Since the end of the World War II, mainstream prosperity has been based on the dual ideologies of mass production and mass consumption. Australia benefited greatly from the affluence of the 1950s and 1960s and most citizens reaped the economic and social benefits. But by the 1970s, however, materialism had failed to live up to its promises for many Australian citizens. Like their counterparts across the western world, many Australians looked for alternatives to the mainstream and a life based on a string of consumer choices. Some found alternatives in political and social activism, others sought to drop out of society to various degrees and get back to basics. When Grass Roots magazine emerged in the early 1970s it found a ready audience.
Grass Roots has been spreading and celebrating the self-sufficiency message to Australians for more than forty years. From its first issue in 1973, Grass Roots has meant getting back to basics, living independently, and sharing information. And its content remains as relevant today as it did then. When founding co-editor of Grass Roots Megg Miller described the self-sufficient aspirations of her readers in 1978 she could have been talking to self-providers of 2016:
One of the good things about the present alternative seeking is that much can be achieved regardless of the environment – more independence can be found through growing your own herbs and vegies, making soap, bread, yoghurt, beer, preserving or drying fruit, and developing some craft skills … which can supply clothing and household needs. Energy saving systems are also not limited by the environment – food co-ops, play-groups, equipment and car pooling, even income sharing are viable alternatives to what is already established (GR, Spring-Summer, 1978, p. 16).
Most importantly, self-sufficiency offered participants the chance to be independent from the consumer market. In describing the Grass Roots lifestyle Meg wrote in her popular ‘Gumnut Gossip’ column:
Where is it all at, this self-sufficiency, this grass roots type of lifestyle? If anything, it seems to lie in choosing the aspects which appeal most or fit in with a particular mode of living, whether urban or rural; in finding alternatives to much of the consumer rip-offs, to the concept of the ‘ladder of success’, to the waste of a throw-away society, and in freeing ourselves from the total dependency on the many goods and services that we don’t really need (GR, Spring-Summer, 1978, p. 66).
This is central to why Grass Roots and self-sufficiency remain so relevant to today. We are further down the consumer track yet many of us are still looking for something more. Self-sufficiency offers us the opportunity to do-it-ourselves, to be free of marketing and advertising’s messages, and to find alternatives to our unsatisfactory materialistic society.
Public opinion is again crystallising in favour of more ‘environmentally aware’ lifestyles. Indeed, concerns about the impact consumer capitalism have again captivated academia, the media and popular culture and such interest has helped to define lifestyle shifts such as ‘downshifting’, ‘downsizing’, ‘sea change’, and ‘tree change’. Tied up with this have been notions of affluenza and voluntary simplicity. Such shifts have been defined widely and vaguely by the desire to improve one’s quality of life driven various motivations including: lessening one’s environmental footprint, getting away from the drudgery of unfulfilling careers to spend one’s time in more satisfying ways, moving from polluted cities or spending more time with family.
However, while these drivers have also been influential in decisions made by those seeking self-sufficiency over the past forty years, there is one important difference. ‘Sea-changers’ and ‘downshifters’ are not necessarily motivated by the central tenant of the self-sufficiency ethic: the desire to provide for oneself. Only a minority of those who fit into the category of downshifters and sea-changers might seek a self-sufficient lifestyle. While we all share the somewhat vague desire to improve our quality of life, those seeking to downshift or embark on a sea change may be motivated, for example, by the yearning to increase their leisure time to play more golf rather than to milk goats and be more likely to buy organic whole-wheat sourdough bread rather than grow our own wheat, grind their own grain, and bake the bread ourselves. To put it another way, some sea-changers and downshifters may want to have more time to ‘stop and smell the roses’ but those drawn to a self-sufficient lifestyle are more than likely to spend their time pulling out the roses and growing tomatoes instead!
While Grass Roots has always carried an important environmental message, climate change has presented us with new challenges. Without doubt we need to live lightly on the earth. Self-sufficiency enables us to live simply and comfortably without destroying the planet.
Importantly, from its inception Grass Roots has told readers that they don’t have to move to the country to get back to the land. By sharing experiences, readers are able to develop skills and knowledge to live a better kind of life. No matter where one lives there are steps we can take to live more self-sufficiently and more sustainably. All we need to do is separate ourselves from the consumer society and ‘do it ourselves’.
But as Megg was careful to point out, the self-sufficient life was not always the simple life. Simple living is, of course, anything but simple. Self-sufficiency is not a part-time hobby – it is a way of life, a mind-set. Things such as long weekends and holidays are rare when there are animals and vegetable gardens to be tended. Living self-sufficiently is about making do, about living frugally but not austerely. It’s about hard, but satisfying, work.
Grass Roots has long been a catalyst for change in this time of plenty. Self-sufficiency offers a significant antidote to over-consumption and climate change. It is a practical philosophy in which self-providers rethink the notion of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.
Despite their geographical isolation, many readers found themselves part of a shared philosophy through the pages of Grass Roots. The magazine facilitated a pre-Internet community and self-sufficiency became a movement of likeminded individuals who found the promises of consumer market, and a life in the suburbs with all its modern conveniences, wanting. While consumerism has endured so too has self-sufficiency to counter its negative influence. And Grass Roots has been there nearly every step of the way.