The Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living
Jerome D. Belanger
Penguin Books, New York (USA), 2009 (2009)
379 pages, including index

Constant growth as ultimate source of our problems:

As a homesteader, I know nothing can grow forever. Oak trees get bigger than plum trees; standard chickens are larger than bantam chickens; beefsteak tomatoes weigh more than cherry tomatoes, but every category has its limits.

The only thing that grows unchecked, at least for a while, is a cancer. The cancer dies when it kills its host. The cancerous growth that is our economic system has depended on a never-ending supply of resourced to feed it. When those resources are gone, the cancer will also perish.

The trouble is, depleting the resources will not only stop the economic system, but the rest of society and civilization as well. We can devise another economic system, but we can't exist without Earth's resources. Therefore, our only hope for survival is to stop the cancer before it depletes the resources that feed it, and us. The world must learn to thrive without an economic system that depends on constant growth.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 36)

Return to traditional economic knowledge (homespun economics):

Everything I need to know about economics I learned from my parents and grandparents. Some examples are:

  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • You can't spend it if you don't have it.
  • You can't spend your way out of debt.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 38)

For the vast majority, gardens are a hobby: an enjoyable pastime, a nice way to beautify their surroundings and maybe get a bit of mild exercise, with a portion of the expense devoted to putting a few salads of leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and radishes on the table. They don't even think in terms of getting a monetary return on their investment unless it's increasing the property value.

Self-sufficient people can treat their activities as hobbies, too. After all, we have as much fun digging in the dirt as those with no self-reliance expectations, and we can appreciate a beautiful environment as much as anyone.

But it's better to treat gardening —or any other homestead activity— as a business for several good reasons.

  • It makes major buying decisions easier to justify. Is this an expense or an investment?
  • It focuses attention on needs rather than wants.
  • It helps track results. Are we making any progress? Did the investment pay off? Should we do it again or try something different?

Let me hasten to reassure you, I'm not talking about getting into accounting and bookkeeping and things like that. I'm only suggesting you think in business terms to do a better job and increase your chances for success.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 56)

Sociologists also note that the roughly 3.5 million workers in the fast-food industry represent the second-largest group of mnimum wage earners in the coountry, behind migrant farm workers. This is one of the results, indeed was one of the original goals, of the industrialization of restaurant kitchens.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 71)

On cooking from scratch:

One of the Chinese cookbooks in my library notes that the Chinese don't use cookbooks. Chinese cooking is peasant gourmet cooking.

When you follow a recipe, you need some of this and some of that. That's OK if you buy your groceries in town and plan ahead. But when your kitchen is overflowing with fresh eggs or tomatoes or milk or anything else you produce on your homestead, data flows in the opposite direction. You inventory what's available and then see if you can find, or adapt, a recipe for it. This obviously works for leftovers, too.

The cook has to have enough experience or instinct to improvise. Industrial age technologists who must have exact amounts specified, who must be told the precise size of a dice or slice or cube, and who need a clock to time every dish to the precise minute will not excel at peasant gourmet cooking. My grandmother could tell the temperature of her wood cookstove with the wave of a hand. She knew exactly how many pieces of wood to add to get it just right. And her high loabes of golden bread came out perfect, every time.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 73)

We speak of "agribusiness" or "factory farming" as industrialized food production, which many in the self-sufficiency movement find distasteful or worse. However, the food this industry produces accounts for only 19 percent of what we pay at the check-out counter. The food industry itself is much more than farming or agriculture; it's a world of high technology, engineering, and chemistry.

What's alarming to many is that this high-tech industry is actually —we have to twist words and ideas here— post-industrial. Post-industrial is the stage of economic development that comes after industrialization, and its emphasis is not on producing goods, but services.

This explains why we have dozens of different kinds of breakfast cereal, for example. That's not to give you a choice, and it's not just competition between the handful of cereal makers. The goal is to break the market down into segments through product differentiation in order to get away with charging more per ounce. The same cereal made in different shapes or colors or with dried fruits or flavors added commands a higher price than a run-of-the-mill corn or oat flake.

This product differentiation is found throughout the supermarket. To avoid paying for it is one more good reason to be self-sufficient.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 77)

The one-stop shop encourages you to buy more than you need, according to Joanna Blythman, author of Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets. She's blunt about it: "Don't shop in supermarkets. They're a rip-off." And, of course, the green in all of us favors the local bakery and butcher shop and the farmers' market, for many reasons, including the support of small local businesses.

Many shoppers find that visiting the supermarket as seldom as possible saves money. This does require even more long-range planning but reduces impulse purchases. On the other hand, other experts advocate shopping daily for perishables. These must be people who live in cities, and cities with small shops.

Grocery shopping requires attaining a balance. You don't want to buy too much if it will result in waste as perishables often do. Yet you obviously don't want to run out of food, either, especially if you're 20 miles from town and a blizzard is blowing in. If you have a can of beans or Spam on the shelf, you can use them this week or wait until next week or next month. The list of potential emergency rations is long. The more perishable the itme, the more consideration you must give to its purchase.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 87)

It would be wonderful to know that the rest of the world is catching up to the American standard of living, if that standard of living weren't under fire for its detrimental effects on Spaceship Earth. The effects stemming just from meat consumption are both numerous and well known. Let me name a few:

  • It's not efficient to feed grain to animals and then eat the livestock products.
  • Gran consumed directly by humans instead of being fed to animals will feed about five times as many people.
  • A pound of beef produced in the United States requires 2,500 gallons of scarce water, by some estimates.
  • Ruminants (cows, sheep, goats) account for as much as 25 percent of the methane in the atmosphere, the leading cause of global warming.
  • Livestock in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population.
  • Humans with diets rich in meat have more problem with lifestyle diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and cancers.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, pp. 216-217)

In 1974, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations issued a chart showing the utilization in food production in the United States in 1940 and 1970. In 1970, farmers used 2.5 calories of energy to produce one calore of food: 2.7 times more than in 1940. Even more important to self-sufficiency, food processing went from 2.2 calories expended per calorie of food in 1940 to 4.1 in 1970.

Going back even further, before machines powered by fossil fuels were used in agriculture, one calorie of energy on the farm resulted in 16 calories of food energy. In 1970, 2.5 calories went in to get one calorie out. Now almost 40 years later, it is certainly worse.

Do you get the picture? We spend 2.5 calories to get one! And that's just on the farm, not introducing processing and marketing! This is nonrenewable fossilized solar energy that sooner or later will run out and cannot be replaced on a spaceship, at least not for many millions of years. This is what we mean when we say modern agriculture is not sustainable.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 219)

Birds and animals live in cozy nests, dens, and burrows they build themselves out of cheap, accessible, biodegradable materials. And most humans followed that example, until recently.

Then something snapped. People went crazy. Year after year, houses grew in size and became more luxurious. Everybody wanted to live in his own private castle. Like the other cancers we've been discussing, this one grew and grew, threatening to kill its host.

Now the host is very ill. We are simply spending too much on housing. Most of us can't afford it, and Earth can't afford it. Something has to give. With the bursting of the housing bubble, we got a wake-up call, and the all-important change in attitude is underway. Now is the perfect time to change it completely.

Youngsters under 65 or so and people with short memories might not recall that in 1950 the average American home was 983 square feet. This was much larger than the cabins many people still alive in 1950 had been born in, and vastly more luxurious; most had such amenities as central heat, electricity, and indoor plumbing. But by 2005, a mere 55 years later, the average American home had more than doubled in size, to 2,434 square feet.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, pp. 283-284)

We obviously can't compare prices: the 1950 average of $8,450 is laughable today when the average is $264,000 (but falling). But we can make another comparison. In 1950, the average household income was $3,210 a year; in 2005, $46,000. So in 1950, the average house cost about 2 1/2 times the average household annual income. In 2005, it was nearly 5 1/4. Home ownership was theoretically more than twice as difficult to achieve in 2005 than in 1950, but during that period it went from 55 percent to 62 percent and later peaked near 70 percent.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 286)

We're saying that for self-sufficient living, a home isn't reasonably priced if it requires a mortgage or one you can't pay off in a reasonable length of time. The time frame might depend on your particular circumstances, but 20 to 30 years is not reasonable for anyone, under any circumstances. The trouble is, too many people don't know enough about mortgages.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 287)

He then goes on to explain the concept of compound interest.

Most people who are aware of these facts learned them from their parents, not in school:

  • Debt is bad; saving is good.
  • Paying interest is dumb; collecting interest is smart.
  • Living beyond your means is crazy and unsustainable. Spending less than you earn is sensible and the only way to get ahead financially —or even survive.
  • If you really want something, save until you have enough to purchase it.
  • Start saving early and make compound interest work for you.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 294)

Here's something even more interesting and pertinent. Studies of identical homes have found that some people use twice as much energy and water as others! It's often because of very simple things: the energy savers use more conservative thermostat settings for air conditioning and space and water heating; they turn off lights that aren't being used and use less illumination; they use fewer and more efficient appliances and other electric devices. You can save energy by the way you live, without investing in new technology at all. And just as with saving money in the previous chapter —and in fact, with most things throughout this book— it's 90 percent mindset. Attitude counts.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 302)

Yes, as we learned in grade school, water does cover two-thirds of the Earth's surface. But 97.5 percent of that is salty, and 66 percent of the rest is ice. Of the remainder, about 20 percent is in largely uninhabited areas. When water falls as rain, most of it falls at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or in the wrong amount.

At the end, about 0.08 percent of Earth's water is available for human use. Putting that into a graphic, picture all the water in the world in a gallon jug. Our share of that is a bit more than a tablespoon. Now we can talk about how to be self-sufficient, on a tablespoon of water.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 310)

Alternative sources of energy, as currently considered, are predicated on the same old Industrial Revolution and Industrial Economy models. They would merely replace petroleum with solar generated electricity, perhaps, or hydrogen. This is putting a band-aid on a limb that, to save the patient, requires amputation.

If we're headed in this direction anyway, we might as well learn from the pioneers —not the early homesteaders, but the early adapters in the field of alternative energy. Their first step is not putting up a solar panel but determining their energy use and how to reduce it.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 327)

Yes, highly skeptical people abound. They are, for the most part, The Establishment, the people who've decided how you should live. Call them the ruling class if you must, but most don't make or enforce any laws. Instead, they're the ones who've led you to believe you need a house with at least 2,400 square foot of space, filled with wonderful gadgets, and surrounded by a large green coddled and manicured lawn. They've also made you think you should eat and enjoy fast food several times a week and go to college even though you'd much rather be an artisan sheep milt cheese-maker. It is in large part an economic establishment, aided and abetted by those with a vested interest in the status quo as a means of self-preservation.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, p. 339)

"Alternative energy is too expensive/not competitive." Yes, it's more expensive than the fossil fuels that are underpriced because they don't include a charge for environmental degradation. With a planet on the brink of collapse, is the expense of energy a major concern, or should we perhaps consider using less of it to avoid extinction?

"We must stimulate the economy" by trying to retain, or return to, the status quo by building still more wasteful homes, building still more cars and roads to drive them on, and in general, avoiding change like the plague. The world does not need more cars, roads, or big houses. The world needs a return to sanity, including a sane economy based on human values and sustainability. Constant growth is as impossible as self-sufficiency... and much more dangerous to even attempt. The longer the old order is artificially "stimulated", as it has been for decades, the harder it will be to recover after the inevitable collapse.

(Jerome D. Belanger: A Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living, pp. 341-342)

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 6/10