Self-sufficiency is about taking care of your basic needs all by yourself. As with any lifestyle, there’s a broad spectrum of what it means to be self-sufficient. Some people are content to simply grow their own vegetables and cook their meals from scratch. Others generate their own electricity, collect their own rainwater, and live without gasoline. The totally self-sufficient person, however, can survive entirely apart from human civilization. He does everything himself, from building his own shelter to making his own furniture to growing his own wheat.
The path to self-sufficiency can be broken down into five major categories:
- Shelter — Shelter can range anywhere from a primitive teepee to a rustic log cabin to a two-story house to a luxury mansion. Most homesteaders buy land to construct their house on. Some will build their own houses with local materials such as wood or clay, whereas others contract the work out to professionals. Ultimately, the luxury and comfort-level of your shelter depends on your expertise, effort, and budget.
- Energy — This includes all the energy you’ll need for cooking, heating water, lighting, powering appliances, and heating and cooling. Energy solutions range from high-tech photovoltaic cells and biodiesel-powered electric generators to low-tech solar-cookers and firewood (1).
- Food — You can forage, hunt, or grow your own food (2). If you don’t own any land, community gardens are a great way to start your first vegetable garden (3). However, for those who desire total self-sufficiency, there’s no substitute for owning your own property. With your own land, you can grow fruit trees and staple crops like wheat, potatoes, and rice. You could even raise your own livestock for meat and milk (4).
- Water — You’ll need to collect your own water for drinking, cooking, hygiene, and possibly irrigation. In moist climates, rain catchment systems can provide enough drinking water for the entire year (5). You can also drill wells to tap into groundwater. You’ll probably need a water purification system and a system to treat sewage. Your set-up can include luxurious indoor plumbing for sinks, showers, and toilets; or, you can build a sustainable composting toilet and collect rainwater with a simple barrel.
- Transportation — Self-sufficiency does not imply isolation. You’ll still want to meet with other people, so consider walking, riding a bike, taking public transit, or producing biodiesel for your car (1).
Self-sufficiency is simply a guiding principle, so your own execution will vary depending on what best fits you. Most modern homesteaders aren’t totally self-sufficient: many of them own cars, shop for clothes, and use satellite internet. You can include modern technology if it makes the transition more enjoyable. Homesteaders today often own laptops, refrigerators, and photovoltaic solar panels. Many of them even hold regular jobs while living full-time in the woods.
Why have so many people opted to live the self-sufficient life? Besides enjoying the romantic, pastoral lifestyle, there are plenty of practical benefits for being self-sufficient. Here are just a few:
You’ll pollute less. By being self-sufficient, you’ll learn to compost food scraps, grow your own organic food, build with local materials, generate renewable energy, and avoid shopping. Each step makes a difference towards lowering your environmental impact.
You’ll save lots of money. Imagine if you didn’t have any more expenses: no more car payments, no more auto insurance, no more utility bills, and free food and housing. If you practice extreme self-sufficiency, you could literally live without any money.
You don’t need to do everything yourself, nor do you need to quit your job. If gardening is too much hassle, for example, you could always buy produce from the farmers market. Likewise, it may be prudent to keep your job to help build savings. However, the more self-sufficient you become, the more you’ll save, and the fewer financial obligations you’ll have. Every little bit of self-sufficient frugality can increase your freedom.
You’ll pay off your debts quickly. If you work full-time in addition to homesteading, you’ll have an income with virtually no expenses. Undeveloped land is cheap, so you can often purchase it without a mortgage. After a few short years of hard work, you’ll own a house debt-free. A self-sufficient homestead can provide freedom from the turbulent state of the economy. After all, wouldn’t you rather spend your mornings gathering firewood than worrying about loan payments?
You’ll be more independent. Once you learn self-sufficiency skills, you’ll no longer depend on modern conveniences like restaurants, department stores, and gas stations. You’ll also no longer need the utilities company for water and power. Not only is self-sufficiency convenient, it could save your life during an emergency. During a serious crisis, such as a hurricane, earthquake, or a terrorist attack, you might be left stranded for weeks without basic necessities. By being self-sufficient today, your family will be much better prepared for future emergencies.
You’ll learn to be more resourceful. Many of us today can’t survive without cappuccinos and WiFi internet, let alone life in the rural countryside. But if you’ve ever wanted to explore different parts of the world or buy back-country property, it helps to learn self-sufficiency skills. As a benefit, the cost of living will be far cheaper. You can combine this with a telecommuting job to build savings.
You’ll enjoy the learning experience (hopefully). As you become self-sufficient, you’ll acquire practical skills that teach you about the environment and sustainable development. Up until the last century, these primitive skills were mostly common knowledge; we’re merely re-learning them today. This knowledge can help us better understand both historical cultures and the world around us.
Self-sufficiency is a fusion of many related ideas. It’s half low-cost lifestyle and part do-it-yourself ingenuity, mixed in with sustainable development and a touch of emergency preparedness. Really, it can be a lot of fun.
There are plenty of books available on self-sufficient living online, with much of it totally free. Not surprisingly, self-sufficient living hasn’t changed much in the last two hundred years. As a result, there are many useful books that have fallen into the public domain. There are also many e-books that have been donated by governments and NGOs to help the developing world. Today, we literally have thousands of books at our very fingertips.
Here are some books that have made it into my summer reading list:
- Farmers’ Handbook on Permaculture
- Dry Farming
- Solar Cooker handbook (more Solar Cooker plans are also available)
- Learn to make your own biodiesel and build your own solar cooker. Biodiesel is only green if you grow your own crops using no outside energy inputs. Biodiesel produced from biomass raised in conventional farms might be worse than gasoline.
- The US Army Survival Handbook teaches you how to hunt and forage wild foods. Just make sure to follow your community’s local laws!
- Search for a community garden near you!
- The Backyard Homestead provides a gentle introduction for newcomers. You’ll learn to grow and cooking your own food.
- Catching rainwater is quite simple, really.
- Photo credits: anoldent, CC BY-SA. Hardworkinghippy, CC BY-SA.