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Rational Optimist - "Self-sufficiency is poverty"  RSS feed

 
Michael Cox
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I've just started reading this book and have found the first couple of chapters, concerning the development of humanity from proto-humans, totally gripping.

The author proposes that the biggest thing that differentiates us from all other animals is our propensity to trade - specifically to trade dissimilar goods of differing values. Many other animals have favour trading; you scratch my back today and I'll scratch your back some time in the future. No other species trade items that are not similar; my sharpened stone axe for your fish.

Trade leads to division of labour and specialism which enriches both parties.

Lets say it takes me around 2 hours to make a jar of honey, but as I don't already have hens it would take me 100 hours to get some birds, set up a safe area for them, raise chicks to egg laying age then harvest a dozen eggs.

My neighbour has a well established chicken run with a surplus of eggs but no bees. A dozen eggs takes maybe 30 minutes of his time but getting setup for bees and waiting for a honey harvest could take hundreds of hours.

If we trade we both get honey and eggs, immediately, for a fraction of the time than if we had both tried to raise eggs and bees. Specialising and trading has enriched us by freeing up time for other activities - trading is mutually beneficial where as attempting to be self sufficient in each of eggs and honey makes us poorer. This is especially the case where one party has a comparative advantage over the other. Lets say our early human ancestor has a home land with obsidian that can be sharpened to make axes. Everyone is better off if he makes and trades his axes - he will specialise and make better quality axes, faster using readily available raw materials.

I thought that this observation, and the specific comment in the book that "self-sufficiency is poverty" very interesting. Much of the discussion on permies revolves around self-sufficiency. Perhaps the emphasis should be on identifying comparative advantages and specialising for trading. A middle ground if you will between subsistence agriculture and mono-crop industrial ag.
 
Dan Boone
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Sounds to me like that author may be using the word "self-sufficiency" differently than I do; or perhaps he's confusing sufficiency with luxurious surplus.

There's no doubt that mutual trade enriches both parties. But my notion of self-sufficiency is that one strives for independence from the utter need to trade. If all of the trade networks and infrastructure broke down for whatever reason, followed by a significant coarsening of civil society such that local trade became risky or dangerous, the notion of self-sufficiency is that one could survive with at least minimal comfort on one's own efforts.

There's nothing in that notion that prevents trade in normal times -- trade that ought to be sufficient to turn sustenance into relative luxury. But a self-sufficient person, family, or group always keeps one eye on what is to be done if comfortable trade patterns were disrupted.

Self-sufficiency is not poverty; it is security. But nor is it (typically) luxury. Trade eases life and should be the normal practice of self-sufficient people during normal times.

That's how I see it, anyway.
 
John Polk
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I believe that it is a near impossibility to be totally self-sufficient.
The ideal trade off is to have something in surplus that a neighbor lacks.
You can then make a mutually beneficial trade.

Your example of eggs and honey is a good point.
I have so many things that I need to start from ground zero.
There is only so much that I can do by myself in any given year, so if I try to divide my time up to do it all, everything will be compromised to some point. As Sir Albert Howard once quoted "Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock." So, having chickens makes good sense to me, but it takes time, equipment and an expertise to do either chickens or bees. I would rather devote my time/materials to the chickens, and then let some bee keepers know that I have ample land, with a diversity of bee forage, and no chemicals. A perfect place for him to set up a few hives. A pint or two of honey is more than I will use in a year, so it makes no sense to me to invest several hundred dollars to set up multiple hives. For a bee keeper, having access to a healthy environment where he can produce an extra 40 pounds of honey each year is a great opportunity. If every time he comes to tend his bees, he goes home with a dozen free range eggs, we have both benefited from this trade.

There are way too many things that are a part of my daily life that must be imported: coffee, lemons/limes, etc., that I will always depend on some sort of trade, whether it is produce or dollars. To become totally self-sufficient is more of a dream than a reality to me. When push-comes-to-shove, I will learn to live without some things, but survival will continue.

 
wayne stephen
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In my opinion, interdependence with others is not dependence on others . If your bartered or sold surplus nets you a gain then it is still an aspect of your self-suffiency. If the gain is mutual then any concerns with aggregate demand is negated . By consistently using inputs in a gainful way - even if purchased by your surplus - then your self-suffiency has increased along with your yields . Your accumulating wealth a sign of your virtue as Ayn Rand liked to say !
 
Craig Dobbson
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On money:

 
D. Logan
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It sounds like the author takes self-sufficiency to mean isolationism. IE: If you are self-sufficient, you are not bothering to give and take with those around you, but instead are off somewhere alone doing your own thing. It's a pretty common viewpoint and prompted me to do an article about it some time ago. Self-sufficiency, at least as most rational people who practice it would agree, isn't about isolating yourself and just doing everything without outside inputs. It is about gaining as many skills and as much knowledge as you can so that if something ever interrupts your ability to obtain what you need, you can instead fall back on your own abilities. I feel like far too many people, especially those on the outside who don't try to live self-sufficiently at all, tend to get a romantic (or horrific depending on their perspective) notion of anyone who is 'self-sufficient' being a grizzled old man running around the woods and living in a shanty. It probably isn't helped by some of the TV shows out there either.
 
Peter Ellis
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"Self-sufficiency" is almost never approached in absolute terms. That is, almost never when someone speaks of being self-sufficient do they mean self-sufficient with regard to all of their needs. They generally speak of a qualified self-sufficiency, i.e., energy self-sufficiency, or food self-sufficiency.

If one person were to try and do all of the things needed to provide all of the necessities of life, they would be working tremendously hard all of the time and only marginally meeting their needs. Even if you only consider food, shelter and water, depending upon where you live it might be doable with some down time (a benign climate where shelter needs are minimal, water plentiful and food easy to obtain) and it might be pretty near impossible (a harsh climate that increases the difficulty of any one of the three could make it difficult, if all three are hard to come by then survival is unlikely).

Pull a community together, divide some of the labor, let these people focus their efforts on shelter, those on water, these others on food - the idea of a self-sufficient group is much more obtainable.

 
nancy sutton
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The author of the OP article is Matt Ridley; a check on Wiki reveals his biases .... sometimes it's good to know the source.

Also, I'd check David Graeber's book "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" for the anthropological facts re: human economic development. Early humanity used 'mutuality' to provide goods and services. I.e., you need shoes, I have more than enough, so I 'give' you a pair, and it is clear to both of us that when I need a chicken, you'll 'give' me one from your flock. This is often construed as a type of 'debt', but debt didn't truly arise until numeric valuation appeared, i.e., forms of 'money', by which mutuality disappeared. I'd like to think that this mutuality ('gift' economy) says something about Permaculture's Third Principle, and the idea of 'surplus'.

There is much to be said re: this topic: definitions of 'trade', 'luxury', 'self sufficiency', even 'happiness' and 'contentment'. And Marcus Aurelius Antonius isn't the only one to have noticed - "Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life."

 
Jason Silberschneider
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Surely the OP is able to trade honey because he is self-sufficient in honey? And the reason his neighbour is able to trade in eggs is because they are self-sufficient in eggs.

This is the permaculture idea of self-sufficiency. Once I have a surplus of my specialty, I can now afford to trade with somebody who has a surplus of something that I'm not self-sufficient in.

Far from self-sufficiency being poverty, having a surplus of a particular produce is the key to trade and wealth.

The author of the article may be thinking of self-reliance, which is where you lock the gates and see how long you can go without external inputs.
 
Alder Burns
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I can see how my 25 year plus devotion to the ideal of self-sufficiency may well lead to poverty. With a background in gardening and horticulture, I had a good head start on growing food....to me that's the easy part. But I would always be stretching myself to add other skills, such that I would need to buy less and less....food processing and preservation, beekeeping, small animals and poultry, repairs and maintenance of various sorts, basic construction, etc. etc. It's been a great life most of the time, and one in which I had a lot more control of my time and priorities, and probably more "free" time than most mainstreamers.
But now, 25 years later, what I am is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. In particular, no marketable skills, such that if I came to the point of needing employment (something I have also steadfastly and successfully avoided for most of my "career" in homesteading), then only the most basic, unskilled possibilities await.....not a kind prospect in my 50's or 60's.
If some part of me hadn't believed for some 20 years that the world as we know it was about to end....indeed, should end; I might have better spent my time becoming a true specialist, someone who contributed to the larger society with a valuable, marketable product or service. At the very least, I'd have more savings by now!
Another issue touched on here that is crucial is the importance of community. Homesteading American style (think nuclear family off by themselves on land) is attempting to do what the entirety of human history has only succeeded at in larger groups. Yet we live in a culture that has profoundly chosen individualism, and is daily encouraged to deepen it; to the point where basic skills of how to get along with each other are eroding fast, both in a personal relationship sense and a wider social sense. Community effort works. Many complicated issues around sustainability are best, or only, able to be solved in community.....but an elementary perusal of intentional community and similar situations will reveal that basic human dynamics are almost always the point of failure.
 
leila hamaya
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^ ^ i can so totally relate to that , alder ^ ^

well i do have a couple of specialized skills in my skill set, but finding ways to make money off functional craftwork and art, is no easy task. if the world valued different things, if the world's value made real sense (!) ...well things would be different.

i suppose i think of this idea more as ...*sharing creates abundance* rather than *self sufficiency is poverty*.

recently though i was reminded of...the old irony of people, who knows little to nothing about real self sufficiency, lecturing me on...being independent or whatever...just like a bit of subtle shaming...underlaying...that they themselves feel they sort of have the high ground to be able to do such...and how flipping weird is that to me? that someone, simply based on their ability to acquire green pieces of paper...should be giving me that kind of talk....about being independent...when mexican immigrants in cal or others-- grow their food, and child slave laborers stitch their clothes, and they dont even know how the remote control really works??

ok forgive that little bit thick, not so subtle, subtle animosity that might be there...but i bet i am not the only person here to have similar thoughts, and find this darkly funny? and / or ironic?

 
Alder Burns
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It seems that what most posters here are envisioning is a vibrant rural community, allowing for some specialization and trading, but where each farmstead or small village is producing substantially most of its basic needs. Such places still exist in the world, and perhaps in the remotest parts of North America too. Private land ownership as an institution, and property prices as a current reality, prevent many people who would want such a life, but who can't jump whole-hog into intentional community involving collective ownership, from achieving it. It's one of those Type 1 errors in our culture that everyone is working around and which actually uprooting would involve a social revolution on par with the American Revolution or the Civil War. What it comes down to is that unless one finds oneself in a very special, small niche, every one of us needs to find or make some of those green pieces of paper (or, nowadays, positive numbers in a computer screen!). Even admitting complete self sufficiency, whether individually or collectively; private land ownership involves property taxes.....you only own your land insofar as you can pay them! One can squat, live feral, work trade, or whatever....I've done that too....sooner or later someone decides to throw you out, or you get sick, or something else happens to ruin it. Especially if you're on your own. No easy answer. I happen to have been lucky enough to come into a small inheritance, and my challenge now is to parse it out as frugally as possible. If I didn't have it, I would by trying my darndest to get into a community. But what community will want to have older people likely soon enough to become a burden when there is lots of grunt work needing done?
 
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