We’re at war. Not only are we battling a global health crisis unlike any in living memory, but also against entrenched habits and values that are difficult to change. As an environmental and green-living consultant, permaculture designer, and sustainability writer, I’ve been waging this war for quite some time.
Don’t forget, we are facing two existential crises – not just one. In the Western world the climate crisis is not yet frequently seen as an immediate threat to human life. So though the current health crisis is worrying, for many people that worry has not yet catalysed actual behavioural change
The ways in which we handle the crises we face, both as individuals and communities, reveal much about us and our society, and raise important questions around self-reliance and resilience. In this article, I want to explore the importance of self-reliance and resilience as tools for living more ethically and sustainably under these adverse conditions.
What is Self-Reliance?
Self-reliance is simple. It means not depending on others to provide what we need to live and to thrive, as much as possible – relying instead on our own internal resources, skills, knowledge, and abilities to live well, to thrive and meet our life goals.
Nineteenth century essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed self-reliance in his transcendentalist essay ‘Self Reliance’. Transcendentalism, a movement prizing the innocence of people and nature over institutional and social corruption, speaks about the importance of individualism and dependence on our own capacities and ideas. He famously said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; nonconformist ideas, following personal instincts, self-trust, and our own judgement are all crucial to any definition of the term.
But self-reliance is not the same as self-sufficiency. We cannot meet all our human needs in our home and garden. It does not mean cutting ourselves off from others; nor does it mean that we look out only for ourselves.
Having the self-confidence to go against the crowd is important. But using our own powers, capabilities, and resources to the fullest must not mean forgetting the importance of caring for others. It does not mean creating a definition of self-reliance that rejects protection and care for others, or for the planet.
Our Journey Towards Self-Reliance
In order to explore self-reliance, I would like to share some details of my own life and situation. My life may look very different to yours: I live on a rural property, with a large garden and mature orchard; I grow fruit and vegetables, and keep rescue chickens for eggs.
Working from home, I spend eight or more hours each day helping others around the world to live more sustainably, and create effective food-producing systems. At weekends, my husband and I are slowly renovating an old stone barn as our forever home. We are trying to move as close as possible to self-reliance.
I am very lucky and privileged, and realise that most people may not have similar resources to rely upon. Equally, my husband and I had to work hard for what we have achieved. And – crucially – we could not have done it alone.
With a couple of my husband’s relatives, we decided to buy a property together. Though not wanting to live together per se, we did want to pool resources; this was the perfect solution for both us and them: their initial capital, combined with, being somewhat younger, our ability to take on a greater mortgage burden. After finding a rural property with a large home and outbuilding, we began the journey we’re on today.
We’ll explore how we’ve continued to build self-reliance later in the article.
What is Resilience?
Self-reliance – falling back on your own knowledge, skills, and resources – is only part of the picture. Resilience is also key: both personal resilience (the ability to ‘bounce back’ from setbacks), and resilience in systems (their stability and self-sustenance).
Until just over five years ago, my husband and I were in a very different position: we were renting in a small coastal village; though my husband was working, I was not able to, due to a chronic health condition and chronic pain. We had no garden, though after five years on a waiting list, I did secure a small allotment. Throughout our twenties, we had little money, so ever owning our own place seemed out of reach.
Like most people, we have had challenges to overcome – but through them, we have strived to become more resilient, and have worked hard to make the systems around us resilient too. We’ll talk a little more about techniques for doing so later on.
The Link Between Self-Reliance and Resilience
Self-reliance and resilience go hand in hand. In the current pandemic, it is important to focus on what we can control – and capacity-building is key to doing so. Building capacity involves increasing self-reliance and resilience, both personally and in wider systems.
We should each work on self-reliance and resilience. The more we do so, the greater our ability to reach out, with kindness, and help others around us in these difficult circumstances. Working on these capabilities can help change our entrenched habits, and reshape our values to truly reflect the realities of the times.
Building Personal Self-Reliance and Resilience
Building capacity often begins with the self; mental self-reliance and resilience is crucial, especially when facing crises on a global scale. Essentially, self-reliance and resilience are about the capacity to cope with whatever life throws at us.
Improving Your Ability to Cope
Ask yourself: when stressed or upset, do you immediately turn to others to ‘make it better’? If so, it may be beneficial to consider how to ‘self-soothe’. Consider how your mental processes affect the way you feel. Of course, other people are vital to mental wellbeing, so it is important to talk, but so is working on your own mental state, and developing personal coping mechanisms.
I find it helpful to reframe the way I think about a given situation, particularly to focus on positives rather than negatives. For me, coping also involves action: when something feels out of control, constructive and practical tasks towards concrete goals can be calming. Meditation and mindfulness can also play important roles. And remember – sleep is crucial; do what you can to get a good night’s rest.
When mentally self-reliant and resilient, we are better able to provide emotional (and practical) support to those around us who may need it.
Building Knowledge and Skills
Developing a capacity for coping mentally is an essential part of the picture – but it is also important to continually strive to build knowledge and skills.
Areas that I work on and have found important on my own journey towards self-reliance include:
- Gardening and growing.
- Knowledge of foraging.
- Cooking and preserving.
- First aid and herbal remedies.
- Natural solutions for cleaning.
- Good communication (written and verbal) and conflict resolution.
- DIY, sustainable building, and upcycling skills.
- Knitting, sewing, and other crafting techniques.
By comparison, my husband has excellent technical and mechanical knowledge, built up over the years. Everyone has different skills to contribute; we can all play to our strengths, making ourselves as useful and productive as possible.
The more you grow your body of knowledge and skills, the more you will be able to help others through shared crises – and the more sustainable your lifestyle.
Building Household Self-Reliance and Resilience
Looking beyond the personal, there are many further ways of boosting households’ self-reliance and resilience.
Make the Most of Your Garden
Perhaps what’s most important right now is to make the most of any natural resources at our disposal. Anyone with a garden or outside space should do their bit by starting to grow at least some of their own food – not only for their household, but the common good. It may even be possible to grow a range of other things for your household.
In a suburban or rural location, you may have a valuable resource at your disposal: land. Even in a small garden, you can grow more than you might imagine. And a garden can be established with minimal expenditure. You may also have food to eat more quickly than expected. For a pre-existing garden, all it’s necessary to buy is some seeds or plants. These may even be sourced for free from other gardeners or growers.
To make a low-cost garden:
- Start making your own compost right away.
- Buy seeds (or source them for free online or from other gardeners).
- Regrow vegetables from scraps.
- Use plastic food packaging, toilet roll tubes, and other household disposables as containers and for growing seeds.
- Use organic matter to build up a lasagna bed or take up Hügelkultur.
- Make a low-maintenance forest garden. (Buying fruit trees, etc, carries upfront costs, but such a garden costs very little time or money to maintain once established.) This can also help build biodiversity, which is key to ecosystem resilience.
Even if you don’t have your own garden, you might be able to grow a little food in a small indoors container garden.
If you already grow your own, think about stepping up your efforts to provide more for your own household, and perhaps even some to give away to family, friends, and neighbours in the coming months.
The Ministry of Agriculture’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign helped concentrate national domestic efforts in the Second World War, and could do the same in the situations we now face. Growing our own can help us combat the climate crisis, and reduce the strain on food producers and food systems in our current health crisis.
Utilising Nature’s Wild Bounty
Another option to consider is that spring foraging could supplement homegrown produce in the coming months. If you live in a small town or village, or the countryside, it will be easier to find wild foods; plenty of edible weeds are popping up right now in many gardens. Even in cities, it is possible to find places where edible weeds and other wild foods can be foraged this spring.
Could you provide wild foods not only for your household, but for others nearby?
Other Resources Your Garden Might Provide
Remember that a garden needn’t only provide food: it can potentially also offer a range of other useful resources. For example, herbs to help keep your household healthy and their immune systems strong.
You can also minimise the number of purchases you make, reducing the burden on delivery workers. Using wood and other natural resources from your garden for crafting and DIY projects is another way to reduce your burden on society.
As we rapidly approach the peak of the health crisis, it is more vital than ever that we all reduce the amount we consume in general. The more we consume, the greater burden we place on not only the planet but also those still working to keep our society functioning.
Developing key skills, and refusing, reducing, reusing, repairing, and recycling at home are all crucial steps in reducing the burden our households place on broader systems. These steps can also help to improve households’ financial resilience, to keep us afloat.
In the current climate, many of us face huge changes to the way we work. Many of us are in precarious work situations, and worried about the future. You may have lost your job, be uncertain about your job security, or be struggling to adapt to working from home.
Diversification is key to developing households’ (and businesses’) financial resilience. Be proactive by establishing ways to diversify your income streams in future.
With the necessary skills and knowledge, a garden or access to land is a hugely valuable commodity, meaning you may have more options for a sustainable income than you imagine.
But for now, do what you can to meet your own needs, and those of your household. And remember that we are all in this together.
Living Outwardly and with Kindness
Humans have a tendency to look first to our own needs, and the needs of those closest to us. But it is important for everyone, especially in trying times, to look beyond ourselves. As well as building capacity within ourselves and our households, we must also try to live outwardly and with kindness – approaching the wider world positively and proactively, and tangibly doing good.
We must act conscientiously to protect those around us – at present, this includes simple measures such as limiting human contact as much as possible, staying home when we can, and washing our hands often and well.
Those working on the NHS’ front lines and in other vital services are, of course, already doing an incalculable amount for others. The rest of us must thank them by doing what we can to make their difficult jobs as easy as possible.
Building Community Resilience
Resilience is not only something to build in ourselves and our households; it is also something to strive to build in our communities. But how can we build community resilience when congregation is impossible?
With so many in self-isolation, building togetherness – the glue that binds a community together – can be challenging. Building a strong and resilient community necessitates forging links between all the individuals and households it encompasses. The stronger those ties, the more resilient the community.
So what can individuals do to build togetherness in our communities? Here are a few examples:
- Avoid panic buying and greed. These things cause rifts in communities; stockpiling excessively is selfish and increases the divisions between the haves and have-nots. Try to share what you have to make sure everyone has enough and no-one is left behind.
- Post a note through your neighbours’ doors with your contact details, letting them know that you are available to help them if they need anything. For example, you might offer to shop for someone elderly or with underlying health conditions.
- You could also provide a range of other services: for example, offering seeds, plants, or excess food from your garden, or cooking meals for someone who is suffering. Even just give someone your contact details and chat with them by phone or online when they are feeling lonely – or set them up with someone else who can.
- Value every individual: say thank you to key workers; leave thank-you notes and small gifts for those whose contributions to your community you value. You never know when a simple note of thanks or a bouquet of wildflowers, for example, might really brighten someone’s day. Or reach out to people online to tell them what a good job they are doing.
- Donate blood, if you can.
- Create online communities and spaces for collaboration for your local area. Set up a website, email group, or forum. Spread the word on social media to help locals get together virtually when they cannot do so in person.
- Consider beginning the process of creating a community garden, or any other sustainable community project. Though you cannot get together right now, this could build longer-term resilience by giving people something to look forward to. There is a lot you can do online and from your home before the physical or social work begins.
- Share your knowledge and skills online.
These things are already a big part of my job. But in this crisis, in addition to making my living, I am also trying to disseminate helpful and practical advice and information to those who are vulnerable and in need. For example, I am helping people start new gardens, diversify their revenue streams, and make sustainable choices for themselves and their families.
While I focus primarily on solutions to help tackle our climate crisis, many of the solutions for this health crisis are the same. In both, building self-reliance and resilience at all levels is key.
Support Sustainable Businesses and Activities
Of course, while we should try to build self-reliance and resilience personally and in our homes, and reduce consumption where possible, we will still need to buy certain items throughout this crisis, and in future. No man is an island.
Building resilient communities also involves supporting local sustainable businesses and activities whenever possible. In fact, times of crisis should be when we step up that support. We should:
👉 Continue to support local businesses by ordering food and other essential items for delivery (for example, if you can, consider joining veg box or CSA schemes, or ordering food and other goods from local farms or farm shops rather than from major supermarket chains):
A number of smaller shops, cafés, and other businesses are diversifying due to this crisis, and delivering even if they didn’t before. So if you are self-isolating, or even just to avoid an excursion, reach out to a favourite local business to see whether they are willing to deliver.
👉 Help small local businesses to diversify into delivery:
If you are not currently working, or have some time, and are relatively young and fit, consider offering a small local company your help in packing items for delivery, or in the delivery itself. Not only might this potentially provide a source of income, it could also help boost small, sustainable businesses in your area. Reach out to see how you might be useful.
👉 Help local businesses to diversify online:
If you have technical or computer skills, perhaps help small business owners find new revenue sources online. For example, could you help a pub or entertainment venue set up a virtual social venue online? Or help a small shop take their business online?
👉 Offer local charities and community groups whatever help you can:
If you already help or are involved with local charities and community groups, continue to help them financially, remotely or however else you can. The more we can do to keep vital community groups going during this period, the better prepared we will be for future challenges.
We have a choice: we can bury our heads in the sand and pretend these crises are not happening. We can shrug our shoulders and give up. Or we can ready ourselves to fight this battle – not with selfishness but with self-reliance, not with hardness but with resilience, not with cruelty but with kindness. The ethical choices we make now are crucial. We can all help save lives, and make this world better.