The New Self Sufficiency-Doing Without

In an earlier post I discussed how true self sufficiency is in fact impossible yet it is essential for our survival. I also discussed variations on the theme of self sufficiency such as green living, homesteading, living on the edge, and voluntary simplicity. But, I also discussed the fact that we now live in a very different world than our ancestors and that world poses many new challenges. And one of those challenges is our consumer society. You can read that post here.

I often think of my early childhood when I spent a lot of time on one or both of the working farms that were in the family. A lot of our meat for the year, as well as other things, came from the farm. I had a brother and two sisters and we often spent time on the farm working and helping with chores especially in the summer when we were out of school. We were often there helping our grandparents work the farm while our parents were at the day job earning the money that provided for our other needs. After all, you can no longer pay the mortgage with a chicken. You need cold hard cash.

Looking back, I never really thought of us as being poor. In fact it never even occurred to me. We had all that we needed to live a comfortable life and we never actually did without anything. But we also never really had a lot of extra.

We spent our time raising animals, working in the garden, hunting, fishing, picking fruits and nuts from the trees on the farm, as well as canning and freezing our surplus foods. While most people these days would think “that sounds like a lot of work” we still had plenty of spare time for play, leisure walks in the woods, or simply sitting on the creek bank under a tree with a fishing line in the water.

It was a time when no one had a cell phone, a computer, an iPad, or a wall mounted flat screen TV. These amenities were simply not available at that time. In fact, in my early childhood, I remember a time when most people did not even have a phone. If you needed to talk to them, you simply drove to their house. It was also a time when we were able to provide ourselves with much of what we needed to live. In many respects, we were self sufficient. We just never really talked about it because it was simply the way we lived.

But, we now live in a much different world. Initially self sufficiency was a matter of providing your own food, shelter, tools, and whatever else was needed just to survive. You could not really eliminate anything because all of what you had was exactly what you needed.

But these days the opposite is true. Much of what we need to “survive” so to speak, in our modern world, such as light bulbs, cell phones, computers, vehicles and the gasoline to run them, is impossible for the individual to make. So instead of depending on ourselves we depend on a vast interconnected infrastructure that we cannot possibly understand or control.

But allow me to offer a different perspective on the situation.

While the average person can no longer make many of the things needed to survive in our modern world, most of us could actually get rid of more than half of our stuff and still live in luxury. So I would like to propose the idea that in many ways the new self sufficiency is simply doing without.

On that note, let me say that about 10 years ago I started on a journey to downsize and simplify my life. It took me about 5 years to make any significant progress but I stuck with my plan. I had two mortgages, vehicle payments, credit card debt, business debt and was working an average of 70 to 80 hours per week. In five years I sold the second home, paid off my land mortgage, donated 75% of my personal possessions to charity, and went from $295K worth of debt to zero.

And then I made substantial improvements on my property in Colorado to make it much easier to live there and to be as self sufficient as possible as well as sustainable.

I am now at the point where I work 3 days a week and take several months a year off. I am not retired but in many respects I do what I want. It is only because I made my life as simple as possible and got rid of 75% of my personal possessions.

In the end my life and lifestyle is much simpler, richer, and almost totally absent of and clutter. Just ask me if I feel as if I am doing without or perhaps missing something in my life. My answer would be a resounding NO, absolutely NOT!!

Now if you want to learn more about some of the things I did, I do have another post where I extensively discuss multiple ways to simplify your life. I will not go into that here. But, let me just say that the fast track to simplifying your life is very simple, no pun intended. Here it is.

1) Make a list of the 4 to 5 things in your life that are the most important, the things that provide value, the things that bring you joy, the things that produce what you would call “the good life”.

2) Eliminate everything else.

But, if you are interested in reading the entire post read The Importance of Simplifying Your Life.

Okay, back on track.

While most people these days may cringe at the thought of milking a goat or cleaning a chicken coup, it is very conceivable to reduce your needs in order to make yourself more self sufficient. While 100% self sufficiency may be impossible to achieve, what about 10% self sufficiency, or maybe 20%?

For example, about 6 years ago, I installed a full solar array at the cabin. In fact, I actually went much further than the average person would ever consider. After getting quotes on simply the cost of installation, I took an extensive class in solar design, and did all the work myself. That alone saved me $8000. At any rate, based on what my nearest neighbors are paying monthly for electricity, my investment in solar paid for itself in 2 years. Now my electricity is free, except for the cost of maintenance. And every time a major winter storm comes through the area and knocks out the power grid, all I have to do is sweep of the solar panels.

The point I am making here is that by simply changing some of the things you are doing in your life you can become a little more self sufficient by operating outside of some of the “normal” parameters in life.

The simple fact is that our “modern” life is fueled by a consumer economy. Roughly 70% of the US economy is fueled by spending and consuming. Products produced today have a limited shelf life by design. This means it is going to wear out in a finite amount of time and need replacement. When it is less expensive to buy a new one instead of repairing the old one, that is what most people opt for.

Many things end up in the landfill because no one takes the time to repair anything. It used to be common place for everyone to have a small shop at home for doing such projects. These days most people do not have a shop, do not possess the skills and knowledge to repair anything. Consequently, opting to buy yet another product is the first option. Not only that, people are so busy with their lives that they do not want to take the time to learn these skills anyway.

I think it was about 3 or 4 years ago I was up on the hillside at the homestead cutting firewood. I set the chainsaw on the ground to pull the ATV into the site and pull out a large log. While back out, I ran over the chainsaw. Needless to say, the chain saw did not function well after that. So, I put it in the shed and forgot about it.

Some time later, I actually needed a larger saw to cut some timber so I purchased one. But I also needed the smaller saw for limbing work because is was much easier. So, instead of buying a new one, I did some internet research, got on YouTube University and learned all about chainsaw repair. Ten dollars later I had the chainsaw functioning again.

I think it is fair to say that our so called “modern life” has placed significant limitations on all of us. Now I do understand that it is difficult to get away from what you have been taught your entire life. For example, children are not born being racist. They are taught to be racist. And when you spend your entire life in a racist culture, it is difficult to be different from that because that is all you know.

The same is true for a consumer culture. When what you are taught and all you see is “more is better” it is hard to be any different, it is difficult to change.

But, constant consumption and having a culture and economy that is built on constant growth is not sustainable. Instead of focusing on our own needs, we are constantly looking outward at what other people are doing. I call this “compare and despair”. We no longer simply compare ourselves to our neighbors. Now we can get on social media and compare ourselves to hundreds, if not thousands of friends, family, and people we do not even know the then “despair” about all the thing they are doing that you’re not doing. And then of course you reach to purchase something else that you don’t really need because you think it will add some value to your life.

I just cannot tell you how much less money I spend by living a simple life. You just cannot imagine how much less stress I have in my life by being debt free and not worrying or comparing myself to others.

My point in all of this is that the new self sufficiency is actually doing without. But in the end, you are not actually doing without anything. I greatly simplified my life, yet I still have a very modern lifestyle, and my carbon footprint is 70% less than the average person.

The point being is that our culture convinces most people that they need much more than they actually do.

Now let’s just look at a couple of real life examples:

Take for example the American wardrobe.

On average, Americans do not wear 50% of the clothes that they own. Not only that, most people will wear something once and put it in the laundry basket.

The average American family does 416 loads of laundry per year. They spend about $140/year on laundry products, about $420/year to heat the water to do laundry, and use about 16,640 gallons of water just for laundry.

You know, as you can likely imagine, I spend a lot of time outside for various reasons. And because of the way I live, I have a very simple wardrobe. In fact, I joke about having “cabin clothes” and “town clothes”. My typical clothing cycle is I purchase something new, wear it until it gets damaged in some way, then it becomes cabin clothes and is used to work in. Once it literally starts looking as if I am a homeless person, then it gets thrown away. I also make my wardrobe last a lot longer by wearing heavy duty durable work clothes.

I do maybe 3 loads of laundry a month. For a family of three we use maybe 600 gallons of water a month for all of our needs. And we do without nothing.

Let’s look at the typical hectic American lifestyle. We rush out the door in the morning grabbing breakfast to take with us or we get fast food on the way to work, with wolf down lunch while sitting at our desk or even while standing up so we can continue to work, we nuke our frozen dinner to save time while seldom sitting down with the entire family.

But on the homestead it is impossible to perpetuate this type of lifestyle. I can’t force the chickens to lay more eggs. I can’t make the tomato plants hurry up and grow. I can’t plow my road in 10 minutes after I get dumped on with 2 feet of snow. So, things happen more slowly. And I was recently reminded of this when I took 6 weeks off work to spend at home. This was planned down time. I spent the entire time at home working on homestead projects, working on my own business things, and we started experimenting with fermenting vegetables, making sourdough products, making homemade soap, and various other things. I was typically working on things by 6 a.m. with the goal of finishing by noon. Then the rest of the day was spent outside doing fun things, hiking, walking the dogs, and basically relaxing.

Oh please ask me again if I get the feeling that I am doing without anything. My answer would be a resounding NO!

Let’s look at one more example.

The average size of the American home in 1950 was 938 square feet. The average size of the American home in 2015 was 2,467 square feet. And Americans spend almost $30 billion dollars a year on lawn care. That is nearly twice as much money as the total budget for some smaller countries such as Costa Rica.

By the way, I am happy to say that I don’t spend a single cent on lawn care because I live in the middle of the forest. And between the two cabins, I think we have a total of about 1000 sq feet of living space. Now maybe that is too small for most people. But, I designed for maximum efficiency and simplicity. However, if I want to go on an extended trip, all I do is shut off the propane, drain the plumbing, and shut down the solar array. Barring lightning strike, forest fire, or a tree falling on something, all of which I could do nothing about even if I was there, I can stay gone as long as I want because there is nothing to attend too.

I hope you are getting the picture here.

Doing without is the new self sufficiency.

But I prefer to look at it from the perspective of simplifying your life. If you downsize and simplify your life you then need less money to live on. Consequently, you work less and have more spare time.

The end result is that you consume less, you spend less, and this is once again reaching toward a more sustainable lifestyle. With that extra time you can also learn to make various things at home that are more environmentally sustainable. During my recent 6 weeks off we finally started experimenting with making homemade soap and that has truly been enjoyable.

So, in closing, I would suggest that you find ways to simplify your life. Make a list of the most important 4 to 5 things in your life. These are things of course that bring you value. Once you have that list, start eliminating everything else.

Also, ditch the compare and despair attitude. Stop comparing yourself to other people. Just focus on what is of value for yourself.

In the end, I think you will find that you are not doing without anything. I will produce a lifestyle that is less stressful, where you have more free time to focus on the things you love. And you will also consume less, reduce your need for various resources, and take one more step toward sustainability.

So you see, this is a win-win situation. You not only produce a better quality of life but that new lifestyle is much more sustainable.

Go off grid and live well,


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