A quick summary of the book
The book BWYB is extremely accessible, quite funny, and yet the value/word is very high. Paul, Sean, and their support crew obviously put a ton of work in to making the book polished. The point of the book is not to provide all of the technical information required to build a better world in your backyard, although it covers many interesting specific techniques and approaches. The attempt of the book is to show you how to think about how to build a better world in your backyard.
Paul's classic example of how to think is the lightbulb. Everyone thinks incandescents are evil. Paul points out that CFLs are full of toxins and their performance is actually quite bad. LEDs are better than CFLs on all fronts, but AC LED bulbs have sophisticated and toxic electronic components, and the blue-spectrum light messes with our circadian rhythms. He points out that incandescents are almost completely non-toxic, the spectrum of light they give off is healthy, and you can use their heat output as part of your heating system, making your overall energy consumption much lower than if you were using LEDs and then had to get heat some other way. The whole book is full of this kind of "dig a little deeper" thinking in a number of different domains (shelter, gardening, home heating, sanitation, cleaning supplies...), and in my view is the point of the book.
In the radically deviant financial strategies chapter, he includes his story of Ferd and Gert, which you can find online. Ferd is a wage slave. Gert is a High Eco Wheaton Level Individual; she has a little bit of land, grows almost all her food from it, sells a little bit here and there, and mostly spends her time doing whatever she wants. She has a little money, but spends almost none of it because money is mostly incidental to her lifestyle. If you gave her a million dollars, her life wouldn't change at all.
A reminder of where I'm at
I make most of my life decisions based on my understanding of climate change, peak [resource], ecological destruction, and a JMG Long Descent style collapse which I think history will decide we're already in the beginning stages of. I've worked in "sustainability" for over a decade. I grew up out in the boonies off-grid, am acquainted with the sort of hard work that goes in to homesteading and rural living, and have a low comfort requirement for my lifestyle. I struggled for a long time to figure out how to fit all the pieces of my life in to a coherent approach, and finding ERE was like finding the treasure map to my El Dorado. I'm not *there* yet, but I have the map now and some faith that I'm finally headed in the right direction, and not just aimlessly wandering the jungles.
My immediate reaction to the book
I got stoked! I got excited! Aha, here's another piece to the puzzle!
ERE allows a great amount of flexibility, makes plenty of space for any number of styles of approach. Therein lies its strength - it's universally applicable. I've known from the beginning that my style involves dirt, growies (Paul's word, love it), humanure piles, and buildin' stuff. Reading BWYB dumped a bunch of fuel on that vision.
A few things became clearer to me about my path ahead.
The model of Gert (hm, the Gert Construct? yes, that'll do nicely) - ahem, The Gert Construct shows you the end point, the dream of The Lazy Gardener. But on its own, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Where did Gert get her land? Where and how did she acquire her knowledge and skills? How on earth did she learn all of that while holding down a job (assuming she had one)? It seems likely to me that there's a danger of buying in to the ultimate vision of The Gert Construct without a real understanding of what it takes to get to that point. I can imagine launching off in that direction with oh, say, a year's worth of runway, assuming you'll be eating all your own food by this time next year, but turns out you don't even know how to grow a tomato, and you fail.
Trigger Alert: A tangential dive in to the controversy around "permaculture"
DW mentioned the word "permaculture" to a friend of hers, and her friend got quite triggered by it. She's had bad experiences with a) taking a PDC from someone who'd taken *their* PDC only a year or two before, and b) urban armchair permaculturists arrogantly telling people actually attempting to grow things how wrong they're doing it. The outburst inspired me to spend an hour reaping the results of sowing the search term "criticisms of permaculture" in to the fertile earth of the internet. Based on that, my perceptions are these:
- many people who attempt to "do permaculture" don't respect the learning curve. They buy in to the lazy gardener narrative, without understanding the work that goes in to getting to that point (if it truly exists or is a worthwhile aim even if it is at all).
- many people treat permaculture as their new religion; they grasp on to it as their narrative for how Society can Be Saved. They haven't dug deep in to their fears around the collapse of industrial civilization, and don't realize that Permaculture has become their means of staving off existential despair. They haven't gone through an acceptance of the mortality of humanity yet. And so they become insufferable pricks about it.
- it seems that many people don't respect the difference between backyard permaculture and commercial agriculture (of any style). Perhaps they think they'll "do permaculture" on their new land and that is how they'll pay the bills. Or they "do some permaculture" in their backyard, and think that qualifies them to tell a third generation market farmer how to approach pest management on his thousand acre farm.
- purity purges. I imagine this has got to exist.
I'm not going to use the word permaculture for the time being. Seems it has a lot of baggage attached to it, and I don't want to set myself up to a) accidentally fall under the spell of an Evangelist who is using permaculture as a way of refusing to acknowledge his own mortality, or b) fail to absorb other sources of information, or c) give permaculture a bad name by being "yet another one of those clueless noobs".
My approach is to start with an ecology textbook, a botany textbook, and from there to move on to as broad a diversity of "how to grow stuff" material as I can find: permaculture, polyculture, no-till, intensive, natural, etc etc.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that the amount of passion people who are trying to improve the world direct at “bad guys” is insignificant compares to the passion with which they mock *other* people who are trying to improve the world, but in a way that they don’t agree with. Oil execs? Bad, bad men, shake head sadly. Permaculture snobs? ACTUAL EVIL MONSTERS. This dynamic is present, as far as I can tell, in all forms of activism, and is why so many activist groups are only full of people who can handle being up to their eyeballs in toxicity. Paul actually speaks to this in his story of Gert, where he says she posted a couple times on the internet, but was flamed, and so she just doesn't go on the internet anymore. (Who is John Galt?) What a shame.
Back to the main thread - how to achieve Gertitude
The trick to Gertitude is twofold: you need money to bridge between now and full Gertitude, and you need to learn a lot of things to achieve the dream of the lazy gardener. You can't go from eco level 3 to swapping tips with Sepp Holzer in a year.
The Money Bit:
BWYB has a section on ERE, and then Paul proposes his own strategy which is just ERE except instead of investing, spend time generating passive incomes and when you have enough to buy land and cover expenses, you're done. He calls it BEER (better early extreme retirement).
Paul says he doesn't trust his ability to generate income from investing. Jacob says he doesn't trust his ability to generate passive income from "doing stuff on the internet". I agree with both of them, but hold on to that thought for a second.
The Learning Curve Bit:
No one is going to take a PDC, buy an acre or two, and be Gert in a year, assuming they start out anywhere near your average Western salaryfolk on the learning curve. A lot of time and effort is going to have to go in to ascending the sigmoid curve.
So the tension is this: to achieve Gertitude, you both need a source of income (that you can't get from your raised beds because you still suck at that) and a large chunk of time, as in, years. If you quit your job without enough runway, you'll be poor before you've learned enough. If you continue your soul-sucking FT job and fiddle around in the backyard when you have time, it'll take you 154 years to learn enough. What to do?
The Solution Space
Obviously, one could just do the fullERE thing, accumulate to FI, and devote their RE energies to the learning curve. I could do that.
The danger is that if you fullERE, you might not have extrinsic motivation to push up the learning curve, and so you don't. You dabble, but since you don't depend on the Gert skills in any meaningful way, you never achieve full Gerthood. I'm concerned about this fate.
Another method is to semiERE your way there. Do your semiERE shtick to fund your lifestyle, focus most of your free time on the learning curve, and achieve Gertitude ~4 years faster (or, at all, in case you'd have failed to achieve Gertitude if you FI'd first).
But here's the thing. The promise of Gertitude, as the promise of ERE WL7+ as I understand it, is that money is incidental to your lifestyle. Remember - if you gave Gert a million dollars, her life wouldn't change at all.
So.... what's the point of doing the standard accumulation phase? Why spend 40+hrs/wk in your specialization to get 35x or whatever, if by the time you achieve the state of being you say is your end goal, that pile of cash will be incidental? Not to mention the risks and dangers of having to deal with greater loss aversion and reduced motivation.
And if we can assume that the compounding return on *skill* is anywhere similar to the compounding return on money, then isn't it much more important to build up your skill capital as quickly as possible?
In fact lets flip this whole thing on its head. One standard ERE narrative is "first, serious accumulation phase of money, during which my skill acquisition is as much as I can handle but lets be honest, it's on secondary cruise control until I RE, and once I RE skills acquisition will likely be a bit of a dabbler's hobby because FI mfaaaa!".
What about "first, serious accumulation phase *of skills and knowledge*, during which my money acquisition is as much as I can handle but lets be honest, it's on secondary cruise control until my skills are such that I barely even need it at all".
I'm not saying everyone's goal *should* be to achieve Gertitude, WL7+, or anything else. I'm saying *if* someone's goal is to achieve Gertitude/WL7+, more than just FI or RE, then a close strategic examination of the path there is in order. I think there are many paths that lead to a cul-de-sac at WL5, or WL6, a local minima. I also think there are multiple paths to WL7+/Gertitude, but we are exposed to very few of these paths! We know of Jacob-style WL7, we have this Gert story but we don't know how she pulled it off. But we've got tons and tons of examples of people who've made it to WL5 or even 6, and so we follow in their footsteps. But if I'm right about the existence of local minima, this could be an error!
This line of thinking is why I'm thinking it would be a mistake to go back to work FT. My progress along the WL's would necessarily stall, and I might find myself stacked up against a cliff. (Also, however, I'm aware that I'm somewhat abusing the notion of the Wheaton scale as a pedagogical tool, and not a map/path/set of instructions. Let me say this: when I think about the sort of lifestyle I want, and then compare it to the Wheaton Scale, it's 7+.)
Stories: extremeFIRE, The Renaissance Ideal, and the extreme difficulty in breaking free of consumer culture
Let's take a couple steps back again, and re-approach the issue from a slightly different angle.
Adopters of ERE, who tend to come from FIRE, often take the financial game and take only a perfunctory pass at the Renaissance Ideal. They go full pro on the FIRE stuff, and the #skillz are amateur hour. It's possible to live off 700/mo through masterful frugality, but not know the first thing about growing a tomato (I don't either, at the moment, by the way). This is ERE without the renaissance ideal, which arguably isn't ERE, it's just extremeFIRE, heavily influenced by ERE-level thinking.
Why don't more people become Renaissance Badasses? I think it's because of a lack of role models, of imaginative narratives from which to pick and choose.
JMG just talked about how politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from the imagination, which is fed by 'the poets' - people who create the art. Applying this to a personal lifestyle perspective, our lifestyle is downstream from our imagination, and we feed our imagination with stories.
extremeFIRE is a flavor of the familiar model - it is Elite Level Consumerism. Middle class lifestyle and early retirement on <1000k/mo - it's a difference in degree of what we already are and are already surrounded by. We have many many examples of digital nomads, low-cost travelers, people who've FIRE'd over the past few decades. When our imagination goes to work on our ERE goals, it grabs bits and pieces from what it has lying around close to hand, and applies a FIRE lens to it. We peruse the same menu of options as everyone else, we just are the frugality hackers of the world and so we get those things much more inexpensively. It's the same familiar consumer-identity story, with a twist.
The Renaissance Ideal is not the same familiar story. Renaissance Axel is not some damned clever consumer. Fine... but what *is* he? Who else is he like, sort of? I've realized I don't have a good answer to this question. I've met Jacob. He's awesome. And I don't want to be Jacob. This is no insult! I'm not capable of being a mini-Jacob, because we aren't operating with the same set of equipment. He drew the map/set of instructions so that I could assemble my own path, not so I could attempt to copy his. I need to go forth and assemble a set of role models that inspire me (something something six-C model here), that will pull me towards the lifestyle I want.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are combinations and syntheses of stories of other people. The creativity and uniqueness is in how we mix and match - it's not necessary to sit in an empty room and create our own story ex nihilo. Nobody gives a Michelin star quality chef a hard time because she uses the same ingredients as everybody else. The magic of art is in the way the pieces are assembled. However, trying to create a unique story of our lives from within our current consumer culture is like trying to bake a cake but all you have is salt, flour, paprika, and a microwave. No matter how many ways you assemble those ingredients, and no matter how many different settings you fiddle with on the microwave, you are just not going to end up with any kind of cake.
If we have any desire to create something besides a new kind of consumer, we have to feed our imaginations different ingredients, and the ingredients of lifestyle design are stories. I think this activity is more important than we realize - certainly more important than I've realized.
The Renaissance Ideal supplies a story. I think I need to work on it a little, because I think those guys wore ruffly collars and tights and maybe had to attach themselves to donors/benefactors? You laugh, but these details are important! They carry emotional weight, and influence my core desire to adopt the model. When I think Renaissance Ideal, I can't help but imagine a man (and I wonder if many women find the model not terribly strong because they also imagine a man?) wearing stupid clothes listening to boring music working for a rich aristocrat in a city. My story might be technically wrong, maybe that's not what 'real' Renaissance men's lives were like at all, but my subconscious doesn't care - it's what pops in to my head. So this particular story doesn't move the needle for me, I've come to realize. I need to either fix my mental model of the Renaissance Ideal, go find some other stories, or both (the answer is both).
So to recap:
Okay, so here's my situation:
- I want to be a howlie: WL7+. I'm not satisfied with cruising at WL5.
- I find The Gert Construct attractive as well. I don't know enough to know what I don't know about all that, but I know that if I die without calluses on my hands, dirt under my nails, and sawdust in my hair, I screwed up somewhere.
- I'm concerned that if I top-prioritize FI and defer serious work at skill acquisition, I'll fall in to the trap of a comfortable local minima.
- I'm concerned that I'm only exposed to stories/narratives of people achieving ereWL5 at best: "elite" consumers. I think I need more exposure to non-consumer stories.