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[SANET-MG] Self-Sufficiency and Self-Reliance--some historical perspective

The recent SANET discussion about self-sufficiency might benefit from some historical perspective. 

First, there is the matter of the term "self-sufficient." I recall my own involvement in the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. During the time I served on the staff of "RAIN," one of that movementâ??s principal journals, we took pains to use the term "community self-reliance" to describe our hopes for a future in which people largely opted out of the consumer society by growing organic foods and making use of wind and solar energy. Our concern was that "self-sufficiency" suggested the survivalist mentality of people who fled to the hills to wait out nuclear attacks. Our own decentralist vision assumed a balance of personal independence and community cooperation. Not everyone could grow all their own food or produce all their own energy, but they could certainly join with their neighbors in meeting mutual needs.

The appropriate technology movement received much of its philosophical impetus from E. F. Schumacherâ??s book "Small is Beautiful," but the oil shortages of the 1970s provided a practical spur to creative thought and action. How exactly could people produce food and energy in the coming post-petroleum era? On Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island, the New Alchemy Institute created futuristic "arks"---computerized miniature ecosystems that employed wind and solar energy and produced both edible fish and vegetables. In Berkeley, the Farallones Institute took the self-reliance concept to a more grounded practical level by maintaining an Integral Urban House where staff demonstrated how people living on a small city lot could grow fruits and vegetables, raise chickens, rabbits and edible fish, and produce their own honey. By 1979, Farallones staff boasted that energy costs at the house were 65 to 90 percent below average. They further claimed that the household recycled 90 percent of its wastes and produced enough food to feed a family of four by using the labor of one person working one-half hour per day.

So why arenâ??t we all living in New Alchemy arks or integral urban houses today? Thatâ??s probably a good topic for a scholarly article, but at the risk of oversimplifying, let me suggest some basic reasons: In the 1980s, the oil situation returned to "normal." Most people were more than happy to accept the idea that the lights would continue to go on, that gas would continue to be available, and that convenient oil-dependent foods would continue to appear on their supermarket shelves.  In prosperous times, thoughts about self-reliance are mostly the province of a well-informed minority who worry about future resource shortages and environmental degradation. Some members of that minority also have spiritual qualms about rampant consumerism or political concerns about a loss of freedom. 

So what will such people do if (as some energy specialists now predict) we soon reach a situation where there simply isnâ??t enough oil to go around? Ironically, they (and we) may turn to some of the same people who tried to point the way in the 1970s. People like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, and David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance are still around and still thinking creatively. But today we refer to what they think about as "sustainability." Let us wish them well. And let us strive to model in our own lives the self-reliant strategies everyone will need to learn when they once again learn the meaning of the word "finite."

John Ferrell
Seattle, Washington

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