On a Saturday morning my phone beeps. My sister has shared a picture of the result of a wine evening with friends,
coated with emojis that are laughing with tears. The picture shows a list – with multiple spelling errors – of tasks that should be taken care of, starting from renewing their children’s passports, to buying iodine tablets, to a plan of what to pack in an evacuation backpack.
Underlying the joke, there appears to be some true anxiety, so I turn to my other sister. She admits to having prepared something that she calls the food storage in case of an apocalypse, and to having made sure that their radio works with batteries. She excitedly goes on to suggest that we get a plot in a community garden and learn how to grow our own food.
At work, my colleague describes how his father has set up solar panels on the roofof his garage and switched his car’s fuel to a more environmentally-friendly version after watching David Attenborough’s documentary on Netflix. The car’s engine takes more time to warm up, but it gives him the time to say a prayer for the climate.
Where is the ideal of
Sociologist Allison Ford has studied American self-sufficiency movements, where people
aspire to minimize their dependence on institutions as a way of protecting themselves from the
effects of global risks. Ford suggests that striving toward self-sufficiency is a way to managing
the uncomfortable feelings that stem from the experience that life is more uncertain.
As several crises that previously seemed unlikely have escalated during a short period of time,
global interdependencies have become concrete in a way that is felt by everyone. This has fractured
people’s trust in the future. The war in Ukraine is causing a shortage of grain and driving up the price of electricity, while a single cargo ship stuck in a canal is emptying the shelves of phone chargers in Finland.The desire to become more self-sufficient and to prepare for coping in exceptional conditions – or even in a state of emergency – are no longer marginal phenomena, but translate into practical everyday strategies to tackle the experience of uncertainty.
Our faith in the stability of institutions, the healing power of financial growth, and the efficiency of political decision-making are being re-evaluated. We are forced to examine our beliefs, values, and habits, and consider what and who we take with us if the worst comes to worst. And will it? As the idea pops into our heads, we feel like we have already left something behind – if nothing else, then the ability to perceive the future marked by our personal dreams instead of collective risks.
Losing faith in society and its prevailing ideas has driven people off the grid, in the past, too, to build alternative solutions based on alternative ideals. The stories of these projects are often wrought with challenges and serve as examples of how such solutions are being negotiated vis-a-vis the demands and ideals of a neoliberal society. They demonstrate, moreover, the difficulty in finding flexibility to lead alternative lifestyles within strict societal regulations and structures.
The self-sufficiency ideal
is most tangible in people’s
relationship to energy
The last few years have made it clear that new approaches, moral frameworks and systemic solutions are needed to secure life all over the globe. The shake-up of everyday routines has made possible to question what we’re accustomed to, and to gain new perspectives into the ideas and habits that we have built our lives around. An example of this can be found in Germany where, after much debate, five villages were ruled to be resettled due to the expansion of lignite mines. This decision turned the locals into experts on alternative methods to produce energy.
Anthropologist Valeska Flor interprets this acquisition of know-how as the villagers’ effort to transform their passive roles into that of active participants. With such agency, they can take control of their situation and gain independence from large energy producers. According to Flor, energy has a significant symbolic role as a life- sustaining force and electricity, in particular, is associated with a thriving society and economy. Despite its importance, electricity is – for most of us – something that we take for granted, but on the other hand, something that we have very little knowledge of.
The example of Germany concretely illustrates how a crisis can make the invisible visible by shedding light onto the terms of energy production, as well as highlight the values and meanings entangled with it. As our attention redirects toward the necessities that we take for granted, we gain an opportunity to imagine new possibilities, solutions, and eventually, new capabilities to survive potential upcoming changes.
The energy transition in Germany further demonstrates the compounded effects crises can have, as the war in Ukraine and the cut-off of gas from Russia have slowed down the national transition towards renewables. In addition to lignite, the use of coal is being considered as a temporary measure. At the same time, the long-abandoned nuclear power is not perceived as a viable option anymore, as risks related to its use have previously been evaluated as being too severe – even as the climate crisis and war in Europe have questioned the validity of this decision.
As centralized systems appear increasingly fragile under the threat of an information war and as climate goals are being pushed back, it is understandable that people seek refuge in their nearby communities and their own ingenuity. Developing solutions and capabilities that serve local self-sufficiency is necessary not only for maintaining the stability of individual as well as societal life, but also for maintaining the feeling of stability. Thus, supporting strategies of self-sufficiency and removing obstacles in the way of achieving it, present both a significant societal task as well as a business opportunity for forward-thinking companies.
Energy self-sufficiency has long been a rising trend in Europe. As climate change accelerates, the interest toward renewable energy increases and large energy companies start to lose their popularity. In rural areas, extreme weather conditions and power shortages increase the need for self- sufficient solutions, but the phenomenon is more multi-faceted, and also visible in urban contexts. For example, a resident community in Stockholm employed a heat pump system for each housing block as the residents wanted to take ownership of energy production. Self-sufficiency in electricity production is gaining more and more interest in Finland, too.
Self-sufficiency is not just
about risk management,
but a more complex phenomenon
The consequences of acute crises and the desire to live more sustainably are reflected in lifestyles, ways of consumption, and how risks are perceived when making major life decisions. Rental apartments can become a less risky option if you’re afraid of banks collapsing, while a camper van can set you free of debt, the hassle of packing as well as committing yourself to a single location. Instead of owning a city apartment and spending holidays abroad, many now consider buying a summer cottage or a farm. In the meantime, one can practice taking care of crops by setting up herb gardens on the balcony, save money and reduce their carbon footprint in the process.
Even if the self-sufficiency phenomenon has a lot to do with risk management and the desire to take control over life’s basic necessities, it should be noted that the crises of the recent years have accelerated a process, in which what used to be buds of change, have now fully blossomed into society-transforming cultural shifts. In order to understand them, we ought to study the root-causes of this process, which may even allow us to predict and affect the growth and direction of these transformations.
During the spring of 2022, Noren has dived into the lives of young adults. We have seen that young people have a strong desire to shield themselves from anxiety-inducing news and focus on their wellbeing by immersing into the worlds of True Crime -podcasts, Netflix, and fantasy games – all this to find an escape for their minds to rest. Carrying the weight of making responsible consumption choices has exhausted young adults, which is why they now advocate for companies to be at the forefront of tackling societal and ecological issues.
On the other hand, making value-based decisions and being extremely compassionate are increasingly important for the identity of a socially aware person. Many express their desire to build a protective bubble that is fit for a group of likeminded people and keeps away the turbulence of the outside world. Self-sufficiency goals may be fuelled by the desire to build a new kind of relationship with the environment and
live according to one’s moral compass but it may also mean a withdrawal from the larger societal discussions and political movements.
A successful career is no longer seen as the ultimate goal in life. New life ideals include an appreciation for pristine nature, making ecological choices and having experience- rich free-time, whereas continuous consumption and hoarding material wealth have become less appealing. Furthermore, people are starting to value all things ordinary, as trying to stand out from others has become tiring. Social media content is only shared with close friends and family, and people are questioning the negative health consequences that come with the need to be constantly entertained. Instead, people long for authentic experiences, the ability to focus, and even the feeling of being bored. A strong relationship with nature is perceived as the basis of well-being and clean and pure food as the building block of health.
The idea of self-sufficiency serves the need to take care of one’s relationship with nature, to directly work for the purpose of staying alive, and to free oneself from the need for high performance. The examples above highlight the cultural ideas that are emerging to stand alongside the already dominant norms – or that have been born as a counter reaction to them. They express people’s desire to free themselves from the pressures of competition and productivity, give up the idea of constant consumption, and develop a way of living that does not put pressure on the environment, mental health, or their wallet.
While anxiety about the future and critique toward the modern way of life have increased, ancient practices and cultural heritage have inspired people’s efforts to build alternative futures. Over the past years, we have read news stories about a professor of economics talking about her habit of baking sourdough bread; a couple describing how they have plastered their house with clay from their own land; a researcher of Natural Resources Institute Finland speculating that traditional crops play a fundamental role in the food security of tomorrow; and family farms which are developing organic and biodynamic crop rotations. In addition to personal independence, self-sufficiency is connected to intergenerational relationships: while a 34-year-old father from Pirkanmaa describes to a Noren’s researcher how he feels like he is making an impact in his children’s future by planting a tree, while his parents reflect how self-sufficiency feels like going back to their childhood, living in countryside communities.
Building intergenerational relationships can restore temporal experiences that have been shattered and provide people with an experience that simultaneously roots them in the past and builds a path to the future. While models for self-sufficient living are adopted from previous generations, parents aim to offer their children practical skills and attitudes that form a sustainable relationship with the environment. Combining shared traditions and values with new ideas and technologies creates both continuity and change.
The Finnish characteristics
of the ideal of self-sufficiency
In Finland, just like everywhere else, the ideals, narratives and practices of self- sufficiency are intertwined with local cultural
values. Frugality, understood as a wise and humble way to use resources, is a moral and economic virtue in Finnish culture, and
can be utilized to develop practices and mental models for sustainable living that resonate with Finns. It comes as no surprise, then,
that the Ministry of the Environment tweets about frugality and the circular economy, while author Jari Tervo writes about his ingenious grandmother as a modern climate hero.
Alternative food networks have been described as dynamic due to their ability to react to locally changing circumstances. Developing alternative solutions around food relies on the so-called concept of bricolage – the ability to develop creative solutions from any
available ingredients. The term bricolage, introduced by a French social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, naturally sits well with
the Finnish idea of frugality as an ability to use and draw out available resources in creative ways.
Finnish cultural values combined with the richness of Finnish nature, relatively flexible governance as well as the available telecommunication and technological solutions create a fruitful basis for self- sufficiency in the Finnish context. New technologies also enable luxurious solutions for self-sufficient living. Young van campers describe how they adjust the van’s atmospheric lights just like in a hotel and follow the availability of clean water and the management of waste water from the control panel of their van.
The digitalisation of services and development of remote work practices that have advanced over the pandemic have diversified housing ideals and practice. Ilkka Luoto, a university lecturer in regional sciences, proposes that Finland’s great telecommunication networks support the models of circular and sharing economy within local communities. He argues that in the near future, new, flexible ways of living could be created for life in the countryside, where life could be organised into ecological, village-style communities, with the help of technology.
Whereas the American self-sufficiency ideals studied by Allison Ford reflect the individuality of the American culture, the Finnish society has traditionally relied on strong faith in institutions and the welfare state. While individuals and communities may want more agency and self-sufficiency in the future, it is possible that making sustainable choices and having resources and capabilities for self-sufficient living can reinforce inequality, too, – if the possibilities to cultivate this lifestyle becomes unattainable for some.
When we analyse the statistical trends of housing and living, we should keep in mind that individual choices are not always made according to the individual’s ideals or desires but are also restricted by societal structures. For example, in Noren’s study for Suomen Asuntomessut (the Finnish Housing Fair), it was discovered that 47% of Finns living in cities would prefer to move to rural areas, if only their work situation allowed it.
The ideal of self-sufficiency foreshadows societal change,
which is why it should be
understood as part of strategy work
The growth of inequality in the Finnish context has shown to be a local experience. This can be seen in people’s relation to large energy companies, as people feel that the companies dictate all of the terms while simultaneously neglect the opinion of local residents. Similarly to the example of German villages, the increased need for self-sufficiency and the desire to gain independence from energy companies is heavily intertwined with power relations.
In Australia, residents of a village founded their own cooperative and used it to purchase a wind turbine. The turbine has become a local source of pride, a part of a regional identity, and even an inspiration for art. This case emphasises how local experiences are fundamentally negotiations of power and agency.
The terms and dynamics of a customer relationship are crucial for individual and collective agency, but the aspire to increase self-sufficiency and resilience are not always about living off-radar or cutting off relationships with institutions and corporations. In addition to solutions marketed towards people who own their houses, new types of energy-sharing communities, sharing economies and more communal lifestyles are being envisioned, for people in rural as well as in urban areas. These new practices are made possible through a flexible use of services and cooperation between actor-networks.
Though we can expect that the role of individual households and local communities becomes more central, in the Finnish context societal actors and companies will also be expected to provide more support and incentives that make sustainable lifestyles possible. Moreover, these actors should take on the responsibility from the shoulders
of consumers, and work towards reducing inequality.
The increased interest towards self- sufficiency may predict a significant societal change that is accelerated by cultural changes already in motion, and on the other hand, also by acute global crises. As the ideal of self-sufficiency shapes individuals’ behaviour, their major life decisions and everyday consumption habits, communal and private organisations should aim to track and understand these phenomena in their own industries and in the local context.
Companies and organisations need to understand the needs, values and emotions driving behaviour in order to develop a successful strategy, establish meaningful communications, and innovate insightful services and products. Helping customers in their efforts toward different degrees of self- sufficiency is an opportunity for companies to support the transition toward a more sustainable society as well as increase their operational reliability – but also to create value for their business that is based on forecasting and human insight.
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