Old MacDonald Had A Farmers’ Market – total self-sufficiency is a noble, misguided ideal

Bill McKibben | Posted on 01/01/07

Generations of college freshmen, asked to read Walden, have sputtered with indignation when they learned that Henry David went back to Concord for dinner with his family every week or two. He’s cheating; his grand experiment is a fraud. This outrage is a useful tactic; it prevents them from having to grapple with the most important (and perhaps the most difficult) book in the American canon, one that asks impossibly searching questions about the emptiness of a consumer economy, the vacuity of an information-soaked era. But it also points to something else: Thoreau, our apostle of solitary, individual self-reliance, out in his cabin with his hoe and his beans, the most determinedly asocial man of his time — nonetheless was immersed in his community to a degree few people today can comprehend.

Consider the sheer number of people who happened to drop by the cabin of an obscure eccentric. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society,” he writes. Often more visitors came than could sit — sometimes twenty or thirty at a time. “Half-witted men from the almshouse,” busybodies who “pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out,” a French-Canadian woodchopper, a runaway slave “whom I helped to forward toward the north star,” doctors, lawyers, the old and infirm and the timid, the self-styled reformers. It’s not that Thoreau was necessarily a cheerful host — there were visitors “who did not know when their visit had terminated, though I went about my business again, answering them from greater and greater remoteness.” Instead, it was simply a visiting age — as most of human history has been a visiting age, and every human culture a visiting culture.

Until ours. I doubt if many people reading these words have had a spontaneous visit from a neighbor in the past week — less than a fifth of Americans report visiting regularly with friends and neighbors, and the percentage is declining steadily. The number of close friends that an American claims has dropped steadily for the last fifty years too; three-quarters of us don’t know our next-door neighbors. Even the people who share our houses are becoming strangers: The Wall Street Journal reported recently that “major builders and top architects are walling off space. They’re touting one-person ‘internet alcoves,’ locked-door ‘away rooms,’ and his-and-her offices on opposite ends of the house.” The new floor plans, says the director of research for the National Association of Home Builders, are “good for the dysfunctional family.” Or, as another executive put it, these are the perfect homes for “families that don’t want anything to do with one another.” Compared to these guys, Thoreau with his three-chair cabin was practically Martha Stewart.

Every culture has its pathologies, and ours is self-reliance. From some mix of our frontier past, our Little House on the Prairie heritage, our Thoreauvian desire for solitude, and our amazing wealth we’ve derived a level of independence never seen before on this round earth. We’ve built an economy where we need no one else; with a credit card, you can harvest the world’s bounty from the privacy of your room. And we’ve built a culture much the same — the dream houses those architects build, needless to say, come with a plasma screen in every room. As long as we can go on earning good money in our own tiny niche, we don’t need a helping hand from a soul — save, of course, from the invisible hand that cups us all in its benign grip.

There are a couple of problems with this fine scenario, of course. One is: we’re miserable. Reported levels of happiness and life-satisfaction are locked in long-term one-way declines, almost certainly because of this lack of connection. Does this sound subjective and airy? Find one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t belong to anything and convince them to join a church, a softball league, a bird-watching group. In the next year their mortality — the risk that they will die in the next year — falls by half.

The other trouble is that our self-reliance is actually a reliance on cheap fossil fuel and the economy it’s built. Take that away — either because we start to run out of oil, or because global warming forces us to stop using it in current quantities — and our vaunted independence will start to lurch like a Hummer with four flat tires. Just think for a moment about that world and then decide if you want to live on an acre all your own in the outermost ring of suburbs.

The idea of self-reliance is so deep in our psyches, however, that even when we attempt to escape from the unhappy and unsustainable cul-de-sac of our society, we’re likely to turn toward yet more “independence.” The “back-to-the-land” movement, for instance, often added the words “by myself.” Think about how proudly a certain kind of person talks about his “off-the-grid” life — he makes his own energy and grows his own food, he can deal with whatever the world throws at him. One such person may be left-wing in politics (à la Scott and Helen Nearing); another may be conservative. But they are united in their lack of need for the larger world. Not even to school their kids — they’ll take care of that as well.

Such folks are admirable, of course — they have a wide variety of skills now missing in most Americans; they’re able to amuse themselves; they work hard. But as an ideal, especially an economic ideal, that radical self-reliance strikes me as being almost as empty as the consumer society from which it dissents. Consider, for instance, the idea of growing all your own food. It’s clearly better than relying on food from thousands of miles away — from our current industrialized food economy, which figures “it’s always summer somewhere” and so orders take-out from that distant field every night of the year. Compared with that, an enormous garden and a root cellar full of all you’ll need for the winter is virtue incarnate. But if you believe in many of the (entirely plausible) horror stories about what’s to come — peak oil, climate change — then the world ends with you standing shotgun in hand above your vegetable patch, protecting your carrots from the poaching urban horde.

Contrast that with another vision, one taking shape in at least a few places around the country: a matrix of small farmers growing food for their local areas. Farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy, with sales showing double-digit growth annually. Partly that’s because people want good food (all kinds of people: immigrants and ethnic Americans tend to be the most avid farmers’ market shoppers). And partly it’s because they want more company. One team of sociologists reported recently that shoppers at farmers’ markets engaged in ten times more conversations per visit than customers in supermarkets. I spent the past winter eating only from my valley; a little of the food I grew myself, but the idea of my experiment was to see what remained of the agricultural infrastructure that had once supported this place. And the payoff was not only a delicious six months, but also a deep network of new friends, a much stronger sense of the cultural geography of my place.

Or consider energy. Since the 1970s, a particular breed of noble ex-hippie has been building “off-the-grid” homes, often relying on solar panels. This has been important work — they’ve figured out many of the techniques and technologies that we desperately need to get free of our climate change predicament. But the most exciting new gadget is a home-scale inverter, one that allows you to send the power your rooftop generates down the line instead of down into the basement. Where the isolated system has a stack of batteries, the grid-tied solar panel uses the whole region’s electric system as its battery: my electric meter spins merrily backward all afternoon because while the sun shines I’m a utility; then at night I draw from somewhere else. It’s a two-way flow, in the same way that the internet allows ideas to bounce in many directions.

You can do the same kind of calculation with almost any commodity. Music doesn’t need to come from Nashville or Hollywood on a small disc, for instance. But you don’t have to produce it all yourself either. More fun to join with the neighbors, to make music together or to listen to the local stars. A hundred years ago, Iowa had 1,300 opera houses. Radio doesn’t need to come from the ClearChannel headquarters in some Texas office park; new low-power FM lets valleys make their own. Even currency can become a joint local project — all it takes is the trust that underwrites any system of money. In hundreds of communities, people are trying to build that trust locally, with money that only works within the region.

Thinking this way won’t be easy. We’re used to independence as the prime virtue — so used to it that three quarters of American Christians believe the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible, instead of Ben Franklin. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is harder advice, but sweeter and more sage. We don’t need to live on communes (though more and more old people are finding themselves enrolling in “retirement communities” that are gray-haired, upscale versions). But we will, I think, need to figure out how to stop relying on both oil and ourselves, and instead learn the lesson that the other primates and the other human cultures never forgot: we’re built to rely on each other.