Sunday, January 29, 2006

Regional insufficiency

I've been musing about self-sufficiency, following some eager and at times heated discussions about it at maison madcap and Eleutheros' place many miles from Babylon. It strikes me that many people are working on growing more of their own food, and some are attempting their own supply of heat, water, and a bit of electricity to power their blogging habit. Not many are attempting their own automotive fuel, but many are reducing their dependence on cars, partly by not needing to shop as much, and partly simply by choosing to travel less. From my own direct observations of various back-to-the-landers and other conservation-minded people, I would note many of the same initiatives going on, plus a great interest in alternative building materials (particularly plastered straw bales, in recent years).

I realize that complete self-sufficiency is not necessarily of interest to anyone. You can make a great contribution to conservation without going anywhere nearly that far. You can make yourself much less dependent on the system, without cutting yourself off from it. Remaining somewhat connected, you can keep more involved in your community, and perhaps avoid drawing scorn or negative press for yourself and other self-sufficers by seeming too extreme. Perhaps most importantly, that last bit of change to become completely self-sufficient would presumably take much more effort than many of the larger changes you made more easily at the beginning. You may have better uses for that extra effort.

Having said that, it seems valuable to have the know-how for complete self-sufficiency preserved in living form across the wider community of self-sufficers. Maybe not everyone needs to be a blacksmith, but it would be good to know that there was a blacksmith around, not too far away, in case that skill ever became needed.

Thinking along that line, I noted that there seem to be several areas where self-sufficiency enthusiasts fairly consistently opt for manufactured items. I'm thinking of clothing (or at least cloth, needles, and thread), tools, and roofing. There are probably more, but those are the areas that come to my mind.

Does this bother anyone else? I love to sew, but I rarely bother because I can have second-hand or even new clothing for much less cost than the cloth to make my own. I guess between my Dad and my sister, there is probably enough skill and equipment to make a lot of tools, but again, the raw materials probably cost more than the ready-made tools. There are warning bells going off in my mind here, saying there has got to be some serious exploitation going on somewhere, for the finished goods to be cheaper than the raw materials. And if so, maybe these areas should be a higher priority in a self-sufficiency project than simple cost-saving per unit effort would suggest.

What would happen if there was a major collapse in the global economy, or some kind of trade shutdown for our country, so that we were forced to become more self-reliant? Obviously food would be an immediate issue. In the chaos, maybe the utilities that supply gas and electricity to homes would collapse too. So far, the popular self-sufficiency projects would be paying off. But what if the changes were more gradual, with changes in world trade patterns making all imports less and less accessible? Everybody would be scrambling to grow more food, but to do so, they would be needing tools. Everybody would be working a lot harder, and needing good practical clothes, and wearing them out in a hurry. How quickly would our domestic capacity to produce tools and textiles catch up with the demand?

I get the impression that tools and textiles are unpopular do-it-yourself projects because they take a lot of effort and skill. I've never given more than a passing thought to tackling either one, except that I'm curious about how my Scottish forebears used nettles for fibre for fine cloth. As for roofing, I think there are some accessible do-it-yourself alternatives available, but a good steel roof is worth it for the protection to your investment in the building structure, and for the clean water you can collect from it. Still, at times I've wanted to experiment with other roofing materials just to keep the options open.

All this time spent musing, when I could have been plotting the obvious steps to grow more of our own food this coming season, and make our house more energy-efficient right now. I think I've let my son fall asleep untended again, too. If you don't hear from me for a couple of days, let's hope it's because I've decided to actually get something done.


Lucelu said...

Regarding "true" self-sufficiency as in creating whatever you need yourself... I think that is inefficient. That is why there were candle-makers, cobblers, coopers, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, tailors, potters, glaziers, tanners and masons. All these skills required years of training and practice, apprentices provided new practitioners as well as cheap labor. A short course at the tech school wouldn't cut it.

Of course that is when raw materials were harder to come by, when there was no glut of so many finished materials they were just lying about on the sides of roads and in piles next to buildings. Naturally with cheap labor and synthetics, the finished products are not as good in quality (and not as dear as there is so much).

I see that to be self-sufficient you must also be a good judge where to put your available time. Even way back then. Today I read blogs and entries by few who are self sufficient on their land, most must work at least part-time in paid employment. Some live off the incredible material overages in more populated areas happily grubbing up what excesses the folk deem too used or unneeded-- freegan types (I guess you can call them scavenger-steaders as many don't really have a homestead per se, but use un-used housing, caretake other's excess housing or rent rooms in between.--the world is their homestead) They seem to have more free time.

I guess the question is what path can you take? That is highly individual as you have to take into account what ready hands are available and resources both in money and time.

Madcap said...

Ah, fabric. I love fabric, especially quilting cotton, but once I opened my eyes to how it's produced, I had to stop buying it like I was. (Lots and often, one of my last addictions, and it was a sad, sad thing to put behind me.)

Someone was telling me about a set of linen sheets that had been handwoven in Europe. They were at least secondhand when she got them, and just wouldn't quit. My cotton sheets, in spite of the fact that I don't throw them in the dryer and lose them in lint, are wearing thin after only a couple years. False economy, but even if I was able to find fabric of that quality, I'm not sure I could bridge the reluctance to pay $300 or more for a linen sheet.

Sorry, this is getting a bit random, but lately I've been thinking about how we don't tend our goods with inheiritance in mind. There's no mindset of passing things along to the kids in our culture, because what would they want with this old junk? And it is junk, because we buy junk. We have a cabinet from Chive's family, made in the 1920s, with a milk-paint finish (I'm guessing, because it's tough as nails even after all this time.) What a difference that would make in itself, having the intention that furniture and linens and tools are for generations, not a couple years.

Just in case you want to live near a blacksmith, my son says he's going to be a metal worker because he doesn't know of anyone else making swords, and he figures that's a vital part of his wardrobe. He could probably knock off a metal roof for you, too, in between bits of armour.

Gosh, Laura, you've got me going all over the place. I think I'm going to have to go post about it at my own house.

arcolaura said...

Lucelu - "inefficient"? Does that make it undesirable? Many things are "inefficient" if my goal is to have a bigger, more luxurious lifestyle. I could argue that it is inefficient for me to spend years of my life training for a career so I can make some money so I can buy some specialized products, when there are two other viable alternatives:
1) adjust my lifestyle so I don't need those specialized products
2) learn to make one of those specialized products myself, and trade as directly as possible with local producers of other specialized products.

You listed some skilled trades. I would question whether "all of these skills required years of training and practice..." (i.e. candle-maker? I helped my Mom make candles when I was a kid, and I'm pretty sure she learned the skill out of a book in her spare time). For the more challenging skills, my point was, shouldn't we be preserving some of these skills in our own communities?

arcolaura said...

Mcm - that's fascinating about the sheets. I'd be much more inclined to sew my own clothes if I knew the fabric was going to stand up as well as my stitches. I never patch clothes, because they don't wear through at the knees anymore, they wear out all over, and eventually the seams just pull the adjacent fabric apart. Maybe we wash them too much.

A sword and roof-maker, eh? Sounds like a good honest trade to me. I might need the odd axe head, too.

katherine said...
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CG said...

Well, I do know blacksmiths and metalsmiths. Several of each. And I also know how to spin with a drop spindle and have a spinning wheel and know, roughly, how to use it, and know how to construct a loom too. And I know just how few (changes of) clothes a body really needs.

Most of it can be done and isn't truthfully that hard. A real life is dirtier and colder than moderns are used to.

And "sufficiency" has to (really) be viewed on a larger community level. IF (and that's a big if) each individual does all he can, then the community will have the resources to draw from, and when there is a need, someone in the community will fill it.

Anonymous said...

If a family or community (or a person, for that matter) were self sufficient in food, they are in an entrenched position economically. This is because if you do not contol the souce of your food, you are at the whims and wishes of others in a very short time. No food and you will be compromised tomorrow, in three days at the most. Ditto for water. The source for your own goods becomes less and less urgent as we examine some of them. What if you couldn't get salt? It's easy to store several hundred pounds of salt (it's very heavy and doesn't take up much room) so that in the case of an interruption of the supply (or your ability to avail yourself of it) you can be set for ten years even twenty years easily. Clothes, proper clothes, last for years. I don't think anyone within our extended homeschool group has bought any children's clothes or shoes for years. Sure, some day new shoes and new clothes have to be made, but we've got years to work that out. And so on and so on until we come to the tools. Some of our iron kettles and skillets are so old we have no idea how old. 100 years at least. I bought my biggest crosscut saw at an antique store (for $35) and it must be at least seventy years old. It will last another hundred years or so. Even tools I buy new last incredibly long. There is no urgency to have a source of tools, we've got time to work that out.

Thing is, get the tools and extra clothes and salt an such now while it's cheap and easily available.

Even at that, I buy wheat. But every few years I grow wheat and barley just so I can keep in mind how and show the children. We grew flax a couple of times and I know that it is cut when the blossoms drop and laid in a stream to rot off all but the useable fibres. I've got the linen cards my great grandmother used.

In a dire pinch we'd do fine. But stashing away a few steel tools now that they are relatively cheap puts us in better stead than building a forge.

Anonymous said...

There's another aspect of this that ought to be mentioned. Do you redall the place in Ray Bradbury's 'Martian Chronicles' where the father of the surviving family crosses some sort of barrier and talks with a Martian, who becomes startled and declares him to be a "Specter from the past"? From the reader's point of view, it was the Martian who was from the past.

Like that, we self-sufficient types are often seen as specters from the past. Yet, in reality we are specters of the future, YOUR future. We don't propose to go back to a previous centry and live that way.

Modern society is on a collision course and no mistake. We take the best of what technology has to offer and discard the dross and injurous parts. For instance, we have a metal roof (anodized and enameled) which will likely last eighty more years. I don't intend to cut roof shakes unless I really had to, where's the advantage in that? The resources to make something that lasts 90 years is worth it.

What we reject is using resources to make things that we don't need, don't really make us happy, and end up in the landfill in five years.

Paul said...

I've read and re-read this over the last two days and have mixed thoughts.

I enjoy the concept of self-sufficiency. We begin life as children dependent on parents and the natural drive is to learn, grow and become self-sufficient.

I think you are on target when you say "it seems valuable to have the know-how for complete self-sufficiency preserved in living form across the wider community of self-sufficers." The question for me is how to locate and become part of such a community.

arcolaura said...

I_wonder - I would say, don't look for a self-sufficient community, build one! And to do that, build up your own self-sufficiency first. From what I have read of your blog, I believe you are already working on this, so don't take my comments too personally. But I think there is a danger of idyllic thinking which says if we could just find a benevolent community and vote for it by joining it, all would be well. The hard truth is this: nobody is forcing us to live in dependence upon an unsustainable system. We just do it because it's the easy way, the comfortable way. If we look for the easy way to be in a self-sufficient community (by finding one ready-made for us), we haven't escaped that way of thinking.

Lucelu said...

I guess what I am saying that in a community you can barter and trade talents. What is the phrase "no man is an island?"

While I am capable of growing my own food, preserving it and preparing it, building my home and repairing it as needed and doing most maintenance and some repairs on my vehicle, I am not likely to take up smithing or barrel making. As Eleu says, there are some durable goods that are just, well, durable. I can sew and make soap and even make my own candles if I needed too. I can chop wood, start a fire and scavenge pretty good for the stuff I need. (Enough people renovate and put perfectly good lathe out on the curb to keep this suburbanite in kindling for months not counting those that toss good organic material out every Fall).

I like to do that kind of stuff but I guess if I didn't and had manicured nails to worry about, I wouldn't be reading these blogs and websites.

I don't think inefficient means undesirable, I think that each person has their own particular resources and time and must choose for themselves where to devote them. I know it is easy to become overwelmed with so many skills and tasks to take on by myself. I have read about many homesteaders who felt they were in over their heads because they attempted too much at once.

Who was it that said you can "have it all" but just not at the same time?

arcolaura said...

LuceLu, I suspect you are probably farther along the path to self-sufficiency than I am. I am just musing, wondering what my priorities should be. Between Eleu's comments about the urgency of one's dependence on the system, and the little I know about relative environmental impacts of production of food versus various more durable goods, I think I am ready to stop musing and focus on growing more food, bartering for food, or otherwise obtaining as much of my food as possible locally. That and getting some passive solar heat into this house, and getting some sort of stove that uses local wood or other biomass. Somewhere down the line, I might look again at learning some more specialized skill to offer to my community, but not just yet.

Lucelu said...

Believe me,Laura, I am no further down the path than you.

I know what I am capable of, I can learn different skills --many independantly but do I do all these things?

I have limited time, I work full-time 40 plus hours a week at the hospital and come home like everyone else and try to get dinner going (my dinners lately have been abomidable) and work a bit on the kitchen, check the homework of the weebairn and all the other things people try to complete after a long day.

When I do have the time, I have been devoting my energies to getting my kitchen straightened out because I have to put the house on the market in April and it needs a lot of work before I can show it. My dh is MIA --out of state working. I still will do little things like making up a batch of firestarters so it isn't an hour chore to get the fire up and going good or making up a batch of laundry soap. But last Sunday night, we ate takeout Chinese food.

I am nervous about finding a good place to move to in Tennessee. If I don't see anything we can afford I get nervous--will we be homeless?, but when I do see a good place I get nervous--we're not ready yet to buy, will there be anything there when we are? There is no winning that game. I just pray that my needs or an affordable and acceptable home opportunity will be provided for at the time. If everything is to be, it will come without me tearing my hair out with worry.

I am finally learning after 40 years where my limitations are and find that with my personality, I can get scattered easily. So I am practicing focus. This month, I am focused on the kitchen. When it is done, it will be beautiful and functional and I will impress myself with the skills I learned. Next month I will focus somewhere else.

Lucelu said...
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Lucelu said...

That is my blog and I put a link that I think has to be cut and pasted to the address window with pictures of this kitchen I am all focused in on. I thought I'd share! I tried to put the link on the comments section but it didn't work correctly so I deleted it.

Paul said...

Laura, I wondered if anyone would pick up on the phrase "locate a community". I agree with you, it's not wise to look for what we should be building. My concern is my age, my current situation and my other interests and plans. In this one case, I'd like to take the easy way out and find rather than build. It's not realistic but it's wishful, lazy thinking.