One of homesteading's many perils.Alright, so it's not quite a full decade, yet. We're a few months shy of our 10 year homesteading anniversary, but I'm close enough. A homesteading year is much longer than a regular year anyway. Qualified or not, I have a few observations to make.
Back in the fall of 2007, the world looked quite different than it does now. We were living in a nice older neighborhood of Bellingham, WA. I'd been reading everything I could find on peak oil, and the predictions made in that genre definitely appeared to be coming to fruition.
The stock market was swooning ever lower, businesses were going bankrupt, the price of oil was shooting for the moon, and climate change was starting to rear its ugly head, though not so much as it has today. Though we lived in a wonderfully walkable community and often went for weeks without using a car, I knew we were vulnerable, and I didn't like it. Nearly all of our food was grown elsewhere, our home was heated with natural gas, and our water came from a large and complex municipal system. If things continued to go badly, I knew we'd soon have to resort to cooking the neighbors for dinner over a smoldering fire of garbage while shivering in the rain, in a future something like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. When we finally pulled the trigger and made the move to Michigan, things were looking even worse.
That's not to say that fear was the primary motivating factor to our move though. I'd long felt that something was missing from my cubicle-centered life, something which I felt all the more when hearing my father tell stories of life on my great-grandparent's farm in southern Illinois. Theirs was in many ways a farm like the one you might see featured on the label of a milk or egg carton. They worked it with mules, milked a few cows, raised a few hogs, and survived. They were poor, but I gathered that they were satisfied with their existence in ways that I was not.
I had developed a vague notion that I'd like to emulate their lives, but that seemed like a distant possibility in a world where farmers regularly till 5,000 acres with tractors that cost more than my mortgaged home. Not only would it be financially impossible to move into this, but I was in no way interested in emulating the business of the modern, chemically dependent mode of farming.
After a 9 month bout with a crappy immune system involving multiple doctors, failing antibiotics, and scary diagnoses, I developed a newfound interest in nutrition. The more I learned about the "food" purchased in grocery stores, the more I became convinced that raising our own food was the way to go.
Some friends of ours had a small homestead farm on the outskirts of town. A few cows, a few sheep, hogs, chickens, and a nice big garden. It didn't provide a living as it had for my great-grandparents, but it sure looked more appealing than my cubicle and house in town. If regular jobs failed, as was looking quite likely at the time, they would still be eating real food. Their farm's smoked bacon sounded better than the polyethylene smoked fillet-o-neighbor I saw in my urban future.
So for the last decade now, I've been working on this dream. I milk cows every day, almost continuously since the end of 2008. We heat and cook exclusively with wood, and are not reliant upon fracked gas as we would be in Bellingham. I can continue to cut firewood even without gas for the chainsaw, though I don't relish the prospect. We get water from our own well, and can do so by hand if the power goes out (which is pretty common here). I can make many of my own tools or repair much of our equipment on my blacksmithing forge. I've tanned my own leather and learned to make shoes, if the need should arise. I can shear our sheep, and Rachel can turn the wool into socks or a sweater, all without the need for any electricity or purchased inputs. We grow the majority of our own food using horses and musclepower, and I've no doubt that we could grow everything we'd need if the grocery store were to go unstocked for any reason. My health is much improved, and our son's diet is reflected in his great health, even if he didn't like the "100% farm-food" liver & onions with spinach salad we had for dinner last night.
So with all these goals achieved, we should be sitting pretty come hell or high water, right? Well... no, not really. As one Amish man said to a friend a while back, "If there was some sort of economic collapse, us Amish might last a couple weeks longer than you English". Despite our accomplishments, I'm feeling decidedly Amish in that respect. Yeah, we've got a little more breathing room than we did in our former lives, but I'm not foolish enough to think that we've achieved complete independence. I'm not so sure there ever has been such a thing, come to think of it. A community might become self sufficient, but not an individual or a family. Because our community is in no way self sufficient, neither are we.
I suspect our homesteading friends -- the ones who played a big role in inspiring our move -- had similar thoughts. They've since left their farm and moved into our old neighborhood in town. A few years ago this would've horrified me. Now, I think I understand it.
So is homesteading pointless? Is there no value to improving your level of self sufficiency? No, I don't see it that way. There is a cost, however, and I'm not 100% convinced that the benefits outweigh it.
Gains in efficiency always come at the cost of resilience. The $500,000 turbo-diesel John Deere that can plant an acre of corn in a minute is *way* more efficient than the two-row 1910 era horse drawn planter that I use. But, at the same time, the tractor is fully reliant upon a massively complex system of finance, petro-chemical extraction and refinement and transport, spare parts, mining, and other systems too numerous to list out. Any one of those systems failing will render it inoperable.
The flip side of this equation -- and the homesteader's curse -- is that self sufficiency and resilience come at the cost of efficiency. In the example of my corn planter, it will take me a half day to plant what the big tractor can do in a minute, even though I can do it without diesel, financing for the tractor, or a whole host of other inputs. This same pattern persists for just about everything that a homesteader does. It takes me about 2 hours each morning and evening to milk (and feed, and clean up after) our three cows, whereas the industrial rotary milking parlor can milk 300 cows per hour. A sweater like one that Rachel might take a few weeks to complete (if she worked non-stop) can probably be purchased for $100 somewhere else. So it goes until you soon find yourself with plenty more to do and no more time to do it.
Taken to its ultimate extreme of providing everything for your family (i.e. the one most aspiring homesteaders dream of), homesteading will ultimately use up all of your time, and then some. You'll eat better, you'll have far more pride in the things you've produced than the ones you've purchased, and you might very well be the envy of your neighbors. You'll be toned and tanned, and you'll be a haggard mess, forever haunted by neglected tasks that refuse to go away.
Suffice it to say that attempts to market the products of homesteading rarely make any actual money, because they're always competing with some industrially (and efficiently) produced alternative. To make actual money, of the sort that might pay off a homestead or cover health insurance, you'll need to return to the soul-sucking industrial economy. While I can think of a number of homesteaders who market their goods, I can't think of any who generate a decent hourly rate with this activity.
So is peak oil dead? Is climate change a concern only for the distant future? No, I don't think so, in either case. I'm quite convinced that we'll see a failure of global energy supplies within a decade. We're already seeing the climate go nuts, with all the hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, and disappearing polar ice-caps to prove it. The skills we've built over the last decade are all valuable in the event of an industrial collapse. If industrial collapse were the only problem, we'd be all set -- for a few weeks anyway.
While industrial collapse is inevitable, it seems for the moment to be on the slow boat. Ecological collapse, however, is already well underway and accelerating. I see no real attempts being made to avert it, if such a thing is still possible at this stage. Those who read the IPCC scenarios can see the writing on the wall. Their "survivable" scenarios -- the ones in which we might maintain < 2.5 degrees of global temperature rise -- all incorporate the future deployment of technology that doesn't yet exist. It's also important to keep in mind that the IPCC is heavily influenced by industrial countries like the US and China, to the point where IPCC scientists are forbidden from including important feedback loops in their models, like the methane currently erupting from the arctic which will render any emission reductions moot (if we had any such reductions). To sum it up, IPCC projections are impossibly conservative (and at this point have a proven track record as such), and basically say that magic is our only means of survival.
In looking back upon our decade of homesteading, I'm proud of our accomplishments. We've made some significant improvements in our personal resilience, our diets, our health, and our environmental impact. Just the process of continued learning is incredibly rewarding in and of itself. But, the world in which those things have value is fast disappearing.
I imagine myself standing on a railroad track, with two trains coming at me -- one being industrial collapse and one being ecological collapse. The former I can deal with, by learning to again live like my pre-industrial ancestors. The latter I cannot. At the moment, it appears as if ecological collapse will arrive first. If this is in fact the case, we're effectively in hospice, where making the most of our last days is undoubtedly of greater value than preparing for days which we will never see.
What will the next decade bring? Is it better to party on the deck of the Titanic or to scramble for a homesteading lifeboat? It's still tough to say for sure, but I'm thinking a party may be in order.