So last week I talked about silly things that I have believed, and now I’m going to try to address in more detail one of the biggest ones that I run into regularly among friends and acquaintances – the desire for self-sufficiency.
At this point I should make it clear that I don’t see a desire for a self sufficient lifestyle as ‘silly’ (while I’m happy to dismissively make fun of myself, I draw the line at doing so of other people). Having been there myself I would like to think I understand the underlying ideas and motivations. And I see it as a pretty noble goal in many ways.
The problem with it comes with that as an idea, it relies on a fair amount of untested assumptions, more than a few handwaves, and a little bit of avoidance when it comes to firming up the details. When put into practise, any serious attempt at achieving self-sufficiency will quickly bring these points to light anyway, but considering them in advance will hopefully avoid some headaches later on.
There are more than a few historical examples that spring to mind. The most relevant to us is probably the medieval peasant. In the UK at least, this is probably the closest example to the concept of self sufficiency we have in our recent ancestry or cultural history. The comparison between a medieval peasant lifestyle and the kind of self-sufficiency we might be trying to strive for serves as a good starting point for highlighting some of the problems.
First off, the medieval peasant is not 100% self sufficient. Obviously she barters with her peers, exchanging some of her own surplus production for theirs, though I think we can reasonably consider that part of a self-sufficient lifestyle, so that doesn’t pose a problem. She’s also reliant on a few local specialists – the village blacksmith being a pretty typical example (and also not a problem in this point of comparison) and maybe some guilds in a nearby town, but a more relevant one would be her local lord, or whatever other member of the aristocracy she pays tribute to. What is her local lord a specialist in, you ask? That would be the production of violence, protection and basic civic amenities. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why some of the American self-sufficiency movements are so interested in firearms, this should answer your question – they simply wish to be self-sufficient in the production of violence and protection services.
Much like us today, the medieval peasant doesn’t get much say in either the quality or quantity of violence, protection and basic civic amenities that she receives from her lord, nor how much she pays for it. At this point a glaring difference strikes us between the medieval peasant and a modern day self-sufficiency-seeking westerner. The peasant’s local lord is largely receiving tribute from peasants, who do not typically participate much in the money economy. As such he is quite happy to receive his tribute in time, or in surplus production. We however, instead of the local branch of the aristocracy, have a modern day nation state, which expects its tribute paid in fiat currency.
So that’s one pretty significant barrier to leaving the cash economy and living from your own produce and local barter. The next barrier is a question of what level of specialists we plan on relying on as part of our self-sufficient lifestyle (if we were purists, we’d be saying none – but I’m not. Even many hunter gatherers have economic specialisation to some degree). Lets start from an assumption of producing all our own food, fibre and shelter, and producing most of the items we need for those tasks and our day to day lives through skills like leatherwork, basket weaving and caprentry (which would require a truly phenomenal skillset). This already leaves us relying on the skills of a metalworker for some tools, but thats fine.
Lighting? If we’d like our self-built eco-house to have electric lights then we need some electricity. Being tied to the grid is a big no, so we’ll need some solar panels, or perhaps a wind turbine or water-wheel, as well as a battery bank and a wiring set-up. Even being off-grid, this makes us dependant on various manufactured products and parts. At the moment those things are supplied by the capitalist global supply chains, as well as reliant on a number of technical specialists for the installation and maintenance of the system. So thats another significant outgoing needing to be met in cash.
How about communications? An internet connection raises all the same quandaries as the above example, and even a telephone, telegraph or postal system needs paying for. Transportation? If we’ve gotten past needing a car, then buses and bicycles still represent an outgoing in cash. Healthcare? You might be able to treat a lot of illnesses yourself, but presumably you’d still call an ambulance in an emergency? Even if you pay for industrial healthcare indirectly through taxation, it still has to be paid for by somebody.
Now maybe you’ve said no to all of these things – perhaps you’re voluntarily giving up on modern life and you’ve found some way of acquiring land debt-free, as well as dodging any requirement to pay tax. Frankly, you’re far more hardcore than I am, and I salute you.
But if not, all of this adds up to a fair amount of cash outgoings. In practical terms, that’s either a lot of our own produce that we need to sell or the need for an outside job. We’re no longer talking about self-sufficiency at this point. Our example self-sufficiency seeker is now either a commercial farmer or a ‘hobbyist’ with a ‘real job.’ The third option of course, is a reliance on state benefits, making our self-sufficiency seeker a long term claimant of some sort or other.
Personally I don’t have a problem with any of these options (though having been forced into it by circumstances a few times I wouldn’t recommend the third one for any length of time). In fact, that’s the opposite of the point I’m trying to make. Since most people on a quest for self-sufficiency will find themselves going down one of these routes at some point, its far better to embrace one of these options from the beginning. A conscious decision about it will lead to a much clearer path from the start too, and re-frames the inevitable compromises not as failure but as something to work with.
So that’s an analysis of some of the barriers to achieving self-sufficiency, and ways to approach them. Next week I’ll be posting part two of this essay which looks at some of the opportunities available to us that seeking self-sufficiency risks getting in the way of working towards – namely achieving economic specialisation.