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


This is not a book I would have picked up if I were not hell-bent on reviewing every self-sufficiency title in the local library system. I have to admit that I’ve had a bias against this series since it first appeared in the 1990s (on the coattails of the “For Dummies” books which were originally aimed at teaching people to use the new “personal computers” that were becoming so popular ).

I was pleased to find that the author is an actual expert (an expert in self-sufficiency generally being someone who has actually achieved some level of self-sufficiency): founder and longtime editor of Countryside magazine, author of several other self-sufficiency titles, and someone who has been living the self-sufficient life since the sixties. The fact that he was a hippie is made apparent quickly – by page 5 he is already making references to “Spaceship Earth.”

I would highly recommend this as a book for the newly-interested to read. It has far more introductory information than other books I have read on the subject. Mr. Belanger gives quite a bit of interesting information on the history of the movement and the many forms it takes. I learned a few things I didn’t know, and I have been reading every self-sufficiency book I can get my hands on for the past four years.

A quote that I particularly liked, given that we are “inching toward self-sufficiency” is this:

“. . . remember that little things add up. In the realm of self-sufficiency, we might note that pennies become dollars, minutes become hours, and flimsy plastic bags become mountains of trash. Likewise, knowing how to grow a tomato in a five-gallon bucket is good preparation for growing a few dozen in the ground for self-sufficiency, which might in turn lead to growing hundreds to provide a little income or to feed a village. Much of our knowledge is transferable, thus multiplying its value.” [pg 53]

However, I have some reservations about the book, as well. Everyone’s attitude toward self-sufficiency is different, as is the level that they wish to attain, but I take issue with the author’s constant references to the “impossibility” of the “old” kind of self-sufficiency (despite the depth of the introduction, the “new” and “old” kinds of self-sufficiency are never defined). Complete self-sufficiency is not impossible, it’s just very difficult and does not jive with the modern first-world idea of civilization. Belanger states that total self-sufficiency is impossible because the average person cannot make computers, light bulbs, and batteries from scratch. [pg 15] In a state of total self-sufficiency such items would be eliminated – you would do without the computer, use home-made candles instead of light bulbs, and forgo the batteries.

I also take issue with his single-minded focus on raised-bed gardening, which I think is not practical for everyone. (All gardening instruction in this book is given on the assumption that you are using raised beds or containers, and no other methods are given consideration.) Raised beds are a great thing, don’t get me wrong, but we did not have the money for Belanger’s method with its imported soilless planting media and 2” x 12” lumber. He also insists that the garden remain untouched by plow or rototiller. Our land had been long neglected (for twelve years before we bought it it was a compacted bed of sand with a thin, sickly layer of net-backed farmed turf on top) and abused (the previous owners’ 500-gallon above-ground pool burst one summer, releasing a small tsunami of chlorinated water to wash over what was left of the lawn). With our plow and harrow and organic gardening encyclopedias we are revitalizing the real soil we have rather than importing a costly non-soil growing medium: we plow once a year to relieve the compaction inherent in soil that lacks organic bulk, we add compost and manure to improve tilth and fertility, we spread wood ashes and lime to bring in trace minerals and phosphorus and correct the pH, and we have introduced (both by inoculation and by creating an underground ecosystem in which they can actually thrive) beneficial organisms into our soil.

The author demeans cottage industry-type homestead crafts such as “soap or candles, spinning and weaving, or tanning leather” as “little more than curiosities” and “hardly essential for life in the twenty-first century” [pg 109] but goes on to encourage seed saving, an activity that can be a real pain in the ass for some plants and saves little money on most crops when a packet costs around $1.50 and may support a good cause, as is the case with Seed Savers Exchange or Seeds of Change. (Mind you, I do save seed from the easy plants, like potatoes, tomatoes, beans, and peas.) I agree, leather tanning is definitely not essential for an urban homesteader, but I have two pigs in my back yard and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a dozen or more pounds of lard go to the landfill when I could transform it into a year’s worth of soap in a few hours. Besides, as Belanger himself says, “homemade isn’t always cheaper, but it’s almost always better.” [pg 124]

On the whole, however, I do recommend the book to beginners; there’s plenty of good advice and sound information – but I have to caution everyone who picks it up against reading Chapter 27, in which the author trips out – er – embarks on a 10 page fantasy about a utopian future that’s oddly reminiscent of News From Nowhere, and rather self-congratulatory, too. It’s also just plain weird and kind of shakes your faith in the guy.

— Amanda


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