NOTE: I have been working on this post on and off for almost a year. I will never be satisfied with it, so I’m just going to let go and post it or it will never see the light of day.
Wikipedia defines self sufficiency as: “. . . the state of not requiring any outside aid, support, or interaction, for survival; it is therefore a type of personal or collective autonomy . . . The term self-sufficiency is usually applied to varieties of sustainable living in which nothing is consumed outside of what is produced by the self-sufficient individuals.”
One hundred percent self-sufficiency, in which you consume no outside resources, is difficult at worst (think of the pioneers) and inconvenient at best (think of where coffee grows, and then think of where you live), but you can get pretty close and live a very good life (think of the Amish).
There are many subcategories and related concepts out there that can be used interchangeably with the term “self-sufficiency”, and many that are close but not quite the same. Matt and I call what we are seeking self-sufficiency because we see that as the gold standard of providing for oneself, but we do a lot of things that could fall into these other categories, and there’s quite a bit of overlap in the philosophies. (Although differing philosophies can lead to the same end – I came to this by way of a hippie-ish eco-freakiness; Matt comes to it from a severe case of Boy-Scout-Preparedness; and our friend Aaron simply says “I can’t stand the idea of paying someone to make something I could make myself”.)
The self-sufficiency family includes:
- Homesteading – I like the Wikipedia definition: “Broadly defined, homesteading is a lifestyle of simple, agrarian self-sufficiency.” In a nutshell, that’s the variety we’re after. You could call this the “Mother Earth News” lifestyle. This term is very nearly interchangeable with self-sufficiency because this is the variety that comes to most people’s minds when they hear the words “self-sufficiency” (neo-pioneers on 20 wooded acres in the middle of nowhere in a log cabin they built themselves with hand-pumped water and no electricity, is the image).
- Voluntary Simplicity or Simple Living – Duane Elgin, who wrote an influential book on the concept, says that “we can describe voluntary simplicity as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living.” VS can be applied in any degree from a simple reevaluation of one’s consumption levels to a state of self-sufficiency bordering on asceticism. Jerome D. Belanger, founder of Countryside magazine explains the subtle difference between voluntary simplicity and self-sufficiency thus: “You can by-pass the establishment by producing some of your own necessities, or you can by-pass the establishment by reducing your needs through simple living.”[The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Sufficient Living]
- Survivalism – I’m going to give you the Wikipedia definition for this one, too, but mostly because I liked the disclaimer that came with it: “Survivalism is a commonly used term for the preparedness strategy and subculture of individuals or groups anticipating and making preparations for future possible disruptions in local, regional or worldwide social or political order. Survivalists often prepare for this anticipated disruption by learning skills (e.g., emergency medical training), stockpiling food and water, preparing for self-defense and self-sufficiency, and/or building structures that will help them to survive (. . .) Within pop-culture, especially in the United States, the term is also used to refer to isolationist groups, often with anti-government agendas. Pop-culture survivalism is often associated with paramilitary activity, though real world survivalism rarely includes such activities.” I just had to have that last bit in there because I know some people who are definitely survivalists – and while they are admirably prepared for just about anything, they are also definitely not wackos bent on the destruction of the government or the creation of some sort of race war. A few small (well-publicized) groups of, well, assholes have really given this term a bad name.
- The Back-to-the-Land Movement – Not so much an organized socio-political movement as a phenomenon noticeable in demographics and on the streets. This was the mass migration of people away from urban settings and into rural ones in North America in the 30s and 70s. This is something many associate with the hippie communes of the sixties, but Wikipedia says that “while the back-to-the-land movement was not strictly part of the counterculture of the 1960s, the two movements had some overlap in participation.” Trust me, most of the hippies had no intention of leaving Haight–Ashbury– it was the industrious ones who wanted to grow their own . . . vegetables. Speaking of hippies in the city, that brings us to . . .
- Urban Homesteading – The newest version of homesteading, and one I applaud. Something that gets overlooked by new members of the green living sect (see below) is that the most eco-friendly product is the one you already have, because resources don’t have to be used to make you a new one. On that logic, and the logic that people don’t like moving when they are fond of their community, urban homesteaders see no reason to abandon that condo they scratched and clawed for, but are doing their damnedest to live in as as self-sufficient a manner as they can in the city (gardening on rooftops, balconies, and abandoned lots; installing chicken coops in alleyways; vermicomposting in the utility room; eating their weedies). Urban homesteaders have been adapting their environment to suit themselves (rather than the other way around) in the past few years: since there’s no anonymity in the city, urban homesteaders become walking billboards for a better way of living, which brings more people on board; and they have influenced city and county regulations in many areas, bringing in farmers’ markets, community gardens, and backyard livestock. I give kudos to urban homesteaders because they’re doing what I’m doing, but in an even smaller space, and essentially on stage.
- Green Living – I once identified wholeheartedly with this term, but I have soured on it recently as it has become very faddish. I’m all for increased ecological awareness – but rampant consumerism is not ecological awareness. A stunning array of products are introduced every day with arbitrary “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “all natural” labeling. Americans, for some frustrating reason, often give in to the life-long training we’ve had to leave the thinking to the producers, so many of us take these labels at face value. Understandably, but incorrectly, believing that we are making the laudable choice (not to mention the cool one), we load the cart with these (usually more expensive and frequently unnecessary) items, feeling the buzz of having helped Mother Earth and being better than our fellow shoppers. Green living can be a very good thing, but only when the participants are informed and thinking. There are a lot of variables that go into the very tough decision of what is the better choice from an ecological standpoint (You should see the chart I use. Seriously, I use a chart. It took me a month to design the thing.) and one has to take them all into account. I’m hoping that this well-intentioned movement can pull up before it nosedives into embarrassment.
- Frugality – Jerome D. Belanger had this one on his list in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Sufficiency, and I hadn’t really considered it until he pointed it out. I can see this in the voluntary simplicity part of the self-sufficiency spectrum – it’s self-sufficiency as seen solely from the economic point of view and is ecologically friendly as a by-product (by virtue of curbing consumption). Being frugal can mean anything from mastering the use of coupons (something I have utterly failed at) to swearing off restaurants and magazine subscriptions, to thrift store shopping (my expertise), to recycling and reusing, to dumpster diving (something I’ve dabbled in, but only for inedibles). Those who self-identity as frugal are the folks who created Freecycle, always beat you to the good garage sales, and recirculate old issues of The Tightwad Gazette. They may not have built their own home, but their bills are quite enviously lower than yours. They are, in a strange sort of way, hardcore.