What Do You Really Need?

Sharon March 26th, 2008

I think there are a lot of people who are really worried about all the new things from this class that I’ve now given them to spend money on.  Right as the economy is getting unstable, now you’ve got this big, new shopping list.  Not only do you need hundreds of pounds of food in a time of rising food prices but a grain grinder, pressure canner, dehydrator, freezr etc…  This runs rapidly into money, particularly if you are already pressed.

So let’s put this shopping list in perspective.  First of all, let’s note that most of these tools have existed in the current forms we use them for less than 150 years.  Canning is of comparatively recent vintage.  Through most of history grain grinding was either done in large mills or by hand, using a metate or other manual grinding process - or the grains were eaten whole or processed for beer or alcohol and then eaten after fermentation.    Dehydrating was usually done by laying food in the sun.  Root cellars weren’t fancy basements, they were holes in the ground. 

The thing is, human beings did just fine without all of these tools.  That’s not to say that the tools we use aren’t extremely valuable, but many of us are stockpiling for a time when the current time press of the growth economy may not be so much of an issue - that is, we expect to be unemployed. Most of the tools we’re talking about save time and human labor - but in a world where time isn’t quite at the premium it is for many of us, and when humans to labor are fairly abundant, it really won’t kill anyone to use older techniques.  We tend to look back at the recent past and see it as *the* past - and there are good reasons for this - the home grain grinder is an improvement over the metate - in some ways.  It certainly relieves us of time spent grinding grain. It also changes the texture of the grain, the flavor of the food and means we have to find work for those who used to grind it, but the net is probably positive.  It just isn’t the be all end all of the world.

So if you are reasonably healthy, or have healthy family members, and not much money, maybe you don’t need a lot of these tools.  Maybe you can dig holes when the time comes, and grind your grain in a manual coffee mill, a mortar and pestle or not at all - you could, for example, simply not grind grain.  Instead, you could store more rice, whole corn to be made into Hominy, and wheat berries to be eaten as porridge or whole in salads. The fact is that much of what we’re storing is to enable us to keep our diets as similar to the ones we have now as possible - and that’s a fine goal.  But we should never confuse our desire for that with the idea that it is necessary.

But there’s more to this.  A lot of us who are building up homes filled with tools and storages are doing what a person I once knew on another newsgroup called “building the village and waiting for the villagers to arrive.”  That is, we forsee a need for these things, and our desire to meet our needs isn’t so much part of what it seems to be - a self-sufficient little household, each with its own pressure canner and grain grinder, mimicking the suburban model in which everyone has their own vacuum cleaner and waser - but the center point of a new community.

 What do I mean?  Well, the thing is, everyone doesn’t need a grain grinder - but someone in the neighborhood might need one to keep everyone comfortably in bread.  Everyone in the neighborhood doesn’t need a pressure canner - a couple will do, to be shared around. A lot of us who have middle class(ish) incomes know that *we’re the ones who better buy these things* because our neighbors don’t know they want them yet.  We’re buying for our extended families and friends and neighbors - and frankly, I think this is a good use of our money, if we’ve got it.

For those who don’t have money, though, it is ok to say ”I’m not going to be able to build the whole village.”  Those of us who can do this are lucky, or priveleged - often because we started early, when things were cheaper and worked hard at it.  Those starting later in the process with fewer resources simply may not be able to keep up.  And that’s ok.  It is ok for two reasons.  The first is that your neighborhood can, as mentioned, get along without a grain grinder.  Sooner or later in difficult times, milling will pop back up, however it is powered - it always does.  And until then, even if you don’t have the grinder, you have the knowledge to say “ok, here’s how you cook whole wheat berries.”  That’s a gift too, just like the grinder.

But the other reason is that maybe eventually, you’ll have the grinder - but not the pressure canner.  But there’s a cultural shift on the horizon - it is already starting as people garden more and eat differently.  So maybe it isn’t so crazy to imagine that sooner or later, your neighbor will get a pressure canner, and you can can together.

It is worth remembering also that some people don’t know the value of what they have - dehydrators, canners, canning jars, even grain grinders show up now and again at yard sales, on freecycle, on craigslist.  So even if it seems like you can hardly contribute anything, just keeping an eye out might get you further than you think.  We’ve never made more than 40K for our family of six - often quite a lot less.  My first dehydrator, my water bath canners, my first grain grinder, all my hundreds of canning jars came from yard sales, often for a few dollars - or even less.

The thing is, I think it would be easy to panic if you imagine that you have to prepare your household for an isolated future in which you have to meet every one of your needs.  It might be possible for wealthier households to approximate this in some ways (not all), but poorer ones are screwed.  But the reality is that we need each other - we’re building villages now.  Those of us with enough money should contribute what we can to the future and the village.  And those without it should contribute what they can - whatever that is, for even knowledge and courage and enthusiasm are vast and important things.


4 Responses to “What Do You Really Need?”

  1. Tertayeon 26 Mar 2008 at 11:01 am

    As a typical “starving student” I’ve always regarded your “stock pile this, purchase this, try and do this (but it costs money)” posts with something akin to horror.

    While I will still try my best to stockpile my immediate needs, it’s good to know that my youthful energy, optimism, something that might almost be called “knowledge,” and mortar and pestle will be worth something as well.

    So, thank you for giving me hope that, even if tuition goes up again this year, I might still be able to contribute something.

  2. Ailsa Ekon 26 Mar 2008 at 11:31 am


    Well, I’m one middle-aged lady who would be happy to split my beans & rice or water the soup a bit to make room for someone young, strong, and willing to work! DH & I are stocking up, but we’re both a bit on the creaky side, and our son is only 7.

  3. SCMon 26 Mar 2008 at 6:47 pm

    That “building a village” idea really hit home to me. I’ve always had a bit of an obsession about preservation of knowledge and books. I’ve noticed that quite unconsciously I tend to accumulate books as though I were building a library. I own many textbooks across the sciences particularly (I’m a scientist) and also some bare bones of literature, philosphy and art history (perhaps I’m awaiting someone of Sharon’s academic inclinations to provide a proper arts section :-) I think it came home to me what I was in fact doing (eg building the village library) when I was strangely tempted to buy books on midwifery and medicine on the basis that “they might come in handy”.

    I’ve always had a lot of respect for librarians and always thought the sacking/burning of libraries that has happened through history the most terrible crime - think of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria (poor Hypatia!) and how much must have been lost forever, or the more recent destruction of manuscripts in the national library in Bagdad during the Iraq war, and how librarians and curators strove to save precious cultural texts and artefacts from the looting and destruction.

    At the same time that Alfred the great was battling Viking raiders who were ravaging England he also made a great effort to make all free men literate in their native tongue, and to have the great literary and religious works of the time translated into anglo-saxon so that people could read them. Saving his people was also about building and strengthening their common culture.

    I guess where I’m going with all this is that there are other things worth storing besides food to build a village (or a nation) and that there have always been people with the passion to do it.

  4. Anion 30 Mar 2008 at 5:59 am

    thanks Sharon- I think this was an important point to make. While I feel some frustration with the oblivious masses who are continuing to spend on the electronics and other toys while ignoring the storm clouds gathering on the horizon, I have concern for those who are aware and frantic at trying to somehow buy enogh stuff. The reality is, as I have realized, is that you can never know just what will be needed, and can’t realistically stockpile enough forthe entire future. As well, what if you lose the whole house in a fire or tornado or whatever? So I think that a judicious purchase of implements and books and stuff is definitely worthwhile- but skills are even more important.

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