Questions of the Week
Past "Questions of the Week"
Q: Dear Andrew,
Your Question of the Week and Rant of the Week this week look a lot like last week's. I think that's weak. What happened? Did you lose the fire, or are you just taking a break, or what? I was just getting interested, don't stiff now!
Jason in Colorado
A: Dear Jason,
You caught me, pal. I have been neglecting my duties a little bit lately, but not for lack of motivation. Time has been at a particularly high premium the past few weeks, but, even so, excuses are lame. Thanks for keeping me honest, Jason.
Q: Are you some sort of cult-based radical extremist? Every time I hear about people going back to the land or some such foolish thing, they turn out to be some sort of moon worshipping utopians.
Matt in New Jersey
A: Dear Matt,
You must be a Bruce Springsteen fan, right? And Bon Jovi, too? Everybody in New Jersey loves The Boss and Bon Jovi, right?
I can assure you I am not a radical extremist of any kind, nor are most other self-sufficiency enthusiasts. On the contrary, most of us are about as down to earth individuals as you're likely to meet. Sure, a bit eccentric, maybe, but that's only because of the keen intelligence of which most of us are possessed.
One thing I've learned is that radical extremism is almost always a bad thing. Worthy causes turn into crusades, peace turns to conflict, then people start gettin' blowed up.
Obviously I care a great deal about self-sufficiency enough to sponsor a web page but I know two very important things: perfection can never be attained, and what's right for me isn't right for everyone.
The closer you get to perfect, the harder it becomes to make any more progress. It's called the law of diminshing returns. That's just the way it is.
Not everyone can become self-reliant, and not everyone should try.
As strongly as I feel on the subject of sustainability and renewability, I have enough sense to know it's not worth taking a hard line, either with myself or with others. This hasn't always been the case. But recently I learned that taking a hard line on nearly anything is less a sign of commitment to principle than it is a sign of one's capacity to annoy people.
Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself if I'm a foolish utopian. As I've explained in these pages, I believe self-determination and self-reliance are like two sides of the same coin. I only ask that you judge me on my merits, not on some ill-conceived stereotype.
Now if you'll excuse me, I must go prepare the incense for my Moon worship ritual.
Q: I know of several off-grid homesteaders out here in the Southwest who rely for their electrical power on solar electric panels. What kind of off-grid systems will work best for New Hampshire?
Joe Padula, Scottsdale, AZ
A: Dear Joe,
Out in the Southwest where it is mostly sunny and flat, it is quite realistic for a homesteader to make all his electricity from solar power. In New Hampshire, in case you're not aware, it is mostly not sunny, and mostly not flat. Every specific application will vary, of course, but in general the best systems will be hybrids. The solar exposure during the summer is very good, and because of the long days during which electric lighting will not be used, a relatively modest solar array will be able to keep up with the needs of a small family if wisely managed.
During winter months, the sun only shines for as little as nine hours a day. But this also tends often to be a very windy time of year, particularly in the hills and mountains and near the coast. Except during periods of heavy snow, a small wind generator mounted in the right place can take advantage of these currents and actually generate more electricity than the homestead can use.
Because of the very uneven terrain of the state, there may be places where a ridge or hillside takes away your best solar exposure. But that same terrain that may make a solar array unsuitable may also provide a fast-moving stream which can support a hydroelectric generator.
In general, most homesteads will rely on more than one source for power. Once you have a site, then you will be able to assess what means will work best for you. The southwest and the Northeast are actually two of the most active regions for those who practice self-reliance by living off the grid. No doubt you will be able to find many homesteaders already in New England from whom you can draw advice and experience.
Q: I've been raising llamas on my independent homestead for years, and so naturally I was interested when I saw your web page. Why don't you write more about off-grid power setups and food production? Why do you have to tie everything in to this liberty movement thing?
Barney, North Carolina
There are a couple reasons why I don't concentrate more on the applications of self-reliant living. One is that I simply can't speak as authoritatively on subjects such as canning and freezing, or deepcycle battery maintenance, as the numerous resources on the web and on the newsstand that deal with the nuts and bolts of the lifestyle.
Secondly, I must always keep in mind that the purpose of this liaison is to be that bridge between the two communities. It is my task to keep the subject matter interesting to both the self-reliance community and the Free State Project.
And thirdly, if there is a subject where you have some expertise or would like to contribute, all submissions are welcome, whether they be of practical interest to the homesteader, or gardener, or of political interest. Do you have a unique story or interest that would be appropriate for this page? Are you conversant in a traditional skill or craft that would have value to the independent homesteader? Share your knowledge! Let us hear from you. If you are interested in writing a piece for this page, please contact me, Andrew Wiegand, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And finally, Barney, the tie-in to liberty is a natural one. Did you decide to go into homesteading because you couldn't see living life on someone else's say-so? Do you love making your own decisions, taking responsibility for yourself, and setting your own course? That sounds a lot like porucupine thinking to me!
Q: Becoming self sufficient is a nice idea, but it seems such a huge and unattainable change with the life I live now. What are some smaller things that I can start with if I'm not in a position to buy 40 acres in NH and start growing my own food? Or if you happen to be like me and can't keep a plant alive to save your life?
A: Dear Janis,
That's a great question. First of all, you don't really need 40 acres or even 30. I just figured as long as I was dreaming, that's how much I'd like. Truthfully, if the land and soil are at all decent, 5 acres is probably sufficient if managed carefully and field crops are augmented with greenhouse gardening.
Of course, most people don't have several acres of arable land, don't garden much, and for most people it just isn't practical to erect an array of solar electric panels, or a 50 foot tower to support a wind generator. And most modern houses are not designed to be heated with renewable fuels. As with committing to the Free State Project, making the move toward self-sufficient living presents a number of inconveniences that will test your resolve.
The best way to start living the self-sufficient life is with your money. It teaches you the principles that will apply to self-sufficient living in all other aspects of life, and if you try it and don't like it, it's much easier to switch back to the mainstream than it would be had you already moved out to the woods and built an off-grid homestead!
First, try to go one billing cycle without using any credit cards. If you can do that, try to go longer. Try brownbagging your lunch using either a cooler or lunchbox, or reusing shopping bags. Every time you pull out money to pay for something you didn't leave the house planning to buy, think about whether it is something you need, or what you could maybe do next time to avoid having to buy it. Could you have brought a bottle of pre-mixed iced tea or water from home instead of putting money in the vending machine?
See what sort of lifestyle changes begin to occur. Do you begin to eat out less? Are you dropping some bad spending habits? How does it feel? Do you sleep better at night knowing you don't have to be afraid to look in the mailbox? Does it sting a little when you forego a new pair of shoes or a "high performance accessory" that you didn't really need? Is the sting followed by a swell of pride at your newfound liberation, or an excruciating emptiness from the knowledge that your friends' clothes or cars are newer and shinier?
We started practicing financial self-reliance 8 years ago, and we're still not quite ready to take the leap into homesteading. And realistically, I don't know how close we'll ever get to total independence. But we're a lot closer to financial freedom than our friends who have mountains of debt from school loans, car loans, mortgages and credit cards. We've also endured setbacks and detours along the way, but we have persevered.
We have two credit cards; I despise them, and can count on my fingers how many times I've used them. I have never, ever, ever carried a balance. My rule of thumb is to never finance anything that depreciates in value unless I both cannot pay for it up front and absolutely, positively cannot live without it.
This attitude comes from my staunch yankee upbringing, and the old saw, Use it up/Wear it out/Make it do or/Do without.
Now, in case I have given the impression of being self-righteous, let me be the first to point out that I have done many foolish things with money. But it was always money that I already had, never borrowed.
If you've gotten this far along, you've probably noticed that your friends mostly tend to have nicer things than you. Now if you are prudent, you will always be able to find a way to keep a decent standard of living. But perhaps your friend's kitchen has a new ceramic tile backsplash and the latest dishwasher, or maybe your friend has a new car and a big tv. This is to be expected. I'm not an ascetic by any means; I could sit here all day and name things I want but don't have and not get tired. But the lifestyle I have chosen precludes me from obtaining everything I want when I want it. This has its own benefits, though they are less conspicuous. I savor the anticipation of getting what I want, I truly cherish the nice things that I do have, and I take pleasure in small rewards.
To survive in this lifestyle, it is imperative to NOT tie your self-esteem to your possessions.
If you are a perceptive student of the voluntary simplicity method, as it is sometimes called, you will begin to notice that there is pride, and then there is vanity. These are often confused for one another, but they are two distinctly different things. To spend an afternoon cleaning out and tuning up an old Ford shows pride; to trade your old Ford for a new Mercedes shows vanity. Nothing against Mercedes, mind you! But such a grand acquisition should come as the reward for achieving wealth, not the pursuit of a facade.
If you're still practicing self-reliance with your money at this point, you're ready for some advanced strategies. Good news! This is where your longsuffering really starts to pay dividends.
By now you're well aware that it's measurably more difficult to live this way than to live the way your friends do. No, duh! The hard way is always harder than the easy way, that's why it's called the hard way. Suck it up, because it's finally about to start lovin' you back.
Now it's time to put your money to work for you. Crack that whip, Sally! Each and every dollar bill that you don't have to spend in order to live, is an employee, ready to do your bidding. Make that money earn more money. This is graduate level financial self-sufficiency, Holmes. This is where, with a wise investment here, the acquisition of an asset there, your thrift repays you with wealth.
Your simple financial portfolio will begin to expand, slowly at first, then faster and faster. If you are at all prudent -- and you are -- you will form a corporate entity, and retain the services of an attorney, an accountant, and a financial advisor. Yeah, it gets complicated. But don't worry -- these are really nice problems to have.
Just starting down this path is going to require a complete overhaul of the consumerist mentality that has been pummelled into your skull since you were old enough to watch tv. To take the first step, I recommend reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki. It opened my eyes. It'll open yours. It's all very general, non-specific kind of mindset advice. Depending on your interests, you can go from there to find more specific advice on planting and cultivating your own money garden.
Achieving self-sufficiency in any arena of life is always a long, difficult gauntlet of sacrifice. But if you stick it out long enough, it's like cresting a hill. You will be repaid so many times over that you'll never be able to go back to being "plugged in."
Whether it's food, fuel, energy, money, or government -- or all of the above! -- there's no education in liberty like being self-sufficient.
Q: I have always dreamed of living "off the grid." So why exactly should I sign on to the Free State Project?
Rugged Joe from Idaho
A: Dear Rugged Joe,
The reasons for joining the FSP are as varied as the reasons for wanting to live a life of energy independence. Do you want to be surrounded by people who cherish the values of simplicity, freedom, individualism and prosperity? You will find these characteristics in the constitution of most every porcupine.
Are you mistrustful of the government-subsididies and shortsightedness that plague the modern mass energy cartels? Among the Free State Project membership you will find bright minds who are every hour pursuing avenues of change in the way our government is run to give energy alternatives a level playing field on which to compete.
Even if your highest ambition in life is just to be left alone, you will find that the Free State Project holds the right of the individual to privacy to be absolutely inviolable.
These are but a few of the reasons you may want to give porcupines a close look. I invite you to visit a forum and meet some members. You may be surprised how much you didn't know you had in common. Or contact me directly (I am, after all, a liason!) and let's talk about what you want to achieve.
There's no state like the Free State to make it happen.
Q: Hey Andrew, I hear they've found more oil like, a lot more oil. Like, maybe more than they've found under the whole of Saudi Arabia. It's near a Russian island called Sakhalin, to the north of Japan. Now we can have plenty of cheap oil without being beholden to the Middle East. Doesn't that make you want to give up hope on renewable energy?
A: Dear Boris, Heck no, buddy!
Indulge me for a moment. If the government tomorrow discovered a huge vein of gold underneath the Capitol, I mean one that could erase the federal deficit as if by magic, would the Free State Project then be rendered a moot point?
Ah, I see it now. Flush with newfound wealth, the government adopts a strict policy of thrift, almost to the point of miserliness (miserdom? miseracity?). Instead of metastasizing new tentacles reaching forth into every aspect of daily life, the government decides to contract its sphere of influence, scale back foreign policy, strip down domestic social programs, cut payroll, roll back taxes, repeal all but the most fundamental of regulatory legislation, and embezzle only one tiny little stack of bills to finance a retirement cottage in the Finger Lakes region.
Well, that would be nice, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, I think such a development would make the current predicament of liberty-loving people resemble a trip to the ice cream parlor.
Just as more money makes the government more powerful, so does more oil make the oil companies more powerful. And just as it is in the government's own interest to make the public dependent on it, so is it in the oil companies' interest to make the consumer base dependent upon it. Instead of going to the polls to cast "votes" for either a Republican, Democrat, Green or Libertarian, though, we go to the quickie-stop to "choose" Mobil, Texaco, BP or Hess. But BP is just kind of a little cult thing, and everyone believes Hess is circling the drain, so there's really pretty much just Mobil and Texaco. They're pretty much the same thing, anyway.
No one is into the Free State Project because they have to be. They are into it because they can be, and because they want to be. For some people, it's just not within the realm of practicality, but they still fervently support the effort from outside, in whatever way they can. It's about independence, individual empowerment and self-determination, and decentralization of power. It also happens to be our best hope for long term survival and security.
In case you haven't figured it out, Boris, read that last paragraph aloud to yourself, only instead of "the Free State Project," say "renewable energy."
Dependency is dependency.
Just because it's slightly quirky, largely experimental and mildly eccentric, doesn't mean it's not viable.
I've lived my life by that.
Note: the above is a metaphoric comparison. If the reader would like to comment on the validity of that metaphor, any such input is very welcome. However, the author does not wish to receive comments asking what about Citgo, what about Getty.