The idea of becoming more self sufficient seems to be a common on these days, at least in most of the circles I run in. People (including our family) are trying to find ways to gain more control over their lives and produce more of their own food and goods themselves. While I think this is a noble end in most respects, the term self sufficient has always bothered me as being something just short of blasphemous. I do not say this lightly either, especially since one of my favorite books, that I find most inspiring for it’s overview of an authentic life, is “The Self Sufficient Life and How To Live It”, by John Seymore. What bothers me, and I am not alone nor the first to be concerned with this, is that there is no such thing as the person who is entirely, or even mostly self sufficient. Even the most primitive backwoods homesteader probably did not mine and smelt the steel for his tools, or grow the cotton for his clothes, or gather the seeds for his garden from the wild. Even as I try to bring my woodworking back to a more traditional, hand-tool oriented manner of working, I did not make most of my tools, though in some cases I at least met the men who made the tools, but they got the materials from elsewhere, and most of them used electricity generated elsewhere to make them. Furthermore all of us owe a debt to the past for the various ways those who came before us lay the paths upon which, for better or worse, we walk.
I think buying into the idea of being self-sufficient blinds us to how much we truly depend on others and the society around us. It may not even be a matter of degree, but only of kind. The urban apartment dweller is entirely dependent on the modern industrial economy, but the permaculture homesteader in most cases is equally dependent on an entirely different set of connections. While these connections are likely more personal and ecologically sustainable, there is no denying they exist. Thus rather than focusing on the unattainable goal of being self-sufficient, we ought to focus more of our energy on the types and qualities of the connections we have. We should at least be honest and declare that we are not really self sufficient, but have instead found a different from of being connected.
At the heart of it the idea of self sufficiency carries for me a deep sadness, and yet an almost demonic temptation. Sadness because I can think of nothing more pathetic than the person who can entirely meet their own needs, and who has no use or need for others to help him or her. I firmly believe that part of what makes us human is our weakness, because it is in those bonds where we are entirely helpless and open to another person that love exists. The temptation lies in our flawed nature, our desire to want total control over our lives. The person who is truly self sufficient becomes accountable to no one. If we are capable of meeting all our needs then we need not concern ourselves with the effect we have one those around us. Every one of us is a master at rationalizing our innermost wants and desires and only a precious few are able to master the worse parts of their nature without an external force to hold them accountable. Of course modern consumer culture has sold us on the idea that we ought to satisfy all our wants and desires, with barely a nod to keeping us accountable to those around us (and an implicit total lack of accountability to those people far from us and our environment), with total accountability only to those whom we owe money. For a while now I have been pondering a thought that came out of the discussion surrounding the publishing of David Graeber’s new book “Debt: The First 5000 Years (a book that is on my must-read list this year), as to why I should feel morally obligated to pay back the money I owe to JP Morgan/Chase.
I firmly believe that one of the many obstacles, and perhaps one of the largest, to recreating an authentic post-industrial society will be a restoration of our accountability to those close to us, and to the community at large. Our metaphysical belief in the importance of our individual freedoms (and how often do we kill to spread, secure or defend freedom?) has been instilled into us from our early days, and will not easily be given up. When so many marriages end in divorce for the simple reason that so few people are willing to sacrifice some of their life for someone else, how then do we expect to create true bonds of community unless we are willing, in a way to wed ourselves to those around us? We are so vigilant in defending our freedoms, that finding the humility necessary to fully enter into the life of a community will be difficult for most of us. A new term is needed to replace self sufficient, one that instead judges us by the not by what we can do for ourselves, but the quality of our connections.