Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
A few weeks ago I was house sitting for some neighbors just up the road from us. It was a big house, with all the modern conveniences: kitchen appliances, running water, several bathrooms and oil furnace heating. These were also selling points when they asked if I could spend a week there – I could do my laundry, each room had a separate thermostat, they had wi-fi, TV and a freezer full of food I could eat.
And on a day to day level, it was easy living over there, in the sense that most of my needs were taken care of by merely pushing or turning a switch or tap. Unlike at home it was no going out to get water or wood and no wood stove to tend. I could shower in two minutes and pile up the dishes in the dishwasher; chores were carried out swiftly with the least physical resistance and with little need for any thoughts beyond the pushing or turning.
It was easy, but not simple since all of these so called conveniences depended entirely on sources I had no control over and the easy actions most always set off a chain effect: every time I turned the thermostat in that house, an easy way to stay warm set off a complex reaction far past my bedroom – through the lines and posts in power grid that needs regular maintenance, through the clearing in the woods where the lines to come in, to the dam or plant where the power is generated. The effects of my action also rippled through the oil furnace in the basement to the local delivery truck and its driver and on to the previous delivery truck and its share of increased traffic on our rural roads. On and on through landscapes and communities to an oil field or a tar sand location somewhere, touching on hundreds if not thousands of human lives who are in some ways affected by the oil infrastructure. Billowing over all this is the exhaust, not only from the furnace in this particular house, but from the trucks, the factories who built the furnace, the pipes, the plants, the heavy machinery involved in pumping or fracking the oil. And someone has to pay the bill, which will yet again set off a complex chain of actions – the house owner made its money somewhere, probably by providing a service or a product. That service or product, whatever it was, most likely set off another chain through materials, transport, buildings, fossil fuel, investments, tax money, corporations, interests, stocks. It did seem easy right there and then, didn't it, to turn the heat up just a little bit?
Here at the homestead we face the difference between easy and simple on an almost daily basis. So many times the lumberyard seems like such an easy option – we need a few boards to finish a project, rafters for a roof or a few studs just to fix something fast. If we would choose a narrow view and look only at what we want to accomplish today, with the least resistance, we would ignore the many processes the lumberyard would involve: clear cuts done with heavy machinery on land unknown to us; the transportation of the lumber onto the island and that we'd have to make the money somewhere, money that before it came to us was made somewhere, somehow, and before that, somewhere, somehow.
But when we look at the situation out of a desire to live in simplicity, our choice is to go to our own lot to find the trees we need and mill the lumber on our own mill. The ripples that this option set off into the mainstream economy and larger environment, from the small amount of gas and some wear on our machinery, are small compared to the alternatives. In this way, we can instead alter the effects of our actions to have a positive impact that we can stay in control over, like the enhancement of our woodlot when we carefully select which trees to fell, the mounds of brush we leave for critters to live in and the sawdust we get as a byproduct to use in our composting toilets and to pack our root crops in for the winter – positive effects we'd miss if we choose the seemingly quick fixes and easy options.
This difference in easy vs. simple is where some people get confused over how much work it is to provide for your own needs. At a first glance, cutting firewood or milling lumber might seem as a lot of work, but when adding up the accumulated input (all human labor, fossil fuel expended, negative environmental impact and the efforts needed to reverse that impact) that's needed for a furnace or commercial lumber production to function, simply turning the knob suddenly seems like a lot of work. For any given individual with the “right” profession and in the “right” socioeconomic context it could indeed, measured in time, be less work to for example make the money and buy the food as opposed to growing it on their own. But once again, with all the consequences and ripple effects considered, I dare to say that very few effortless ways of providing conventional food is actually easier than the simplistic home-based food production.
For the short week I lived in that house overlooking the ocean, I did all right in the ready-steady-go easiness of pushing and turning and I even spent an evening on the couch flipping between news channels and soap operas. Nevertheless, was I happy to go back to my own house, with the interior and furniture made from natural materials, the wood stove, tight quarters and garden view. And mostly, to the peace of mind being able to clearly see the simple effects of my simple actions.
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