Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Trade and the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

I remember dreaming, three years ago, how cool it would be to be self-sufficient - to close our little 5.4 acres off from the would and live in a complete cycle according to nature, giving back to the land and being given everything from it in turn. To draw my water, my power, my food, my herbal remedies, my fibers, and my joys from the earth.

In other words, I dreamt of being completely self-sufficient.

I'm glad I woke up.

Yeah, I don't ever want to feel like this guy.
In reality, self-sufficiency is a myth. We humans are simply too needy.

To start, let's clarify self-sufficiency. To me, self-sufficiency means living in 100% reliance upon yourself to meet your housing, food, and shelter needs. Self-sufficiency is relying upon yourself to survive, live, and even thrive indefinitely.

There's a reason that self-sufficiency is so difficult to attain. For one thing, it requires a mastery in several different survival and trade skills, such as wood cutting, fire tending, butchering, growing, hunting, gathering, harvesting, hay making, fishing, gutting, husbandry, weaving, sewing, skinning, tanning, cobbling, blacksmithing, forging, metalurgying, quarrying, cooking, and the like. That's a long list of skills to master when your life depends on it. I'm in year three of homesteading, and I've mastered maybe one of them. Maybe. I'm sure there are people who can confidently do most of the things on this list. but at some point (usually when shoes start to break down), they call upon the work of another to meet their needs.

As a rule, we humans need more to live than is reasonable possible for us to create when left entirely on our own.

The popular "self-sufficient life" either relies on a cursory "enough to get by" mentality of this list above, or else it is not truly a self-sufficient life. Maybe it tries to be the exception. Maybe it's self-sufficient insomuch as these groups are split communally, as in a family or a monastic mentality. Either way, it's not truly self-sufficient.

Instead, these iterations are self-reliant, self-sustaining, or something else entirely.

I think the real value and real face of self-sustainability lies in being able to provide food consistently, and being able to trade for what you don't have.

"Drop all the seed, and then I'll let go of the fish."
Ah, trade. The dark underbelly of the myth of self-sufficiency.

Trade has been utilized and necessary for millennia. As much as I agree with back-to-the-land movement and reviving ancient skills, I rarely see mentions of good ol' bartering. Trade drove civilizations since the beginning. Trade drove smaller community life. Trade drove hunter-gatherer tribes. Trade drives monasteries. Trade drove world history since the beginning.

Why does "trade" see,m like such a foreign concept to us now? Maybe it's because modern 21st-century trade is done via plastic cards, 18-wheelers, and Direct Deposit. I trade my time, knowledge, and output for your money, and then I trade that money for food, shoes, housing, Netflix, etc.

In order to be truly self-sufficient, trade would be negligible. After all, you are responsible for providing everything for yourself. Taking the work of others for your own consumption, even when traded for fairly and justly, is NOT truly self-sufficient in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it's a form self-reliance.

Self-reliance is a far better term. It is simply relying on your work to meet your needs. This allows for trade, since as you are the one who created something of value for another (your food, time, talents, etc.), you can rely on trading something needed by another to meet your needs. Like trading a fish for seed, or vegetables for meat, or milk for tools, or firewood for bread, or salt for shoes, or (in modern society) $32.76 for a family Chik-fil-A dinner.

This is the reason why humanity thrived in villages as opposed to separate plots of land. It's far easier to grow extra food when you're growing it anyway and trade it for shoes than it is to grow all your own food by day and make shoes by night. The farmer feeds the cobbler, who gets the farmer and his family their shoes, but also the woodcutter in exchange for wood, the smithy in exchange for better tools (or tool sharpening), and also travelers, who could bring exotic fruits, fabrics, spices, and the like that contribute to overall health and survival.

The villages could be, and often were, self-sufficient in and of themselves.

Still, there's a certain point at which self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and all of those other euphemisms break down. As a Catholic, that point lies in the Sacramental life.

The Church, no matter how rural, has always been a center of community.
I cannot administer the Sacraments for myself. I cannot confess to myself, baptize myself, anoint myself when I'm sick, or most importantly, consecrate anything for myself.

I need the Church.

So even though the thought of worldly self-sufficiency entices many, Catholics cannot be called to such an extreme rejection of humanity at large. Simply put, God created us to need others. We see this is our need for priests, and priests' needs for the works of the community (food, shoes, etc.). We were never meant to be self-sufficient. We were meant to be God-reliant, though.

So while self-sufficiency sounds great in theory (, still doesn't), it is in reality virtually unobtainable. At some point, we humans will have a need that we alone cannot fill. Whether that is a physical one (such as someone else to mine salt for trade or to make our shoes) or a spiritual one (someone ordained to hear our confession and say Mass), it is by our very nature as humans to be dependent upon beings outside of ourselves.

After all, someone has to feed the shoemaker.

1 comment:

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