I’ve learned that stereotypes rarely exist without just cause. This may be even truer for the commonly held opinions regarding those of us with an eye to a secure future. “You know that homestead family—they homeschool eight children and have goats.” Perhaps you’ve heard about, “that survivalist guy—he’s way into his guns.”
But this I’ve learned about stereotypes: they use the extreme to define the average, and they hold on long past applicability. This is why new terms often emerge to describe long-held philosophies; we attempt to break free from those images that do not in the least describe us! My term of choice is self-sufficiency to denote a lifestyle pursuing independence from the cultural standards, systems, and supply chains. Self-reliance is also an excellent term free from the worst of the mental images, and yet to me, it denotes a rugged autonomy that I know I do not personally possess. I cannot say that it is even a goal for me in the same way that self-sufficiency is a goal, because my interdependence upon community and above all—upon God—is part of my ultimate lifestyle choice. I cannot achieve self-sufficiency until I first understand my God-dependency. So we all must determine what suits us best as far as the semantics game is played.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of hippies, survivalists, preppers, homesteaders, homeschoolers, ecologists, do-gooders, and rugged outdoors-folk. We come from a wildly diverse set of backgrounds and belief systems, but there is one thing we hold in common. We understand that our current American culture is not sustainable long-term and we are all striving to find solutions. I want to open the discussion past the stereotype and to seriously analyze each paradigm. Maybe you’ll see yourself reflected in one of these approaches to this thing we call “self sufficiency”. Hopefully, you (individually or in conjunction with the other members of your family) have combined several of these perspectives to create a well-balanced life and home. There is a sense that these perspectives are on a continuum, but it’s really more like a circuit. We all jump onto this ride at varying places and try a few on for size before it’s through. Please don’t think of any single approach as lesser than the others. We can learn from each other.
The Coupon Approach
Frugality won me over. It all started with a tight financial spot and the era of couponing began in my life. This approach isn’t just about couponing, per se. It’s about the throngs of women (and families in general) who have learned the value of dollar-cost-averaging. Your food dollar stretches further today than it will a year from now, and stockpiling from a sale means thousands of dollars in savings!
I have yet to see it, but I’ve been told several times about a popular TV. show in which this obsession has taken over all common sense in the lives of the featured guests. Again, remember that the stereotype defines the average by highlighting an extreme. It isn’t practical to pack up 3 children with strep throat to hit the store circuit because toilet paper is at an all-time-low. So with all things, moderation! Just the same, if you have a few hours in your week that you can devote to clipping and online databases, your pocketbook will feel the effects. I would occasionally do the math on my time. I found that on average, my savings meant that my “paycheck” for the hours spent couponing equaled nearly $30 an hour! What other job pays that much to a stay-at-home mother?
Such stockpiling can see a family through unemployment, illness, or other financial burdens. This approach tends to curb the effects of a potential financial disaster but does not account for other types of scenarios, such as a lack of potable water or electricity. This is similar to the checklist approach because it does not come with a set of skills.
The Checklist Approach
When the reality hits that our economy, lifestyle, and food supply chains are unsustainable, panic sets in. You can almost ask the, “Where were you when it hit?” question, because for most of us there was a distinct moment in time. Perhaps it was a run on the grocery store bottled water during a water main break, watching the images of Louisiana or Florida after a natural disaster, or perhaps it was an economics course or even a blog. Wtih the checklist approach, this is most often the backdrop.
But don’t underestimate the checklist either. It plays an extremely vital psychological role. It empowers an individual against the extreme helplessness of circumstances. It moves the person beyond victim to survivor, and a few other things take place, as well. You must analyze your family’s goals and needs. Will you homeschool? Set the books aside? Does someone have a medical condition, how much wheat would you consume, and have you answered the water-filter problem yet?
Some of us long-term “prepper”-types are quick to poo-poo this approach, saying that what you need are the skills because eventually the pre-packaged food runs out. If this is where you are, just please don’t stay in this phase permanently. Do not get a false sense of security because of what you have stored in your basement. If you are looking for a good resource for this approach, though, I would recommend Dr. Prepper’s Making the Best of Basics.
The Survival Approach
This was the approach to which I was first exposed, and it sent me running! I had quickly come to judge those who were survivalists as conspiracy theorists. It took a long time for me to realize the value of what they embraced, namely, the ability to look after one’s family in the event of a disaster (natural or otherwise). It’s like this: it’s culturally acceptable to buy homeowner’s insurance that protects against fire, right? Does that mean that every other house burns down? No, of course not. It’s not about the frequency of the disaster, but about the devastation. You do not live in sheer panic every time you leave your house because you’re convinced it will be a pile of ashes upon your return. In fact, you never give it a thought (except, perhaps, when the insurance bill comes due). Survivalists view this as a form of insurance. You don’t approach your future this way because you live in perpetual fear. You approach the future this way so that you do not have to live in perpetual fear.
This is your warning: Survivalist culture can be a certain form of hobby, and a useful one at that. But please be a well-rounded, engaging individual. Your neighbor, who might be repulsed by camouflage, may find your gardening abilities endearing. Be endearing, and you just might have opportunity to teach others new and useful skills!
The Ecology Approach
For some, this is an ideal to be heralded, for others it’s as nails on a chalkboard. There is a sense where some feel controlled—the light bulb you use, the car you drive, BYOGB (‘bring your own grocery bags’), the toilet paper you use—you get the point. If we can look at ecology beyond a “checklist approach”, we can discuss the health of our plants, animals, and of humankind. We were given only one verdant planet Earth, and we were also given a mandate to care for it. Never has it been more crucial that we do so than now in this Frankensteinian era of genetically modified foods, medicines, and of terra firma itself! When we speak of things that are unsustainable, current mass-monoculture farming techniques are just that.
There is something pragmatic about learning to work with nature instead of fighting the losing war against it. It’s economical to “reduce, reuse, and recycle”. I know of zero rich homesteaders, but I know many creative and savvy ones! Let’s care less about what your bumper stickers say and think instead of how we might redirect grey water to better irrigate our food gardens.
If you’ve previously written this approach off, please reconsider it as presented in, “Back To Eden”. If this approach is your defining way to approach sustainability, please ask yourself some of these harder questions.
Do you see the earth as serving humankind, humankind as serving The Earth, or do you see a symbiotic relationship between the two? The answer to that question precedes this one—what is the value you place upon human life? Please consider these questions carefully lest you fall into the all-too-common pitfall of idolizing an inanimate object at the sacrifice of your brothers and sisters.
The Community Approach
The work required to live successfully in the absence of modern technology is a problem that often separates many of these various approaches. We all agree on this, that we cannot do a pre-industrial lifestyle alone. Some choose to have large families. Some choose to live in small towns with a strong community ethic.
Some ecologically-minded people choose communes. They do not wait for disaster but choose this even now, forgoing personal and materialistic desires for the good of the whole. Survivalists sometimes aim for communes too, but theirs are on paper. They carefully craft the futuristic society by selecting families, supplies, and skills now for life after a TEOTWAWKI (“The End of the World As We Know It”).
For me, I draw great strength from my church family. I find excellent support spiritually, emotionally and even physically. In turn, I have been able to develop an awareness of my community’s needs to develop the skills that help others. We could argue all day long as to whether such a community could survive in a true TEOTWAWKI, but centuries of persecution, famine, and disease look favorably upon the church as a whole in this regard. This is where I choose to take my chances; it might not be what you choose.
If you have not considered the importance of community, please do not forsake this great human need.
The Homestead Approach
Eight children not required. Homesteading is a skills-based approach. There is resurgence towards the old-fashioned notion of fetching the firewood and fixing a fence, and it might surprise you to see the diversity in the families that are choosing this model. No one can learn every skill or complete every task, but the idea is that the homesteader will be light years ahead of the person who had a potted tomato plant once and called it gardening. Petting a goat on the class field trip hardly prepares one for a future agrarian lifestyle, and the homesteader seeks to learn skills and put systems in place before they are necessary. So although the homesteading life is an evolving journey, the concept is that the homesteading family has developed discipline that will carry over with the least amount of disruption possible.
There is a tendency of some to over-romanticize homesteading (myself included). The homemade goat cheese seemed deliciously elegant when my neighbor gifted some to me; it was downright unpleasant to walk through 2 feet of snow at 7 a.m. to go milk goats (which have very small teats for frost-nipped hands). Farm fresh eggs are simply delicious, until you crack open –not one but two in a row– with a baby chick inside! Butchering is not romantic. Manure is not romantic. Anything goat, really, is not romantic.
Eight children not required, but helpful. Most homesteaders must work traditional in-town jobs to support their homesteading habit, and there are not enough daylight hours to accomplish the list. If you are so task oriented that you relax only when the list is all crossed off, this might not be your lifestyle choice.
I have heard it said, “When I get my homestead, then I’ll be self-sufficient.” Mwahahaha! Stop that silly talk! You will have gained a treasure trove of useful skills (woodworking, welding, animal husbandry, mechanics, electrical work, and food production, to name a few) and your life will be richer for it. In fact, these are perhaps some of the most self-sufficient people I know (when TEOTWAWKI hits, I want to live in a homesteading community)! But you will never be so humbled by your reliance upon others than now that you’ve engaged upon this lifestyle. Is it worth it? Sure, but face this realistically for long-term success. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be buying my goat cheese from you!
Some of these approaches are based on personality, some upon philosophy, and others are pragmatically dictated by a person’s circumstances. No matter which camp you place yourself, please consider the underlying philosophy that puts you there and learn from the best of all of the models. We all ultimately have one goal in mind, which is to move beyond mere survival into a holistic, enriching lifestyle that is not dictated by world events.