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Self-Provisioning Cluster

You are currently viewing a revision titled "Self-Provisioning Cluster", saved on April 5, 2013 at 7:55 pm by Wolfgang Höschele
Self-Provisioning Cluster

Self-provisioning by individuals, households or larger groups

Breathing the air, drinking water from an openly accessible source, growing one's own food, cooking and other work in the household, parenting, taking care of elderly or ill people in the household, DIY, household-level renewable energy systems, building one's own shelter, consumer cooperatives and buying clubs, fab-labs, etc.


Context within NORA

Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

Approaches to creating greater abundance



Context within NORA


Relationships to Needs

Self-provisioning is essential to what we consider a normal life –

  • to breathe the air without assistance,
  • to walk or use one' own bicycle or car for purposes of mobility,
  • to attend to one's own body and mind in order to preserve one's own health,
  • to learn from one's life experiences,
  • to take time for one's own pursuits in life,
  • to engage in contemplation and spiritual search, and
  • to choose one's own life direction.

One may depend to varying degrees on others in all these activities, but one's own efforts and responsibility are essential.

Self-provisioning is also an option when seeking to satisfy almost every other human need: one can

  • build a well or collect rainwater in order to provide one's own water to drink;
  • grow, hunt, as well as cook one's own food,
  • build one's own shelter and make it into one's home,
  • sew or otherwise make one's own clothing,
  • engage in self-directed study in order to learn,
  • create one's own meaningful livelihood.

All of these require collaboration with others, but again one's own efforts are crucial in making these things truly one's own.

When self-provisioning is expanded to the household or small-group level, many of the above needs can be satisfied more effectively, as different household members can engage in complementary activities. Household members can also learn from each other both informally and formally (as in home schooling). Our social needs, such as the need for supportive relationships, can only be achieved by more than one person in active collaboration and thus require at least the number of people found in a household. Likewise, security cannot depend on individual self-reliance, because an individual must rely on others during infancy, old age, sickness, or disability. Our mental health depends on healthy social relationships with others.

We do not always opt for self-provisioning, because other organizational forms may serve our needs better while requiring less effort. However, as long as self-provisioning exists as an option, it limits our dependency on others. It can also be intensely satisfying to invest one's labor directly in producing what one needs, rather than first producing something one does not need for sale to others in order to obtain cash in order to buy things which were made for the “market” rather than for one's own specific requirements.


Relationships to Resources

The resources needed for purposes of self-provisioning depend greatly on what it is that one is producing for oneself, and thus range the gamut of all resources listed within NORA.

Of general significance for all self-provisioning, one needs the knowledge how to produce things for oneself. To cook one's own food, one needs knowledge of cooking; to take care of one's own health, one needs a working knowledge of bodily and mental health and disease; to build one's own furniture one needs knowledge of carpentry, and so on. Where such knowledge is scarce, self-provisioning is impossible at any large scale.

Time is also needed for self-provisioning. Where time is made scarce by long work-days and over-work, self-provisioning becomes extremely difficult or impossible.

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Relationships to other Organizational Forms

Self-provisioning at the household or small group level grades into the next cluster of organizational forms, namely community solidarity cluster. When households are large, or interact very closely with each other as in traditional communities, certain religious communities, or intentional communities, a similar logic to that of household self-reliance is applied to a larger group.

Self-provisioning can be applied to a certain extent in the management of natural resources, as in growing one's own food in a field or garden. We also provide for ourselves by breathing the air. However, self-provisioning with natural resources reaches its limits where those resources need to be managed at a scale significantly beyond the scale of the household.

Many things that can be provided through self-provisioning can also be provided by individual sales or through committed service or sales clusters of organizational forms. The relationship can be complementary (as in cooking when you feel like it, going out to eat otherwise), or it can be antagonistic (for example, commercial plantations taking over the land of small-scale, largely subsistence-oriented farmers).

The sharing/renting and free knowledge clusters can be highly supportive of self-provisioning, because sharing or renting can make tools or other resources needed for self-provisioning available at little or no cost, while free knowledge can help people obtain the knowledge they need for self-provisioning. Both of these can be provided especially well through certain kinds of social networks.

Currencies can be designed to either discourage self-provisioning (as when we come to think that only money represents wealth), or to complement or strengthen self-provisioning. For example, local exchange trading systems (LETS) can validate and therefore strengthen skills used for self-provisioning by being able to use them for services to others.

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Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

The importance of self-provisioning

Self-provisioning is part of the “invisible economy,” an economy that is made invisible and thereby made to seem insignificant by market-based economics that counts wealth only in terms of money, and that values only scarce resources. Anything that is produced for self-provisioning, whether by individuals for themselves or within households or among friends and relatives never reaches a market, is never sold, and therefore does not realize any monetary value. It is therefore counted as zero in mainstream economics, meaning also of zero economic value. Since the loss of a zero is not a loss, it is not recognized that the replacement of self-provisioning by market activities does not represent merely a gain in market activity, but also a loss of self-provisioning, and that this can be a net loss. In general, the tendency over the last several centuries has been to push back self-provisioning in favor of market activity.

However, if economics is defined as the science of household provisioning (the “eco” of economics as well as ecology comes from the ancient Greek word “oikos,” household), then none but the very richest of households can survive for more than a few days without self-provisioning. No infant will survive its first day outside the womb without the care of adults – and the vast majority of that care is provided by parents within a household context. The reproduction of the human species, like that of all other species, occurs through self-provisioning. Houses are kept clean, maintained, repaired, and often built in the first place through self-provisioning at household level. A large amount of food is grown in home gardens or in subsistence-oriented agriculture, and even more is processed and cooked within the household context. Many people collect their own fuelwood for purposes of heating or cooking. Many clothes are sewn, knitted, or otherwise produced at home.

Beyond the daily chores of billions of people, self-provisioning also extends to the “higher” things in life. It includes independent study and learning, production of art and crafts for one's own use or to give as gifts to others, entertainment of guests and in fact the vast majority of sociability, of conviviality. Contemplation can only be practiced by individuals (even in group meditation, each person has to do their own meditation), and the search for meaning or spiritual experience, the decisions what one wants to do with one's life, and ethical or moral considerations what one regards as right or wrong, are ultimately individual quests. Nobody else can do that for you.

If one adds up all the time that people spend in self-provisioning of all these kinds, and compares it to the time spent at paid work, the time devoted to self-provisioning easily exceeds that devoted to paid employment. Feminist economists have converted some kinds of self-provisioning work into equivalents of paid labor (not all of them have good equivalents) to show the “economic” value of women's uncompensated work, and have come up with huge sums. There are conceptual problems with this methodology, because one cannot assess the relative value of market and non-market activities using metrics designed only for market activities, but this work still goes to show the huge importance of self-provisioning.


Advantages and limitations of self-provisioning

Advantages of self-provisioning, which contribute to abundance, include enabling independence and autonomy on the part of people providing for themselves. Furthermore, self-provisioners can produce exactly what they need, thus avoiding effort wasted producing unwanted or unneeded things (as a lot of market production does). There is no need to manufacture demand for self-provisioning, since self-provisioners will only produce as much for themselves as they really want (if the process of production itself is what they enjoy, then that enjoyment is the need they are serving rather than a need for the finished product). Self-provisioning can save labor in situations where it would take more time to find somebody who would do something for you and to earn the money to pay them for that service, than it would to do the thing itself. At the level of households and small groups of people, self-provisioning can also take various sociable forms (such as cooking or gardening together) which add to conviviality and the strengthening of social bonds.

Self-provisioning can also be a drudge, however, if it is imposed rather than chosen freely. Many poor people depend on self-provisioning in order to get by, and would rather buy many of the things that they have to produce for themselves. Where particular marketed goods or services do not exist, people may be forced into self-provisioning if they want to obtain that good or service. Within households, decision-making about what needs to be done, and who is to do it when, can lead to perennial friction and dissatisfaction, particularly if the needs of some household members are considered more important than those of others, and if household members are unable to communicate effectively with each other. In other words, power relations within households can place inordinate burdens on some (e.g., wives, children, but also sometimes husbands) while reserving most of the benefits of household-level self-provisioning to favored members.

In a free society, individuals and households would be able to make their own decisions as to which goods and services they wish to produce for themselves, and which ones they prefer to obtain through the market or other forms of exchange. However, this choice is very often denied, sometimes through violent means, and sometimes through more indirect methods. Such denial of choice creates scarcity.


Self-provisioning undermined or exploited

The establishment of the capitalist economy involved the undermining of self-sufficient livelihoods all over the world – this is what Karl Marx referred to as “ursprüngliche Akkumulation,” which is commonly translated into English as “primitive accumulation” but would be more accurately rendered as “accumulation at the source.” It refers to going to the source of wealth and appropriating it right there, expropriating people of the resources they need to support their livelihoods. Examples include the enclosure of common lands in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, which undermined the ability of peasants to grow food for themselves, and the expropriation of colonized peoples all over the world of their land. The same kind of accumulation at the source continues today.

People's ability to provide for themselves is undermined in numerous subtle ways as well. Transportation planning that makes people dependent on cars or even on public transport prevents them from being mobile in the most self-sufficient ways – namely, by walking or cycling. Consumer products built in such a way that components cannot be replaced make it impossible for people to fix their own appliances. Increasing demands on people's time makes it more difficult for them to find the time or energy to make anything for themselves.

Self-provisioning is also attacked ideologically, by denigrating “mere” subsistence production, or regarding the home-made as inferior. It is considered a sign of unquestioned economic progress if people buy more things instead of producing them at home for their own use. This ideological attack is a direct result of the growth imperative of capitalist producers – they must grow or perish. As markets in many commodities become saturated, it becomes necessary to invent new “needs” for people to fulfill through the market, and one way to do this is to induce or force them to cease producing for themselves and instead buy in the market.

On the other hand, marketers can exploit self-provisioning as a source of new demands – for example, for the tools required by do-it-yourself projects around the home. Hence, people buy power-tools that they use a few times per year. People drive their own cars, but those cars stand around unused 90 percent of the time. Every suburban house has a large amount of gardening equipment, which is used only occasionally. This kind of self-provisioning can lead to far more purchases of equipment than would be necessary if that equipment was shared among multiple users; this is an inefficient use of the resources that went into producing all this equipment. Tool libraries as well as informal sharing of equipment among neighbors can reduce the costs of self-provisioning while also making it more resource-efficient.


Opportunities related to self-provisioning

Some developments in modern technology make certain kinds of self-provisioning easier than they were before. Information provided via the internet can make it easier to learn how to provide for one's own needs. Computers allow a large amount of self-provisioning in such areas as blogging, self-publishing and the like. While external resources are still required (computers, access to the internet, the electric power to run the computers), the expenses for these resources have dropped tremendously compared to the previous analog counterparts. Improvements in solar panels, small-scale wind turbines, and household-size geothermal systems also promise a large degree of household-level self-sufficiency in energy generation. Three-dimensional printers and fab-labs promise a large amount of self-provisioining in manufactured items as well. There is a lot of potential here that is still largely unexplored.

As mentioned earlier, self-provisioning at the level of the household, family or kin group can also lead to scarcities for those household or family members (very often women) who are denied an equal role in decision-making, and who are saddled with disproportionate burdens of work, or who obtain few of the benefits of household production. This is why many women see employment opportunities outside of the household as a liberation. Many women have increased their status in the home as a result of taking advantage of such opportunities, and this has certainly played a role in the advancement of women's rights generally. However, this can also lead to a trap where both husband and wife work full-time while wages stagnate or decline, making both of them unable to provide directly for themselves and more dependent on the market to satisfy their needs. Meanwhile, many women have the double burden of continuing to have major responsibility in the household while also working at a full-time job.

A more equitable sharing of household duties as well as employment opportunities could only be achieved if a “full-time job” was redefined to involve significantly fewer than 40 hours of work in the week, allowing two full-time earners to have sufficient time and energy to devote to substantial self-provisioning as well as leisure time.

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Approaches to creating greater abundance


land-to-the-tiller land reforms

tool libraries


urban planning that supports walkable neighborhoods

shorter work-weeks

community gardens


computer software (multi-media, design, publishing etc.)

gender equality

renewable energy for households

self-built housing

rainwater harvesting

buying clubs


Information resources and educational programs for





DIY projects (home-building, repair, furniture building etc.)

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Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika, N. Faraclas, and C. von Werlhof. 2001. There is an Alternative: Subsistence and Worldwide Resistance to Globalization. London: Zed Books.

Community Economies Collective. 2001. Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review 28 (3-4): 93-135.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The End of Caitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gorz, André. 1999. Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Illich, Ivan. 1975. Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper & Row.

Lodziak, Conrad. 1995. Manipulating Needs: Capitalism and Culture. London: Pluto Press.

Lodziak, Conrad. 2002. The Myth of Consumerism. London: Pluto Press.

Mies, Maria, and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. 1998 [1986]. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed Books.

Mies, Maria, and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. 2001. “Defending, Reclaiming and Reinventing the Commons.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 22: 997-1023.

Nelson, Julie. 1996. Feminism, Objectivity and Economics. London: Routledge.

Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 1991. Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Pavlovskaya, Marianna. 2004. Other Transitions: Multiple Economies of Moscow Households in the 1990s. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94 (2): 329-351.

Rosa, Hartmut. 2005. Beschleunigung: die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Turner, John. 1976. Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. New York: Pantheon Books.

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