Self-sufficiency is a dream chased by many. The ideal of being free from ‘the system’ and producing everything needed from the ideal homestead is certainly attractive. It represents a welcome escape from the drudgery and monotony of modern society, where so much seems to be broken or tarnished, and offers a pristine new life. A chance to redress the balance. A chance to re-establish our connection to mother nature and ourselves.
Henry David Thoreau wrote of this in his well-known work ‘Walden’, where he documented his escape from modern society, and his embrace of the transcendentalist ideal of self-reliance and unity with the natural world. In this beautiful self-reliant landscape, Thoreau enjoyed the simple pleasures of merely surviving, while living in a remote cabin in the woods. He was lucky he didn’t develop appendicitis – otherwise the illusion of self-reliance would have quickly shattered.
True self-sufficiency is perhaps a bit of a myth. We cannot enjoy all the benefits of modern civilization when completely separated from society- living, as it were, in a bubble – but we can get pretty close. Most of the daily essentials can be reproduced using a homestead-made-equivalent, and what cannot be reproduced or substituted can *possibly* be dispensed with. The notable exceptions come in the form of those products and services which require an extreme level of specialised experience, expertise, or manufacturing methods – such as medicine and electronics. These important ‘exceptions’ are the things that make it impossible to be entirely self-sufficient without a substantial sacrifice in living standards. Thankfully we don’t have to do without – because of trade.
We all trade our time or services in one way or another for money – usually in the form of wages, which we can then redeem for all the things that we need. We do this out of necessity. It is easy to lose sight of this but it is important to note that most of us are, in this respect, self-sufficient. We all produce the resources we need from our own time and effort, often pooling our common resources in families and community. Of course, when we trade we also form a connection – a reliance – on society and civilization as a whole. But that is no bad thing.
So we can see that self-sufficiency can be a flexible concept – a spectrum, perhaps. There is, at one end of this spectrum, the (unattainable) ideal of self-sufficiency, which is impractical and undesirable to any but the sociopath, and everything up to that point represents the reality of self-sufficiency – one where some degree of trade enables us all to enjoy a better life.
Self-sufficiency has different meanings also when we consider the impact of ‘scale’ – an individual can be self-sufficient if they produce resources equivalent to (or greater than) their own consumption. Similarly, we can extend this to the idea of ‘national self-sufficiency’, which is demonstrably not attained in the case of a national trade deficit. The UK is one example, being an island that is in no way self-sufficient, although it comes reasonably close at times. Most of the time there is a staggering net import of food and other goods, with a modest net export of services, with a net balance of approximately £30 billion deficit per year. There are various ways of measuring surplus vs. deficit, depending on how one accounts for things like foreign investment, but by any measure the UK is not self-sufficient.
This fact is hardly surprising. To even come close to being truly self-sufficient, the amount of land and natural resources required for a single homestead is actually quite large – much more than people might generally expect. One needs approximately 1-2 acres of woodland alone to provide all the firewood and timber required for an ‘average’ homestead, and as the parcel of land increases in size (and adopts more diverse activities), then the required number of able workers also increases in order for it to stay manageable. The UK is a densely-populated country, with much of it being highly unproductive farmland, and much of the better-quality farmland is now lying underneath the suburban sprawl surrounding London and the South-east of England. When we started the nursery, the goal was never to have total self-sufficiency, but to get as close as realistically possible while using sustainable methods and using low-input integrated systems to produce goods which could be traded. The nursery provided the ‘marketable goods’, while the rest of the homestead was used for producing firewood, and growing vegetables for food. The project was immensely instructive, and provided fantastic insights into how it might be possible to integrate intelligent systems into sustainable methods in the future, as well as the challenges that might be faced along the way.