April 20, 2017

On Self-Sufficiency

I hold self-sufficiency as one of the highest aspirations that truly liberates us from dependence on money, market and other systems of exploitation. Most people in the environment/ organic food space would agree. But there are others like Aaron von Frank of Tyrant Farms who says one can never be self-sufficient.

His idea of self sufficiency is the proverbial man on island who must survive using only the material at his disposal. But that's total self-sufficiency, an extreme version of it, as stultifying as total dependence on others. To me, to become self-sufficient does not mean abandonment of everything produced by society, even tools, rejection of community, all organisation and social institutions.

There are degrees to which one can be self-sufficient just as the degrees to which one can be dependent on others. One can participate in community and yet can be self-sufficient to a high degree. On the other hand a complete reliance on community only breeds conformity and lack of critical thought. It's unhealthy for a community to produce only yes-men. How do you expect a member to be critical of community when the well-being of his family depends on it?

E F Schumacher, author of "Small is Beautiful" wrote about self-sufficiency in a forward to John Seymour's "Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency". In the one-page piece Schumacher succinctly provides the forgotten context around self-sufficiency and highlights why it is a fundamental requirement for the health and well being of human society. I find myself going back to it time and again. It is included below in full.


We can do things for ourselves or we can pay others to do them for us. These are the two "systems" that support us; we might call them the "self-reliance system" and the "organization system". The former tends to breed self-reliant men and women; the latter tends to produce organization men and women. All existing societies support themselves by a mixture of the two systems; but the proportions vary.

In the modern world, during the last hundred years or so, there has been an enormous and historically unique shift: away from self-reliance and towards organization. As a result people are becoming less self-reliant and more dependent than has ever been seen in history. They may claim to be more highly educated than any generation before them; but the fact remains that they cannot really do anything for themselves. They depend utterly on vastly complex organizations, on fantastic machinery, on larger and larger money incomes. What if there is a hold-up, a breakdown, a strike, or unemployment? Does the state provide all that is needed? In some cases, yes; in other cases, no. Many people fall through the meshes of the safety net; and what then? They suffer; they become dispirited, even despondent. Why can't they help themselves? Generally, the answer is only too obvious: they would not know how to; they have never done it before and would not even know where to begin.

John Seymour can tell us how to help ourselves, and in this book he does tell us. He is one of the great pioneers of self-sufficiency. Pioneers are not for imitation but for learning from. Should we all do what John Seymour has done and is doing? Of course not. Total self-sufficiency is as unbalanced and ultimately stultifying as total organization. The pioneers show us what can be done, and it is for every one of us to decide what should be done, that is to say, what we should do to restore some kind of balance to our existence.

Should I try to grow all the food my family and I require? If I tried to do so, I probably could do little else. And what about all the other things we need? Should I try to become a Jack of all trades? At most of these trades I would be pretty incompetent and horribly inefficient. But to grow or make some things by myself, for myself: what fun, what exhilaration, what liberation from any feelings of utter dependence on organizations! What is perhaps even more: what an education of the real person! To be in touch with actual processes of creation. The inborn creativity of people is no mean or accidental thing; neglect or disregard it, and it becomes an inner source of poison. It can destroy you and all your human relationships; on a mass scale, it can - nay, it inevitably will - destroy society.

Contrariwise, nothing can stop the flowering of a society that manages to give free rein to the creativity of its people - all its people. This cannot be ordered and organized from the top. We cannot look to government, but only to ourselves, to bring about such a state of affairs. Nor should anyone of us go on "waiting for Godot" because Godot never comes. It is interesting to think of all the "Godots" modern humanity is waiting for: this or that fantastic technical breakthrough; colossal new discoveries of oil and gasfields; automation so that nobody - or hardly anybody - will have to lift a finger any more; government policies to solve all problems once and for all: multinational companies to make massive investments in the latest and best technology; or simply "the next upturn of the economy".

John Seymour has never been found "waiting for Godot". It is the essence of self-reliance that you start now and don't wait for something to turn up.

The technology behind John Seymour's self-sufficiency is still quite rudimentary and can of course be improved. The greater the number of practitioners the faster will be the rate of improvement, that is, the creation of technologies designed to lead people to self-reliance, work-enjoyment, creativity, and therefore: the good life. This book is a major step along that road, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you,

DR. E.F. SCHUMACHER

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