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Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Sufficient Living by Jerome D. Belanger

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There are hundreds of books that offer guidance on how to live a self-sufficient life. Many of them are packed with tutorials on how to make something from next to nothing, but few take the time to parse out the information that is relevant and truly useful in the 21st century and even fewer venture to discuss the philosophy behind choosing a simplified life. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Sufficient Living (Alpha Books, 2009) by Jerome D. Belanger admits that it’s fun to tan your own hides and cobble your own shoes, but is it really necessary and is it truly self-sufficient? Isn’t it more realistic to just buy fewer shoes and those that you do buy, to purchase secondhand? What does it mean to be self-sufficient in today’s global society, anyway?

True to its name, this guide is for someone who is completely and utterly new to the idea of self-sufficient living. If you’ve already entertained the notion of backyard chickens, you’re already too experienced. Divided into six parts, Belanger begins by explaining his concept of “new” self-sufficiency and its philosophical underpinnings. Although similar to the back-to-the-landers of the 1970s in the quest to opt out of a materialist corporate culture, the ravages of climate change have made today’s movement of utmost importance for everyone. The goal of self-sufficiency can no longer be reserved for a small fringe group, it’s crucial that it’s what we’re all working towards. Our goal shouldn’t be to emulate the pioneers, as their hope was never to achieve self-sufficiency, but to exploit what they saw as a vast collection of resources that could never be depleted. Instead, we must get beyond our old notions about what self-sufficiency looks like and turn to philosophers for new ideas about how to live and do so in a way that appeals to a broad sector of the population.

In the next five sections, we are given an outline for the most basic and simple ways in which we can do this. This includes how to reduce our food waste in the kitchen, store food, and make the staples of our daily meals instead of relying on industry to do it for us. We get a tour of the garden, including a primer on soil composition, basic tools, and the importance of saving seeds. Meat, milk, and eggs are addressed with the focus being on small livestock that don’t require much land. We look at examples of the creative shelters of the future, strategies for living mortgage-free, and we explore ways to be more self-sufficient in building, heating and cooling our interior spaces while conserving water and energy. Finally, in order to drive home the point that the only limit to our self-sufficiency is our own imagination, Belanger closes with a Utopian dream of what his homestead might look like many years in the future.

An experienced homesteader of 60 years and a prolific writer on the topic, Belanger is clearly very knowledgeable, but also very obviously constrained by the strict “Idiot’s Guide” format. He discusses this in his introduction and elegantly explains that he took such restrictions as a challenge to rethink what self-sufficiency means. The result feels like a conversation you might have with one of the old timers at the coffee shop or farm supply store. You won’t get detailed instructions on how to can tomatoes, but you’ll get some ideas about why canning tomatoes is important. You won’t learn the ins and outs of animal husbandry, but you’ll hear suggestions for keeping animals that you never thought of before. Like so many other self-sufficiency titles, this is a good place to start as you work out your goals and decide where you want to focus your efforts. What makes this book unique is Belanger’s voice. He brings passion, conviction, and urgency to the table. He believes that nothing short of the future of the planet is at stake here, and he makes you believe it, too.

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