In my other blog I talk from time to time about the process of making something while engaging in all the contiguous steps needed for the entire enterprise. In the course of that linked post, I discuss all the inputs that go into the butchering and breakdown of a sheep, from rendering pieces of flesh into jerky to tanning the hide. In that process, we collect our own tanning materials and even flint knap the cutting tools we use during butchering.
But still, even in an experience as close to "self-sufficient" as possible, there are external inputs required. In order to hang the carcass from a cross beam, we used paracord--both to hitch up the cross beam perpendicular to two trees and to tie the carcass by the legs to the beam. The walnuts we collected for dye went into a large plastic bucket. In order to get to those walnuts, we piled into a van and drove around the city to a couple different nut trees. The dye itself, as well as the hides, also went into plastic buckets to soak for a few weeks and absorb the rich, dark color of the walnut hulls. Even the tools we used to flit knap our cutting tools were, in part, a product of industrial civilization. The pressure flakers have copper tips--the alternative to a pre-made one is to use a tip of antler, which requires constant sharpening (and imagine how far we'd get if we had to sharpen an antler with something other than a steel knife).
All of these industrial inputs have alternatives, of course. They just take time. It's possible to make rope from natural materials like stinging nettle--you need to gather the nettle and prepare it before you can twist it into a fiber suitable for hitching up anything. It's possible to collect walnuts without the use of a van or plastic buckets--it's going to take a couple of days to walk, and you're going to need to make a container out of something first. It's possible to start a fire, then hollow out a stump with the coals to serve as a basin for soaking hides in tanning solution.
Even in the almost unimaginably primitive way that we harvested our sheep, we replace certain inputs of human energy with their industrial civilization substitutes--essentially, inputs of fossil fuel, directly or indirectly. Mostly we make these concessions for practical reasons--my classmates and I all have responsibilities outside of our dedication to our program at Trackers. If we started from zero with every new skill, our overall education might be compromised just because there aren't enough hours in the day for such a purist approach.
I went to a recent Trackers gathering and fair, hawking my own wares alongside other talented craftsmen. My own passion lies in the fiber arts, an avenue I am just beginning to explore. In the last few months, I've hand-sewn my own clothes for use during class. Store-bought polyester and high-tech camping fabric just wasn't holding up to the conditions of living outside almost every day. My several projects have turned from necessity to hobby, and I brought a few ponchos for sale to see whether my hobby might be able to turn into something more.
My experience at the fair was lucrative enough--a couple of sales, a couples of commissions. I won't be paying my rent any time soon, but it's always nice to know that other people appreciate your work enough to pay you for it. Still, there are problems.
One young man who stopped at my table appeared interested. He carried a bow with him--obviously handmade. Like most of the folks I associate with these days, he looked half mountain man, half hipster. He asked me where I sourced my felted wool fabric from.
Ah, you got me there, kid. I buy it online. Fabric.com says my wool is "Made in the USA or imported," so who the heck knows where it's really coming from or who made it and under what conditions. Sourcing the raw sheep's wool, cleaning it, dying it, felting it, and THEN sewing it is beyond me, at least for a commercial product. Weaving wool cloth requires about the same investment of time and energy--and if I was doing all that work for these ponchos, you'd better believe they wouldn't be $30. There's a reason handwoven Turkish rugs are so expensive. I also buy sewing needles at Joanne's, and there's a complex industrial supply chain behind those, too.
It's nearly impossible to get away from the complex web of external inputs that surrounds our every breath, and in some cases, it's not worth it to try. Even in a total disaster, you're probably not going to suffer from a shortage of plastic containers to carry stuff in. At least not for a good long while. Yet, it's important to think through these inputs. In so doing, we can look at how fragile, how dependent our lives are on a long unbroken string that spans the globe.
That string is fragile. Driving to Joanne's to pick up even something simple like a package of sewing needles requires a dozen or more actions that go on behind the scenes, all of which depend on nothing whatsoever going wrong in the industrial supply chain and the processes that fuel it. Most of us only notice that chain when some link along it breaks and there's a wine shortage.
Think about something simple you use in daily life. It doesn't need to be crucial, just something you use every day. A fork. Your toothbrush. Try to find out where it comes from--originally. If you can't find out exactly, guess. Draw out the links in the supply chain that got that item from wherever it started (or wherever its component parts started) all the way to your house. Think about what could disrupt those links or cause problems in the manufacturing process. If you didn't have that item, what would you do? Could you make or find something to replace it with? What kind of energy inputs would be required to do so?