The Homestead and Sources of Variety
When we consider how to manage and respond to complexity, one of the main variables we must consider is variety. That is, how many different kinds of things do we have available to us that can help respond to various stressors and serve different functions?
One of the most important concepts we inherit from cybernetics is Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. In effect, the law states that a system needs to be able to respond to all the different kinds of stressors it encounters, and therefore needs at least as much internal variety as the environment that impinges on it. It’s a very straightforward idea, but with far-reaching consequences. Once you’re tuned into it, you see the lack of appreciation for it everywhere.
This is an abstract statement, and so in practice this shows up in many specific forms that look different from one another. From behavior to physiology, weapons and warfare, ideas and argumentation, and indeed to maintenance of the household: each of these domains (and many more) demands the expression of a certain minimal variety that can be called upon to fit a specific situation.
It struck me one day that perhaps the hallmark of consumerism is revealed in how households source variety. There are in essence two means of acquiring variety: by generating it, or by importing it.
The pure consumerist household only imports. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the variety of items (or skills) imported, and the internal variety of the system. There is no increase of variety that happens inside the boundaries of the household.
It should be stated that all living systems (and therefore households) are necessarily “thermodynamically open”1 — meaning they import stuff (matter and energy) to maintain their existence. The difference is that on the homestead we seek to participate in a marked increase in variety by generating it internally, sourcing from a much smaller variety if imported items.
And part of the pursuit is continually reevaluating what we are importing, and determining if there is something further back on the chain we could import instead, and if that would give us even more opportunities for generating our own variety. For some primary things, like wood, perhaps we can stop importing altogether.
I have to credit my wife for much of our household activity in this regard. For example, after several years of honing her baking skills, she is able to make all manner of delicious baked goods from a common set of ingredients: water, flour, salt, eggs, yeast.2
Our property also affords us an abundance of trees. That means the possibility of fuel, structures, infrastructure, tools. We’ve already begun supplementing our own heating substantially, and could get by on our own if we needed to. I aim to make progress on the other items over the next year or so.
This process of moving towards internal variety generation has induced a complete shift in how we operate. We shop less, and more simply. We purchase in bulk for many basic items that store longer than the products they may become a part of which saves a lot of money, easily balancing out any increase in cost associated with purchasing high-quality products. We are able to more thoughtfully source our imports because the complexity is lower and these products exist further back on the supply chain.
There are other benefits. Knowing how the stuff of life is made, or at least can be, means we can smooth our more kinds of disruptions. The generation of variety also feels very human. Or perhaps more directly, the lack of such activity, the pure consumerist household, feels extremely alienating. I wince a little when, for whatever reason, we purchase something that we are in principle able to produce ourselves. But we aren’t seeking perfection, just progress.
Variety is the spice of life, and participating in its genesis is our birthright.
It’s amazing how much jargon can be simplified.
It’s worth noting that not all of these are imports for us. Our laying hens are giving us a dozen eggs a day! But they do eat feed that is imported. That feed can support other kinds of variety though, for instance they’ve shared it with our meat birds. Again, a verity increase: feed to eggs AND meat.