The Theory and Practice of Self-reliance

by bdunn on January 6, 2011

in Self-reliance

The dictionary definition of “homesteading” harkens from pioneer days and the acquisition of land, usually from the government, on which to build a “homestead.” Back 150 years or so, if you didn’t live in the (much fewer and smaller) cities, you farmed crops and raised animals, first for your family’s food and comfort, and with luck, something extra to trade for the things you couldn’t raise, grow or make on your own.

Homesteading has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, and many in the American Outback are able to practice something close to the pure version of the art as reflected in the dictionary.

That’s certainly a worthy goal as far as I’m concerned. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

As of 2008, about 82% of America’s 310 million people lived in cities and suburbs. Most of the people I know and interact with on a regular basis live in or near the vast suburban belts of Houston, Texas, or in Houston itself. I write for them, and for their counterparts in and around the other big cities of the South, and for myself. It’s hard to homestead, or to achieve anything close to the self-reliant spirit of homesteading, from the sterile homeowner-association-controlled master-planned confines of southern suburbia. I find it more difficult than it should be even to homestead here, on close to an acre in an older semi-rural area of tiny Richmond, Texas.

But it’s possible. And it’s fun, and somewhat satisfying, to try.

I write a lot about gardening and growing fruit trees, because those are among the easiest steps suburbanites can take toward providing for themselves. But not the only steps; the key to success, I believe, is to focus on self-reliance.

My belief in the need to learn to be more self-reliant springs from a theory I have which, coincidentally, is based in part upon the factors that led to the world in general and America in specific to morph from a rural to an urban society:

In the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century, the second round of the Industrial Revolution provided new jobs with wages high enough to woo a lot of people away from the country. Cities built up around the steel mills and other heavy industry of the Northeast. These workers made more cash than in the past, but everything else had to be provided for them – shelter, food, transportation. Thus were the underpinnings of an American consumer class cemented into place. Layers of service industries sprung up to provide things that the new workers couldn’t provide for themselves. Some of these services – legal, financial, cosmetic, communications, fast food – past generations would have considered useless. Yet here they were, providing not only services, but more new jobs, also with wages at least high enough to woo the boy away from the family farm.

This era was followed by the rising star of the corporation, where bigger and bigger companies took over bigger and bigger percentages of the service and manufacturing markets. The evolution took a few decades, but fast forward to now and it’s not hard to see how our current cities and our urban/suburban society is built around the needs of a relatively few major employers.

Houston, for instance, has attracted and maintains a massive population base serving the needs of the oil industry, from roughneck to petroleum engineer. The pay level among members of this oil industry work force can be roughly estimated based on the distance in miles from their homes to the petrol corporations’ downtown headquarters, where the top brass works. Houston’s highway system is laid out in concentric circles, with land “inside the loop” (the innermost circle) going for many times more per acre than land “outside the beltway.”

Many of today’s suburbanites (and no blame on them) have long ago traded away the right to work at something they enjoy, the right to work in a city of their choosing, the right to remain in one geographic location for the duration of their children’s schooling, the ability to buy independent health insurance, the right to raise chickens, even the right to paint their homes whatever color they wish – in exchange for the security and relatively high pay of a corporate job. Unfortunately, “corporate job security” is something of an oxymoron. Many corporations are set up in the first place for the express purpose of quickly building up an enterprise and then quickly selling it off. Byproducts of short-term corporate thinking include semi-annual restructuring and layoffs.

Today as a whole, American corporations hold about 7.4% of their total assets in cash – the largest percentage in more than 50 years. Now, I am not suggesting corporations are conspiring to not spend their money on new equipment or employees in order to expand and capture new market share. They’re all in it to make money, and their apparent belief is that there’s no demand out in Consumerland sufficient to absorb expanded production of goods or services. Besides, along with cash levels, corporate profits as a whole also happen to be at an all-time high.

The other side of that coin is that probably more than one in five adult Americans is unemployed. While official government Bureau of Labor Statistics reports put U.S. unemployment at between 9% and 10% (which is certainly bad), when you add in the uncounted millions who are so discouraged they aren’t going through official channels to look for work anymore, the total is in the neighborhood of 23%. With that many out of work and half of the rest afraid they could be next (and thus hoarding their cash), demand isn’t, in my opinion, about to catch fire any time soon. And were the economy to heat up, rising fossil fuel prices will be there to tamp it back down, at least for many more years to come.

So what we’re left with here is a situation in which America’s major urban/suburban employers are flush with cash, making more profits than ever and thus having little or no incentive to wish to change the economic landscape just because more than a fifth of the people in the U.S. have no jobs. And, more than ever, we have a dysfunctional Congress controlled by corporate titans. Thus, economically, nothing is likely to change for the economic betterment of most Americans for maybe a decade or more.

That’s my theory.

Given all that, I think one of the few ways to improve one’s standard of living under current conditions involves learning to live more comfortably on less money. This involves lowering family expenses, which generally means relying less and less on outside providers of goods and services, and learning to supply reasonable (sometimes better) alternatives through one’s own efforts.

Self-reliance, in other words. The core principle of homesteading.

Which brings up a whole lot more than gardening, including learning to use tools to build things, harnessing solar and alternative energy sources, practicing energy efficiency, rainwater harvesting, the local food movement and lots more fun stuff to write and talk about as time goes by. Some of this stuff I have picked up, but much of it I haven’t learned yet because, like many of the Suburban Generation, I failed miserably to see the value in farm management or the mechanical and carpentry-related crafts of my immediate ancestors.

Luckily, as one of my mentors reminded me the other day, you can “read a book and learn how to do it.” We can also chronicle our flailing efforts in places such as this, and learn to improve upon each other’s mistakes as we relearn skills that were probably second nature to our great grandparents.

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