Book Review

Title: "Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century"
Authors: Dick and James Strawbridge
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley, 2010; 304 pages; $30

To the average, suburban American, the phrase "self-sufficiency" brings to mind banjo-playing back-country stereotypes, "Deliverance"-style; or weapon-wielding religious sects whose paranoia of governmental authorities and doomsday dogma force them to live off the land — and off the grid.

Increasingly, though, both city and country folk are looking to be more self-sufficient at home and to live more sustainably, for a variety of non-kooky reasons. Some simply want to save money — on their water and energy bills, primarily.

Others aim to live a more green, natural life that is less impactful on their family’s health and on the planet than a commercially supplied lifestyle.

Still others watched disasters like Hurricane Katrina and believe that being prepared to power their households with zero reliance on external sources in the event of a future natural or economic disaster is a no-brainer.

Dorling Kindersley, the publisher behind all those amazing "Discovery" books (the white cover, large-format illustrated encyclopedias on topics like Egypt and "The Complete Human Body" — you know the ones!) has just released a guide to "Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century."

The "Self-Sufficiency" authors are the father-and-son team Dick and James Strawbridge; the Strawbridges host the BBC series "It’s Not Easy Being Green" and are former urbanites who moved to and started up a self-sufficient farm in England, but still go back and forth to the city as needed.

Their self-declared mission is to "live a 21st century lifestyle, but to produce little or no waste and to remove our dependence upon fossil fuels." Sounds good to me! If it sounds good to you, too, then "Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century" might be the book for you.

Like all DK books, it is a large-format hardcover book full of easy-to-read text, step-by-step instructions, highly usable checklists, and literally thousands of vivid, color photos of everything from the fruits of the various edible plants the self-sufficient reader might want to grow, to the various do-it-yourself steps involved in making toilet tank water savers, building waterwheels, and even making biodiesel fuel.

This is one of those rare reference books that you’ll find extra handy to have on hand for the duration, but really difficult to put down in the short term. Personally, it left me with the sense that my grandiose personal goal — to grow 75 percent of my household’s food by 2012 — was less fantasy and more doable than I’d ever thought it was before.

"Self-Sufficiency" is divided into three sections: "The Home," "The Plot," and "Traditional Knowledge."

"The Home" emphasizes conserving water and energy, and supplying your home with energy and water via the sun, wind and rain. In the section on "The Plot," the Strawbridges explore how to feed yourself and your family self-sufficiently — both by growing fruits and vegetables, and via raising animals ranging from bees for honey to raising pigs and chickens for food.

"Traditional Knowledge" covers cooking, canning, cheese-making, baking and other traditional kitchen arts; natural remedies you can make at home from things you also produce or grow at home; and traditional craft skills like woodworking, metalworking, and knitting.

"Self-Sufficiency" is an ambitious catalogue and tutorial on a stunningly wide range of skills, projects and values. It takes its job as a reference guide for those trying to live a self-sufficient life very seriously, and the drawings, diagrams, checklists and action steps are highly user-friendly.

On the other hand, the Strawbridges don’t take themselves too terribly, granola-crunchily seriously. There’s no paranoia or fear-engendering preaching here; in fact, the authors flat out position fun, pleasure and enjoying life as a key element of a successful lifestyle of self-sufficiency.

They also acknowledge wholeheartedly that even the hardiest, most self-sufficient of the self-sufficient in the 21st century may want their life to include access to the creature comforts of the city and may require the funding of a city-based day job.

As a result, the vision of self-sufficiency sketched out in this book is very modular; readers can take what works for them now and leave the rest — coming back to get bits and pieces as they like, over time. I know I will.

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