Sunday, October 2, 2011
In praise of self-sufficiency
For the last few years, it’s been fashionable for these with a concern about declining resources to measure their "ecological foorprint”. Although that seems a good rational device for relating our own actions to wider policy issues, it patently has had little effect on the way we live our lives. It may give us a measure of the social costs of the various decisions which make up our life style - but it gives little incentive to change. Orlov’s book gives a much more powerful measure – about the sustainability of the lives we lead – and speaks directly to our self-interest.
At the moment I live in two places - my mountain house in the Carpathians and the rented (garden) flat here in Sofia. So let’s apply the Orlov perspective to these two.
I bought the mountain house directly; have therefore no debt on it (or anything else) and my overheads are minimal. I installed a couple of years ago a wood-burning stove – but need some petrol and oil to drive the power saw to ensure continued supply (brought by horse and cart). So I should now buy a substantial stock of petrol and oil – with fire risks being reduced by storeage in the stone basement.
Water comes from the municipal system – so I need to install a proper rainwater catch - and get access to the neighbour’s natural (spring) system whose network he set up decades ago.
I need electricity only for music and internet (will it still exist?) since I have no television or frig – let alone washing machine! But I should consider a standby generator – driven by solar energy ( we have lots of sun). I have access to a vegetable garden on the neighbour’s land – and the rest of food can be obtained in the village most of whose households have livestock. There is no local sewage system – we all have our septic tanks – and I therefore try to minimise the water which goes down the drains. Basically the only thing the municipality supplies is garbage collection and water (which is why I pay only 50 euros a year local taxation – and about half that again for water)
As long as currency is useful (and the banks can actually give me my money when I ask!), I can pay for food – otherwise I have few skills to barter except English. My (English) library would be worthless – although some of the foreign artefacts could be traded. Stocks of soap and detergent (spices and wines!) should be bought up!
Connections between the Carpathian house and Sofia are, at the moment, fairly easy – a 600 kilometre drive. With scarce petrol resources, the public transport option would be a bit of a nightmare. A 10 hour train journey to Bucharest – then a 5 hour train, bus and hitching schedule. But at least hitch-hiking is still a serious transport option in Romania. It has disappeared in most European countries – even in Bulgaria. Here let me indulge an aside about a favourite topic of mine - the differences between Bulgaria and Romania. The Romanians have gone for American-style strip development of flashy new houses – which you rarely see in Bulgaria. But hundreds of Bulgarian villages have been bled dry – and lie derelict. That’s why Brits, Dutch and Russians alike have been able to pick up rural houses for a song. In Romania the villages emptied only in the saxon villages of Transylvania when the remaining German stock was enticed away by Chancellor Kohl’s incentives in the early 1990s – and immediately invaded by gypsies. Elsewhere the villages have seen the city people build new holiday homes.
Anyway - revenons aux moutons (back to our muttons) as the French say! Here in Sofia, I walk, cycle and use public transport. As an ex-socialist country, the urban layout and transport system is more akin to Russia's and therefore highly resilient. I assume that the small neighbourhood subsistence shops will still be able to bring in the fruit and vegetables from surrounding villages. But I am dependent on electricity and water – and unfortunately we don’t have the Soviet District heating system – or rather it has been given over to privatised monopolisitic suppliers who are already showing all the arrogance that status brings and recklessly over-charging (30 euros last month for water when I wasn’t here). I am actually thinking of buying a flat here (for access to the pleasant urban networks and facilities Sofia offers) so do need to check out the sustainability of its water and electricity systems.
So what I might call the "Orlov check” is useful in identifying actions which I should be taking in my own interest. But it also suggests that countries like Bulgaria and Romania should be more positive in recognising the value of a lot of what they currently have – a lot of which has to do with the issue of self sufficiency. People have learned not to trust the state – indeed to make do without it. The "modernising” opinion-leaders are ashamed of this feature in their countries – "autarchy” is, after all, a bad word in the economic lexicon – which should make us appreciate its inherent value.
We could start with the municipalities – the Sofia mayor and one of Bucharest sector mayors have started with bicycle lanes and, in Bucharest, even free rental of bikes. And I quoted recently a British example of encouraging local food production and use