Living a Sustainable Life On and Off-Grid with Dave Erasmus
With ever rising house bills and the stress and strains of modern life, living off-grid has never been such an appealing prospect. But one barrier for those who might entertain the idea of living a simpler life would be losing the trappings of the digital era that we hold so dearly, namely our phones and the internet. Dave Erasmus might just have solved this problem. He’s currently in the second year of an exciting experimental project that’s helping to develop a new lifestyle model that also integrates on-grid living with off, creating the best of both worlds. In a section of woods in Sussex, Dave has built Corcovado, an ever-evolving space in nature with a strong utopian ethos. It’s a place he shares news of every week via his YouTube channel with his thousands of subscribers. We spoke to him recently about why he made this massive life change, what we can all do to become more sustainable and future plans for Corcovado and it’s global community.
The MALESTROM: Firstly for those who don’t know can you explain what On/Off-grid living is?
Dave Erasmus: To try and explain on & off-grid living you have to understand the question, what is the world that we’re living in? And how do we respond in an appropriate way to the world that we find ourselves in? I’ve run internet companies for ten years, many of which try to think about how to help or behave in a way that would make our lives richer, so I understand the benefits of the internet. But equally there’s something in the depth of the biological beauty that we also need, so when I think about the internet I think of breadth, as technology always annihilates space and time and allows us to connect immediately with anyone around the world, it doesn’t do depth very well. So for me when people just talk about going off-grid, there’s a sense that it’s not an appropriate response to the world we’re living in because we want to use the internet, we want to connect globally and be part of a global tribe, yet that doesn’t provide the whole picture.
I got a lot of resistance when I started doing this that I wasn’t a purist in going back to nature, and they were absolutely right. I never made a claim that I was going to go off-grid and not talk to anyone. The whole goal is I want to have my cake and eat it. I want to enjoy the benefits of the breadth technology provides and bask in the beauty of the biological and all the contentment that that provides. So the idea of on/off-grid living is my best attempt to design a lifestyle that I feel can handle the future and help us all move into it in a balanced and fulfilling way.
TM: When did you have that moment that came to you where you knew you had to do this? To change your life as it were.
DE: I think there are a few ingredients. I sold my first company when I was 21 and was lucky enough to pay off the mortgage on my semi-detached house and I built a log cabin in the garden, 6 metres x 5 metres, and I moved into that. I had my hot tub, fire pit and a bit of decking, loved it. And when you get to 24/25, you think, ok, well I’m still young and single, that’s why I’m still bobbling along in the hut, then when you get towards thirty and you’re still living in the hut, despite having a nice semi-detached house at the other end of the garden, you begin to realise, hang on a minute maybe I do love this. So that was one ingredient, the other was when I was coming up to being thirty, I went to Costa Rica and the Corcovado rainforest as a bit of a pilgrimage I guess. I had some unsettled business with the big man upstairs, I had to figure out what did I believe about God? Because I grew up in a Christian home as a youngster, and then never really engaged with that existential level of stuff for a number of years, throughout my twenties when I was busy doing business, and I thought, well this really matters, if we’re going to look at the whole picture it’s about looking at the measurable and un-measurable parts of life and figuring out what I believe. So I went to the most biologically diverse place on the planet which is the Corcovado rainforest which contains 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity within its borders. It was a bit of a pilgrimage, and I guess that was the beginning of that part of the journey on a more intimate, personal level.
Also, I’d been looking to buy land with a couple of friends, we even put in an offer on a ten-acre lake where we were hoping to build three or four floating cabins, that fell through, but by me putting the offer in on the lake I knew I was all in. So when the opportunity came up to partner in the Corcovado project on the estate I’m on now It didn’t feel like a cop-out, because I knew that I’d already been willing to go there. But I just needed to experiment, living a different lifestyle is really difficult. We’re not trained if you’re from suburbia, you don’t understand the land, how the system works, what you can and can’t do. So I felt like partnering with a landowner was a great transition for me to learn and to have an experimental environment for a year and that’s led on to this second year.
TM: You talked about your pilgrimage just now, how important do you think your traveling has been for developing Corcovado?
DE: Well traveling is always great, but we can do travelling in very different ways. Years before I’ve travelled a lot, two years ago I was in twenty different countries until I settled down to sit in this forest for a year. I think typically throughout our twenties we’re gathering ingredients, we’re trying to meet new people, maybe it’s in the form of a partner that you meet that teaches you about the world or a country you visit, a job that you take or a book that you read, gathering ingredients to figure out stuff. But there comes a point in someones learning where they need space to sort of let go and put all of those ingredients on the table and decide which ones to throw away and which ones are really theirs. So when we’re talking about travelling really for me that’s a way of getting space. We need space, I needed to get away from all external influences so I could really trust whatever conclusions I came up with were mine and that would give me a deeper rooted sense of confidence that I was living within my own skin, doing my own thing. I absolutely think people at some point in their journey need space. I didn’t take books with me, I didn’t take a phone with me, I didn’t take anyone else’s voice with me and I think that’s vital. I also want to encourage people that yes it’s great if you can go to Bali or Costa Rica or whatever, but if all you can afford is to go to a hut in Wales, do it. As long as you’re away from all the voices and you can stare into the mirror and stare into the darkness and deal with the unknown parts of life then you’re going to find something.
TM: How easy is it for the average person to make changes in their lives to become more sustainable? What can people maybe do in a smaller way to affect their lives?
DE: There are loads and I’m discovering more every day. Year one of Corcovado was a personal project and now year two is the social experiment where we’re learning how to do these things. Number one, If you want to contribute to ecological biodiversity, get a window box on the side of your house and plant some wildflower seed. You don’t need masses of land or a big garden, but by investing in wild biodiversity it allows all layers of the ecosystem to prosper.
One of the things I’m about to offer friends who’ve supported me is a way to partner with me, I’m asking them for, and I think this is a good way to open the gate in everyone’s lives, is to commit to 1% of your time, and 1% of your money to contribute to the much longer term. Most of our lives we have to live month-to-month trying to pay the mortgage, trying to pay the bills, trying to get the next job, and people can’t just ditch that in their lives. But if there is a little percentage of their resources that they put into connecting with nature at the base level and try to use some of their capital to feed into a much longer-term story then I think that is a great place to start.
I don’t want to go off on one here but when you look at the Renaissance in the Middle Ages, a time of intense creativity, technology, theology and creative arts, the reason we remember all of that now is because they weren’t just selling Mars bars, all these amazing creators weren’t doing stuff for market, what we’d think of nowadays as marketing. There’s so many of us that are, rightly so, paying the bills, making a living, through trading all our creativity to support brands in the modern capitalist market. That’s fine, but what I’d really love to see is people cracking open the door to put a bit of their energy each year into a much longer-term story. We are going through some weird adolescent step changes in the story of humanity and we desperately need the wisdom, the narrative from the creative arts to go alongside these changes in technology to survive.
TM: You mentioned technology, do you think we’ve all become far too reliant on it? With this way of living, you’re trying to find a healthy balance, but that’s not the case with everyone.
DE: I suppose the answer is yes. If I ask myself what I gain through being outside of most technology in nature, I gain skills through actually learning stuff myself rather than trusting other people if you’re reading books or engaging on the internet. But secondly, my actual experience, that feeling that I get when I do something in a more embodied way when I’m walking and talking with someone without being distracted for hours, it allows me to build a much deeper conversation, a much stronger experience and you can essentially become much more profoundly creative. So when I do go back to the internet and want to share my thoughts or capture some work on a laptop, I think I’ve got more to offer.
So it’s not rapping people on the knuckles, it’s just, don’t miss out on the best opportunity, on and off-grid living, I genuinely would never go back. Last year there was no internet and no phone in there, so when I was in there for three days I was getting nothing, then I’d come out and it was like on and off-grid living on a weekly basis. But now what I’m trying to do is find my daily rhythm, If I’m in the woods I might start the day for two or three hours, like I am this morning, on the internet doing some work, then this afternoon I’m going to cut down willow trees and take them over to the property and try and plant them. That is the on and off-grid lifestyle, to be the best that you can be each day.
TM: How did it change your stress levels and your health mentally being in nature? It must have had a strong positive effect as it does on most people?
DE: The research is extensive about the remedial benefits of walking amongst nature. If you speak to a physiotherapist they will tell you that no matter what your condition, whether your overweight or have high blood pressure the answer is a half hour walk every day, typically on softer ground, like in the forest where the ground is awesome, not too muddy, not hard like concrete, just perfect. The benefits mentally and physically are clear and pretty uncontested as a foundation for a healthy lifestyle. For me on a kind of work level or a stress level, It’s unbelievable (laughs). Cause not only am I not stressed, when I’m out there I’m typically with someone else rather than dealing with the internet all day, and also knowing that you’re only going to do a couple of hours on the laptop, you know you’ll do that work and it’ll be over and you’ll go back to a peaceful place for the afternoon. So it helps you think more clearly, and more productive.
I’d say I’ve been more productive this year and last year than I have been in any other year of my career. That’s partly because I’m thinking clearly, but also what happens when you’re around nature you learn a different philosophy, instead of fighting everything you look to go with the flow. You see what’s already going on and try and get in alignment with that.
TM: You’re known to your community as a YouTuber but you’re now doing a podcast. Is there something you think you’ll get out of that over making videos?
DE: Talking about the natural flow of things, all social media platforms start with you. You put yourself in the centre and then try and build content around that. So in a sense, it’s designed for narcissism and although I try and have quality content and share other people’s stories on YouTube, ultimately I’m the thread. So for me, it doesn’t feel like a fully balanced production of my experience to just create something that starts with me. The idea with the podcast is that when we all sit around the fire in the dark, in the woods, we’re equals, and people really open up from their heart about who they are, and what their experiences of life are.
I guess the idea of the podcast for me, these videos go out to 170 counties around the world with a million minutes of watched content and I don’t know much about these people, this is almost a chance for me to level it out a bit, so I get inspired and informed by this global community rather than them just being a number or a comment on the videos. It’s much more challenging, we haven’t been able to get the stories together yet that we want in order to do one, it’ll probably begin in the next couple of weeks, it’s much easier to turn the camera on yourself, it’s a lot harder to pull all the quiet voices out from around the world and get them to speak up, because I guess if they’re quiet voices they’re harder to find (laughs).
TM: The Corcovado community seems to be an integral aspect of the development of Brenda’s cottage. What do you want to happen in this community?
DE: What we’re trying to do this year is develop tools and practices that come off of this on and off-grid living idea that help people from all around the world connect with themselves, with each other, and then to create from that place without regard for how they get paid for that one day or that few days a year or whatever it might be. So later on in November this year we’ll go on tour around the four bases that I’ve been visiting so far this year, so Scotland, Spain, France and then with me down at Brenda’s. So a four-stop European tour with a bunch of other creators, I’m really excited about that. All I want is to try and equip people to create in their own lives an appropriate response to the world that we find ourselves in. None of us asked to be here, we just woke up one day and appeared to be human and had to figure out how to be alive for this short time whilst we’re here. In terms of my vision for the community, it’s making people feel they can engage with life, they connect with people that are like-minded, in a space that’s appropriate and they have a chance to ask themselves what they really care about and get on with it, I think that’s how you create a flourishing community.
We’re in a space right now where we’re on the brink of a number of technological advancements around A.I. and blockchain technologies, but on a political level we’re about to go through this process of going backwards with Brexit and I think in the U.S. with Trump it’s an attempt to go back to what we know, because we’re scared of the world that we’re building. I understand why these things are happening, as a bit of a phenomenon really, but it is not the answer, trying to go back to the dark ages. We have to go forwards, and a way we do this is learning from the past, for me, it’s a macro version of why I love on and off living, it’s learning the wisdom from the past and partly using the tools we have available today. The tour in November is an exciting response to a world that is trying to figure out Brexit, cause we’re going to go together all around Europe and create with each other and develop better relationships, so in some ways, it is a bit of a political statement.
TM: What do you think the future looks like regarding our relationship with nature and living sustainably?
DE: You don’t fight for something that you don’t care about and you don’t care about something that you don’t know about. And you only know something when you spend time with it. So I can’t be bothered to try to deal with peoples rational minds and convince them statistically about why we need to reduce our carbon footprint, why we want to reduce the amount of methane going into the sky, because you don’t care if you don’t know and you won’t fight if you don’t care.
People underestimate people, we’re clever, almost too clever, but what we don’t get taught in school is about relationships, we don’t get taught about normal biological human needs. We need to first connect, first relate, once we have a relationship the rest of our cleverness all follows, but for me, wisdom says get out into nature, be alone with nature and start to love it. Once you do that the rest all follows. That’s why I feel it’s imperative for people to go and occupy nature spaces, that is the key.
TM: Do you have an end goal for Corcovado? It’s really a legacy project…
DE: I made a 35-minute film about the woods last year called Once Around the Sun, in there I say that the whole project was about leaving this A to B plan behind me where everything had been optimised and goal driven and that for me is what represents modern life, that driven life. So it was about getting rid of the B points and just existing in the here and now. Life begins to emerge in that way. When I hang my boots up and look back at things I hope that we did it. And by that I mean we actually asked ourselves the question, how do we respond to the world that we find ourselves in, in an appropriate way and we actually have the balls to do that. And if I feel I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to do that, and being a good family man, trying to engage in the information that’s in front of me, not being scared of bullies, not just going along with the popular tide. If I feel I’ve done that throughout my life then I’ll be very happy, and having managed to do it with others I think that’s enough. It’s not about getting to any particular goal, just knowing we’ve given it a really good shot.
TM: Is there a piece of wisdom you’d like to share with us from your time working on this project?
DE: There’s something that I wrote this week that might be appropriate?
TM: Sounds good.
DE: It’s called The River of Being. Basically, I’ve gone back to the start to think about what this life thing actually is, so this is my best attempt to put it into words, something that’s been brewing for a number of months and I’ve finally got to.
Existence is a mighty river, flowing from the beyond, to the unknown.
For a short time we are scooped up inside a cup and held for a while, we appear as though we are separate from the river and struggle as we become aware of the ‘me’ that the water and cup create, the appearance of this thing we call a lifetime.
At some undetermined point when the scandal of space and time decides so, we will be poured back into the river, to find confluence and rejoin the flow. Here, we will find relief from the struggle of self. We will find peace not in nonbeing, but in rejoining the river of being, the place of belonging.
The eternal flow is our home, but for the time being, enjoy the view from above.
So that’s just my attempt at explaining what the hell is going on here (laughs).