Living off-grid and loving it

    Self-described minimalist leaves small carbon footprint

    Peter Johnston is currently building his own home in Janvrins Island, which is being built on a pond-liner and buried to remain cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

    JANVRINS ISLAND: A new resident hopes his lifestyle will inspire others to minimize their carbon footprint.

    “I like roughing it. I’m camping here,” Peter Johnston told The Reporter from his residence in Janvrins Island. “The whole project is to live using as few resources of the planet as possible. It’s fun.”

    Johnston first came to the island off Isle Madame during a day trip while he was volunteering with Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s campaign in Central Nova back in 2007. Four years ago, he purchased 14 acres of land on Janvrins Island.

    “I got on a plane and came over here. It was the end of November, and I rented a car from the airport in Halifax and drove over here. I arrived here about 3 o’clock in the morning and parked down the road and slept in the car,” he recalled. “I staggered around this land and was end of November in Cape Breton, so it was foggy, grey, dripping wet, I kept falling in bogs, and I got completely lost. When I got back to the road, ‘I went, holy cow, that’s a tough one,’ but I said, ‘hey, what the hell, I’m not going to get a better deal than that; 14 acres for $12,000.’”

    Photos by Jake Boudrot
    This electric bike, can go on the road or trails and can travel up to 70 kilometres on a single charge.

    Recycling as much of what he uses as possible, Johnston owns a diesel Smart Car with only 75 kilometres and plans to buy an electric car. He also has an electric bike, which can travel up to 70 kilometres on a single charge, and can ride on trails or roads.

    “I don’t like using engines if I don’t have to, because I’m fit,” he stated.

    Rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars building a well, Johnston collects rain water in buckets near his wood shed; a skill he learned when he lived in Gibraltar.

    “I’ve got some garbage bins, and my wood shed has a steel roof, and it all drains into these garbage bins,” he noted. “I’m drinking the finest water I’ve ever drunk, and it’s free. Apart from the roof of the wood shed, which is new metal which was $400, the whole system cost me not even $100.”

    To heat the camper he is sleeping in temporarily, Johnston uses a small camp stove, which burns wood and “goes like a jet engine.” The camper also uses a 12 volt solar panel, which he is planning to upgrade to a 20 volt system.

    Johnston is currently constructing a permanent home by himself, which will be buried to remain cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Because drainage can be a problem, he said the new home is sitting in a pond-liner. Johnston said he learned how to make a home in this manner while visiting Mexico.

    “It’s not expensive, the main fabric is mortar from the local hardware store; I like to do everything local. They’ve got everything I need. I got a $250 load of rocks from the local quarry, and I had to buy a 10-pound hammer,” he explained. “It’s going to stay a steady temperature. The inside is going to be finished with cob… an ancient way of building houses, which is clay with straw inside of it. You can mold it into any shape you want. It will be smoothed in with all the shelves, and couch, and fitted in.”

    Peter Johnston stands on the roof of the permanent home he is building on 14 acres of land in Janvrins Island.

    The 74-year-old Johnston was born in Portsmouth, England and moved to Gibraltar when his father, who was a naval surgeon, was posted there.

    Describing his mother as an “uber liberal, Buddhist,” Johnston said she had a big impact on him. By the age of 14, Johnston had been studying Buddhism for three years.

    “I became a vegetarian when I was four by choice. My mother said, ‘it’s okay dear.’ My mother was wonderful, she was my teacher really,” he recalled. “I was reading books my mother gave me and I would sit with her and read stories that were based on universal love, universal respect, and that’s what it’s all about.”

    While in the northern part of Scotland, for six months Johnston was part of the Findhorn community, a “famous spiritual community” which became an eco-village recognized by the United Nations.

    Johnston spent many years traveling, before coming to Canada two decades ago.

    “I’ve been going on about this for 50 years and look at the mess we’re in now,” he noted. “I spent most of life travelling around; seeing other communities and what other places are doing. Mainly North America and in the United Kingdom.”

    Peter Johnston currently has a 12 volt solar panel atop his temporary home with plans to upgrade to a 20 volt system.

    Johnston enjoys feeding the birds in the morning and watching how adult crows gradually force their young to fend for themselves. He said he gets regular visits from local foxes and squirrels.

    “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a young man,” he said. “What I’m doing here is fulfilling that dream, really, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve never settled down. I’m 75, nearly and I think, maybe I should settle down a little bit, plus I want to be in a part of the world that’s beautiful, I’m a nature nut. I love nature and this is fantastic.”

    A former Green Party candidate, Johnston said he is obsessed with reducing his carbon footprint, claiming that political leaders are in the pockets of big corporations which only care about profit. He said Canada is the only G7 country whose emissions are increasing.

    “I’m not against capitalism, but I’m against savage capitalism which is what we’re experiencing now. It’s not what you do that matters, it’s how you do it and we’re not doing it with love, we’re doing it with profit, things, stuff,” he stated. “I was a hippie back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Some people think I still am; I can’t imagine why. The hippies were right. We were into going back to the land, eating organic, growing your own food, if possible. The hippies in the cities were doing the first food co-ops and food banks, stuff like that. They were anti-war and they were talking about climate change back in 1970.”

    Acknowledging that he enjoys the solitude, Johnston said he hopes living a minimalist lifestyle will help people and inspire others, especially the younger generations. He believes embracing nature can be mentally and physically therapeutic.

    “I want to show you what you can do. I’m an old guy and I’ve never tried to accumulate a lot of money,” he added. “I want to show young people that they can do something about it, something really important, and you don’t need to be rich.”