty-four off-gridders in the province, though we were unable to meet with all of them owing to time and budget limitations. Our writing is accompanied by still photography, video, and a short audio clip which can be listened to online by either following hyperlinks or taking note of the URLs.


Although there are sociocultural variations, certain minimum 'standards' of comfort are necessary for human survival, as extreme discomfort can cause unbearable suffering. It would be impossible, for example, to live in temperatures that cause hypothermia. Dwelling in constant impenetrable darkness, in complete absence of light, would also be very uncomfortable and might eventually lead to physical pain and death (as one would be unable to find the resources needed for survival). Just like air, light is a primary medium of human existence (Ingold, 2005; 2010). Yet, the range of light within which humans can achieve comfort is extremely wide. As Wilhite and colleagues (1996) show through a comparative investigation of energy use in Japan and Norway, deeply set 'cultural' characteristics shape different notions of domestic comfort.

Comfort, the dictionary tells us, is a feeling marked by contentment: an enjoyable and pleasant experience. To be more precise, we should understand comfort as a quality attributed to sensations, emotions, and objects. Thus, for example, we may find a feeling of relief to be comfortable, or perhaps we may find the haptic sensations associated with lying in a cushy chair to be characterized by comfort. If to be comfortable is something that varies on a continuum of physical desirability (and discomfort, its counterpart, on a continuum of undesirability) then we can understand comfort as a bodily sensibility: a corporeal susceptibility or capacity to be affected by one's environment. According to Bissell (2008), comfort is therefore best conceptualized as an affective complex: a three-dimensional set of bodily capacities and intensities of feeling.

The first dimension is an "aesthetic sensibility" (Bissell, 2008, page 1700): a judgment that comes to life through the sensing body. The second dimension is an "objective capacity" (2008, page 1700): the quality imputed to an object, such as a chair, to provide comfort. Third, comfort is an "anticipatory affective resonance" (2008, page 1701): something that is not felt as the outcome of an immediate interaction with an object, but rather anticipated. Bissell's conceptualization posits comfort as a type of affect, or an openness or capacity of the body to affect one's environment and be affected by it (see Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). Seen this way, comfort "clearly depends on the capabilities and capacities of individual bodies themselves" (Bissell, 2008, page 1702) and is therefore an experience fully contingent on the manipulative, transformative activities of people.

Visual comfort is thus an achievement as well: something people seek in order to feel good about the amount, source, and type of light in which they live. Visual comfort is therefore understood as an affective register (see Anderson and Harrison, 2006; Kraftl and Adey, 2008): that is, as a bodily capacity to affect lighting and be affected by it. This capacity varies along with differing skills and available resources and technologies, obviously, but also in relation to different "cultural" (Wilhite et al, 1996) and lifestyle-specific notions of what constitutes comfort. These variations give rise to what we might call ways of lighting. Different ways of lighting weave together relations between humans and nonhumans (eg, resources, technologies), comprising different assemblages of knowledge, skills, materials, features of places, and so on. Ways of lighting are individual and collective visual accomplishments shaped by embodied habits, dispositions, and lifestyles. Differently lit environments therefore exist as different "taskscapes" (Ingold, 2000) in which people become differently involved in search of different intensities of visual comfort afforded by different means.

Now, to the casual observer the off-grid lifestyle would seem to be full of discomforts. Compared with the connected condition typical of the contemporary Western home, living without access to providers of power would seem tantamount to a practice of Spartan or Luddite asceticism at best, or foolhardy masochism at worst. This would be no hasty conclusion. Assemblages of light, speed, and power have been instrumental in shaping the modern condition (Thrift, 1996). Electricity grids have profoundly marked our relation with technology and nature (Bennett, 2010). The arrival of light and power into the modern home had a clear effect on notions of domesticity and comfort (Shove, 2003) and substantially contributed to the progressive "industrialization of the home" (Schwartz-Cowan, 1986). So, to reject the convenience of grid-transmitted electricity is, it would seem, to condemn the comforts it brings.

Yet, as our fieldwork reveals, off-gridders do not reject the value of comfort writ large or visual comfort in particular. Canadian off-gridders explicitly and incontrovertibly embrace the idea of comfort and claim to enjoy it fully. Like other voluntary simplifiers (Gould, 2005; Grigsby, 2004), off-gridders, however, achieve and experience comfort on different terms by manipulating and transforming the distribution channels, productive technologies, and consumer objects that provide them with domestic comfort. The key to achieving various intensities and different kinds of off-grid visual comfort resides in off-gridders ' capacity to reassemble the sociotechnical system by which comfort is achieved within their domestic life.

Achluophobia earns a jagged red line when I type it into a Microsoft Word document, but it is a real word. It refers to fear of darkness, a fear that is sometimes known as nyctophobia (or fear of the night). Though they never experienced achluophobia, it took Glen and Joanne and their two young boys some time to become accustomed to the dark after they left downtown Toronto and moved to their stylish straw bale, 2500-square-foot, off-grid home in the hills north of Peterborough. Neither of them had ever lived without the light pollution of the city. "We couldn't believe how black it was in the house", Glen remembers about the first winter. "If it was a cloudy night, you couldn't see in front of your face." So, one of the solutions they decided to implement to increase their visual comfort was installing self-assembled one-watt LEDs. "You couldn't buy lights like these anywhere at the time", Glen says, "so I bought the acrylic plastic parts and made them myself. We leave four of them on so at night we can see the house when we come back late." The idea worked so well and consumed so little energy that Glen also put together three of them over his dining table for a hip-looking three-watt fixture. A few other lights around the house, compact fluorescents, serve as task lighting (eg, for closets, the bathroom, and the control room), but they are turned on infrequently because the most lived-in areas are often bathed in sufficient natural light.

Joanne and Glen resented city life and decided to seek the comfort of a rural acreage. The decision to live off-grid came after they found their ideal property. Given their prohibitive distance from the nearest utility pole, investing in renewable energy made economic sense, and besides, they liked the idea of being off-grid. The idea included building the house (by themselves) in such a way as to take maximum advantage of passive solar energy. The house is long on its east-to-west axis and very narrow on the south-to-north axis. Large south-facing windows let in heat and light, whereas hardly any windows exist on the other three sides.

"In the summer time we don't turn lights on, at all", Glen reveals. It's not that electricity isn't available during the sunny months--a great deal of their energy generation is photovoltaic based (wind and a backup generator comprise the rest). The reason resides elsewhere. "With this massive bank of glass here we get all the light we need during the day, and even after the sun goes down at 9:30 you can still walk around the house till 10 or 10:30", he explains, "and we're generally in bed by then anyway." Our interview unfolds in the mid-afternoon so I need to take his word for it, but I have a hunch the system works. It's early March and we're all wearing T-shirts inside. There is no heat on and the woodstove hasn't been lit up all day. If the glass does the job for heat, it does the same trick for light.

Passive solar energy seems ingenious enough, but it is definitely not as quirky as Susan's generator bike.

"A generator what?!"--I howl in disbelief at the mere mention, as she breaks the news about it. "Check it out", she announces, "it's really simple. You just plug it in and start biking. Never seen one of these before?"

I have not, except in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. But this one is real. As Susan begins to pedal, a small display mounted on the handlebar lights up. An indicator shows how much power she is producing. Susan smiles as she pedals on to the tune of the wheels' soft whir, knowing that her physical exercise is good for her body and her house.

"It's the beauty of 12 volt electricity", Susan remarks, sensing my amazement, "you can use it to get power out or put it in." By "in" she refers to her batteries, which thanks to her short stationary jaunt are now a tad closer to being topped up. During the cold weeks of the Ontario fall and winter--when going out for a walk is as pleasant as a freezing-cold shower--Susan occasionally takes a break from her writing and generates a few amps with her home gym.

Her batteries can use it too. Compared with other off-grid setups, her system is miniscule, just enough for her basic needs as the sole occupant of her home. The small solar panel array--with no wind turbine or microhydro waterwheel to supplement the photovoltaic energy output--is pretty much all she needs, though, to generate enough electricity for her domestic comfort. A diesel generator stands by in case of additional need, but Susan limits its use as much as she can. This may sound like an uncomfortable way of living, but "it's easier and cheaper", she explains in a gentle, assured tone as we calmly drink a cup of tea in her kitchen, and it makes "perfect sense". With little money to her name, a few years ago she managed to secure a no-interest mortgage and bought the seven-and-a-half acre property from an old friend. She began by clearing the driveway, and then bit by bit assembled her home with logs cleared from the land and recycled from a nearby cabin.

She had limited desires, but one of those was to not sacrifice visual comfort. "I did not want to live in darkness", she says. As a result, a great deal of attention went into making space for windows and other smaller openings to let light in. Log homes can be quite dark as the color of the wood reflects light more poorly than the white-painted drywall typical of most homes. On the other hand it's easy to cut window frames in log homes. Susan patiently managed to find and then fit a mix-and-match set of windows--including a nice large one which now gives her a serene, pastoral view over the surrounding hills. A few more small holes, now covered in tiny square shapes of glass, came from the logs of an old cabin. "I was really concerned about light", Susan confides, but she is quite content with her solutions now.

These solutions include another technology likely to startle the prototypical urban dweller: propane lights. Propane lights are turned on by striking a match and turning open an adjustable gas shutter, not unlike one would do to light up a barbecue grill. A light-colored coating, called a mantle, is fitted over the gas-line opening. The mantle is a socket-like ceramic mesh that encases the flame. The flame actually escapes the mantle when the light is ignited, but then the trick is to turn the shutter down a bit to reduce the flame. After that phase propane light works just like electric light and is similar in color and brightness. The only difference is in its sound; while low in volume, there is a definite hiss that is typical of propane lights. Also different, of course, is their portability. Propane lights need to be part of fixtures and cannot be moved around the home like lampshades or more mobile sources of illumination.

Comfort, historian John Crowley (2001, page 10) writes, took on its modern meaning of sensual satisfaction with commercial "domestic enhancements that provided more privacy, cleanliness, warmth, and light" only in recent times. Previously, the idea of comfort denoted the moral worth of personal support. It was only after efforts took hold to legitimize the hedonistic tendencies of popular consumption of domestic goods that modern denotations of comfort displaced the word's original reference to consolation and subsequently eliminated moralistic distinctions between necessity and luxury (Crowley, 2001). Comfort, in the words of Shove (2003, page 41) was thus progressively "normalized" within consumer society and "represented as a normal ... and even natural state of affairs" increasingly intended as a right.

The discursive and material construction of the normality of comfort, according to both Crowley (2001) and Shove (2003) is the result of an assemblage of representations, practices, and experiences chiefly championed by manufacturers and marketers of domestic goods and affiliated technical experts. With regard to lighting, Shove argues that biological and physiological research have combined with the technical applications of engineers and architects to "determine optimal conditions in order to produce and provide what people need" (2003, page 57). As Bijker (1997) has documented through his study of the evolution of the lightbulb, these assemblages (or as he calls it, ensembles) of actors, stakeholders, consumers, technologies, resources, ideals, norms, values, and practices have resulted in shaping "combinations of lighting intensity and color that are experienced as comfortable" (page 243) and fully normalized and naturalized. Comfort, in a nutshell, is malleable. It is an achievement of various practices. Yet, it is easily perceived as natural and fixed, as if an optimal standard could be positively measured and assessed.

Off-gridders' practices illustrate in vivid detail the malleability of domestic visual comfort and how it can be achieved differently. Off-gridders value comfort in their everyday life just like the rest of us. But the distinguishing characteristic of their quest for comfort resides in how profoundly they participate in making their own domestic comfort possible through their relative independence from utility providers. By becoming involved in the design and building of their homes and in the generation of power through both renewable and nonrenewable energy they meaningfully reassemble the ways in which comfort, technology, domestic environments, consumer objects, and notions of modern lifestyle are entangled. For example, by relying on DC rather than AC (alternating current) electricity and on low-wattage lighting solutions they reduce the environmental footprint of their household consumption and localize the production of energy. By relying on passive solar design they simplify and humanize power generation. And by relying on cost-saving technologies they challenge domestic consumerism. Of course it would be a mistake to lionize off-grid practices as resistant and countercultural--after all their achievements are mostly driven by pragmatic concerns. But the point remains that the ways in which off-gridders reconfigure domestic comfort are undoubtedly "tactical" achievements in the sense intended by de Certeau (1984) as manipulations of relations with a distant exteriority.

Off-grid lighting tactics are "ways of making do" from which off-gridders derive great "pleasure in getting around the rules" (de Certeau, 1984, page 18) of the mainstream; the rules that constrain ways of designing homes and generating, distributing, and consuming power. Through their practices off-gridders insinuate themselves into an affective complex whose social control they do not and cannot take over as a whole. But by incorporating comfort into their everyday life rituals and habits on their own terms, by "pressing] into service" objects and resources around them "to suit [their] current purposes, [they] proceed to modify those things to [their] own design so that they better serve those purposes" (Ingold, 2000, page 176) rather than using objects assembled "by the law of a foreign power" (de Certeau, 1984, page 37). When comfort is reassembled in this fashion, taken away from the sovereign domain of automated, centralized, mechanical control, its experience radically changes (Cole et al, 2008). When inhabitants of buildings (rather than mere occupants) take an active role in controlling the performance of their dwellings, their experience of comfort becomes more dynamic, adaptive, and sensitive to the unique features of their interaction with the local, material world (Cole et al, 2008; also see Ingold, 2010). Off-gridders' comfort is, in sum, a direct reflection of their personal, embodied, affective involvement in its production.

The Thoreau effect

So far we have argued that off-gridders do not reject comfort outright but, instead, practice it in their own terms by way of relative independence from distant sociotechnical assemblages like electricity grids, and by way of intense participation in the process of generating electricity for domestic lighting. We have also shown how off-gridders' quest for visual comfort does not come from either an unusual appreciation of darkness or any particular skilled vision. But even though we have set the context necessary to answer our research question in full and thus explain how off-gridders create visual comfort, we have stopped short of fully connecting the conceptual dots. What we wish to do now is to argue that off-gridders' visual comfort arises not only from their participation in the generation of indoor light, but also from their orientation toward light itself. Our argument can be expressed in a few words as the Thoreau effect. By the Thoreau effect we refer to a transformation in a person's orientation toward his or her capacity to create comfort and be affected by material objects' capacity to afford comfort. In the case of visual comfort this transformation is essentially a way of seeing the meanings and consequences of light differently. In few and simple words the Thoreau effect captures a basic adaptive process, the process of learning to enjoy the comfort of whatever requires a great deal of personal effort. Let us better explain this effect by juxtaposing it to the concept of the 'Diderot effect'.

The 'Diderot effect' is a well-known phenomenon in the literature on consumption (see Shove, 2003). Coined by MacCracken (1988), it refers to a process of upward-spiraling consumption sparked by the dissatisfaction with old possessions generated by the acquisition of new goods. The expression comes from a story related by the philosopher Denis Diderot who, in one of his writings, detailed how the purchase of a new and beautiful scarlet dressing gown made it increasingly difficult and eventually impossible for him to appreciate his old clothes and possessions, which in contrast began to seem inelegant. The Diderot effect, we believe, goes a long way to explaining the collective historical escalation of the quest for visual comfort as well. This escalation is punctuated by a quest for 'better' and brighter light: lighting that is more sensitive to the specificities of various domestic needs and wants. This escalation and historical succession of lighting inventions caused a series of dissatisfactions with lighting tools and techniques that were made suddenly obsolete by new technologies. In virtue of this effect we can understand visual comfort as something that changes with new anticipatory affective resonances made possible by innovations in lighting technologies. In other words, within a consumer culture, increases in the capacity of objects to produce comfort tend to beget higher and higher thresholds for most people's experience of comfort.

Domestic lighting--like many other consumer objects and services--has witnessed a remarkable ratcheting up of expectations. In ancient times fire, besides natural sunlight, was the main source of domestic light. But the light coming from the fire burning in open hearths was also a source of discomfort. Hearth fires caused indoor smoke, which required ventilation. Ventilation came with moisture and cold air, as doors and uncovered wall openings were the only outlets for air circulation. Newer domestic lighting solutions were then sought, and soon the invention of glazed glass windows introduced a new level of domestic comfort. The quest for visual comfort continued to escalate as candle technology was continuously refined. Newer self-burning wicks made earlier candle wicks--which needed to be manually trimmed every few minutes--seem inconvenient. Then, newer, lighter, portable oil lamps pushed away older, cumbersome candlesticks--candlesticks were originally made of solid iron and brass and were thus heavy (Dillon, 2006).

In later years gas lighting was invented and widely diffused. After its introduction people felt that earlier solutions to domestic lighting paled in comparison to the wonderful comforts afforded by gas lighting. Gas lighting made oil lamps and tallow candles feel sooty and appear to smell bad. Moreover, oil lamps required constant refilling and the tallow candles congealed easily in cold environments and melted quickly in warm ones, whereas gas was automatically supplied and worked well in all conditions. But the successive domestication of electric lighting made gas lighting appear to be rife with problems, as gas lighting was--amongst other troubles--recognized to make breathing difficult and cause headaches and various respiratory ailments. Escalation did not end there, as later on the lightbulb itself became subject to a great deal of troubleshooting. Interior electric lighting became the domain of experts who made it their goal to improve visual comfort by optimizing task-specific and room-specific illumination, while seeking fashionable elegance at the same time (Dillon, 2006; Shove, 2003). Greater and greater intensities of comfort and convenience, in sum, became progressively normalized (Shove, 2003).

If the Diderot effect works somewhat like an addictive search for greater doses of comfort obtained through decreasing effort and inconvenience, the Thoreau effect works by way of halting and even reversing that trend. It is a phenomenon marked by affective contentment, rather than dissatisfaction, with the affective capacity for comfort of whatever one already has. It is also a sensibility to appreciate what one can accomplish by oneself: a sensibility to find greater value in whatever one is able to assemble on one's own rather than in whatever the market can provide. The Thoreau effect gets its name from the experiences of the most renowned 'off-gridder' of all time, Henry David Thoreau. In his book Walden Thoreau describes how he spent two years in a small cabin in the woods, where he deprived himself of many of the comforts he and his contemporaries had in the city. But instead of being painful, that Spartan lifestyle full of seeming deprivation taught him--as it teaches many contemporary off-gridders today as well--to draw contentment from the independent enjoyment of what one might call 'simple things'. The first of the two opening quotes of this paper reveals this idea in his elegant words. Thoreau also learned to make do with what he had available and to draw great comfort and pride from the fruits of his own labor. It is the combination of these two processes that makes up the Thoreau effect. First, a heightened aesthetic sensibility to find great comfort in objects that many other people would find (or that in the past one might oneself have found) inadequate, obsolete, cumbersome, inferior, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Second, a higher sensitivity for comfort obtained through hard work and direct involvement, especially when practiced in relative autonomy from other people.

The Franklin woodstove is a great invention for those seeking domestic warmth, but as its doors shut, a source of light other than timber fire must be readily found. It's March and it hasn't been sunny enough lately to recharge our cabin's batteries. Our charge display tells us we are critically low, and without a generator Jonathan and 1 must do with little artificial light. The 25-watt kitchen lightbulb does the job while we cook an improvised meal. Then, after supper, we both gather in the reading room and share a slightly brighter light, just enough to allow us to read our books before bedtime. Back home it's not uncommon for either of us to turn multiple lights on in a room. Here we quickly realize there is no room for a visual splurge. But even more remarkable is our all-too-human capacity for habituation as our eyes soon learn they need to do with what little light we've got. For the first few minutes reading requires a bit of squinting, but then our sight eases into the lower lighting condition. I even notice something that surprises me: in a darker room it is actually easier to read as my eyes are less distracted by other things. Comfort is something we can work on, something we can achieve by either acquiring greater quantities of objects endowed with the capacity to provide comfort, or by striving to find contentment in what we can manage on our own.

Reading is Murray's favorite pastime. His bookshelf is well stacked with socially conscious contemporary nonfiction and politely guarded by the most timid off-grid canine companion I've ever met. While Murray sits on the couch posing with a book for Jonathan to record some B-roll video, his wife Naan tells us how lighting works in their reading room. Besides basic reduction--they each have one light of their own near their favorite armchair--their secret to reducing wattage is twofold. First, light must be cast only where needed and not wasted elsewhere. Their portable and adjustable "Air Canada" tabletop lights--that's the nickname they have given their 3.5 watt LED lights--work just like the reading lights found on Boeing and Airbus cabins. The spread of their luminosity is limited, but their rays are perfect for reading if aimed directly where needed. Their second secret is to utilize DC lighting instead of its AC counterpart. Naan and Murray have both AC and DC lights, but the former have been a significant source of trouble for them and are being gradually phased out from their house. "The DC LEDs are much more efficient", Naan observes, "AC LEDs are also available on the market but the sine wave on our inverter is too irregular for AC lighting. We almost started a fire once." And while they feel "colder" because of their blueish brightness, DC LED lights are also easier on their ageing eyes, Naan finds.

Solar panels produce DC electricity. Direct current electricity consists of electrons flowing in a single direction. However, the type of electricity provided to grid-connected homes like mine is AC, which flows back and forth at 60 cycles per second (60 hertz), much more rapidly than DC. As a result, lighting, appliances, and almost everything else that is electrical runs on AC on the basis of 120 or 240 volts. Off-grid homes therefore need inverters which convert DC electricity into AC and change voltage to the needed 120 and 240 volts. This conversion can be more or less pure. The purer output is known as sine wave, whereas modified sine wave is a less pure and more irregular form. Not all modern appliances and lights are capable of running on modified sine wave, and attempting to operate them--if they start at all--can cause damage. Also inverters need energy to operate. Most off-grid systems are sizeable enough to be able to afford feeding energy to an inverter, but some are so small that any amount of saving can make a great difference. Murray and Naan's system, solely dependent on solar and producing only up to one kilowatt, is one such small system. By using DC instead of AC lights they can bypass their inverter, and they have figured out they can save about 10% of their hard-sought energy.

Naan and Murray are off the grid for environmental reasons. While they recognize that off-grid living is not a solution to global energy security, they believe that relative self-sufficiency and reduced reliance on nonrenewables can teach a lot about conservation. Their philosophy also goes a long way toward explaining their thrifty use of their backup propane generator. "The game is to use it as little as possible", says Murray with a mischievous smile, "some years we manage to never turn it on at all." That is one impressive feat with a one-kilowatt solar system. The lesson for us here is simple: off-grid living is not easy (see, for example, Murray and Naan's manual water pump, figure 3), definitely not as easy and convenient as plugging in a toaster and letting a distant dam generate enough electricity for our breakfast. But through active involvement in renewable energy utilization, through the feeling of satisfaction obtained by reducing personal needs, and through the sense of fulfillment inherent in making do with self-provision, Naan and Murray are able to find great comfort in their home.

Frank and Cheryl live in a region of Ontario with a very high density of off-gridders. Not that statistics of that kind are available, but in the Killaloc area--some two and a half hours west of Ottawa--being off-grid in 2012 seems every bit as common as living 'off the land' was there in the 1970s. In fact, as Frank and Cheryl put it, around here the off-grid lifestyle can easily be understood as the evolution of the earlier back-to-the-land movement. No one called it "off the grid" back then, they recount, but living in a makeshift log cabin or a communal farm with no electricity and little more than kerosene lamps and candlelight is obviously the inspiring predecessor of today's lifestyle. One of the key differences, Frank and Cheryl opine, is the cost. Solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and inverters can cost a small fortune, whereas candlelight was, and still is, cheap. Nowadays the trouble is that Frank and Cheryl's eyesight is not what it used to be and kerosene-lamps or dusk-like lighting is no longer sufficient for reading. "It's a matter of comfort", Frank says. Some of the original and the contemporary back-to-the-land types no longer want to 'deprive' themselves of so much, and living off-grid today is surprisingly comfortable. Off-gridders are not immune to the pull of progressively higher doses of comfort, but they also know where to draw a line. They know how to achieve different kinds of comfort and derive meaning from these available variations.

Twelve years ago Frank decided to build an off-grid home to save money on the conventional alternative. The nearest electricity pole was only 200 feet away, so the cost of buying two poles and a transformer would not have been enormous, but $7000 was still prohibitive. The house came to life in stages, as he--alone first and then with Cheryl's help later--added more and more creature comforts over time. Still, the house was very much unfinished even after he moved in: "There were no windows the first year", Frank says, "it was all plastic over the openings, and when it got really cold a potter friend came by with bubble wrap." Frank had lived off-grid before and learned a lot from others in the area so he understood how to plan a simple system. He wired the house for twelve volt electricity: "There was a woodstove for cooking and water heating, a twelve volt water pump, and twelve volt sound system. The first winter was pretty comfortable: 1 had my hot baths and the music was good." Domestic comfort could be found even in the little he had because his home was the fruit of his own labor.

As a bit of cash became available window glass panes were installed. After the first year he realized that "things were pretty comfortable" and it made no sense to invest $7000, only to get a monthly electricity bill. On the other hand the twelve volt DC wiring was beginning to show its disadvantages. In today's world--apart from boats and airplanes--twelve volt electricity is very unconventional and electrical tools and appliances running on a twelve volt current are rare and costly. "If you've got low voltage then you've got high amperage", Frank explains. I am no technical expert, so as he begins to speak about this I anticipate the next sentences are about to escalate into progressively higher and more mind-boggling realms of electrical engineering, but what comes next instead floors me. "So we went to IKEA, they have nice lamps."

"Did you just say IKEA?!"

"Yeah, you can convert (2) their lamps easily!"

By converting IKEA lamps to work on his electric system, Frank, more importantly, also converted a mass-marketed good into something personal and meaningful. Through his skills and his craft he coopted a foreign object and domesticated it, and as he did he found it valuable enough to generate the sufficient level of visual comfort.

Without (sun)light there would be no life, Ingold (2010) argues. Ingold's analysis of light revolves around the meaning of the sky. What we commonly call "the sky" (figure 4) is only an apparent surface, he argues. Rather than a surface, the sky is a medium: a field within which humans and nonhumans become entangled in the course of their ordinary activities. If this field were not bathed in light, writes Ingold (2005; 2010) there could be no way of inhabiting the planet. Since we could not see without light, "light is fundamentally an experience of being in the world that is ontologically prior to the sight of things" (2010, page 96, original emphasis) and vision, therefore, is "shorthand for vision relayed in the visible" medium of light itself (2010, page 97).

If without sunlight there would be no life at all, without artificial light there would be a dramatically different society. For the unsensitized and untrained consumers of grid-provided electricity amongst us there is little need to be scrupulous about lighting. Visual comfort feels like a rather flat and unimportant experience or a neutral affair. Without moving off-the-grid, we can understand variations in the intensities and kinds of visual comfort by looking at the history of lighting. This history shows two key processes: first, research on the history of illumination of public spaces clearly shows a progressive march of panoptic order and unbridled, round-the-clock, seductive consumerism and increasing economic production (Dillon, 2006; Gallan and Gibson, 2011; Schivelbusch, 1995; Thrift, 1996; Williams, 2008). Second, an equally obvious trend appears in the social history of domestic lighting: the escalation of visual comfort. So, much like we can no longer find much surprise in brightly lit cities, by now we find nothing remarkable about domestic lighting technology. But domestic visual comfort was not always taken for granted. As each new invention cast previous ones in a progressively worse light, contemporary technologies higher in perceived capacity for comfort became normalized.

A simple way to appreciate the significance of artificial light is by grasping the feel and significance of darkness. A blackout provides such an occasion. A blackout, according to Nye (2010; also see Bennett, 2010), is a break in the flow of social time: a moment of arrested development that reveals not only our profound dependence on electricity providers but also our short memory of the way light and darkness used to be experienced, and the ways social rhythms used to be structured. A blackout alerts us to the intensity of the night and the ways in which darkness has been pushed to the margins of our social existence (Nye, 2010). A blackout also shows our individual inability to generate the electricity required for domestic visual comfort. Conditions are different in off-grid homes. "If the power goes out, I fix it!", an informant put it. In this orientation to lighting--in this entanglement in the sky, as it were-- lies the key to the Thoreau effect. To affect the quality of the day by becoming involved in something as important as light generation is one of the "highest arts" of contemporary everyday life, to borrow from Thoreau. That sense of agency, that sense of self-reliance and of involvement into the provision of the resources needed for their lifestyle deeply infuses off-gridders' orientation to domestic comfort and allows them to find contentment in the lighting systems they assemble.

Artificial light is important but it is not an easy thing to think or talk about (Ingold, 2005) and neither is comfort (Bissell, 2008). There isn't enough interview methodology training that can prepare an ethnographer to ask the right questions about the meanings of visual comfort in everyday life. And yet, there are ways. As Jonathan and I would begin our line of questioning by asking about darkness, every interviewee would seem to break their biggest smile and exclaim something like: "I was so scared that moving off the grid would mean living in the dark, and I did not want to live like that!" Off-gridders, our ensuing conversations revealed to us, are obviously not people of the dark--they enjoy stubbing their toes as much as you and 1 do. And off-gridders aren't people endowed with "skilled visions" (cf Grasseni, 2004) either--their sense of sight works just like the next person's. But their homes are far less lit up than most. Yet, as a result of their orientation, their interior lighting still feels very comfortable to them.

Visual comfort is as meaningful a topic in off-grid households as thermal comfort is in cold-climate places or aural comfort is in airport-proximate neighborhoods. This is because the possibility of a blackout--while remote--is a reality in off-grid homes. The possibility of running out of power (or, more likely, the displeasure and sense of defeat caused by having to run one's generator to avoid draining one's batteries, as evidenced well by Murray and Naan) provokes off-gridders into regularly experimenting with different lighting solutions varying in degrees of convenience and visual comfort. These experimentations yield numerous occasions for reflection which enable them to choose from competing options. In fact the Thoreau effect does not describe a lack of interest in greater intensities of comfort but, rather, it describes how the anticipation of future intensities and future kinds of comfort does not come at the expense of the current experience of comfort. Knowing that one can have a more comfortable home tomorrow, in other words, does not make one discontent with today's state. This orientation runs contrary to the typical feeling of lack on which consumerist desire for greater comfort hinges.

In sum, the Thoreau effect describes a personal shift in the orientation toward comfort that originates from the experience of participation and involvement in the generation of comfort. When artificial light becomes a going concern--as it does in off-grid living--its generation, storage, and utilization become subject to an economy of thrift that halts the escalating quest for visual comfort. In more general terms, the idea of the Thoreau effect captures the process whereby comfort becomes less subject to escalation whenever personal effort required for its generation is significant. Indeed it makes sense to find comfort rather than discontentment in whatever one already has, when one is aware of the personal costs and consequences of alternative kinds and intensities of comfort. As was the case for Thoreau, the off-grid lifestyle simply teaches its practitioners this simple but important lesson.

The comfort of light

Domestic visual comfort--which we might now better define as the sense of contentment with the source, amount, intensity, color, and feel of light available in a home--arguably sounds like a pretty superficial thing to worry about. Yet, variations along continua of comfort teach us important lessons about different orientations toward comfort, as well as different ways in which nature and culture can be entangled in sociotechnical systems, ft is much too easy to treat our own versions of domestic comfort as the optimal and normal ones, but, as cross-cultural research (eg, Wilhite etal, 1996) and the present research into different lifestyles show, comfort is subject to different practices and different orientations. Our research also shows that comfort is not necessarily destined for escalation. The reversal of the push for escalation can come from a different orientation originating in direct personal involvement and hard work.

ft would be moot to test the universal validity of the Thoreau effect like one would test a hypothesis. But the point here is not to generate a law, but rather to break a rule. The rule is the idea--fueled by the escalating logic of consumerism and well articulated by the Diderot effect--that things with higher and higher capacity for comfort necessarily yield greater and greater comfortable sensations. That is the rule that voluntary simplifiers and off-gridders intend to question with their lifestyle practices. The inversion of this logic--which Susan operates by pedaling for power, Glen and Joanne practice by relying on the sun to light up their living spaces, Murray and Naan engage in by moving their portable LED lights around, and Cheryl and Frank perform by converting big box store lights to work on reduced wattage--arises as a result of the very way that off-gridders practice visual comfort. This assemblage of practices, orientations, skills, values, resources, actors, techniques, and tools is what we interpret to be the key distinguishing characteristic of off-gridders' capacity to create comfort in their everyday life and be affected by it.

The Thoreau effect is the process whereby comfort is felt, anticipated, and imbued in technologies that--like propane lights, low wattage bulbs, dim environments, or DC electricity--are not the latest and most innovative. It is a process by which comfort is felt, anticipated, and imbued in objects not by virtue of their market value, fashionability, or contemporaneity, but rather by taking delight in one's capacity to affect one's immediate environment by way of active participation (see Cole et al, 2008; Ingold, 2010; Shove et al, 2008), in one's relative independence from others, and in one's capacity to need and want less (also see Gould, 2005; Grigsby, 2004). While the data described in this paper have pertained to visual comfort rather than other sensibilities, the Thoreau effect would also seem to have value as an interpretive tool for other activities and contexts. This tool would appear to be especially useful as contemporary ideals of sustainability increasingly need to contend with the struggle of reconciling the inevitability of comfort escalation with the environmental costs of rising comfort thresholds (see Chappells and Shove, 2005; Shove et al, 2009). A glimpse into the practices and experiences of off-grid communities as we have provided here--as well as other nonmainstream lifestyles centered on the value of voluntary simplicity, which more research could address--might then have a lot of to teach us about ourselves.

doi: 10.1068/d17412


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Phillip Vannini, Jonathan Taggart

School of Communication and Culture, Royal Roads University, 2005 Sooke Road, Victoria, BC, V9B 5Y2, Canada; e-mail:

Received 18 September 2012; in revised form 2 April 2013; published online 26 November 2013

([dagger]) View a short segment of a forthcoming documentary film showing multiple aspects of off-grid living across Canada at:

(1) There is a different meaning of comfort, something we might call emotional comfort, which refers to a sentiment of relief, soothing, and consolation under conditions of affliction.

(2) Listen to the sound clip at
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Author:Vannini, Phillip; Taggart, Jonathan
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
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Date:Dec 1, 2013
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