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.