Gentle Decline 2/19: Reading & Readjusting
Book recommendations, and a few relevant bits of news and information.
Hello. This issue is mostly book recommendations, with a few links to things that are not so much news as reporting on things around climate-coping that are happening. If there are books you think are relevant to my interests here which I haven’t covered, let me know what they are. I already give enough money to Big River Inc, and bookstore.org isn’t set up for the EU yet, so I’m not providing links, just titles. Check with your local independent bookshop, or get them from your library. All of the books in this issue are ones I own myself.
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. You can support the newsletter via Patreon, Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise.]
(MidJourney’s interpretation of what my book collection looks like)
One of the not-quite-news items that’s come to light recently is how already-changed climates are making it possible to grow foodstuffs in places where it wasn’t a going concern before. This does in some sense come close to the “climate change isn’t all bad” position that some conservatives are trying to flog, but I’m seeing it more as making the best of the inevitable, and coping with change. It does point up that as some crops become viable, others will become more difficult, or entirely impossible. And almost all such projects rely on available irrigation, which is going to be an issue in many parts of the world. In related news, there are trees appearing in the Arctic, which wasn’t expected for another century or so, and the same tree populations are dying off at the southern edge - the forest is literally moving north to get away from the heat.
In keeping with the crops, though, the first book I want to recommend - which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before - is John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, which has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1976. It does pretty much what it says, and sets up outline plans for various sizes of farm, from one acre to at least five. It’s for a British Isles climate, mostly (see below about vegetable gardening for the limits of that). It absolutely presupposes you have a broad range of skills, or can develop them, and I am completely certain that people have spent ten or a hundred times as many hours looking at the pictures and dreaming than they have following the instructions. It’s an excellent book to have - but it’s worth noting that Seymour, who I met once when I was very small, did have some income from his books as well as his farm. Most small farms are not at present financially viable, and I’ve written a bit more about this over in Commonplace.
However, for a look at someone who’s giving self-sufficiency a go, see the appropriately named Ben Green in Germany. He seems to be doing pretty well, although I don’t think veganism is viable in the long term (without certain vitamins, veganism can literally give you permanent brain damage, and producing them from non-animal sources is essentially impossible without major industrial processes). If, however, he had one cow or goat and a few chickens - and didn’t have the pigs - he’d be onto a reasonably solid thing.
The next book is possibly a very odd one. It’s called Household Management for Men, it’s by a guy called Nigel Browning, and it was first printed in 1980. It’s a small book, easy to read, and gives good solid instructions on how to, well, manage the house you’re living in. It’s an encapsulation of the stuff that “women were taught by their mothers”, and while there’s an inherent set of assumptions around gender and knowledge in there, the book acknowledges that. It is good and valuable knowledge, and I know a number of adults who could benefit from reading it. I could probably benefit from re-reading it myself; I’ll have to find my own copy or buy a new one. Much of what’s in there is not particularly relevant to an era of climate chaos, but all of it is relevant to being an independent, capable human, and that’s an excellent first step toward acquiring other skills.
Two more, which are more in the vein of thinking about things than engaging in practical knowhow, are Workbenches, Revised Edition: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use by Christopher Schwarz and Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B Crawford. The Workbenches one is also practical, but it’s still the model of careful thinking it contains for which I’m recommending it. They’re both good approaches to how to think about skills and working.
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t recommend a cookbook. There are plenty of claiming-to-be-post-apocalyptic cookbooks out there, but they’re mostly nonsense - cooking as a skill and practice has remained pretty similar through history, and conditions of climate chaos (or whatever other apocalypse you’re having) won’t change that. So what you want instead is a broad-based general cookery book. You can get All In The Cooking by Josephine B. Marnell, Nora M. Breathnach, Ann A. Martin, & Mor Murnaghan if you’re on this side of the Atlantic. It was published in the 1940s in Ireland as a school text for Home Economics, and it remains one of the best basic cookbooks I’ve ever met. In the US, the somewhat older Fannie Farmer Cookbook, published in 1896 as The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer will serve you very well. There have been numerous reprints over the last 130 years or so, and it’s notable that it was also intended for educational use.
Next up, vegetable gardening. My personal recommendation is The Irish Gardener’s Handbook by Michael Brenock, but you should get one which is local to your area. There are enough foibles of soil types and suitable (and available) varietals that a generic gardening book is only of vague use, and one specific to another area may be useless. That said, climates are changing, so it may be worth trying to work out which way that’s going. Generally speaking, if you can look at an area south of you, that’ll help for futureproofing, but it’s not an ironclad solution. Almost any possible outcome for Ireland leaves it being damp and rainy, so looking at Spanish gardening advice isn’t as useful. Northern Portugal or the South of France might be more in the right line.
There’s another book I want to recommend, but with some caution. Worldchanging, edited by Alex Steffen Abrams was published in 2006, and claims to be “a user’s guide to the 21st century”. That’s a bold claim that far into the century, but it was generally pretty well received, and as with many of the books I’m including here, it’s more for the process of thinking than the actual information in it. It has sections about consumption, shelter, cities, community, business, politics and the planet, each with a large number of subheadings. It has a short foreword by Al Gore, and a longer introduction by Bruce Sterling, which should give you some idea of its placement in thinking and politics. 17 of the 63 contributors (my counts, hot day, may not be 100% accurate) are women, which isn’t great, but is better than many other collected works. The book was an outcrop of a website, worldchanging.com, which no longer exists, or rather has been taken over by a commercial enterprise offering “Flexible Mobile Off-Grid Habitats”. So in some ways it’s an artefact of the mid-00s.
Obviously, the older books I’m talking about here are all by men, except the cookery books (Fannie Farmer was also disabled). Part of this is because I’ve had them for a while, before I started to look actively for books that are not by white guys. Part is because there are very few such books out there yet by women. As I acquire more books - which is absolutely inevitable - I’m going to be trying to prioritise those by women, and books by people from different minorities. Those different voices know more about operating from a position of disadvantage, which is going to be extremely important.
I also have some books on woodworking, blacksmithing, basic building skills, and so forth. I haven’t used them enough to recommend them, so they’re not included here. I can, if people are interested, do a later issue on aspirational books, rather than recommendations per se.
People have been asking, on and off, since I started this newsletter, whether I’d write a book on the topic. That’s something I’m interested in, but which I can’t currently afford - if I take the time to organise my information, update the stuff from when I started, compile it into an actual coherent work, and get it published, that’s going to take a lot of work. It would either cut into my paid working time, or stop me from writing the newsletter itself (and a lot of other writing), and that’s not something I’m very interested in. Also, I am yet another white guy, and I’d prefer to support someone from a different demographic in doing so. I am vaguely considering something like a Gentle Decline Almanac - an annual publication with things like calendar, moon phases, tides, planting dates, and some climate-relevant stuff like record temperatures, all specialised for Ireland - so if that’s something you’d be interested in, please let me know.
As a final thing, here’s a post which considers the world’s economy as a physics system, and concludes that it’s going to be a rough ride over the next while. I don’t have either the maths or the time to check the numbers, but it’s interesting reading.
[Support this newsletter (and Commonplace, its (more) food-related sibling) and allow me to keep on eating while I hammer on the keyboard and stare at the sky. Patreon is here, and for those thinking more of the one-time coin in the hat, Ko-fi is available. And the merchandise shop is here. Major research contributions in all issues by Cee.]