To the editor:
Paul Butler’s recent column (Back B-4, Dec. 15) on the values of the pioneers of the American West reminded me of a report I read recently, Facing the New Reality:
Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead. Published by Community Action Partnership in 2011, the report identifies three global mega-trends that will affect us all, but especially the poor, for the foreseeable future: natural resource depletion, climate change, and ongoing economic turmoil. While many of its predictions are grim, the tone is hopeful, noting that “times of scarcity need not limit beauty, elegance, and the power of the imagination.” The recommended remedy, for individuals, families, and particularly communities: increased self-reliance.
Like other social trends, the popularity of the self-reliant lifestyle is cyclical. In the 20th century, the scarcities caused by both World Wars and the Great Depression required near total self-sufficiency for many families, and the nation as a whole, while the New Deal jobs programs provided the social safety net to prevent utter destitution for the poorest Americans. The youth of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s led another massive revival in the “back to the land” movement, based on their rejection of consumerism and the evils of the military-industrial complex. Out of their counter-culture arose influential innovations in organic farming and renewable energy. From Australia, came Permaculture Design, which integrates Earth-care ethics with ecological science to re-introduce a modern way of living in harmony with our environment, as did the Indians here before us.
While Butler concludes that modern Americans still embody the self-reliant spirit, it seems to me that consumerism now reigns supreme here, under the banner of global corporate capitalism. Our basic necessities are purchased, not produced by ourselves, and self-reliance more symbolic and incidental, than essential. Nearly everything we do, need, or have, relies on a steady supply of fossil fuels, and electrical power, and the cash or credit to obtain it. We are both completely dependent on this supply, and highly vulnerable to any interruption of it. The new pioneers of self-sufficiency, in their off-grid homes and farmsteads, are increasing, but still few and far between.
The early self-reliant lifestyle on the American frontier quickly gave way to massive exploitation of the vast resources discovered, followed by depletion, and near destruction of the fur-bearers, minerals, timber, grasslands and rangelands (topsoil), fisheries, and even fresh water, the remnants of which require careful management these days. The “development” of these resources made our nation rich, yet also contributed substantially to the New Reality we currently face.
Having successfully spread our consumer products and preferences around the world, we now know it would take the resources of several planets like ours to supply everyone with the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed here in the U.S.A . It’s just not possible. Human societies can only continue to exist in interdependence with healthy local ecosystems that provide the baseline “capital” of the capitalist system. Historically, ecosystem collapse is invariably followed by social collapse. Therefore any meaningful concept of self-reliance in America, and around the world, must include respecting the biological limits of these ecosystems as a matter of public policy. One detailed blueprint for a profitable transition to this way of life, with examples from many countries, is found in Lester Brown’s book, Eco-Economy (2001).
Locally, we have a great potential for increased self-reliance through rainwater collection for landscape or whole house use. The Texas Water Development Board publishes its own Texas Guide to Rainwater Harvesting (now in its third edition, available online), and the state also provides numerous tax incentives, yet support for this simple and affordable practice varies widely among cities and counties. The local Master Gardener Association, Agrilife Extension Service, and the Brownwood Area Community Garden actively promote it, but I am unaware of any city or county sponsored demonstration sites, programs, or incentives. Could more rainwater collection affect revenues from water sales? Certainly. Increased self-reliance will change current consumption patterns.
Smaller, decentralized, locally-based, and ecologically sound models for meeting people’s basic needs are an appealing and accessible approach now, and a more creative and inspiring alternative to mindless consumption, for many who are struggling to keep their hopes and dreams alive in the face of the New Reality.
To learn more about this future trend, you can read Facing the New Reality at www.communityactionpartnership.com.