There's a debate raging these days about whether individuals have responsibility to take action regarding climate change or if we should push for sweeping policy change. The argument goes something like this.
Our individual actions are a drop in the bucket. Also, our world is designed in such a way that many of us have a hard time navigating toward a more climate-friendly lifestyle because the purse and policy string holders have made it near impossible for us to escape the fossil fuel trap. So, rather than make individual changes now, we should push for changes at the top.
Homesteaders Have Power!
Clearly, this debate is not directed at homesteaders. Because we absolutely have the power to make our contributions mean more than a drop in the bucket on multiple fronts.
We can stop using unnecessary resources.
We can shorten the supply chain between us and meeting our needs.
We can make our homesteads and lives more resilient in the face of climate change.
We can restore decimated landscapes and create natural sanctuaries while encouraging biodiversity and meeting many of our basic needs.
We can also advocate for change.
The Problem with Self-Sufficiency
If you are a long-time homesteader you probably already know what I am about to tell you. But if you are new to homesteading and just trying to get your head around all this stuff, I want to save you a bunch of time.
Self-sufficiency is a huge myth. The truth is, the more capable you become of providing for your basic needs, the more you realize that you are totally dependent on nature.
For example, to imagine that I grow my food is laughable to me now. Soil, water, weather, sun, strong seeds – these things grow my food. Yes, I make compost. I weed. I decide what to plant and when. I save seeds. I help solve pest problems, use crop rotations, catch and apply rain water, and more to ensure good food production.
Still, all of these things would be useless if not for the underlying foundation that nature has provided.
How About Hydroponics
Even when you grow hydroponically, under lights, using synthetic fertilizer, and hybrid or GMO seeds – every bit of knowledge and every ingredient used in that process is dependent on nature. In fact, if you want to get a really big headache, take out a pen and a giant pile of paper and try to think about all the natural resources that go into all the things required so you can grow hydroponically at home.
Between making, transporting, and running a hydroponic system, the natural resource list is staggering. Now, my point in writing this isn't to pick on hydroponics. I suspect even when you trace all the energy inputs in that process, hydroponics still comes out ahead of some other agricultural practices.
What I want to point out, though, is that as homesteaders the simplest way to take responsibility for our climate impacts is to trade our dependence on impossible to trace supply chains for more direct dependence on nature. The closer your homestead processes are to direct dependence on the natural world and your own ingenuity, the easier it is to make environmentally sound choices.
Now, in case you do want to take personal responsibility for your actions and be more than helpless drop in the bucket, here are some ideas to consider.
The easiest way to make a giant dent in your carbon footprint instantly is to stop doing unnecessary things. Some of the ideas that follow might seem like hardships at first. Truthfully though, once you acclimate to the changes you often become healthier, have more free time, and enjoy a better life as a result.
Stop automatically using climate control in your house. Our bodies are built to tolerate a pretty wide variance of temperatures. By dressing appropriately, being more active or more inactive in relation to the temperature, and using natural temperature control techniques such as opening windows or planting trees to shade our homes in summer, we can keep comfortable longer. Save your HVAC for when you absolutely need it rather than using it as a comfort crutch.
Stop shopping for entertainment. Yes, you need stuff. Yes, there are splurges we're going to buy at times simply because we want them. But, shopping to fill time or some emotional void is crazy. Spend more time homesteading for free instead.
Stop wasting. Food waste of any kind is absurd when you can compost and bokashi. Packaging waste is crazy too! Buy things without packages or buy used if you can to avoid packaging altogether. Excessive internet use for meaningless, brain and soul draining activities is not only a huge waste of climate change increasing energy, it's likely impacting your mental health. Use the internet responsibly.
Stop flushing. Make humanure to improve your soil. Use diluted urine as a nitrogen source in the garden. These things are not gross, they are basic, honest ways to deal with our own crap!
Stop traveling. You have (or are making) a beautiful homestead. You don't need to leave town for a vacation. You also don't need to hop in the car to run to the store for some missing ingredient to make a recipe or some part to fix something around the homestead. Homesteaders can find creative ways to cook, fix, make, or do things without spending half of our lives running errands.
Shorten the Supply Chain
Homesteaders have a natural advantage when it comes to shortening our supply chains. We are already working toward greater self and nature reliance. You are probably already doing most of the things in this section. But if not, start now!
Grow food. If you stop wasting and flushing, and instead start making compost and diluting urine, you'll have great sources of fertility for your garden. Even if you don't have a lot of room, by growing things like baby lettuce, you can cut out all those plastic boxes you used to get at the grocery and save money.
Eat locally grown food. Depending on where you live, locally grown stuff might cost a bit more. But, since you aren't going to waste and will also grow some of your own, you are creating the bandwidth in your budget to spend in support of your local community. Instead of relying on things from who knows where, made in who knows what exploitative working conditions, you can be proud of your purchases.
Reduce your meat consumption. I am not a vegetarian. But, I don't buy commercially produced meat. Period. The environmental costs are simply too high. Instead, we raise and kill what we eat. Facing the real price of meat by doing the work ourselves, naturally reduces the amount of meat you can consume. Quality of life for those animals also skyrockets when individuals handle each step of the process.
Go money-less. Money itself is a frighteningly complex environmental problem. So, if you can get what you need without spending money, you can eliminate a whole stream of unintended consequences. You've got friends and family. Borrow, swap, trade, barter, practice gift economics or whatever else you want to call it.
Go solar. I'm not talking about solar panels, I am talking about using the sun as a direct resource. Live by the light when you can. Sit near windows for natural light. Sleep at dark, wake with the sun. Use sun to grow plants by planting directly outside or in cold frames instead of indoors under lights. Watch sunsets and spend time more under the stars instead of under artificial lights for entertainment.
Build Climate Resilience
We had 84 inches of rain last year. We normally get about 42. It sucked. There were challenges. But, we came through it just fine. That's because we were ready. You can be too.
Use permaculture principles. I have never taken a permaculture design class (PDC), but I've studied the greats like Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Sepp Holzer, and many others. I've used their teachings to evaluate and design our homestead to effectively catch, store, sink, and move water around our landscape.
Permaculture practices can help you create a more resilient landscape too. If you can take a PDC great. But if not, self-study works fine too.
Bank on soil. There is one thing I do happily spend money on. Every spare dollar I have goes toward improving our soil organically. We started with a piece of land that was severely eroded, ran like a river when it rained, and wouldn't grow anything but broom straw.
Now, we can grow just about anything and have far fewer plant losses from weather extremes than others in our area. Building good soil as quickly as you can will help ensure the health of your plants and wildlife. Rich, fertile soil is like money in the bank since it provides more food security and better climate change resilience.
Create microclimates. As things get hotter, protecting your important perennials by using microclimates becomes more important. For example, I make frog ponds with kiddie pools and use low grape arbor tunnels to keep the roots of my fruit trees cool in our Southern heat.
I grow grapes over my rhubarb to extend production. I use taller plants to shade shorter plants for parts of the day to keep soil temperatures cool. We don't just need to think about cold hardiness any more, but heat tolerance and protection.
No bare soil. We grow what we love in dedicated spaces. But we also grow as much easy to grow stuff as we can to keep our soil from being bare and maintaining biodiversity on our landscape.
Amaranth (wild and cultivated), curly dock, common and narrow plantain, mullein, red perilla, lemon balm, comfrey, multiple clovers, lambsquarters, sunchokes, cardoon, oregano, anise hyssop, coreopsis, various wild grasses, Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, sumac, sourwood, black locust, tulip poplars, hazel, native hazelnut, black berries (wild and cultivated), cardinal flower, willow, all kinds of fruit trees, and several hundred other kinds of plants are growing in every nook and cranny of our homestead.
Restore Decimated Landscapes
Historically, we've been careless with our planet. So now, we have to make amends and not just reduce what we use. The good news is, nature is our ally in this. There are simple things you can do to make big impacts now.
Grow “weeds.” Things that a lot of other people consider weeds are actually good for your land. For example, lemon balm is often considered an invasive plant by many gardeners. But I love to grow it I grow it around my fruit trees. Because of the high limonene content, it helps discourage some insect pests. Plus, I use it like comfrey and mow it down with my scythe about 5 times a year as a living mulch and green manure.
Create habitat. I use that grape arbor kiddie pool combo I just mentioned in lots of ways around my landscape. I have multiple small and larger ponds with shade zones and lots of plants to offer habitat for wildlife and watering holes for pollinators. Add a few rocks and a mix of annual and perennial plants and you've got yourself a wildlife habitat.
Pests are pollinators. I know no one wants pests in the garden. But, you can't have pollinators without pests. And you can't get good food production without pollinators. Pollinators like butterflies and moths are usually leaf eaters in their larval form. That means the same good guys that pollinate your plants might be the very bad guys that eat your crops.
Losing a few plants a season to pests is normal and necessary in a natural,organic garden. Plant extra for your pollinators.
Note: Losing all of your plants to pests means you've gone really wrong on your organic management. Don't blame pests for excessive losses, instead check your practices.
Return the favor. We've over-borrowed from nature for a really long time. So, now we have to start balancing the scales. That means you need to dedicate as much of land for payback as you can. Planting trees, lots of perennials, self-seeding annuals, and more are good ways to start to settle our debts.
Use natives if your climate is still suitable for growing them. Don't grow a lawn, grow a meadow. Taller, perennial grasses grow deeper roots which helps soil hold more moisture and support more soil life.
Accept human nature. Humans are part of nature. Some of us may like to pretend otherwise. But, we really do need to spend time in nature to understand ourselves and our role in the cosmos. Create comfortable, nature appreciation spaces on your homestead and spend time interacting with and admiring the incredible complexity and intelligence of the nature we are part of.
Advocate for Change
My partner in life and homesteading, Matt Miles, recently wrote an incredible piece on personal responsibility for the Garrison Institute called A Matter of Time. He highlighted some environmental movements, such as those associated with teenager Greta Thunberg and Extension Rebellion (a small, but effective civil disobedience organization), that are having real impacts on political institutions and every day citizens.
The success of those movements makes me realize that we can change things through effective action. Truth be told, though, I'm a homesteader and a homebody. I don't want to go out and lead anyone anywhere. But I still have reach in my local community, through writing, and in a host of other ways.
Each of us, no matter what we do for a living, where we live, or how we live has the ability to reach others – even if we stay within our comfort zones. Your family, church, school, neighbors, social media groups, volunteer groups, places you shop at, companies you work with, every time you spend money, and more all potential ways for you to go beyond personal responsibility and advocate for change.
This is not my planet, or your planet, or rich people's or poor people's planets. It's a shared planet – home to every single living thing that exists. We must all participate if we are going to responsibly answer the environmental challenges ahead.
Thankfully, homesteaders don't need to wait for someone else to tell us the right thing to do. We can act now.
Tasha Greer spent several years homesteading and gardening in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape. For an up to date list of Tasha's current works visit her here.
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