What Happened to Self-Reliance and the Do-It-Yourself Ethic? (Part 2 of 2)

by Addison Del Mastro   |   July 6, 2012

Fatherson Diy

In my previous post, I discussed the decline of the do-it-yourself ethic in American culture. Over the last few decades, we have increasingly lost the kind of practical knowledge that many Americans once possessed—a trend hastened in considerable part by the declining quality and increasing complexity of many consumer goods.

But this article is about solutions and evidence—solutions to the problem of declining self-reliance, and evidence that a change away from our fast-paced throwaway society is not only eminently possible, but may already be happening. 

For example, home economics—once ridiculed as a means of “keeping women in the kitchen,” and more recently a victim of school budget cuts—is making something of a comeback. There are efforts to balance increasingly specialized school curricula with classes in “family and consumer sciences,” for which there is even a national association.

These classes broadly promote consumer empowerment by teaching cooking skills, diet management, and other hands-on activities that emphasize practical knowledge, from caring for a newborn to balancing a checkbook. It’s not your grandmother’s home-ec, but it is the kind of knowledge that will help young adults function effectively in a fast-paced, highly specialized society. That we are beginning to value it again is very heartening.

Another positive trend is the rising appreciation for “old stuff” in popular culture. This is apparent from the plethora of television shows like PBS’s Antiques Roadshow and the History Channel’s Pawn Stars and American Pickers, which provide viewers with newfound interest in items that might otherwise be thrown away. Recent additions to the list include Storage Wars, Barter Kings, and American Restoration, a show that follows a team of repairers as they “take rusty, beat-up items and restore them to their original glory."

Most of these shows have received extremely high ratings, and all of them are themed around the value, history, and often superiority of old, vintage items. On the one hand, it’s only TV, and it seems to glorify materialism and accumulation. On the other hand, it’s significant that something as commercialized as cable TV is carrying what is at heart an anti-commercial message.

But we don’t need to rely on themes and trends alone. The most effective way for us to restore our DIY ethic is to join with the hugely growing local movements that are rethinking our approach to stuff—including things like “repair cafés,” skill sharing, and time banks.

Creative Approaches to Stuff

Repair cafés originated in Europe, and in just a couple of years they have spread to many countries across the globe, including the United States. In repair cafés, people come together in a relaxed setting to fix various items and share the often specialized expertise needed to do modern repair work.

One group in ever-busy New York City called the Fixer’s Collective has been operating for over two years and hosts “fixing sessions” where people can bring in broken items, ranging from umbrellas and lamps to items with broken zippers, and fix them together.

Much of society’s response to the increasing cost and difficulty of repair has been to simply adopt a throwaway attitude toward stuff. But the repair café movement shows that for many of us, this is not satisfactory.

Another creative approach is skill sharing. Similar to the repair café movement but broader, one popular form of skill sharing is through informal classes or meetings in which people share practical expertise in everything from making ceramics to listening to music—often free of charge. One website promoting skill sharing describes it as “the world’s fastest growing alternative economy,” and a recent blog post describes it as a “way of life.”

Some may be tempted to dismiss this trend as a kind of leisure of the wealthy—after all, the working poor may not have the time to learn ceramics, or have reliable enough Internet access to browse class schedules and the like. But I suggest that this misses the point. It’s generally the wealthier people in our country whose economic activity defines the dominant trend. And it’s the wealthy who have largely minted the throwaway attitude. So to see some of these same people adopting a less materialistic, more community-minded outlook is extremely encouraging.

A third and even broader movement is “time banking,” which is like bartering except that in most cases it is services, rather than goods, that are being exchanged. Time banking embraces the same community-minded attitude as repair groups and skill sharing, but is even broader because it represents a formalized alternative economic system. (Watch New Dream's video on the Time Trade Circle in Cambridge, Mass.)

By making time a kind of analogue to money—one hour of time is the basic unit of currency—time banking allows informal activities like volunteering to be valued and incentivized. For example, I could trade an hour of computer work for an hour of house cleaning, dog watching, or cooking lessons—all without exchanging any real money. Time banking has less to do with independence than interdependence, but both of these are better than dependence on faceless companies and money, to the exclusion of community.

Combating Electronization

On a different note: one reason I gave in my last blog for the decline in DIY repair is the “electronization” of so many consumer goods—they contain electronic gadgetry that’s often not necessary but does often malfunction and is hard to fix. And even if it doesn’t break, it becomes “outdated” quickly. Figuring out how to push back against this design trend deserves its own section here.

There are at least two ways we can combat electronization, and they are not mutually exclusive. We could simply keep our items longer, at least if they still work—in reality, we could probably use the same computer or dishwasher another couple of years even if the new one is flashier.

At the same time, we can address business directly with our complaints. At least in my home, complaining about some product or other is an almost daily occurrence. If just a fraction of the millions of complaints that are made every day went directly to the businesses responsible, think how quickly they would have to change. We have to remember that in the end businesses are accountable to their customers. Just as voting is preferable to complaining about our politicians, addressing our complaints to business is preferable to addressing them to each other.

One trend already alive and well is the “open design” methodology, which seeks to use publicly available design information to combat the lack of transparency in commercial goods. Similar to the open source movement in software, open design can prevent the “locking out” of consumers from their products by the use of proprietary, exclusive parts and design information. A start-up company called Open Source Ecology has taken open design a step further and is developing a “Global Village Construction Set,” promoted as a low-cost, DIY project allowing everyday people to assemble modern industrial and agricultural equipment based on open design principles.


In the end, it’s easy to critique the various community- and environmental-minded movements that are growing today: they’re too small, they’ll never become mainstream, etc. But whether or not these criticisms are true (and I don’t think they necessarily are), these movements are very promising. They demonstrate that our values of community, self-reliance, and the “can-do” spirit are not gone. They are just dormant, drowned out by a fast-paced lifestyle and the easy availability of cheap, disposable consumer goods.

The challenge we face is a wonderful one of continuing to promote the importance and necessity of building a sustainable future and restoring the values that will help bring us there.

For more ideas on how you can help your community exchange stuff, time, skills, and space, check out New Dream's Guide to Sharing

With how-to tips, fun videos, and useful resources, the Guide provides the inspiration and practical tools you need to get started on projects in your community—right away!

Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and an intern with New Dream.