Standing on One’s Own Feet

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Do-it-yourself (DIY) does not stand for the division of labour, but for the preservation of resources. A modern subsistence economy cannot exist without it.

By Gerhard Scherhorn
Translated by Lea Schiefen, Karina Janowska, Christin Brauer

I can neither produce a digital camera on my own, nor can I repair one myself. However, supposing things were done right, the manufacturer would have needed to design a product with such clever functions and such high-quality components in a manner that the product can be returned after use and the materials can also be recycled and reused! How can I buy a new product with a clear conscience if I must assume that the old one will turn into waste and be destroyed?

The fact of the matter is that I buy new things despite having a bad conscience. As I cannot stand this, I will repress the anger and will blame those responsible: the manufacturers and the government. However, this does not turn the world into a world I want to live in. I am wishing for a world that can endure in the future: a world of subsistence. 

Many readers probably associate subsistence with the terrifying vision of constant DIY. However, a subsistent system works differently. The Latin word subsistere means ‘to withstand’. Thus, a subsistence economy is an economy that sustains itself. In the past, this term referred to the self-sufficient economy of the indigenous and agricultural people. Today, the word is used to describe the developing forms of a modern economy that sustains its own bases of life.

A subsistence economy is also based on the division of labour as it is not possible to produce the most necessary products for life all alone. For me, it may be possible to produce a wooden shelf myself, but even for this I need boards, nails, a hammer and a saw. However, if all new products are either made of renewable resources like the shelf, or of recyclable materials like the camera may one day be, and if non-renewable materials are returned in closed cycles (or replaced by renewable ones), I can be a part of the system that is not dependent on manufacturing products that will become waste.

Sustainability of Industrial Products

To some extent, the recovery of products is already possible: one can lease a car, the manufacturer or the leasing company takes it back after some period of use and provides a new one. What is lacking here is recycling of the old car in such a way that all materials are reused. Mobile telephones are lacking this as well: according to the german Council of Sustainable Development, there are about 60 million old mobile telephones that are not used in Germany alone. Inside of them are three tons of gold, 30 tons of silver, 1,900 tons of copper, 151 tons of aluminium and 105 tons of tin. It is unbelievable that no one has ever dug up this treasure. Many more resources had been necessary to produce it; they could have been saved.  

Even things like synthetic material carpets that do not seem to be eco-friendly can be recycled: with the right techniques they can be recuperated after they wear out, be broken up into their molecules and recombined into something new. Even if you think about it a long time, you will not find an essential industrial product that is not recyclable or else able to be made recyclable. Even after a long period of thinking, one cannot find an important industrial product that is not or cannot be made recyclable.

Already twelve years ago, the renowned US economist and sociologist Jeremy Rifkin drafted a future society of ‘access’, in which the economy is not characterized by the purchasing of things, but rather by leasing, sharing, exchanging and returning, separating, reusing and recycling. In brief, he outlined an economy that is characterized by preferably closed cycles where production, use, preservation and repair, return and reuse follow one another. From the beginning, these cycles are tied to the motto of not wasting anything. Within these cycles, everybody is involved responsibly in the process of DIY: the manufacturers, the traders, and the consumers. 

Sustainable DIY

Whatever we do ourselves in a subsistence economy serves the preservation of substance in the end. The natural and social bases of life are of a limited nature. DIY is the preservation of raw materials, eco-systems, climate, health, education and social integration. So, in the end, it is the preservation of community resources that we can use for economic activities. However, they are not meant to be used for consumption, but have to be passed on from one generation to another. We can only operate in a sustainable manner if we preserve our resources and, if possible, cultivate them. In other words: if we invest again in their preservation and renewal instead of saving and externalizing the costs for it. 

This also applies to products and services that we as individual person can produce ourselves: cooking, baking, preparing salad, cultivating potatoes, growing flowers and herbs, fattening geese or pigs, knitting pullovers, sewing dresses and patching socks, washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the apartment, building toys, laying tiles, repairing the bike, generating renewable energy with a photovoltaic system on the roof.

We perform all these activities as individuals. However, if there is no supporting infrastructure and no social movement developing around them, these services will remain a hobby for a few people. An example is the DIY of health-related activities. Many medicines, doctor’s visits and operations would not be necessary if everybody ate healthily and exercised. Indeed, only a few people live like that which is also due to the lack of health-promoting structures. When pursuing activities that refer to the household, garden, cultivation, handicrafts and healthcare, we are making plenty of products and performing many services ourselves, even if everybody contributes only a few of them. We perform these activities by using renewable materials and renewable energy for their production and usage. Thus, they contribute to the preservation of natural bases of life.

This also applies to the social bases of life; the area of social and cultural cooperation. We create and preserve them through musical, artistic, literary and poetical activities of non-professional singing, painting, pressing, writing, forming, playing an instrument, teaching, educating, reading, learning, private pediatric and geriatric care, nursing, neighbourly help and last but not least through voluntary work in communities, initiatives and organizations. We do these things ourselves. 

The Sense of Subsistence

A subsistence economy is about conserving and renewing the bases of human life and its natural and social environment in a way that they are not used up or discarded and do not become non-sustainable one day because we have overexploited them. 

This was already an issue in the subsistence economies of the ‘primitive’ people of the Stone Age. They adapted their needs (food, clothes, and living place) to annual variations of weather, plant growth and animal population in such a way that they had enough to eat in bad years. That is why in good years, they harvested only a part of what nature offered to them. Nowadays, we can, with the help of technology, at any time consume more than earthly resources allow. However, modern technology also makes a subsistence economy possible: it makes individual DIY easier. If DIY is combined with industrial products coming from and returned to closed cycles, all essential products and services are produced according to the principle of subsistence. As consumers, we participate by partly producing products and services ourselves and returning industrial products and services to the cycle after use. We gradually abandon all products and services that cannot be returned into a cycle. This has to be the goal: that, in the long run, a subsistence economy does not exist alongside an industrial economy focused on the consumption of resources, but that the level of subsistence of the overall economy is increased step by step.

Gerhard Scherhorn is an economist and was a professor of Consumer Economics at University of Hohenheim. Until 2005, he was director of the research team ‘Sustainable Production and Consumption’ at the Wuppertal Institute. His latest publication is ‘Geld soll dienen, nicht herrschen. In 2008, he and Daniel Dahm published the book "Urbane Subsistenz. Die Quelle des Wohlstands.’

Further Reading

Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika, Holzer, Brigitte & Müller, Christa 1999): Das Subsistenzhandbuch. Wien: Promedia

Daniel Dahm & Gerhard Scherhorn, Urbane Subsistenz. Die zweite Quelle des Wohlstands. München 2008: oekom Verlag

Müller, Christa (2011): Urban Gardening. Über die Rückkehr der Gärten in die Stadt. München: oekom Verlag

Heinze, Rolf G. & Off, Claus (1990): Formen der Eigenarbeit. Theorie, Empirie, Vorschläge. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag

Hoffmann, Günter (1998): Tausche Marmelade gegen Steuererklärung. Ganz ohne Geld - Die Praxis der Tauschringe und Talentbörsen. München: Piper

Paech, Niko (2012): Befreiung vom Überfluss. Auf dem Weg zur Postwachstumsgesellschaft. München: oekom Verlag

Schneider, Friedrich & Badekow, Helmut (2006): Ein Herz für Schwarzarbeit. Warum die Schattenwirtschaft unseren Wohlstand steigert. Berlin: Econ (Ullstein)

Schweppe, Ronald B. & Schwarz, Aljoscha A. (2009): Einfach gut. 99 Dinge, die nichts kosten und uns bereichern. München: Riemann


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