Why We Should be Socially Efficient Not Self Sufficient

There is an idea in the world that we need to be self sufficient. That we can not expect people to produce everything for us and we need to produce what we need on our own.

This may to some people sound like a good idea, like an optimal way forward. However it is doomed to failure for one very simple reason. None of us are self sufficient and nor do we have any hope of ever being self sufficient in an advanced society.

Do you live in a house, own electronics, a car, a bicycle, anything made of plastic, wood, cotton, metals or synthetics? Yes you do? Well did you mine and refine the resources to create the tools to produce those goods? No and nor do you ever have any hope of doing so, nor can any of us do that on our own for everything we may need.

Who among us can mine, refine and work all the materials needed to create the parts for a computer and then go on to do the programming to make them work? No one of us can do all those things. So if you want to be “self sufficient” then you will either need to do without many of the benefits of an advanced society, or pretend you are self sufficient while you benefit off the labour of thousands of people you have never meet.

There of course is another problem which the self sufficiency enthusiast may not want to accept. Being self sufficient is incredibly inefficient. If the 7 billion of us on the planet decided to suddenly live self sufficiently there would not be enough resources or arable land available for us to grow enough plants for us to feed and clothe ourselves. Besides, in a world with a rapidly changing climate how reliable do you think a garden exposed to the elements is going to be? Oh you are going to use an indoor hydroponic system, hardly “self sufficient” when you are relying on the skills and work of others through entire production chains.

At times when talking to such enthusiasts the idea of trade comes up, what we can not produce ourselves we will trade for. Almost as if it is not understood that barter and fiat currency are not all that far removed from each other. The fundamental problems inherent with one are also present in the other. There is no equality in a trade based system, this mindset is one of looking after the self.

A move en masse in this direction results in further inequality, people who struggle to produce go without, more dangerous yet to the self sufficient or gated community are the desperate. The people who have suffered as a result of continued environmental degradation, or a collapsing economy, which has been torn apart at the seams under the pressure of ever escalating debt and job losses as a result of automation, or both. When people are hungry and out of options, when they have nothing left to lose and come across the self sufficient, there will be no discussion about trade.

This idea of being self sufficient is a step backwards for our species.

We don’t all need to be self sufficient, what we need to do is understand just how reliant we have become on each other in our advanced society. Stepping back from our technological advancements to return to live in an old world way is not going to make life better, it might make it harder, but it certainly won’t make it better.

We need to appreciate all that we have created, understand exactly what it is we are capable of, and how it could be done with minimal labour thanks to machine automation. Vertical automated farms could feed entire cities of people with extremely low levels of labour, land use, water and no fertilizers or pesticides. The self sufficient farmer is extremely inefficient by comparison.

Our entire world is set to be impacted enormously by automation, everything from transportation to resource extraction is going to change in the sense that the human labour hours involved are going to be dramatically reduced. The fact the clear majority are going to have vastly less money is not a reason to run off into the woods and try to become “self sufficient”, it is a reason to take a long hard look at how our economy works and the damage it is causing to our global society so we can start to have a discussion about how we alter it.

When we look at the world beyond the limited view of how we ourselves are being impacted, when we look at resource waste, pollution, inequality and crime and see how they are driven by our economy, when we see how it promotes waste, needless product stratification and endless material consumption for the sake of consumption we can begin to see the economy needs to be changed from the ground up.

We produce less waste, use less resources and reduce crime and inequality when we understand we can stop producing made to break garbage, automate and create high end products which enhance life and can be provided for each other, not sold to each other.

Of course when one has been raised all their lives in a work to pay to live environment it can sound fanciful to say. Yet in twenty to thirty years when we are dealing with a warmer, hostile climate, when the majority are struggling to find work, when suffering becomes the norm, well it might be easier to understand we had another option. However it may also be a little too late to figure it out.

Take some time, look at what is on the horizon, both in relation to environmental damage (including our social environment) and our technical ability, then ask yourself, does money (trade) help or hinder in that future? Self sufficiency is not the way to a better future for our species, social efficiency is. If we want social efficiency then we are going to need an economy which both rewards and promotes that outcome.

Feature Image
Food Gardens, Channels, Vertical Farms – Shanghai Sustainable Masterplan by Except CC BY-SA 2.0