The Role of Self-Sufficiency

Farmer in Andra Pradesh, India.

Subsistence farming in Andra Pradesh, India.

Ever wonder where the phrase “dirt poor” comes from? It might have come from describing someone who farms at a subsistence level. Non-mechanized (or even partially mechanized) subsistence farmers are “dirt-poor” the world over, and have been throughout history. From medieval times, to the rural Inca in the 16th century, to many North Korean farmers today, such lifestyles, despite generations of handed-down expertise and skill, barely produce enough food for families to survive. As such, nearly everyone in such societies is scraping by as a poor farmer; production is so low that only a small fraction of the society can be supported in non-farming endeavors.

So, this is the underlying economic fact that caused me write my original (and now mostly deleted) post about Ben Falk’s book. Falk seems to be striving to achieve a large degree of self-sufficiency, and has created, with much labor, a beautiful natural area that provides him with much of his food, shelter, and fuel; a place of great biodiversity and low environmental impacts.

Thus the conundrum—how do we make sense of these two things that both seem true? Are lifestyles such as Falk’s a good thing, enriching the earth and producing food and fuel in largely carbon-free, organic, diverse, resilient, and natural ways? Or are they a mistaken path in the wrong direction, undertaken with the best of intentions but with a faulty view of the “big picture”, a path that feels right and yet would utterly fail to provide a “way out” of humanity’s conundrum, due to low productivity per unit of labor? Or, does minimizing one’s interactions with the economy slow the system but not change its direction, as I concluded in “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift”?

On one hand, there is still an efficiency penalty to be a jack-of-all-trades (which is what moves toward self-sufficiency require). Such lifestyles can be rewarding and interesting and meaningful, but they aren’t typically highly productive; that part of self-sufficient agriculture hasn’t changed. (They can be highly productive in terms of net-output per area of land, but not usually in terms of output per unit of labor). And, because none of us can be completely self-sufficient, we still end up interacting with the “outside world” and participating, indirectly, in modern production. If that larger system is on a negative track, then such participation spurs it on in that direction. Again, it was this line of thinking is what resulted in my original post about Ben Falk’s book.

It's hard to beat the efficiency and productivity (and wealth creation) of specialization and economies of scale.

It’s hard to beat the efficiency and productivity (and wealth creation) of specialization and economies of scale.

But, after much contemplation, I believe I have figured out how lifestyles like Ben Falk’s fit into the big scheme of things. In short, I think I have figured out the role of self-sufficiency.

To explain, I have to backtrack just a bit, to the issue of decoupling. If you need it, here’s a quick refresher on the concept—economic activity typically causes corresponding levels of damage to the environment, through pollution or habitat destruction or resource consumption, etc. With increased efficiency, and as we move toward circular systems, we can begin to have less and less impact on the environment per unit of economic activity; we can “decouple”. If the total damage is getting smaller, even as the economy grows, then this is referred to as “absolute decoupling” (as opposed to “relative decoupling”, where we’re doing better, but damage is still growing as the economy grows). The ideal end result here—a world where we have completely separated economic activity from any environmental impacts.

In real life, I don’t think there’s any way we could actually achieve this “ideal end result”, our very existence is dependent on the planet and its resources. Until we can live underground or in outer space and create our products with power from fusion and with minerals mined from asteroids, it just isn’t going to happen (read that “it just isn’t going to happen”). And right now, we aren’t even coming close; most of the time we’re lucky to even achieve some relative decoupling, so the damage that humans are wreaking on the planet is growing steadily, right along with growth in the economy and population. A new study by the University of South Wales confirms this, concluding that “All industrialized nations show the same typical picture over time . . . resource use has grown in parallel  to GDP with no sign of decoupling. This is true for the USA, UK, Japan, EU27  and OECD.” (italics mine.)

So, back to my point—because we can’t truly decouple, virtually all economic activity has, and will have, negative environmental effects. And because this is true, we have to quit growing the economy (and the population, if at all possible). That ideal economic growth of three percent a year is exponential, and we live on a finite planet; it just can’t continue. (Good post by Tom Murphy about the 1972 book  “The Limits to Growth”.) Economists call this a “steady-state economy”. I’m not sure how this will work, the books I’ve read about it are not completely convincing. But two related things seem clear to me—we will need to be able to work fewer hours, and productivity improvements will continue to make human labor less important (automation already seems to be outrunning economic growth, resulting in persistent unemployment).

The (dire) computer models in this book still appear predictive, after forty years.

The (dire) computer models in this book still appear predictive, after forty years.

So, here’s where we get back to self-sufficiency—if we’re slowing consumption, and slowing the economy, and if there is more and more automation, we all need, or will be able, to work less. And in this free time, in addition to hiking and biking and having time to read, we can all garden and practice these permaculture methods. Such self-production is decoupled, to a large degree. Your part-time production of food or fuel might not be efficient in terms of labor output, but because the activities are decoupled, they will be a net-positive in terms of the degree to which systems are decoupled, system-wide. A bushel of peaches, picked from the tree in your yard that didn’t need fertilized, peaches that didn’t have to transport across the country—this production is nearly completely decoupled. Every item you grow or gather on your own tends to reduce pressure on the system.

I actually think this is something close to the ideal—we all keep our “day jobs”, (production of goods and services that is highly productive and efficient), at reduced hours, and we spend big chunks of our free time actually repairing the planet and producing in ways that might not be as efficient, but are largely decoupled.

Now, here’s where reflection has caused me to change my mind from my earlier “Environmental Paradox” post—what about the individual who chooses to move toward self-sufficiency in ways that go beyond his or her free time, in ways that cut into that person’s “day job” time? This, in a nutshell, is my “Ben Falk question”. This is also the path that I’ve referred to in the past as “checking out”. Such individuals are moving toward lower productivity, that part of self-sufficiency hasn’t changed. As such, on the whole, they will become monetarily poorer, at least to some degree. This could be perfectly fine with them, they are replacing monetary rewards with lifestyle rewards, eschewing the rat race for slower-paced, more meaningful, more deliberate lifestyles. (Unless they can find ways to monetize their new lifestyle, as Ben Falk appears to have, but this can’t be an answer for everyone). But what does it mean for the whole system? Here’s my new-found insight—because it’s largely decoupled, such production is good. The lifestyle has lower consumption, because most who practice it won’t have much money to consume much, and this is good for the planet. They will be producing their own food and fuel, and won’t have to buy it in the market, which is good for the planet. Sustainably-gathered biomass for fuel is carbon-neutral, and that is good for the planet. Such practitioners are (ideally) rebuilding soil and expanding genetic diversity, and this is also good. Millions upon millions doing this would be good for the planet (and if combined with billions doing it part-time it would be even better). And, because intensive agriculture/polyculture/permaculture like this can often produce more food per acre (though rarely per unit of time/labor), millions could indeed move back to rural areas and practice this lifestyle, with a net sustainability gain.

But, because no one can be truly self-sufficient, this can’t be an answer for everyone; even these fans of self-sufficiency will need electric fencing and house insulation and steel and thousands of other articles and services (medical care, college educations…) that the modern, efficient world provides. As such, many will stay in cities, limiting their decoupled production to a few tomato plants and herbs on the porch. Also as such, the rural self-sufficient types need to stay engaged and involved with the path the entire system is taking, and to minimize their impact when they do consume. This will involve cutting back on fossil fuel use, driving electric vehicles, installing solar panels, investing money in socially and environmentally sustainable ways, and all the things concerned individuals do now. Truly, none of us are in this alone.

Image credit: cascoly2 / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: stevemc / 123RF Stock Photo