This Mother's Day, I asked for a pocket knife along with my usual pedicure.
I'm likely not the only one. Americans are feeling a powerful pull toward the self-sufficiency so tidily symbolized by a Swiss Army knife with folding blade, screwdriver and can opener. This atavistic inclination has shown up regularly since we chose civilization over the burdens of the frontier more than a century ago — usually in response to crisis.
There were the Victory Gardens of World War II, when Americans grew some 40 percent of the produce consumed nationally. We saw food-lined bomb shelters in the 1950s; a back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s. Remember Y2K New Year? It was sort of disappointing to wake up in the 21st century and find we wouldn't need those canned fruit salads and flashlights after all.
This most recent impulse reaches far beyond the rice hoarding that cleared my Publix's shelves of basmati last week on news that Sam's Club limited rice sales in California. The housing bust, just-averted collapse of major investment banks and daily rise in gasoline prices are making middle-class Americans ask questions unheard since New Year's Eve 1999: Could I live without instant access to rotisserie chicken from the grocery, fast cash from the ATM, the latest blockbuster from Blockbuster?
Many are answering those questions by living in more sustainable, self-sufficient ways. For one, there's the localvore and grow-your-own-veggies trend eloquently documented by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver in their bestselling forays into food. In Florida, cisterns are making a comeback, even though they are outlawed (as eyesores) in some cities and by many homeowners associations. Americans want solar power, too: 91 percent of respondents in a USA Today poll said they would prefer it to any other type of energy.
Farther out on the preparedness spectrum, a new breed of "mainstream survivalists" offer wilderness courses or warn us to stock up for the shortages they anticipate will follow peak oil. Barton M. Biggs, the former chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley who has written a book called Wealth, War and Wisdom, warns that the spiraling economy, housing crisis, steep oil prices and looming environmental chaos should have Americans preparing for "the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure."
Many will listen to Biggs, just like the more than 100,000 Americans who built bomb shelters and the millions who prepared for Y2K. But most of us don't need a guru to tell us that we can make individual or community progress on problems the larger society can't seem to solve. And those of us installing solar panels and planting radishes aren't necessarily doing so in preparation for postcollapse America. I think we're hungry for self-sufficiency and reconnection with the land because we've been starved of them for too long.
This nostalgia feels new, but it's been building for years. You can see it in our children, steeped in computer tech instead of home-ec, the "wilds" of water parks rather than free-flowing rivers and streams. American girls have embraced a sewing craze, with sewing clubs popping up from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Union Street in San Francisco. The number of sewing hobbyists in the United States has jumped in recent years to 35-million, according to the Home Sewing Association, up from 30-million in 2000.
What boys yearn for — at least what their dads think they do — is clear from Amazon's top-selling gift book this past Christmas: The Dangerous Book for Boys. Co-authors Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden are brothers who eschew video games and cell phones and encourage boys "to be self-sufficient and find your way by the stars." Readers learn to tie a decent bowline knot, tan a skin, cut flint heads for a bow and arrow.
Books, magazines and Web sites aimed at self-sufficiency have dominated the adult market as well. The popular Real Simple magazine has a standing feature cribbed right from the Girl Scout motto: Be prepared. On social-networking site Instructables.com, do-it-yourselfers share detailed instructions on making everything from bicycle-powered generators to cassava cake. Make magazine, owned by publishing giant O'Reilly Media, shows how the most important inventions in America these days are just as likely to come out of a garage as a lab. In what founder Tim O'Reilly calls a unique moment in both technology and culture, the wunderkinds of Silicon Valley in 2008 rely less on computers than their own two hands.
Scientists tell us we humans evolved from big-brained apes precisely because we had to make do on the harsh African savanna. The urges to find our own food, familiar in the modern mushroom-hunting obsession, or to figure out shelter, parodied in Saturday do-it-yourself clinics at Home Depot, are ancient and undeniable parts of our being.
Sure, we have reason to worry as our economy tanks, as our farmers replace food crops with fuel crops, as even our most basic need — water — is in short supply in some American cities. But a swing toward self-reliance doesn't mean shutting out neighbors or shunning globalization. Just the opposite.
Throughout American history, times of crisis have pushed us to reconnect with our wood-chopping forefathers, our hunting-and-gathering ancestors. At the very least, it feels satisfying, the way that digging in the garden or knitting a sweater always does. And at best, it makes America a better place, the sort of place where neighbors know each other, where individuals rescue hurricane victims left high and dry by the government.
So I really do want that pocket knife for Mother's Day, and also a gift certificate to the pedicurist, who, I'm confident, will be in business a month from now and a year from now despite what the peak-oil pundits say.
But in case not, kids, will you get me the Swiss Army knife with the nail clipper?
Cynthia Barnett, senior writer at Florida Trend magazine, is the author of Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.