21 September 2008

Self-Reliance and Sustainability

I've been rereading Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance and sustainability. Foremost in my thoughts about it at this point is that I think Emerson loved words, or maybe more accurately loved himself using words - lots of words. However this may be a significant misjudgment on my part. Even though I resist it, I am as addicted to the sound-bite summary, the cliff notes version, the easy path to enlightenment, as anyone.

I also just read the Steampunk Magazine's A Steampunk's Guide to Surviving an Apocalypse.

There's some connection going on between these two documents - inside my head.

Emerson begins this essay with:
Ne te quaesiveris extra - Do not seek for anything outside of thyself.

He seems to be extolling the virtues of thinking for yourself,taking care of yourself, by yourself, experiencing yourself as potentate - at least of your own existence. He writes: It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is not a man better than a town?

I am not sure.

I think that being self-reliant is knowing and accepting oneself. I think that this can happen whether I am standing alone or as part of a group, a tribe, or a movement.

If I know myself I should be able to recognize when I am not being true to my self. I should be able to know when I am off-kilter, so to speak. To be self-reliant is to be emotionally healthy, not needy, not seeking to verify who I am in another person's approval. However this does not mean that I should be distant or disconnected from others.

It seems that Emerson was reacting to social pressures as he created this essay. However, this is just the feeling lingering after my first reread in three years. I will have to read it again and see what I think.


It's interesting the different meanings we attribute to words and concepts. Self-reliance has so many meanings.

Self-reliance in regard to sustainability

There are two areas in which one can be self-reliant – production and consumption – and both are needed for true sustainability.

Self-reliance in production means that one can make much of what they need. This can be as simple as making a cake from scratch, or as complex as building a structure to live in shaping raw materials with the use of a few tools. Production by the self-reliant is gauged by its use value, rather than its market value. Self-reliance in production means that quality is the focus, not quantity. Quality can be sustainable, quantity often is not.

Self-reliance in consumption means that one doesn't really need a lot of things in order to exist contently – things like fancy toys or the latest style of clothing or a lavish home. A self-reliant identity does not come from the things one can buy and flaunt. A self-reliant lifestyle is unpretentious and grounded in thoughtful consumption. Considerate consumption is sustainable, conspicuous consumption never is.

Self-reliance and community

Generally one thinks of a self-reliant person being independent and unfettered by a need of others. The paradox is that self-reliance cannot truly exist without the community of trust.

"One can achieve everything in solitude - except character." ~ Henri Stendhal

Community is necessary in order to establish our identity. Without knowledge of the other there can be no knowledge of the self. Meaning is arrived at through distinctions.

Without a community of trust, an individual cannot come to know themselves fully. Without the ability to explore ideas in a safe atmosphere, the demanding, often frightening steps necessary to knowing oneself become exponentially more difficult. When thoughts and words have to be carefully guarded, when all energy is spent on simply maintaining one's existence in the seclusion of one's own mind – sanity, not growth, is the focus.

Without trust there is insecurity and an urge to hoard – both skills and things. Without trust I am not able to allow you to produce and consume in your natural patterns – I cannot trust that your intentions are towards quality, not quantity, and your consumption is considerate and not conspicuous.

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