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The Path to a Self Sufficient Lifestyle

The Path to a Self Sufficient Lifestyle
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By Steve Nubie

Call it sustainability, call it self-sufficiency, for many people it’s called common sense.  It’s a lifestyle defined by simplicity and self-sufficiency.

Maybe Henry David Thoreau had it right after all. In his book, Walden, Or Life in the Woods he espoused a simpler lifestyle that was both self-sufficient and as we often hear today -sustainable.  According to Thoreau:

            ” Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

That’s a very appealing philosophy to many of us and often guides our lives and lifestyles as we approach or head into retirement.  We will often downsize our homes and respond more conservatively to large purchases given the realities of a fixed-income and the common-sense of conservation of money and expenditures.  In some ways, those decisions are the first move towards self-sufficiency, but some folks have taken it a few steps further.

6 Levels of Self-sufficiency

There are varying levels of self-sufficiency from the modest to the extreme. They seem to be defined by six levels of lifestyle and decision making. If you are considering a more self-sufficient lifestyle, you might want to move gradually towards level 6 which is the most self-sufficient level. Then again, that may be too extreme for you. This gets to defining the path to self-sufficiency which allows you to expand and experiment with varying degrees of sustainability until you find the level that’s most comfortable for you.

Level 1 :  Basic Lifestyle Simplification

This is the classic retirement mindset.  A smaller home, a more fuel-efficient car, more meals at home rather than at restaurants and economical travel and vacations. For the record, living a more self-sufficient lifestyle is not about living like hermits. In fact, the more you move towards self-sufficiency the more active and social you will become out of simple necessity.

A key decision to make at this point is how far you think you may pursue self-sufficiency and sustainability.  This is important because the more advanced levels of self-sufficiency requires property with some acreage to allow for the expansion of sustainable resources such as gardens, orchards and livestock. If you think you’re going to move towards more advanced levels of self-sufficiency you might want to consider finding a simple home on a fair amount of acreage so you have room to expand your sustainable resources.

Level 2:  Developing Sustainable Resources

This level of self-sufficiency  goes beyond the fundamental conservation of resources to the accumulation and cultivation of resources that both save money and enhance your lifestyle. These are relatively simple actions that anyone can do with a reasonable amount of effort.  It includes considerations such as supplementing heating needs with a wood burning stove, the cultivation and canning of vegetables and fruit from a sizable and robust garden or a small cluster of fruit trees, a focus on the repair of everyday items like appliances and clothing rather than their replacement, and other low-impact activities like planting a good-sized herb garden to developing a skill such as knitting or furniture making. In some ways these activities represent robust hobbies that set the stage for more advanced sustainable actions.

Level 3:  Getting Serious About Self-Sufficiency

Many of these actions involving stepping up previous activities including the serious accumulation of wood as a more regular heat-source rather than a supplement, expanding the size and variety of your garden to become a regular source of meals and nutrition, early experiments with solar generated power such as a panel or two to generate light for a 12 Volt, LED lamp or to run some simple appliances like a radio or computer. And yes, a computer with Internet access and a cell-phone is okay in a self-sufficient lifestyle.  Many serious homesteaders count on it as a pathway to information and resources.

Level 4:  The Homestead

One of the defining characteristics of a “homestead” is the availability of acreage to allow for sizeable gardens, an orchard and livestock. If you want to pursue this level of self-sufficiency and beyond you need some room to develop your resources. Some people have managed this on an acre, but most prefer multiple acres to allow for the construction of chicken coops, chicken yards, and potentially pig-pens, other out-buildings and an expanding garden and orchard.  Gardens and orchards are relatively easy. You just have to have the room to plant the vegetables and the trees and spend some time weeding, cultivating and harvesting. The livestock decision is a major one and most people who want to pursue sustainability with livestock start with chickens.

Chickens are relatively easy to contain and maintain and provide a regular supply of eggs and ultimately meat. If this is your first foray into chicken farming, start small the first year until you get the hang of it.  Small means 6 to 12 chickens max. If you can’t handle raising and potentially butchering a chicken you may have reached your self-sufficient level.  Also, if you’ve begun to experiment with solar power this may be the time to add panels and expand your knowledge of solar-generated electricity.

Level 5:  The Working Homestead

At this level you’re really rolling up your sleeves. Your gardens and orchard are providing you with the majority of fruits and vegetables both fresh and canned that you need on a year-round basis. You’re chicken population has grown in size and is providing dozens of eggs a day and at least a chicken a week for the table. You’ve started to experiment with raising hogs and you solar power is providing you with significant power that you re storing in a bank of 6 volt batteries.

You may also have supplemented your power generation with a windmill generator and have experimented with periods of time where you have gone “off-the-grid” to see how well you can sustain your lifestyle with the power you generate. This also means you have become energy independent with regards to heat provided by wood and perhaps passive, solar-flooring that captures and retains heat from the sun during the day to be generated at night. You should also have installed a hand-pump to a deep-well for your off-grid experiments and have developed water gathering alternatives such as rain barrels and ram pumps to supplement your water supply for your livestock and gardens.

This level of self-sufficiency is fairly labor-intensive and you may not be able to do it alone, although many couples have succeeded and just as many families have had success with this level of self-sufficiency. The good news is that you can always pull back. If someone is ill or injured you can go back on the grid and maybe you don’t do as much canning or other activities that require time and energy. For many people pursuing a sustainable lifestyle like this is the final level offering a combination of self-sufficient practices with the relative security of “on-the-grid” electric power from a utility, to municipal or well water delivered as needed. Then again, some people go to the final and 6th level.

Level 6:  Off the Grid

Living off-the-grid means you have no electricity, no municipal water or sewer and no natural gas or other fuel delivery. You are 100% responsible for generating your own heat, generating your own electricity, pumping or collecting your own water, providing for your own sewage and sanitation, and to a large degree -growing and finding and safely preserving your own food.  You are essentially living-off-the-land. If you are considering a self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle and have little or no experience with this degree of self-sufficiency -you do not want to start at this level.  You’ll more than likely feel overwhelmed, ill-prepared and too inexperienced to handle the variety of tasks and knowledge you need to sustain this level of self-sufficiency. You’ll also find that many people living at this level are accomplished at both hunting and fishing and tend to use hand tools for many of their tasks although gas-powered chain saws still make an appearance. You’ll also find that many people use kerosene lamps for lighting both indoors and out. There is an excellent resource for these kinds of tools sold by an Amish company called Lehman’s.  It’s worth looking at as you move closer to sustainability and especially this level of self-sufficiency.

The fact of the matter is that living at the highest level of self-sufficiency does not mean that you have withdrawn from society. On the contrary, you’ll probably be very social as you barter or sell excess eggs or other items you have raised or grown, and you’ll still need to go to the store unless you’ve figured out how to grow your own coffee beans and make your own kerosene.

The point is that moving towards a self-sufficient lifestyle takes time, experience and dedication. It also requires increasing levels of physical activity. If you’re thinking about simplifying your life and moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle, take it in steps. Learn as you go and expand your resources and knowledge as much as possible. You may find that you reach your limit at level 3 or 4 and that’s okay. You’ve made a lifestyle decision that should have improved your quality of life and given you a feeling of some level of control and enjoyment with the way you live.

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