Hemenway is the author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to
Home-Scale Permaculture, which was awarded the Nautilus
Gold Medal in 2011, was named by the Washington Post
as one of the ten best gardening books of 2010, and is the best-selling
permaculture book in the world. His new book on urban permaculture,
The Permaculture City, is now available. For more of
Toby, check out his website: http://tobyhemenway.com
prevail of your own force,
as a plant springs and grows by its own vitality.
emailing went out a while back from a prominent permaculturist
looking for “projects where people are fully self sufficient
in providing for their own food, clothing, shelter, energy and
community needs . . .” There it was, the myth of ‘fully
self-sufficient,’ coming from one of the best-known permaculturists
in the world. In most US permaculture circles, the idea that
anyone could be self-sufficient at anything past a very primitive
level was abandoned a while ago, and the softer term “self
reliant” replaced it. But even self-reliance is barely
possible, and, other than as way of expressing a desire to throw
off the shackles of corporate consumerism, I don’t think
a Googling cruise around the internet and found that self sufficient
shows up as a desirable goal on several top permaculture websites.
I’d like to hammer a few coffin nails into that phrase.
My dictionary says that self-sufficient means being “able
to maintain oneself without outside aid.” Who lives without
outside aid? No one. Let’s unpack that a bit further.
The meaning of self-sufficient in food is something most of
us can agree on: supplying 100% of your food needs from your
own land and efforts. I have never met anyone who has done this.
I’m sure there are a few people doing it, but even subsistence
farmers usually raise, alongside their food, a cash crop to
buy the foods that are impractical for them to grow.
people say they are growing 30%, 50%, even 70% of their own
food. What they usually mean is that they are growing fruits
and vegetables that make up some percentage of the total cost
or weight—but not calories—of their food. Vegetables
are high in wet weight, but low in calories. If you are growing
100% of your own vegetables, they provide about 15-20% of your
daily calories, unless you are living mostly on potatoes or
other starchy veggies. Most daily calories come from grains,
meat, or dairy products. So if you’re not raising large-scale
grains or animals, it’s unlikely that you are growing
more than one-quarter of your own food, measured honestly by
nutritional content. In that case, it’s not accurate to
claim you are 70% food self-sufficient. If you are getting most
of your calories from your land, you’re almost certainly
a full-time farmer, and I salute you for your hard work. Now
we begin to see how difficult, and even undesirable, self sufficiency
is. You won’t have time for much else if you are truly
food self-sufficient, even in a permaculture system.
even if you grow all your own food, can you claim you are self
sufficient if you don’t grow all your own seeds? Provide
all your fertility? Where do your farm tools and fuel come from?
Permaculturists understand as well as anyone how interconnected
life is. At what point do you claim to be disconnected from
the broad human community in anything? Is there really a way
to be “fully self sufficient” in food?
take a quick pass at clothing, shelter and energy. Even if you
sew all your clothes, do you grow the cotton, raise the sheep?
If you milled all the lumber or dug the stone for your home,
did you forge the glass, fabricate the wiring? In the off-the-grid
house, what complex community of engineers and factories assembled
the solar panels? We’re reliant on all of that.
self sufficiency in almost anything insults and ignores the
mountain of shoulders we all stand on. US permaculturists are
a pretty politically correct crew, and it became obvious to
some of us that self-sufficient was not just impossible, but
was a slap in the face to all those whose sweat provides for
us, and was another perpetuation of the cowboy ethic that puts
the individual at the center of the universe. So the term morphed
into “self reliance,” to show that we know we are
interdependent, but are choosing to be less reliant on others.
At its best, self reliance means developing skills to provide
for basic needs, so we can stop supporting unethical and destructive
industries. But I see much less need for self-reliant people
who can do everything themselves, and much more need for self-reliant
communities, where not everyone knows how to weave or farm,
but there is clothing and food for all.
is still a deep prejudice in permaculture, as websites and emails
show, that doing it all ourselves, and on our own land, is the
most noble path. And insofar as our skills make us less dependent
on corporate monopolies, developing the abilities that we think
of as self-reliant is worth doing. However, the more we limit
our lives to what we can do ourselves, the fewer our opportunities
are. Each connection outside ourselves enriches us. When we
create a web of interdependencies, we grow richer, stronger,
safer and wiser. Why would you not want to rely on others? To
fully probe that would take us down a psychological rabbit-hole,
but some of it is grounded in a belief that others are unreliable
or unethical, and that we weaken ourselves by interdependencies.
But the old saying “if you want a job done well, do it
yourself” simply shows poor management skills.
you’re still skeptical, I’ll resort to scripture:
a quote from the Book of Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture,
page two: “We can also begin to take some part in food
production. This doesn’t mean that we all need to grow
our own potatoes, but it may mean that we will buy them directly
from a person who is already growing potatoes responsibly. In
fact, one would probably do better to organize a farmer-purchasing
group in the neighbourhood than to grow potatoes.”
veteran permaculture designer Larry Santoyo says, go to the
highest generalization to fill your needs. Thinking “I
must grow my food” is painfully limited. Thinking “I
must satisfy food needs responsibly” opens up a vast array
of possibilities, from which you can choose the most stable
and appropriate. Individual efforts are often less stable and
resilient than community enterprises. And they’re bad
design: self-reliance means that a critical function is supported
in only one way. If you grow all your food and get hurt, you
are now injured, hungry, and watching your crops wither from
your wheelchair. That won’t happen in a community farm.
And for those worried about an impending collapse of society,
the roving turnip-bandits are much more likely to raid your
lonely plot while you sleep exhausted from a hard day of spadework,
and less likely to attack a garden protected by a crew of strong,
pitchfork-wielding farmers who can guard it round the clock.
community reliance gives us yet another application of permacultural
zones: Zone zero in this sense is our home and land. Zone one
is our connection to other individuals and families, zone two
to local commerce and activities in our neighborhood, zone three
to regional businesses and organizations, zone four to larger
and more distant enterprises. Why would we limit ourselves to
staying only in zone zero? We can organize our lives so that
our need for zone-four excursions—say, to buy petroleum
or metal products—is very limited, while our interactions
with the local farmers’ market and restaurants are frequent.
This builds a strong community.
reliance fails to grow social capital, a truly regenerative
resource that can only increase by being used. Why would I not
want to connect to my community in every way that I can? If
we don’t help fill our community’s needs, there’s
more chance that our neighbors will shop at big-box stores.
An unexamined belief in self reliance is a destructive myth
that hands opportunity to those who are taking our community
away from us.
you love being a farmer, then yes, grow all your own food. And
sell the rest for the other things you need, in a way that supports
your community. But is there really a difference between a farmer
exchanging the product of her labor—food—for goods
and money, and me selling the product of my labor—education—for
goods and money? We both are trading our life energy within
a system that supports us, and I’d like to think that
we are both making wise ethical choices.
permaculture design is one that provides for the inhabitants’
needs in a responsible and ecologically sound manner. But there’s
nothing in permaculture that says that it’s important
for all yields to come from the owner’s site. If I can
accomplish one thing in this essay, it is to smash that myth.
Permaculture design simply says that our needs and products
need to be taken care of responsibly in our design, not on our
own land. That design can—and must—include off-site
connections. If you are an acupuncturist whose income is provided
by your community and you are getting most of your needs met
from mostly local sources you believe to be ethical, then that’s
excellent permaculture design. Your design will be stronger
if your needs and products are connected to many off-site elements
very permacultural to develop skills that will connect you more
deeply to land, home, and community. And sometimes the skills
that we gained in search of self reliance are the same ones
we need to be more community-reliant. But self reliance, as
a goal in itself, is a tired old myth that needs to die. It’s