Off the Grid: Living within your means

Living within your means is a phrase that is commonly, and almost exclusively, used to describe how one should live in regards to their economic situation.  Living within your means and leading a financially responsible life were defined by Walter Updegrave, senior editor of Money Magazine, as “arranging your financial affairs so that you have the best shot at creating financial security for you and your family now and in the future.”­­1  But, we are not here to talk about economic responsibility.  This article instead will focus on responsibility to our environment and the community in which we live.  So, let’s alter the definition of living within your means so that it shifts the emphasis from an economic definition to that of an environmental definition.  I will define it as, arranging the consumption of natural resources in your local environment in order to have the best opportunity at creating a self-sustaining system that can provide for your community now and in the future.

The characteristics of a community can have many variances.  This includes the number of people who are asked to coexist in a given location, as well as the relationship of those people.  The size of a community can range from a single person living alone, to a thriving metropolis.  It would be an extraordinary accomplishment to turn a large metropolis such as Tokyo, with a staggering population of about 34.45 million residents2, into a community that can provide for all the needs of its people without having to look outside of its local environment to obtain those resources.  Admittedly, this is an extreme example and would present many rather daunting complications.  Let’s instead focus on a much smaller community to introduce all the basic necessities of life.  This community will consist of a single four-person family with two adults and two adolescent children (so that we can safely put them to work).

Abraham Maslow developed a five-stage pyramid model of biological and psychological needs that must be met for humans to live.  The five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchical Needs Pyramid, in order from the base of the pyramid to the tip, are Biological & Physiological, Safety, Belongingness & Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization.3  In this article, I will be focusing mainly on the biological and physiological requirements for life, but will also touch upon the need for safety and belongingness.

The three basic biological necessities that are required to sustain our own individual lives are: air, water, and food (nutrients).  Living as nomads scrounging for these basic needs each day would prove tiresome and unsettling for all but the true adventurers among us.  In an effort to avoid this nomadic fate, a community should work towards developing a system that will effectively and reliably provide for each of these needs.

In addition to providing the basic necessities so that our bodies may function to their fullest potentials, we must also provide basic levels of comfort and safety.  Safety can be achieved by developing a form of shelter that guards the community from the elements of nature, as well as the prying eyes and shuffling feet of unwanted guests.  Comfort is a component of life that is difficult to describe specifically as everyone has a different opinion of what is comfortable.  There are some very basic levels of comfort, however, that should prove to be true for a large number of different people coexisting within a given community.

In our twenty-first century western society, many of our comforts require energy to operate.  Energy allows us to power machines, appliances, gizmos and gadgets.  Energy is so prevalent in western cultures that is has virtually engrained itself as one of life’s necessary components.  We heat and cool our homes (or communities, if you will) using energy. Every electronic gadget, from our computers to the remote that allows us to unlock our vehicles without physically turning the key, uses energy.  We are a civilization that would become extremely uncomfortable if we were no longer able to access the devices and systems that required energy to operate.  An acknowledgement of our dependence on energy is just as important to our comfort as the plush couches and beds on which we rest.

If we take these five components of life (air, water, food, safety, and comfort) and combine these with our community to create a sense of belonging among its members, we have successfully accounted for the first three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchical Needs Pyramid.  But, I still believe there is one major component of life that must be considered.  It is one of our most basic functions as living organisms, but is so often forgotten or ignored.  This component is how we will deal with our poo.  Where will our waste go once it vacates our bodies and how will we deal with it?  Waste is smelly, repulsive, disgusting, can harbor diseases; yet it can also prove to be so very valuable to replenishing nutrients in our environment.

Living within our environmental means gives us the unique opportunity to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.  Now that we have our basic components of human life in a very broad sense, we can summarize these major components of life as:  Air, Water, Food (Nutrients), Shelter & Comfort, Waste, and Energy.  With due consideration to our needs as humans, it is possible to develop systems that allow a community to provide for its members specifically in each individual and unique environment.  Since people and environments are never quite the same, no two communities will ever be identical.

My goal in writing this article is to introduce the topic of my study.  I plan on going into each of the six main components of life (Air, Water, Food, Shelter & Comfort, Waste, and Energy) in more detail.  This detail will explain exactly what I mean by classifying them as components of life (yes, even the blatantly obvious air, food and water) and how managing these components can allow us to live within our environmental means.  I’ll also try to find/design some practical ways to help us accomplish that goal (ex:  water catchment/filtration systems, composting waste, etc.).  If there is ever anything I fail to mention that you think is important, or something I say just doesn’t make sense for one reason or another, let me know.  I’m always looking to add/edit anything I’m doing.


  1. Updegrave, Walter. “The meaning of ‘living within your means’.”Money Magazine 19 Feb 2009. n. pag. Web. 9 Nov 2011..
  2. Brunn, Stanley D. Cities of the world: world regional urban development. 4th ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littefield Publishers, Inc., 2008. 16 & 29. Print.
  3. Maslow, Abraham. Motivation & Personality. 3rd ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987. Print.

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