Self-reliance is a wonderful ideal that is hardwired in the American psyche. Stories of the pioneers who went west and set up homesteads give us a romantic feeling that can draw us toward a rural way of life. However, that feeling has also led many people into the brick wall of homesteading reality. Living the self-sufficient life is harder than it looks. It’s important to get a realistic look first.
Homesteading back in the days
The gist of homesteading was that if you were a citizen, never took up arms against the government, were over 21 years old, and could pay the $18 filing fee, you could go out west and claim up to 160 acres of unincorporated federal land. If you could farm the land, build a house, and make improvements on it over a five year period, you could then file for a deed to the land.
It may seem like anyone could do it, but think about this. Do you have the skill set of your great-great-grandparents? Can you garden, dig a well or cistern, hunt, preserve food, build a house, and know all the other skills to make life bearable in those conditions? The pioneers already had survival and community-building skills far beyond most people today just by daily living. It was hard living!
Their standard of living was also a lot different than our own. This is another major stumbling block to the ideal of true self-reliance. There are certain benefits we get from living within cities and modern society that you may not even recognize until you remove yourself from them. A useful experiment is to shut off your electricity at the breaker for a week and see how well you get along.
The importance of community
It takes a lot of work from many different people to give us the enjoyments we have right now. Homesteader families had to work as a close-knit team, even young children, in order to contribute enough energy to make the homestead successful enough to just survive. The ability to read this article on the web required many things most people cannot do and certainly no one could do entirely on their own.
There are some people who can and do make the decision to reduce their needs and wants enough to be happy living entirely on their own efforts. Most people aren’t that hardy. The government uses solitary confinement as a punishment for a reason. Even Buddhist and Christian monks rely on the lay community for help.
Humans prefer to make social groups that help each other out. In short, they make communities. Communities allow people to share their efforts toward a common goal. If there are enough people in the community that are working together, it makes survival tasks much faster and easier. That frees up extra time and energy to pursue things that improve the quality of life beyond survival, like the arts or specialized labor tasks. Any craftsman will need to have the support of a community to provide for their needs while they focus on their trade. If there wasn’t enough help to grow food for the community, the craftsman would be unable to work at their trade.
An achievable form of self-reliance
That being said, there is a way that a form of self-reliance can be achieved by people living in a community. All humans need five basic things in order to survive for the long-term: food, water, clothing, shelter, and basic medicine. If you can learn even a little bit about how to take care of yourself in these five areas, you’ll be miles ahead of most other people who have been coddled by government and corporations all their lives. By learning skills now while things are comfortable will make things much easier on you and your local community if and when things do wrong, whether from a local disaster or something more global like peak oil.
The best way to approach these skills is to start with one and getting some skill at it before going to the next. I recommend starting with food production. While a lack of warmth (shelter) or water will kill a person faster than a lack of food, most people have access to some form of shelter and a way to get clean water. Food production also has a long learning curve. Even with the best books, without a personal mentor or some experience your first crops will probably be poor. I recommend focusing on organic gardening, since that requires the smallest input from outside. If you can make compost, you can have an organic garden.
Another vital skill is learning how to form and strengthen communities. There are quite a number of theories about which community formations are best for long term survival. To be honest, if you look through human history there’s been many different forms and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. However, a leader that can’t contribute to the vital work of a community isn’t going to be leader for very long.
In short, if you are enamored with the idea of self-reliance recognize that it may not be as rosy as you might think. You will need a large skill set that most Americans don’t have any more. Set aside the idea of being completely self-reliant and focus instead on one vital skill for survival (learn it well and move to the next skill), and think more along the lines of community self-reliance than individual self-reliance. That’s a much more realistic and achievable goal.
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