The closed system is the holy grail of self sufficiency. In it, you would be able to produce everything you need at whatever level the circle operated (on your property, in your neighborhood, in your town, in your bioregion, and on up), without any necessary imports. And you would simultaneously grow enough resources to replace everything you consume - fertility, soil humus, natural resources. And ultimately, the quest for sustainability requires that as a world we be able to live off the interest of our planetary capital - that we cease to deplete non-renewable resources and that we renew the renewable ones at least the rate of depletion. We
are doing neither, and thus we need all the models of closed systems we can get.
When a lot of us discover peak oil or other ecological crises, we start by thinking about how we can preserve our immediate family and ourselves. There's nothing wrong with this - but we often begin from the notion that we ought to try and achieve a kind of self-sufficiency. So we often start on the journey to self-sufficiency thinking primarily about sustainability at the household or family scale.
At some point, however, we look up from our family situation and realize that we can't attain security without other people around us having security. And then situation becomes larger, and seems less manageable. Sometimes we draw tight borders, imagining that we can keep those limits under control, other times we give up on the project altogether, and focus our energies somewhere else.
Now when you begin talking about self-sufficiency, people are always quick to point out that no one can be perfectly self-sufficient. And on one level they are right - few of us will achieve a perfectly closed circle, and many of us may need many inputs on one level or another - or on all levels. But I also think that it is worth revisiting the question of how possible it is to close the circle, or what an imperfectly but largely closed system might look like.
We go at this is fragmentary ways, for the most part - or at least I do. I think in terms of fertility, or of clothing. I write about it that way too - how can I reduce this input or that output. There’s nothing wrong with that - that’s how we tend to imagine these projects, but in the attempt to create something whole, I wonder if we’re going about it the wrong way, thinking about the closed circle piece by piece, as though it were a slice of pie we would eat for dinner, and then start on the next one. Is there a way, I wonder, to get closer by thinking of the process in a less fragmentary, more unified way? Is there a way to change the nature of our thinking about the potential of the closed circle.
Now the closed system is never perfect - even the earth requires heavy inputs of externally produced sunlight. But we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. That is, it is possible, on several scales, to produce remarkably complete systems. For example John Jeavons and Ecology Action have managed to create very small gardens that produce all the food a person needs in very small spaces (as little as 700 square feet, although 1000 is more realistic, and I wouldn't call it ideal), that include all the fertility needed to produce that food in perpetuity. The food they produce is adequate and healthy - they've had the people who lived on this checked regularly by doctors. It really is possible for people to feed themselves on remarkably small plots of land, although it takes much care and practice. And it depends on what you are willing to eat. These diets are low in fats, vegetarian and involve eating a *lot* of parsnips - now I love parsnips, but I'd like a more varied diet than that. But that's rather the point, isn't it - what I'd like, rather than what I need. And that, of course is the key to the thing.
The reality is that there are examples of mostly or effectively closed circles out there. One of the thing that characterizes them, though, is that while needs are quite commonly met, and so are social and communal wants, the baseline level for material wants has to be quite low. By baseline, I mean that the question of self-sufficiency begins at the question "how am I prepared to live?"
Helena Norberg-Hodge, in _Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh_ observes that the people there, in a cold, infertile, high elevation region managed to be almost entirely self sufficient for food, fuel, fertility, clothing and shelter - and that most people lived a comparatively middle class existence (by the standards of their community) with an enormous quantity of leisure - they supported most of their needs working only 4 months per year. Before Ladakh was opened to western contact, the only items imported by Ladakhis were metal implements, jewelry and the occasional religious item. They operated, functionally speaking, as a largely closed circle, and one that thrived in a tremendously difficult area.
It is *possible* to create regions or farms that meet the vast majority of their needs sustainably, in, if not a closed circle, a crescent with ever shrinking tips curling towards one another. There are places that have lived a long, long time by human standards on the resources of one forest, or one island. While recognizing we’re a long way from there, we shouldn’t deny that is is feasible - even if we don’t want to do it. Permaculture attempts to recreate similar systems, ones that are not perfectly closed but that do involve capturing and recapturing expended energy over and over again, to extract the maximum value from it.
When I first got this farm, creating something rather like a closed circle was one of my goals. Over time, the sheer amount of effort involved in that has come to overwhelm me, and I've let it go to a degree - I've settled for good enough. We do reasonably well, but we sell some things off our farm, and we don't get back comparable fertility. We import some soil amendments, buy some extra manure from the neighbors to supplement what our animals produce, and if we happen to pass by a bag of leaves on the curbside, we snag it and throw it across our beds. We bring food in. We use electricity, computers, buy tools, etc...
One of the things that several people have asked me is whether the 90% reduction project is in conflict with the basic project of preparing for hard times. When I've got only 1000 dollars a year to spend on all consumer goods, for example, will I be able to reinsulate my house? Will I be able to make/find used/scavenge what I need? Can I really fill my food storage pantry with home produced and locally produced reserves? Can I make not only what I need, but a surplus for future years and some to sell? The 90% reduction represents a real and very positive challenge for me to explore how a reduction in inputs - less energy, less water, less money - affects my ability to meet my short and long term needs. And in the long term, I honestly think it may be a help, rather than a hindrance.
The thing that is important about the Ladakhis or about the Ecology Action diet, is that they are living examples of the simple, obvious fact that the less you need, the easier it is to meet those needs. This shouldn't be a surprise to any of us, but I think sometimes it is. When we set out to ensure that we can feed ourselves, or that we can meet our own most basic needs, we will find the greatest degree of success in personal demand reduction. That is, if I am content with a vegetarian diet made up largely of root crops during the winter, I only have to do 1000 square feet worth of gardening each year. If I want a more varied diet, I have to work harder. It may be worth it to work harder, but I may also give the project up if I cross that critical "too hard" level.
If I have 3 sets of clothing, and wear them for a week before washing, I have much less laundry to do than I do if I wear a new outfit every day. If I am willing to live in a very small house, or if I am content to wear many layers during the winter and have only 1 warm room in a large house, I can cut all my firewood for the winter by hand easily enough. If I need to have a whole house be warm all the time, the burden of firewood cutting is greater, and I'm more tempted by chainsaws and other things.
Every measure, from the degree of personal security required (how much food to store, whether health insurance is necessary, what kind of savings to have) to the degree to which ornamentation matters to me (Do I need jewelry? Pantyhose? Make-up?) shapes what would be needed to close my circle. For example, if I were Peace Pilgrim, who walked the US for many years eating what others gave her to eat and sleeping where she was given a chance to rest, I would have a very low need for security in my circle. But because I'm me, with four young kids, my need for economic, food and medical security is much higher. That rise in need makes us more dependent in some ways, potentially less in others, but it drives our baseline up, and makes the circle harder to close.
To the extent that this is possible, it might be better not to break each category into pieces, but to think of our needs and desires a whole cloth. Instead of just asking (although this is important too) "can I change how many shoes I need" we could ask "what is the whole least I need?" The answer might be useful to us. Or perhaps we should start from "what do I care about the most?" If something that takes up a lot of energy or resources in your life doesn't fall in the top 10 or 20 or 30 things, maybe you could eliminate it, or change it.
Or perhaps the most useful way to think about our own circles is to ask "how can I make it beautiful?" Because I know of no better way than to make others want to reduce their baseline needs as well than to demonstrate the simple truth embodied in the fact that there are few ugly medieval villages or Amish farms - artfulness is often merely the extraction of every bit of loveliness and wonder and good purpose from the world itself. Sue who comments here sometimes told me on another list about looking at magazine pictures of beautiful country kitchens, trying to figure out what made them that way, and realizing that they had no plastic, no small appliances. What made them beautiful, in part, was the all-natural materials. I wonder how many people might be attracted to a more beautiful life?
We are creatures of habit. We get comfortable doing things a particular way, and we convince ourselves that what we do is necessary. So necessary, in fact, that we are often reluctant to experiment. We tell ourselves we'd freeze to death if we slept in a cold room - ignoring the fact that most cold climate people through most of history slept in unheated rooms and did fine. We tell ourselves we have to wipe our behinds a particular way, with a particular thing, that anything else is "gross" when, in fact, human beings have had a myriad of relationships with their own excrement over time, and as long as one is reasonably hygienic, there are a good number of options. Distinguishing between want and need becomes very difficult because our cultural assumptions rise up and blur the distinctions.
Most of us live in a society with very high baselines for most of these things, and it can be very, very difficult to buck cultural assumptions in this regard. When you are judged negatively for only having a few clothes, it is very hard to endure that judgment. When guests expect a certain kind of house or food, and judge you for it, it is very, very hard to resist those pressures. I'm certainly not immune to them. In some cases, there's a real price to pay for bucking them. No pantyhose or not enough nice clothes can cost you a job. Reduce your need for electricity enough or let your children wear dirty clothes in public and you have to worry about someone taking your children away for neglect.
At best, most of us from high-baseline societies can hope only for functionally closed circles - that is, we can each of us live at our personal outer edge of the cultural standards, but we cannot begin to change them until we reach a critical mass of people - until enough people challenge the standards themselves, saying "no, it isn't necessary for me to wear X to work, and it doesn't lower property values to have laundry hanging on the clothesline," they will endure. But pushing the envelope and drawing attention to what you do makes a difference in reducing our baselines.
Besides reducing our needs, the next best way to close our personal circles is frugality, in the root sense of the word, which means "to make fruitful." That is, we can use careful husbanding of our resources to maximize what we get out of our inputs, and recapture each expenditure of energy as many times as possible. If we get a lot from a little, we are not only making good use of our resources, but we are mimicking nature, where the tiny seed leads to the huge plant and a thousand more seeds. Extraction of benefit from tiny quantities of resources is not unusual - it is fundamentally natural.
We tend to think of frugality is a fragmentary thing - I am frugal in my use of money, or careful in not wasting things. And we tend to talk about these jobs as one at a time projects - how can I reduce my use of X, or how can I save more of Y. I do this - I make lists and weekly sectioned out "how to do this" and I find them valuable. But frugality can also be a wholistic way of thinking, a way of thinking about your life as an optimization project.
Norberg-Hodge writes about this in Ladakh,
"Where we would consider something completely worn out, exhausted of all possible worth, and would throw it away, Ladakhis will find some further use for it. Nothing whatever is just discarded. What cannot be eaten can be fed to the animals; what cannot be used as fuel can fertilize the land.
Sonam's grandmother Abi-le, did not throw away the barley after making chang from it. She had already poured water over the boiled and fermented grain to make four separate brews. Then, instead of discarding it, she spread the grain on a yak-hair blanket to dry so it could later be ground for eating. She molded the crushed remains of apricot kernels, a dark brown paste from which oil had been carefully squeezed, into the form of a small cup; later, when it had hardened, she would use the cup to turn her spindles. She even saved the dishwater, with its tiny bits of food, to provide a little extra nourishment for the animals.
Ladakhis patch their homespun robes until they can be patched no more. When winter demands that they wear two or three on top of each other, they put the best one inside to keep it in good condition for special occasions. When no amount of stitching can sustain a worn out robe, it is packed with mud into a weak part of an irrigation channel to help prevent leakage." (25)
This version of frugality isn't culturally derived - many of us had grandmothers who did similar things. Some of us do it now, but we also sometimes let things slip through our fingers, or fail to see the possibilities for use in something. We can close our circles to a great degree by reusing to the nth degree, but practicing a wholistic frugality, one that begins at the acquisition point and even then begins to think "how long will it last, and how will I dispose of it?" Companies are beginning to do real lifecycle analyses of things - we can do them too.
My children have a wonderful book, a child's version of a classic Yiddish folktale, rewritten and illustrated by Sims Taback. In it, a man starts out with an overcoat, and when that wears out, it becomes a jacket, a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief and a button. And finally, when the button is lost, it becomes the story of the overcoat and its many transformations.
It is the final transmutation, of the object into narrative, the robe into irrigation channel, the "dirty" water into something nutritious that offers us a real glimpse at what is possible in imperfect, but largely closed system. Things there become not just other versions of the object, but entirely new things, from an alchemical and wholistic vision that reorients the fragmentary into the whole.
It is that reintegration of the fragments into the whole that I think we're all working on. That is, it isn't about transportation, or housing, or food, or clothing - it is about the intersections of our life as a whole, about the integrity, in the literal sense of the word, of our beliefs, our lives and all the little pieces. It isn't that we don't need to take these bits and pieces apart and think about them that way, but we also need a real sense of the circle we're working on closing, a real sense of how the pieces go back into the puzzle.
We start then, perhaps with a realistic assessment of where your circle should begin. That is, it may never be possible to make an urban apartment into a closed system - but perhaps some cities, or urban centers and their surrounding farmland could be. Or perhaps your farm can be a closed system, but you would choose otherwise - you'd like your diet to be replete with vanilla and good wine. Fair enough - but if you can meet your basic needs, those luxury desires can be fulfilled reasonably fairly, enriching others and building relationships through trade, while also offering a measure of basic security.The 90% reduction in itself acts to close our circles a little more. Because if there are things we will say (with a joyful heart and little regret) that we will no longer have, then there are things we no longer have to labor to produce. And if there are needs we no longer have, the resources we once used to satisfy those needs can now be turned towards real existing needs - or towards the community, and its most vulnerable, or to be put aside as a reserve.
I can't achieve perfect household self-sufficiency. I don't even want it - if I were wholly self sufficient, I wouldn't need my neighbors, or my family, or the help of others. But by needing - not just wanting - other people, I can extend my circle a little further, and achieve yet another alchemical transmutation - the transformation of something as ordinary as needing a hand to an act of love. I can unify one more fragment against my ruin - I can transform ordinary acts of exchange and neighborliness into the beginnings of something transformative.
If we can't create perfectly closed circles, perhaps we can create something like a crescent, with the tips of our moons stretching closer and closer to one another, until finally, acceptable margins are the only fragments, and the rest resembles, from the correct angle, a perfect whole.