Is Self-Sufficiency Possible in the 21st Century?

It wasn’t so very long ago that most North Americans were self-sufficient. Many families remember a time, not too far gone, when their ancestors lived in a rural community without the benefit of electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, central heat or air conditioning.

Instead they had a well, an outhouse, a wood burning stove for heat and another for cooking. They had a cow for milk, chickens for eggs and a garden for vegetables. Evening light was often kerosene powered or candle lit. Wood was there for the taking. Ice was chopped from the pond and stored as long as it would last. Cream, milk and butter came from the cow. A fruit cellar or cold room held the fruits and vegetables. They hunted for the meat they didn’t raise. Grandma’s fried squirrel was a favorite breakfast food of my Dad. Deer, quail and fish also supplemented their domestic chicken and beef.

They were much more self-sufficient than we are, or possibly even can be.

Is it even feasible to be self-reliant in our 21st century? If it is, should each of us try to be? In my 67 years, I can never remember a time when I needed to be as self-sufficient as my grandparents or great-grandparents. However, I have longed to have those back up systems in place. It has just never been economically justifiable.

Americans pride themselves on their ‘Yankee ingenuity’ – making do or doing without. Yet when our electrical grid fails, even for a few hours, we lament the inconvenience. I was without power for a week one cold Midwest March. Yes it was a bit uncomfortable, but not unlivable.

But, what if there is a disaster. What if the survivalists are right? What if our water supply is poisoned or cut off; our electrical grid goes down hard for a long time; our transportation system gets interrupted and food can’t get to the stores. How would we deal with the sewage; lack of water; lack of heat; and interrupted supply of food, coffee, light, entertainment, communication ability?

Our governments recommend that each family be prepared to be self-sufficient in a disaster or emergency situation – for 72 hours.

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons) have long encouraged members to have a ready supply of food, water and finances.

This quote from Becoming Self-Reliant by L. Tom Perry (Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) illustrates the reason they do so:

“Independence and self-reliance are critical to our spiritual and temporal growth. Whenever we get into situations which threaten our self-reliance, we will find our freedoms threatened as well. If we increase our dependence on anything or anyone except the Lord, we will find an immediate decrease in our freedom to act. As President Heber J. Grant declared, “Nothing destroys the individuality of a man, a woman, or a child as much as the failure to be self-reliant.” (Relief Society Magazine, Oct. 1937, p. 627.)”

Should we be self reliant? Maybe. Can we be totally self-reliant in today’s crowded world? Doubtful.

Reasons self-sufficiency is difficult in the 21st century.

Most of us live in cities.

Modern cities don’t lend themselves to outhouses without proper disposal. The stink alone would cause complaints and the feces and bugs it attracts would cause disease.

People living in cities won’t have much land to use to produce food. You can’t have much of a garden in a high rise apartment. It’s hard to capture rainwater or have a well if everything is paved.

It isn’t profitable to be self-sufficient.

It is hard work living off the land. You use your time gardening or tending animals, canning, plowing or digging wells and you aren’t going to have time to go to the higher paying job.

You still have to have money (just as our ancestors needed something to trade with). Today’s surgeons won’t take a load of hay to pay for your operation. You can’t really trade a couple of chickens for a solar panel to get electricity.

I used to garden. Then I started counting up the costs (seed, fertilizer, bug repellent, canning goods, freezer costs and time costs). It made much more sense financially for me to go get a minimum wage job and buy the stuff.

We no longer know how.

My Grandparents were raised to a self-sufficient lifestyle. They grew up seeing wells being dug, chickens being butchered and plucked, cows being milked, cream being turned into butter and etc.

Since we are no longer typically exposed to these activities, we don’t have the need or opportunity to learn them. It would take us awhile to get the hang of it (especially without the internet to show us how).

Temporary self-sufficiency.

Although we can’t be totally self-sufficient (in most cases), we can be partially or temporarily so. This in fact is what our governments recommend – 72 hour back up supplies – the ability to shelter in place for at least that long until systems are restored.

Most agencies agree that you need food, water, medical supplies, something that will allow you to hear broadcasts without power (like a hand crank radio) and etc. Check out a few of these types of recommendations on the sites below.

  • Department of Homeland Security preparedness:
  • Center for Disease Control preparedness:
  • Canadian Goverment preparedness:


I believe we can and should be prepared for this type of short term self-sufficiency.

I would love to be prepared for longer term partial self-sufficiency as well.

Longer term partial self-sufficiency.

Assume you have the 72 hours covered after some kind of disaster (most of us probably don’t), what happens then? Are you prepared to take care of you and yours at least partially? How can you?

Here is what I would like to help me shelter in place with limited public services. Know that I live in the suburbs on 6+ acres of land with a stream running through it. Also know that I probably won’t ever have all of the things on this list.

  • My own well and a way to get the water out without power.
  • An outhouse with a means to safely dispose of our excrement.
  • A water filter to use in case I can’t boil.
  • A back up way to generate my own electricity (generator or solar panels with batteries) – to power my refrigerator/freezer and my wood stove fan.
  • A way to strike a fire without a lighter.
  • Some means of personal protection.
  • Something with which to hunt for meat (traps or bow/arrows or a firearm)
  • Physical books that help me learn how to do things I might need to do.
  • A way to light up the house at night (kerosene lamps, candles, flashlights, camping lights)
  • Wood to burn in the wood burning stove we already own. We have plenty cut already and also already have the tools and trees to cut more.
  • A bike to get around without using a car.
  • Manual can opener.
  • Access to all of the things I already have in my house – like blankets, utensils, pots, pans, tools, gloves, books, toilet paper, cleaning supplies and more.
  • A go bag for each of us in case something happened to the house – containing:
    • Essential medicines
    • First aid kit
    • Toiletries such as wipes, TP, trash bags, soap, toothpaste toothbrush, bug spray
    • Water
    • Food that can survive without power and is easily prepared
    • Matches
    • Knife
    • Firearm & ammo
    • Extra clothes & shoes
    • Flashlight for each with extra batteries
    • Sewing kit
    • Multi purpose tool (one of those that have scissors, pliers, screwdrivers, etc)
    • Copies of personal and financial documents including insurance cards, birth certificates, passports, passwords & user names and etc.
    • Extra set of car & house keys
    • Cash
    • Phone, batteries, phone numbers
    • Local maps
    • and Camping utensils (metal pots, cups, dish, fork, knife, spoon).


There are lots of survivalist sites around the web – with all kinds of scary suggestions and lists of things you need to have at the ready. Check them out by googling “gobag” or “survival supplies”

Self-sufficiency is an admirable goal, but in our inter-dependent world it is not an easily achieved one, nor is it likely that meeting that goal will reap us many early rewards (although it might save our life in the event of the breakdown of civilization as we know it).

Personally, I don’t think returning to the ‘simpler’ days of our forefathers is something toward which we should strive. We live in our time, not theirs. Taking steps to prepare in case of a bad turn of events is a smart thing to do, but not if it becomes all consuming.

Do you believe that you are prepared to be somewhat self-sufficient in case of a disaster? How did you accomplish that?

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