The myth of the self-sufficient human

The notion of self-sufficiency has its roots in ancient Greece and Aristotle who purported that states should be completely independent of the outside world while still providing its inhabitants with the ability to live well. This state of independence was termed autarkeia in ancient Greek from autos, meaning “self” and arkein, meaning “to be strong enough or sufficient”. Today a derivation of this term, autarky, is used to describe an entity, such as a political state, that is self-sufficient and exists without external aid or trade.

More recently self-sufficiency has began to be used to describe individuals attempting to live off-the-grid and consuming only what they produce. This form of self-sufficiency is often misguidedly seen as an attribute of living sustainably.


cartoon by Leunig

Certainly as an individual we should try to reduce our impact on the earth. However anyone who has used tools like the ecological footprint calculator will realise that it is virtually impossible to live in a western society and live a lifestyle that can be sustained indefinitely.

In The Sytems View of Life,  Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi emphasise that

“Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community.”

They add that this web of relationships needs to take into account non-human connections as well as human ones. It is these non-human connections that really illustrate the faulty reasoning underlying the quest for self-sufficiency. How can we ever be self-sufficient if our very life depends on a myriad of outside elements, from the bacteria in our gut that enables us to digest our food to the sun that has enabled life on Earth?

Instead of focusing on concepts like self-sufficiency, with its inherent connotations of disconnection and isolation, we need to start acknowledging the many gifts we receive from the sun, the plants, other animals and fellow humans. Only once we begin to truly appreciate our place amongst this vast web of life can we start to create a sustainable society.

Many other cultures still have a strong connection and respect for this web of life. I have included the excerpt below from a speech made by the Hua de no sau ne (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy) in 1977 to the United Nations Conference in Geneva as just one of the many examples of how deeply these connections are felt:

“In the beginning, we were told that the human beings who walk about the Earth have been provided with all the things necessary for life. We were instructed to carry a love for one another, and to show a great respect for all the beings of this Earth. We are shown that our life exists with the tree life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of the Vegetable Life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings. In our ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.” – Hau de no sau nee

Capra and Luisi also see spiritual awareness as being integral to recognising our place in the universe. The spiritual experience being where one experiences both the unity of mind and body and also self and world:

“the central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.”

Moreover they see it as being compatible with science, noting that a many great scientists have spoken about a sense of awe and and wonder when contemplating the mystery of life. For instance Albert Einstein wrote:

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science…the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

A new type of education may well be the key in cultivating this spiritual consciousness. Inclusion of a spiritual dimension to the curriculum is one of the many changes that are urgently needed in the modern western education system.   Of course this is another of those chicken and egg problem where a change in the education system will require a critical mass of spiritually conscious people to drive the change.

Colleges like the Schumacher College in UK with its focus on holistic science are already pioneering education that combines science, spirituality, ethics and communal living. There also seems in society generally to be a growing interest in spirituality. So maybe in the near future the ideal of the self-sufficient human, isolated in his retreat, will be replaced with that of the spiritually awakened human, nourished by her deep connections to the entire web of life.


Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The Systems View of Life; a unifying vision. Cambridge University Press.

Spiritualism the highest from of political consciousness: The Hau De No Sau Nee message to the Western World. from Basic Call to Consciousness. Edited Akwesasne Notes. 2014.

The image above is from the remarkable cartoonist Leunig – definitely a spiritually awakened person.  See his official website for more beautiful images.


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