Self-reliance makes a comeback

A friend whose son moved to California to pursue an acting career told me a funny story about meeting her “grandchickens” on a recent visit to the West Coast. Apparently, hip young urbanites are embracing their inner Farmer Green Jeans and turning their backyards into barnyards. In D.C. last spring, feathers flew when a Capitol Hill couple tried to keep the hens their daughters were raising as part of a science project.

My daughter-in-law’s friends in Indiana are building their own house using straw bales for insulation. The husband is a software engineer, and they can afford to buy a house ready-made, but have opted for the ultimate do-it-yourself project. In Pasadena, the Dervaes family boasts of harvesting 6,000 pounds of produce annually from their tenth-of-an-acre yardstead located right near a major highway.

Google “urban homesteading” and you will find stories like the one in the Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram this month describing Jerry and Tara Pommer, a 30-something musician and bookkeeper, who created their own 12-acre Green Acres. Both raised in the city, the Pommers describe “having to do shots” after they butchered their first rabbit two years ago. Now, Tara has no problem dispatching 30 chickens.

These people come from throughout the political spectrum. What strikes me most about their increasingly common stories is what they say about America in the 21st century. Why would people not only grow their own vegetables, but choose to make their own cheese and soap, hoard gold, get “off the grid” and attempt to become totally self-sufficient when our national economy has never been so dependent on global trade? Especially if that means an increase in the kind of back-breaking manual labor that many of their grandparents and great-grandparents fled to the city to avoid?

I think the answer is pretty simple. We have trust issues. A growing number of Americans fear that the center will not hold, that the fabric of civic obligations is starting to unravel, and believe people must start relying on their own resources in order to survive. Having lost faith in government, large corporations, banks, public utilities and other institutions that used to be trusted implicitly, the move towards taking back control of the basic necessities of life is a symptom of a gnawing fear that the complex dependencies that make life in a technologically advanced society possible are headed for collapse.

In a country in which much of the population demands a new government program to solve every problem, and where the size and power of the federal government is now at an all-time high, this move toward self-sufficiency is countercultural — and transformational, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay on the subject:

“It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance — a new respect for the divinity in man — must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.”

Backyard chicken farmers and urban homesteaders are rediscovering what our colonial forebears knew: Self-sufficiency is one of the most important and necessary virtues of a free people. It’s making a comeback just in the nick of time.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Washington’s Examiner’s local opinion editor.

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