And, drum roll, I find myself having ANOTHER thought about how efficiency and productivity affect our vision of what a more sustainable future might look like. Here’s the deal—there seems to be a very strong tendency, among those who endeavor to envision how future sustainable cultures and societies might function, to admire and strive for self-sufficiency, and to push for doing more things ourselves. In fact, it seems to be a near-universal trend in the world of “sustainable” ideas. It isn’t a totally bad inclination; “doing-it-yourself” often results in much more varied and interesting day-to-day work, more well-roundedness in terms of skills and knowledge, and more resilience in the face of adverse economic times. BUT, there is a huge downside—self-sufficiency and do-it-yourself activities run counter to some of those fundamental economic laws I keep talking about, namely that all-important idea that I’ve discussed before, that trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency, which leads to productivity, which leads to the group being better off. And when you violate those laws often enough, you can easily end up with the opposite, where things are going downhill.
So, let me give you some examples of this. When I give it some thought, I realize that there are a lot of things I can do myself. A lot. Just to mention a few, let me see… I can make pasta from scratch, fell timber and mill my own wood flooring, do all the plumbing and electrical in my house, pull and rebuild automotive engines, bake bread, can tomatoes, grow all manner of produce, train my dogs, build a barn, design solar systems, raise chickens and eggs, keep bees and raise honey, make hummus, and who knows what else.
And, if I put my mind to it, there’s even more I’m sure I could learn to do, and/or would like to learn to do—graft fruit trees, make maple syrup, grind mustard seed to make mustard, butcher my own large animals, learn much more about permaculture and agriculture, get fluent in Spanish, sew my own clothes, spin my own thread, design websites, make yogurt, etc., etc., the list goes on. And there’s no end, ever, to how long this particular list might be.
BUT, there’s a problem. As I’ve discussed before, when it comes to most forms of “production”, there isn’t time in the day to do everything yourself, or even a fraction of it. If we tried, we’d run out of time, every single day, and/or our productivity would be low, and we’d end up poor. And the wider the variety of things we tried to produce, the lower that productivity would go, because it’s hard to be really skillful at everything. Either way, the further we go down this path, the less wealth we end up with. And before you assume that I’m just being materialistic, let me remind you that wealth, via the transformative power of trade (and the “medium of exchange” function of money), ends up taking a huge number of forms—education, health care, travel, entertainment, durable goods, the availability of information, physical security, etc. These are some important things. Wealth isn’t a trivial thing to be disregarded.
So here’s the bottom line—it could be that this common idea of being more self-sufficient isn’t necessarily a more sustainable way to live (and I’m not sure about this; just throwing the idea out there). If production is inefficient (which it often is when done on small scale) it is, by definition, a waste of time, space, power, or resources (for example, imagine an expensive piece of equipment that’s only rarely used—not an efficient use of resources…). Needless to say, wastefulness is not really a characteristic of sustainable patterns. So here’s an idea to wrap your head around—what if we could live more sustainably by specializing MORE, and trading more, and trying to do LESS things ourselves. One could make a pretty solid argument for this, in many cases. I’m sure there’s a happy medium somewhere in the middle, and I’m not exactly sure where that line is, but I do know that it can’t be too far toward the “very self-sufficient” side of the spectrum. Basic economic truths guarantee this.
The “Vinegar Example”–
So, let’s explore this idea with an actual example—last fall my wife picked up lots of apples that had dropped from the apple tree in the yard, mixed them up somehow with sugar and water, let them set uncovered, and then covered (I think, I didn’t participate in any of this), and after much time and effort, ended up with several gallons of homemade vinegar. This is all well and good, but, vinegar is dirt cheap at the store, I can probably buy a gallon of it for $2. In the end, she worked for perhaps 4 hours (off and on over many weeks) to create $4 worth of vinegar. If my wife can work at her “day job” for, say, $25 a hour, then it would take her about five minutes of work to earn enough to buy the same gallon of vinegar. In my example, when she made it at home it took two hours per gallon, which was 24 times less efficient. The same exact principle often holds true for a huge number of other tasks, to varying degrees.
If this same homemade-to-storebought ratio was true for all at-home production (which it probably isn’t, exactly), a person would be 24 times better off by only doing their day job, and buying products such as these instead of making them.
Now, some exceptions—
Before everyone begins vehemently disagreeing and madly scrolling down to the “comment” button, I can think of three situations when doing-it-yourself is a good idea–
#1– When it’s a task you enjoy. For me, logging, beekeeping, gardening, and the like all fall into this category. I might make a bit of money or create some “production”, but that’s not my main motivation—these tasks are enjoyable and relaxing. If you have tasks that are enjoyable and relaxing—don’t hold back, have at it.
#2– They save more money, per hour, than you would make at your job. Some do-it-yourself “production” saves a lot of money. I installed the new heat-pump hot water heater myself last fall, which undoubtedly saved me quite a bit. It took maybe three hours, but it probably saved $300 in labor—an example of something worth doing yourself. My big solar installation last year was probably another project in this category—doing it myself saved me thousands of dollars compared to hiring contractors.
And, #3– If the thing you produce yourself has a quality that can’t be easily or cheaply purchased. For me, the wood floors I made in the house are probably in this category. They are custom milled, random width, splined, and have little square screw-covers inlaid in cherry. Normal flooring contractors just wouldn’t do work like this (I’m sure there are craftsmen out there who I could have hired to do a floor this way, but I guarantee that I wouldn’t have been able to afford it).
And, now that I think about it, maybe even a reason #4– When you need more “wealth” or money, and can’t get enough paid work. In this case, it doesn’t matter if it took extra time to make your $4 worth of vinegar—it’s $4 worth of something that you didn’t have before. This probably isn’t the case for most people, though. Or, this category might also pertain to people who make very low wages. But, in the vinegar example, even a person who only makes minimum wage would be many times more efficient by going to their day job and then buying the vinegar. (This category might also apply to people who don’t enjoy their jobs—where making vinegar at home is more fun that going to work, even if it takes many times longer.)
And the very best things to “do yourself”? These would be things that fall into more than one category, or even all of the categories. For example, a task that you enjoy, AND saves you money, AND gives you a higher-quality product. For me, cutting firewood hits two out of the three—it’s something I enjoy, and it saves money. Gardening probably hits all three– I enjoy it, it saves money, and I get a higher-quality product—absolutely fresh, organic produce.
Hmmm, it looks like I’m not going to get to the “Packaging and Transportation” part of this topic in this post; I’ll get to that another time. But to sum up this part—if your do-it-yourself efforts don’t meet the criteria above, then you’re probably much better off going to work, and letting your improved efficiency accrue in terms of free time. Go hiking, lay in the sun, do something fun—it’s better than slaving away in inefficient ways, just in the name of self-sufficiency.