Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Reliance in the World of Tomorrow


Photo of a modern hydro-power plant based on an ancient design, from gtknj at Flickr. Many towns in Japan are already self-sufficient with respect to production of energy.

Today is Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

What’s the difference between self-reliance and self-sufficiency?  They sound like the same thing, and in some cases, they probably are.  But in his book The Turning Point: Creating Resilience in a Time of Extremes, Gregg Braden makes a very useful distinction.

Self-sufficiency is a way of thinking and living in which the goal is complete autonomy in at least one aspect of life.  A self-sufficient family, for example, would produce enough food and energy for itself and consume only that which they are able to produce.  The family would make their own shelter, clothing, and tools, and the adults would be responsible for educating the kids.  Some pioneer families lived this way during the period of westward expansion in the United States, but not for long.
Self-reliance is a way of thinking and living in which the family produces as much food, energy, shelter, clothing, and tools as it can for its own use, but it works in a complementary way with other families.  In the old days, families would get together to build a house or a barn, and the men would take turns plowing each other’s fields.  The women of a community would get together to bake bread or make quilts.  One farmer might have been especially good at shoeing horses.  One woman might have valuable skills as a midwife. Once towns were established, families went into town for store-bought items such as tools, saddles and tack, fabric for clothing, and items not easily produced such as sugar or spices.  Self-reliance, then, is the ability to pull your own weight and contribute to a group effort.  

We do know from history that communities in which people worked together and in which every member was expected to contribute, such as the Plymouth Colony, were much more successful than those in which it was every man for himself, such as the ill-fated Jamestown Colony.  In modern times, however, we’ve taken the idea of sharing with others perhaps a bit too far, to the point where many of us are not really self-reliant anymore.  Our food is grown for us, our clothing is made for us, and what tools we do use are produced in factories far from our homes.  Most of us have no idea how much energy it takes to make our clothes or grow and transport our food, and we haven’t got a clue about exactly where our energy comes from.  If our energy grid went down, we would face starvation, and not a few would die of exposure to the elements.

Braden’s book points out a number of areas in which we have come to a time of extremes, including climate change, world population, dependence on fossil fuels, and imminent collapse of global financial markets.  He posits that many people try to wait out extremes in the hope that things will return to “normal,” but his position is that the norms of yesteryear are not about to return.  Instead, humanity must adapt to a “new normal.”  In order to do that, he says humanity will have to cultivate the quality of resilience, or the ability to persevere during and after a crisis.  One of the ways we will have to do this is to become more self-reliant in terms of what we can do for ourselves versus what we expect others (or technology!) to do for us.

I will have more to say about forming communities in a later post.  Meanwhile, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself how self-sufficient you are.  Could you grow your own food if you had to?  How long could you do without electricity?  If you were part of a community in which you had to contribute something, what useful skill or product could you contribute?  🙂


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One response to “Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Reliance in the World of Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: You’ve probably taken self-reliance too far | Rod's Blog

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