How Independent Am I?
That’s a good question to be asking yourself in this year in which we are celebrating our 200th anniversary of the independence of our country. If you are like most Americans today, you will have to admit that you are not very independent. You are free, in the sense that you have liberty to say pretty much what you want, to worship as you please, to move about freely, to own property, to have a fair trial, and so on. Independence, though, is something else. To be independent means that you have a basic liberty of existence. You are not tied to others when you are independent. You are able to support yourself, working with your own resources. The person who is truly independent will live well no matter what happens to the rest of society.
Total independence, of course, is almost never experienced by anybody. Even in primitive cultures, where people live by hunting animals and gathering wild foods, the individual depends on the family or tribe for support. But a small group of people can be independent, as long as they are content to use only food produced in their own area and things that they make themselves. I am not citing that as a desirable kind of life for anyone to aspire to, but only as a point of reference, a benchmark of our past independence as people.
Prior to 1776, when we were still a colony of England, our people were much more independent individually than you and I are now. America then was a country of small farmers, craftsmen working in their own shops, and storekeepers enjoying primarily local trade.
Few organizations of any kind existed in our society, and there was not even much communication or trade from one region to another. People made their own way. They built their own furniture and houses, produced much of their food, wove cloth for their clothes, and usually entertained themselves. Acts of God, like storms, drought, or fire, were a greater threat to their security than today’s people-caused problems like layoffs, business failures, inflation, and governmental corruption.
Now, by contrast, hardly any American does anything without leaning on hundreds of other people in some way. Even simple acts, when examined closely, reveal connecting threads leading to unexpected places. Consider picking your teeth. A couple of hundred years ago, gaps between molars were cleaned with a sliver pried from a convenient piece of firewood. The “tool” for the job was made on the spot by the user, at no cost. Today, toothpicks are items of commerce. You can choose between many types, plain or flavored, colored or natural, plastic or wood, and so forth. Toothpicks are made in factories, packaged, advertised, sanitized, and entered in the gross national product. Probably a thousand or more people are occupied doing dozens of jobs related to the toothpick trade.
Look at a more complex act, like eating a slice of bread, and the web of interdependence expands dramatically. Not far from where I live today is a small stream, the Little Lehigh, which was a center of grain milling during Revolutionary times. A dozen water-powered mills dotted its banks, grinding local wheat and corn into flour and meal. People who lived in this area then grew their own grain, or bought it locally. No power other than the falling water of the stream was needed to process it, and wood was used for cooking. Making bread then was simple—an almost personal act.
Today, bread flour is shipped here from the Middle West, where its production calls into play a stream of complex resources. Chemical plants in several states churn out the emulsifiers, preservatives, colors, and other additives used by modern bakers. Truckers living in at least 10 states are in some way involved with the supply of bread to the Lehigh Valley. So are advertising people in New York, economists in Washington, machine builders in Chicago, and plastics plant workers all over the place. Eating bread in America today is an act of faith in the smooth functioning of one of the most complex food-supply systems ever conceived.
I am not advocating that we turn back the clock. As much as anyone, I enjoy choosing just the kind of toothpick that works well for me. And you and I both know that the world has changed so much since 1776 that there’s no way we can feed everyone bread today with water-ground wheat.
There is plenty of value, though, in looking carefully at the state of personal independence (or lack of it) of the average American. Few people have done that in the past 200 years. The thrust of industry and government has been to develop the country in the fastest way possible regardless of the consequences. That has meant creating new products, building more homes and factories, improving transportation, and trying to keep as many people as possible employed. Those goals have been paramount, and few people have seemed to care that in achieving them we have tied ourselves together in a tight net of dependence. And even fewer people have dared to think about what effect this growing dependence is having on our national character. My opinion is that many of the social faults that we now see in ourselves are the result of the almost total elimination of personal independence as a quality of American life.
For the moment, though, let’s look at the positive side of independence. What could we do better if there was a national program to help people become independent, as individuals? Just as a start, I’ve jotted down a few thoughts, although this list could certainly be expanded and amplified.
1. If people tried to be more independent, they would begin to see more clearly what their real needs for support from others are. Now, most people take for granted the availability of anything they need, in the way of materials and services.
2. More personal independence would boost productivity. Not everything is done most efficiently in big, complex ways. That is hard for some people to believe, conditioned as we have been to accept the production line concept that equates bigness with efficiency. Home production, our Organic Gardening and Farming editorial theme for 1976, is only one of many examples of how independent effort can lead to increased efficiency. Much more production of food and services could be done in the home if there was a strong effort in that direction.
3. Independence would provide a resilient reservoir of strength in case of hard times. We're beginning to sense how vulnerable our complex economic system is to threats from within and without. The lesson of the Arab oil boycott has been lost, and we're now using more imported oil than before. If we don't begin to work for more personal independence, we'll be in far worse shape the next time a threat like that occurs.
4. Innovative thinking and action would be encouraged by more personal independence. Most large organizations today are actually afraid of new ideas, because they could make profitable products obsolete and disturb established business partners. People working more independently would open up whole new veins of creativity and thought, which are now being stifled.
5. More diversity would be provided in our culture. The easiest way to sense our lack of independence today is to travel around the country and see how alike all parts of America have become. We have gone national in almost everything, from food and beer to housing and entertainment. While that sameness is being justified now on the grounds of efficiency, it is cutting us off from the pleasures and pride of individuality.
The garden is the best place to start looking for ways to help people become more independent. A garden is both the symbol and reality of self-sufficiency—especially an organic garden, which recycles organic wastes of the yard and household, permits the production of significant amounts of food with only minimal reliance on outside resources. Any campaign to boost personal independence should start by helping people become gardeners—teaching, motivating, and making land available.
Liberty doesn't end at the border of the garden, though. Home production of a variety of goods and services extends the idea of gardening. Both gardeners and non-gardeners can also grow their own bean sprouts, make some of their own clothes, become proficient at crafts, improve insulation of their home, and do similar home production tasks. Each such activity you learn makes you less dependent on others.
Alternate-energy production is one of the most promising areas for improvement of personal independence. The whole idea of alternate energy is to offer people the choice of using less energy from public utilities, or avoiding them altogether. What you eat, whether or not you smoke or drink, how much you exercise—those are all independent decisions that bear on how early in life you will get degenerative disease, which is the most troublesome of all health problems.
Even treatment of disease could be improved by fostering a greater spirit of personal independence. We need to learn more about how to take care of ourselves during illness. Any doctor will tell you that an intelligent patient, who knows how to observe and evaluate symptoms, can be treated with fewer drugs, and is therefore less likely to have side effects and will probably recover faster. Being totally dependent on the doctor is the worst way to act when sick.
Another area where personal independence can pay big dividends is transportation. Walking and cycling are the most independent ways to get from one place to another, and it’s no accident that they reward us with dollar savings as well as better health and more enjoyment. I’'m not saying that we should walk or cycle everywhere, but walking and cycling are perfect examples of how increased personal independence can strengthen us as people and strengthen our country as well.
Personal independence is an idea with profound political importance, yet it is a non-partisan concept. Whether you are liberal or conservative in your thinking, or middle of the road, you can make good use of greater personal independence. Any free political philosophy that a community chooses to emphasize will work better if its citizens have greater independence. Perhaps that’s because a government of independent people is by definition a smaller government, and is called on to provide fewer services. A government that is smaller can be observed more clearly, and is easier to manage, no matter which party is in charge.
Can the political system be used to help us become more independent? I think it not only can, but must be used for that purpose. We are so tied up now by centralization, especially centralization of government functions and programs in Washington, that in spirit of peaceful revolution we must petition for loosening our present bonds of dependence. Only by sticking to a positive approach can we mount a unified effort for personal independence that will have the support of people of all political views.
As a start, we should ask for a research program in personal independence. The development of new techniques and advanced technology is a potent force which has shaped our present society in many ways. Many millions are now being spent in research which is helping large institutions become bigger, and which as a result is squeezing out what little independence is left in us.
We need a comparable effort to develop techniques that will help people work on their own, and do things for themselves. All the activities I’ve mentioned so far (plus more) could be helped immeasurably by a research program in independence. We need more study of improved methods of gardening, alternate energy production, health promotion, transportation, personalized home building, home production, and so forth. I can even visualize a National Institute of Independence, whose sole function would be the development of ways that the American people could partially unhook themselves from the web of dependence that has been created during the 200-year history as a nation. Someday we could even have a Secretary of Independence in the cabinet, presiding over a department that would be working for personal independence in a wide variety of ways.
That may sound somewhat odd to you—asking Washington to help us become independent of the forces Washington represents so clearly, and even having an agent in Washington working toward that end. But the simple truth is that our dependence has increased to the point where we have to ask for help in changing the direction of our lives. It's also true that you and I, when aroused to write letters to our representatives, can get them to take note of our needs and maybe even take some action. Asking for a research effort to make personal independence more practical is really not such a big thing, and should be possible to achieve.