Self-Reliance in the 21st Century
Self-Reliance in the 21st Century print $20,
Chapter One: Self-Reliance Then and Now
The Difference Between Self-Reliance in 1841 and the 21st Century
Ralph Waldo Emersonís advice in his 1841 essay Self-Reliance still rings true today: ďBe yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another.Ē
For Emerson, self-reliance means thinking independently, trusting your own intuition and refusing to take the well-worn path of conforming to othersí expectations.
This celebration of individualism is the norm today, but it was radical in Emersonís more traditionalist day. Whatís striking about Emersonís description of self-reliance is its internal quality: itís about oneís intellectual and emotional self-reliance, not the hands-on skills of producing lifeís essentials.
Emerson doesn't describe self-reliance in terms of taking care of oneself in practical terms, such as being able to build a cabin on Walden Pond and live off foraging and a garden like his friend Thoreau. (The land on Walden Pond was owned by Emerson.)
Emerson did not address practical self-reliance because these skills were commonplace in the largely agrarian, rural 1840s. Even city dwellers mostly made their living from practical skills, and the majority of their food came from nearby farms. (Imported sugar, coffee, tea and spices were luxuries.)
The economy of the 1840s was what we would now call localized: most of the goods and services were locally produced, and households provided many of their own basic needs. Global trade in commodities such as tea and porcelain thrived, but these luxuries made up a small part of the economy (one exception being whale oil used for lighting).
Even in the 1840s, few individuals were as self-sufficient as Thoreau. Households met many of their needs themselves, but they relied on trusted personal networks of makers and suppliers for whatever goods and services they could not provide themselves.
Households sold their surplus production of homemade goods and family businesses offered small-scale production of specialty goods (metal forging, furniture, etc.) and services (printing, legal documents, etc.).
For example, Thoreau's family business was manufacturing pencils and supplying graphite (pencil lead). Before he took over this business on the death of his father, he earned his living as a surveyor.
Households obtained what they needed from local networks of suppliers who were known to them. If some item was needed from afar, the local source had their own network of trusted suppliers.
The government's role was also limited. The government provided postal, judicial and basic education systems and collected tariffs on trade, but its role in everyday life beyond these essential services was modest.
The conditions of Emerson and Thoreauís dayólocalized hands-on self-reliance was the norm and the elevation of the individual was radicalóhave reversed: now the celebration of the individual is the norm while few have practical skills. Our economy is globalized, with few if any of the goods and services we rely on being sourced locally. We rely on government and corporations for the essentials of life. Few of us know anyone who actually produces essentials.
Our primary means of obtaining the staples of life is shopping because producing basics ourselves is difficult compared to getting everything we need from global supply chains.
Emerson took the practical skills of self-reliance for granted because these skills were the bedrock of everyday life. Now skills have become specialized: we gain narrow expertise to earn our living and only hobbyists develop multiple skills.
What is self-reliance in the 21st century?
Some may feel that having a job--being self-supporting--is self-reliance, but relying solely on goods and services from afar isnít self-reliance. Should a few links in those long supply chains break, the entire chain collapses and weíre helpless.
Money only has value when itís scarce. When money is abundant and essentials of life are scarce, money loses value. When supply chains break down, money is a measure of our helplessness, not our self-reliance.
The inner self-reliance Emerson described as being our best selves remains essential, but the material-world skills of self-reliance have atrophied. We rely on government and long supply chains for our necessities without understanding the fragility of these complex systems.
In the 21st century, even more than in the 1840s, self-reliance doesnít mean self-sufficiency. Even Thoreau used nails and tools produced elsewhere. Building a cabin on a remote pond isnít practical for most of us, and even Thoreau re-entered conventional life after two years.
What self-reliance means in the 21st century is reducing our dependence on complex systems we have no control over. This means reducing the number of links in our personal supply chains and reducing our dependence on goods and services from afar by 1) consuming less and eliminating waste and planned obsolescence; 2) learning how to do more for ourselves and others so we need less from the government and global supply chains; 3) relocalizing our personal supply chains by assembling trusted personal networks of local producers and 4) becoming a producer in addition to being a consumer.
Just as Emerson noted that self-reliance requires being our best self--something no one else can do--no one else
can chart our course to self-reliance. Our path must be our own, tailored to our unique circumstances.
The Goal of Self Reliance
The goal of self-reliance is to improve well-being, security and productivity by optimizing practical skills,
flexibility, trusted personal networks and what author Nassim Taleb termed antifragility (not just surviving
adversity but emerging stronger). The purpose of increasing self-reliance is to navigate the unprecedented
transition from excess consumption to securing essentials. This goal demands we avoid becoming attached to
anything other than self-reliance.
The conventional mindset depends on authorities and institutions to solve problems.
The mindset of self-reliance is direct and practical: donít just tell us the problem; tell us how youíre going to fix it. We donít mean how you propose the authorities should fix it, we mean how youíre going to fix it for yourself and your household by making changes in your own life.
We donít mean a general idea, we mean your entire plan, with each step of the process laid out including the cost in time and money, what tradeoffs are required, and your Plan B if your Plan A doesnít work as expected.
Tell us what resources, skills and help you need to see the plan through. Tell what you have on hand and how youíre going to get whatever you donít yet have.
Tell us what you know and what you donít yet know but plan to learn, and how youíre going to learn it. Tell us what else youíve already accomplished thatís similar in complexity and scale.
Tell us who youíve lined up to help you and what youíve already accomplished together.
The self-reliant understand that excuses, rationalizations and pie-in-the-sky proposals are all part of the human condition, but these are obstacles to real solutions and so we must set them aside in favor of focusing on practicalities.
The self-reliant understand that there are few perfect solutions. Most solutions will be contingent on things going according to plan. Any progress, however modest, Is better than no progress. Progress requires working toward a solution even if the first few attempts are failures. Small successes add up and failures are part of the learning process
In the U.S., "solutions" is a code-word for something designed to reap a profit. Profit-generating ďsolutionsĒ are aimed at consumers. The reality that many solutions require cooperation is ignored because whatís profitable is framing ďsolutionsĒ in the context of the consumer buying products and services.
Products are not the solutions theyíre touted to be for the simple reason that individual consumers do not live in a vacuum. As systems unravel, solutions require cooperation.
In the conventional mindset, security is served by households buying supplies. Having a well-stocked larder is an important Plan B strategy, but in the long run, self-reliance demands producing essentials, not just stockpiling them to get through a few weeks or months.
Production requires cooperation. No individual, no matter how well equipped, can match the security and productive potential of a close-knit group. Humans have lived in groups since time immemorial because cooperation provides security that isolated individuals canít match.
Cooperation is the ultimate source of humanityís evolutionary success. Self-reliance is served by both individual effort and by participating in trusted networks of people who look out for each other. In military terms, this is called unit cohesion. There is no substitute for producing, cooperating and caring, and so building trusted networks is the core goal of self-reliance. Caring about others is the core of trusted personal networks.
Self-reliance seeks ways to cooperate rather than sources of conflict. If someone is fair, honest, trustworthy (i.e., someone who does what they said they were going to do), generous and productive, their political or religious beliefs and affiliations are not relevant to our cooperation. The conventional mindset seeks reasons why we canít cooperate, i.e., sources of conflict, because these attract social media audiences.
Self-reliance is based not on abstract loyalties but on trusted personal networks of honest, trustworthy, productive, generous individuals.
Here is my list of the nuts and bolts of self-reliance.
These are distilled from my experience. I am average in self-reliance, aptitudes and skills. I present this list not as someone on the peak looking down but as someone on the trail looking up. Self-reliance is a work in progress, not a destination.
These are guidelines that have helped me, but everyone has to chart their own course. As Emerson explained, the essence of self-reliance is that each individual makes their own assessments, decisions and plans, based on their unique circumstances. These are general principles. My hope is that some will be useful to you.
The conventional view is that money will buy anything we need or desire. This is the mindset of abundance. The era of scarcity will place greater value on what we directly own and control: our skills, work, assets, health, enterprises, enthusiasms, networks and integrity.
If we need handfuls of medications just to function, how much of our health do we actually control?
If we rely on government entitlements or a single employer, how much of our income do we actually control?
If our assets are in foreign currencies or shares in a corporation, now much of these assets do we actually control?
If we rely on long global supply chains to feed ourselves, how much of our security do we control?
If our employer owns our work, how much of our work do we actually control?
In the conventional view, everything can be distilled down to a market value. But the most valuable things-- trust, integrity and control--canít be distilled down to money.
In the current era, their value is unrecognized, but each is priceless.
Self-reliance isnít a destination we reach and declare the voyage over. Self-reliance is the voyage, not the destination.
Interestingly, the saying It's the not the destination, It's the journey is attributed to Emerson online, but there is no record of him writing this line. What he did write was this: "To finish the moment, to find the journeyís end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom."
This is a description of self-reliance.
Weíve come to the end of this exploration of self-reliance in the 21st century. I can find no more fitting end than these admonitions from Emersonís Self-Reliance:
Insist on yourself; never imitate.
Copyright 2022 Charles Hugh Smith all global rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format without written permission of the author.