The world we find ourselves in today has thrown most of us into a real quandary. The fact is that nobody knows what is going to happen next, and most of the options are not that appealing. It is easy enough to see utter disaster looming. There are possible glorious end points we might achieve, but the problem is not knowing what we will have to go through to get there, or, in the case of the climate change challenge, if we will be able to act fast enough. In a time of great change, some new avenues will open and some old ones will close. The fact is, almost all of us will have changes that will determine whether we live or die or, at least, that will directly affect our lives and lifestyle. This is tremendously upsetting.
I’d like to renovate the idea of subsistence, a concept that has gotten a bad reputation through the course of the industrial age. The dictionary defines it as a means of supporting life, and also as a means of independent existence. Our industrial age has used it to define preindustrial societies that are characterized by poverty and ignorance. To subsist has come to mean struggling to provide a bare minimum of existence. So, when we hear about industrial agriculture supplanting a third world subsistence agricultural economy, we are meant to see that we are saving these people from a life of misery and want. Unfortunately, these are the people that are driven into the big cities in search of work, the people that inhabit the huge slums that encircle every third world city in the world.
It is true that many of these subsistence cultures we have interrupted were definitely wanting in many respects. They often lack modern medicine, technology, and education that would dramatically change their lives. However, they wouldn’t have persisted for thousands of years if they were unsuccessful in providing enough of what they need. Obviously, these people were able to provide food, shelter, and all the intangibles that make up a way of life worth living.
What we are finding now is that these subsistence communities have achieved a relatively independent existence free of the vagaries of world markets, remote war, or other disruptions in other places in the world. These, at least, are people that can take care of themselves if conditions in their geographic area are stable. This is very close to the way that Nature functions. If one area suffers drought, flood, fire, or other natural disaster, the rest will carry on. A compassionate humanity could go one better and provide aid to communities in need.
We are also finding that a subsistence lifestyle melds wonderfully with our new age of renewable energy. Renewable energy is, by its very nature, diffuse rather than concentrated. Modern technology does not need wires. By installing a few relatively cheap solar panels, a remote community can move from the Stone Age to the modern age. For better or worse, the folks in these communities can communicate via cell phone with the entire world.
It could be that the marriage of subsistence culture with modern, diffuse technology might be an answer to our dilemma. We are already touting the values of a locally based economy. So far, that has mostly focused on goods available to buy. If we considered our jobs in the same light, we could be performing work that directly contributed to the sustenance of our community rather than the more common disconnected jobs that serve the national or world economy. These latter jobs, the ones most of us have, are the ones most likely to be affected by the changes ahead.
If our current situation leads to political and economic upheaval, our resilience as a community will depend on how much of our needs can be locally sourced. In a subsistence economy, the question is not “Where do we get the money to buy what we need?” but “How do we utilize our human and other resources locally to satisfy our needs?” It may mean fewer avocados or spare parts for our cars, but we will get along by depending on each other.
This gives all of us tremendous leverage in demanding the world we want. With local resilience, we can win the war of attrition. The “powers that be” need us much more than we need them. Already, sanctuary cities like Seattle face the withholding of federal funds. If this comes to pass, we will have to learn how to get by on our own. We must not give in to the status quo logic that we need these funds to survive. There are other ways that we can work together within our region or within our state to support our major cities. If our medical insurance is terminated, we can find other ways of operating our health care system. All the personnel and equipment is here whether insurance is available or not. We have a community and region full of able-bodied, intelligent people and a wealth of natural resources. We will get along, and, I firmly believe, eventually, do a lot better than we are now.