In Depth

Is it possible to be self-sufficient? No, and that’s ok.

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Is it possible to be self-sufficient? Is that even a goal someone should strive for? Here are out thoughts on those questions…

Is self-sufficiency possible? 

We love growing organic food and making things. There’s no way to express how rewarding it is to take a tiny seed the size of a freckle and nurture it all the way to harvest, producing delicious food and countless seeds for future growing seasons.

We grow lots of organic produce using regenerative/sustainable methods, like these heirloom winter squash. Our aim in doing so is to help grow a better world, not to become isolated from the world we want to make better. We have no interest in becoming self-sufficient, and don't believe that aim to be attainable.

We grow lots of organic produce using regenerative/sustainable methods, like these heirloom winter squash. Our aim in doing so is to help grow a better world, not to become isolated from the world we want to make better. We have no interest in becoming self-sufficient, and don’t believe that aim to be attainable.

We also feel a deep kinship with other organic/permaculture gardeners, farmers, and foragers. As such, we feel the need to provide some constructive criticism about certain language that we’d like to see permanently “weeded out” of our shared lexicon…

Please, please, stop talking about how you’re self-sufficient or marketing your company’s products/services towards making people self-sufficient. It’s not true — and it’s not possible.

No, you’re not self-sufficient and neither are we

If you’re reading this sentence, you’re not self-sufficient. The phone, tablet, or laptop you’re using is made of products mined in dozens of countries and assembled in factories across the world.

You likely didn’t grow, process, and weave the clothes you’re wearing.

Your truck? You probably didn’t make that by hand either. If you walk around your home, you’ll likely find that most of the things in it were not sourced or made on your property by your own hands.

And that’s ok!

The only human beings that have ever truly been completely self-sufficient independent of other human beings are those unfortunate souls who happened to be marooned on an isolated island and forced to fend for themselves with every waking hour. That’s not a good way to live and it’s not attractive to people on or off that proverbial island.

Your hunter-gatherer ancestors? No, they weren’t self-sufficient either. They likely lived in tight-knit communities of about 150 people, all of whom were highly dependent upon the group for their continued survival. We are social organisms, like it or not. 

Thus, in our opinion, the goal of permaculture or the organic food movement is to help build regenerative communities, economies, and ecologies, not to create social and economic isolation.

Just as plants thrive and are made resilient through interconnected, biodiverse ecosystems, so too are human beings and human communities. Friends, let’s aim for that target, and tailor our language accordingly.

What’s better than self-sufficiency? Deep engagement and thoughtful community. 

Now, let’s assume you don’t want to live in complete social isolation without computers and cell phones. Let’s also assume you don’t want to produce 100% of your food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other technologies.

What’s a viable alternative to self-sufficiency? How about creating rich interconnected communities who are thoughtful about their relationship with nature (or which they’re a part) and each other (of which they’re a part).  

It’s perfectly reasonable to be more than a little disgusted by cheap products made by de facto slaves overseas, CAFO-grown meat, or the latest greatest combination of synthetic pesticides designed to make monoculture crops survive. The best way to combat these deficient answers is not alternative deficient answers or social disengagement, it’s deeper engagement. 

Create thoughtful alternative solutions that make your and other peoples’ lives better. Care about what you buy and how/where it was produced, doing your best to price in negative externalities. Invest in quality over quantity. Invest in people and companies doing things better/right — and try to build yourself into one of those people and develop one of those companies. 

Again, self-sufficiency isn’t possible or broadly enticing so let this NOT be your aim, just as it’s not ours.      


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  • Reply
    Manu Sharma
    March 14, 2017 at 5:45 am

    Hello Aaron & Susan,

    I know a couple with two grown kids now who grow cotton on their homestead alongside other crops. They exchange it for cloth with a weaver in a nearby village who keeps a part as his compensation. (By the way, thirty years ago both were university professors in a city.)

    Fifty years ago, the village in which my father grew up, before he moved to a city, was pretty much self sufficient for almost all their needs. The only two products they purchased from outside was salt and soap.

    While as you correctly said, it’s hard to be self sufficient for all your needs, but if you’re able to produce enough for your family’s primary needs – food, fuel, clothing and shelter – that counts a lot.

    I believe that it is only when one is truly independent can one participate in a community with absolute honesty. For example, if I am dependent upon my community to provide food for my kids I will never be comfortable expressing an opinion that does not confirm with that of the majority. Forget about dissenting.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      March 14, 2017 at 10:22 am

      Thanks Manu! Yes, it was somewhat common for whole villages to be relatively self-sufficient. However, what I’m referring to in this article is the notion that a person living in 21st century America can become entirely self-sufficient, independent of external human communities. While it is technically possible, it would likely not be a good life or one that others would want to emulate. If our aim is to make the world better, we need live in a way that inspires others to adopt similar behaviors/thought processes. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

      Re participating in community with honesty, I would posit that we all have dependencies and needs, although we may exist at different tiers on Maslow’s hierarchy. I’m not sure those are avoidable or should be avoided. Truly honest participation in community may instead require that we are as aware of others’ needs as keenly as we are aware of our own. Structural separation (the gated community and private school effect) has profound impacts on our society’s ability to honestly make decisions that are truly in our enlightened self-interest.

      • Reply
        Manu Sharma
        March 16, 2017 at 2:42 am

        Aaron, I see that the term “self-sufficiency” seems to have become someone’s pet peeve. 🙂 But I can assure you that it’s based on a notion of the term that needs to be better informed.

        Self-sufficiency does not mean the proverbial man on island who must survive using only the material at his disposal. It does not mean abandonment of everything produced by society, even tools, rejection of community, all organisation and all social institutions.

        What you’re referring to is total self-sufficiency, an extreme end of the spectrum of what it means to become self-sufficient. Nobody wants that and nobody means total and absolute self sufficiency when they use that term today.

        There are degrees to which one be self-sufficient just as the degrees to which one can be dependent on others. Someone who can fix flat tire of her bicycle is self sufficient in that regard compared to a rider who has never done it and has no clue.

        Here’s how Google defines the term (with added emphasis): “needing no outside help in satisfying one’s basic needs, especially with regard to the production of food.” If you regard self sufficiency this way you will see no harm in the way permaculture community uses the term.

        Let’s say a family decides to live off grid at a farm. They produce much of their food and prevent rainwater from running off the farm. They are self sufficient in energy, food and water. That’s a wonderful thing regardless of the fact that they may have a couple of cars, a multitude of mobile devices and other industrial goods.

        “If our aim is to make the world better…”

        Personally, my aim is only to live according to my values. I’m done trying to make the world better. I’m done trying to educate someone or even become an example for others to follow. All are invited to my life and I’ll be happy to explain to those who are curious about it. But I’m not spending one more minute to try to convince those who do not wish to be convinced.

        “Knowledge of the truth lies not in proclaiming it but in living it.”
        – Book 2

        Back to self-sufficiency. I hold it as a fine aspiration and as E F Schumacher writes below in his forward to John Seymour’s “Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency”, self-sufficiency is needed to exercise our inborn creativity.

        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. […]

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