Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2015

The Handbook: Surviving and living with climate change (2015), by Jane Rawson and James Whitmore

The Handbook This is a fantastic book! Get yourself a copy!

Will you believe me if I say that I picked up The Handbook late last night after I had finished reading Patricia Grace’s Cousins just to have a look at the introduction before turning out the light, and found myself reading the entire book instead?  It’s true.  I couldn’t stop reading it…

I did already know I was going to be interested,  I had heard the authors discuss the book with Patricia Karvelas in The Drawing Room on Radio National.  I knew it wasn’t yet another book  about the science of climate change so that you can have arguments with climate change deniers, it was, as the title implies, a book about what to do to make life bearable now that climate change is upon us.  How to make your life better in the 2° rise-in-temperature scenario, which is now inescapable.  How to prepare for that, because it’s happening in your lifetime, in your own little house in the suburbs or wherever.  Yes, present tense, not future tense.  Noticeable changes now, and only going to get worse even if a miracle happened and our witless politicians started doing something to prevent it getting to the 4° rise-in-temperature scenario.  But, well, I admit it, I was expecting The Handbook to be a bit worthy.  I was expecting it to be a bit dull.

I should have known better.  I hadn’t heard of Whitmore before (he edits the Environment pages at The Conversation) but Jane Rawson (who used to do the same thing) is the author of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists which won the 2014 Aurealis Award and the Most Underrated Book Award (see my review), and she’s just won the 2015 Seizure Prize for a macabre novella called Formaldehyde, so she’s never going to write anything dull.  Although a serious book, The Handbook is really interesting to read and in some places will even make you chuckle.

It’s a mixture of things any intelligent person could predict will happen when temperatures rise (e.g. you will use your air-conditioner more and your power bills will go up; there will be even more bushfires and floods and you may lose your house and belongings, that’s if it doesn’t kill you) – and things you might not have thought about, like food shortages because storms have wiped out the crop and Australia’s heavily centralised food distribution system has failed because the roads have been washed away.

Remember the price of bananas, for ages and ages, after Cyclone Yasi hit Tully?  What if it hadn’t been just bananas, eh?  It’s disquieting to learn a few facts:

Nobody starved during the 2011 Queensland floods, but the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report made some rather chilling conclusions.  It turns out that Queenslanders got very lucky.  There are a number of factors which make Australia’s food supply vulnerable to disasters.  Over recent decades the supply chain has grown longer, more complex and more centralised.  More than 80% of us depend on supermarkets for our food, and the food must first travel from farm to distribution centre to supermarket, distances of thousands of kilometres.  In the whole supply chain, Australia holds only five days of fresh food, two weeks of chilled goods, and a month of dried goods.

The report found that, while Queensland ably dealt with the severe flooding, if the disaster had arrived at the same time as something else, say bushfires in Victoria, or a major cyclone, supermarkets would not have been able to restock and people could have gone hungry.  That may sound unlikely, but recall that a major cyclone did strike Queensland less than a month later.  If Yasi had struck only 250 kilometres north or south., at Townsville or Cairns, Queensland would have been facing a disaster that the food supply chain couldn’t handle.  (p.157-8)

But the book is not about scaring you.  Apart from sensible ideas about having an Emergency Pantry List, and growing some food in your own backyard or a community garden, it offers a wealth of ideas that build on people’s capacity to cope and to be resilient.  What that kept me reading after I read the introduction was that the first chapter was about people, and how they react to threats.  The Handbook addresses the psychological issues from the outset: it observes that people dismiss threats or become paralysed with fear and do nothing, and offers suggestions for how to prepare your mind to deal with the inevitable.

In my last years at school before my retirement, I had responsibility for Emergency Management Planning.  As luck would have it I was Acting Assistant Principal during the term that the education department, in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires, was insisting that all schools update their Disaster Plans.  We didn’t have a Disaster Plan, and we had only ever had desultory evacuation drills, not any other kind.  And although I was working in a school on the urban fringe 1000 metres from a national park to the north and 500 metres from bushland to the west, I lived 25 kilometres away in the safety of the southern suburbs and the thought of bushfire planning hadn’t entered my head.  I did not know that embers can blow up to 15km to land on a school’s roof and start a fire in the building.  To say that I was on a steep learning curve is a bit of an understatement.

But one of my enduring achievements at that school was to make sure that every staff member understood the risk, and that we were not only prepared, we had drilled for every conceivable eventuality.  And when our planning was eventually tested in the real, when there was a bomb threat, we had 400 kids and 50 adults safely outside in three minutes, and crucially, there was no panic.  At the subsequent debriefing, the police told us that they had never encountered a school so capable and calm.  At the subsequent staff meeting, I was amused to find that there had been some muttering about ‘Lisa inflicting a drill on us just at home time’, some staff had not known that it wasn’t a drill!

(If you’ve got kids at school, I bet you’re wondering how their school would get on.  Ask your kids if they have different kinds of drills, and if you’re not satisfied by what they say, go and ask nicely about it.  Offer to help, you’ll learn things that may save your life or your home).

The Handbook, however, isn’t just about the day/s of the disaster, it’s about the aftermath.  Yes, you need to do things now so that you can survive the next heatwave without your air-conditioner because the power supply hasn’t coped with a week of 45° temperatures.  You’ll need to be prepared in case you have to come up with meals that don’t rely on electricity for cooking.   And if the overnight temperatures are going to hover around 25-30° (like they did in Melbourne in 2013-4) you need to have a cool space somewhere in your house so that you can sleep.   You also need to have a community around you to look out for each other.  It’s better, isn’t it, if the hale and hearty venture out to do any desperately needed shopping for medicine than your neighbour who’s got to take small children in her less reliable car?  It’s important, isn’t it, that somebody checks on that batty old lady who lives alone in your street?  But you also need to take care of that community afterwards, to support each other in the recovery phase and to learn from the disaster as well.

Have you checked with your local council that they have made provision for the homeless in extreme weather conditions?  I have.  I asked them last summer, and was pleased to find that they were ahead of me.  The Handbook makes a point of addressing inequity: they have suggestions for things that you can do on the cheap and is hard-headed about how the rich will inevitably cope better than the rest of us.  If Tasmania and New Zealand look as if they’re going to be more congenial places to live as temperatures rise, you can bet that Gina Rinehart and Co have already got their eco-survival mansions sorted, probably in gated communities, thereby putting that real estate option out of the reach of the rest of us.  (Well, maybe not Gina, she’s said to be a climate change denier.

The book is extensively researched, and at the end of each chapter there is a list of websites and resources to help you.  I’d write more, but I’ve got things to do.  I’ve already got an emergency kit but there’s a couple of things missing: I haven’t got a wrench to turn off utility supplies, and I haven’t got a solar powered phone charger.    I need to update my risk analysis too: I think the most likely thing I’m going to face here in Melbourne in the short term is recurring heatwaves and electricity blackouts that will last longer and longer before the power is restored, but I hadn’t thought about food shortages.  Our pantry reflects my foodie-Spouse’s interest in gourmet cooking, not a supply to depend on for a week or more.  (Depending on whether I’ve just stocked up or not, the dog will be ok.  I buy in bulk for her.)

I also haven’t given enough thought to flash flooding which last came to my place with a huge storm in 2011.  It paralysed traffic on my terrifying route home from work and made wellies a necessity in my street and my back garden.  My vegetables are in raised beds so they would be ok, but where did I put my wellies after they dried out?  And have we had the gutters cleared this year, so that they can cope with an overwhelming onrush of water?  One of our three water tanks (the first one, the one that wasn’t installed by a plumber) doesn’t have an overflow valve, where will the water go if it overflows?  Will a sudden rush of water knock over the nearby fence so that my precious dog could go exploring into hostile new territory?  Or will it dislodge the adjacent tree so that it crashes into the shed and breaks the windows, shedding glass everywhere for unwary paws?  Maybe I should retrofit the valve, eh?

Get the book, read it, and make yourself a manageable plan.  Don’t do it on your own, your best asset is other people!

Authors: Jane Rawson and James Whitmore
Title: The Handbook: Surviving and living with climate change
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
ISBN: 9781921924934
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Fishpond: The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change
and good bookshops everywhere.

PS Do check out Crikey’s Dirty Dozen, the ones doing the most to block action on climate change, because:

In 50 years’ time, as the world swelters, crops fail, bushfires rage and extreme weather causes devastation around the globe, the Dirty Dozen are the people who should be remembered for their role in allowing it to happen. Perhaps primary schools could bury this list in time capsules to be excavated in 2100, just so future generations will not forget what they did.

PPS Sadly, right on cue, within an hour of me posting this, the ABC is reporting severe weather events in NSW.  Three adults and two children are stuck in floodwaters on a causeway at Kiama,  the Jerrara Dam has overflowed at Illawarra and people are being evacuated, there are floods outside Orange and there’s a mini-tornado at Dubbo.  The SES are doing heroic work as usual and dozens have been rescued…


  1. I’ve posted this on my facebook page hoping and trusting all my family and friends read and act on the advice in this important, not to say vital, book.
    Great review. Great passing on of information


    • Thank you! My copy is on the dining table so that The Spouse can read it chapter by chapter…


  2. Reblogged this on voxbendigo.


  3. Great review Lisa … I heard the interview too. They came across as so reasonable and practical, but passionate as well. I’ve shared on Facebook too.


  4. […] the recipe makes.  And today I hand-wrote a postcard to the neighbour to whom I lent my copy of Jane Rawson’s The Handbook asking for it back. (Do you agree with me that an SMS or a typed note would seem to be a more […]


  5. […] (which won the Most Underrated Book Award in 2014) and From the Wreck, and also the co-author of The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change (all published by Transit Lounge); […]


  6. […] Surviving and living with climate change by Jane Rawson and James Whitmore, Transit Lounge, 2018, see my review.  (I have bought half a dozen copies of this and given them to my friends and neighbours. Because […]


  7. This book is definitely one I’m going to ask the library here to purchase! Here in central west NSW we have had, on top of severe ongoing drought and bushfires, heatwaves this summer that have lasted over two weeks at a time with temperatures at night not dropping below the mid-40s. Horrendous.

    I live alone in a house without aircon, and none of the neighbours (with aircon!) checked on me here. I survived by going to air conditioned shopping malls for two hours per day and my dog barely survived (still went to the vet with heat exhaustion despite my trying everything I could think of to help him).

    I suspect the main reason we got through at all was a friend offering her air conditioned home while she was away for a few days during some of the heatwaves.

    This book is timely re emergency items, with the corona virus I tried to find hand soap today (because I was running out) only to find the supermarket shelves emptied out due to panic buying.

    So something like this book is needed here! Thanks Lisa.


    • It really is terrific, Sue. Maybe the library could get some extra copies and set up community groups to implement some of the ideas in it:)


      • I did read one review of it Lisa which said it didn’t seem to apply to people renting or in apartments. As I haven’t read it yet I can’t comment, I wondered if you noticed this? Renters and apartment livers make up a large segment of our population.


        • Well, here’s a direct quotation, from page 70:
          “Another option, and one which may be more plausible you’re a renter, is to look for an apartment which nestles between, above and below other units and has a north-facing balcony with a decent eave or an upstairs balcony above it. Other units do a great job of insulating.
          Renting or buying, house or apartment, look for a place which can be opened up at both ends so you can get breezes through once the outside air cools down. Windows with flyscreens and security flyscreen doors give you more options for getting the house opened.
          Or, page 72:
          Whether you rent or own, stopping the sun from falling on your walls, windows and more problematically the roof will pay coolness dividends. There are a lot of ways to shade a house. The most expensive are […] External roller blinds, bamboo blinds or shade cloth are cheaper and less permanent, so better if you’re renting.
          And that is so true. When I first bought my house I didn’t have enough money for proper awnings, so I bought those roll-up bamboo blinds (which cost $5 back then) and hung them on all the windows on the west side. And even now, all I have on the north facing window is shadecloth attached with dowel… we put it up to shade the fernery, but it’s turned out to be really effective.


  8. Certainly when I lived in a unit in the sub-tropics I was much cooler than the unit above me! I do wonder about the proliferation of two storey homes now – I had friends in Armidale in north NSW who owned a sheep property, they built a very expensive two storey home and quickly discovered the upstairs bedrooms were unlivable during the summer months! They had to sleep downstairs…
    I had a friend in Sydney who inherited an old weatherboard home with the traditional breezeway running front door to back door, with all rooms opening off the hall – that house was wonderfully cool in hot weather (deep verandahs each end as well to shade the windows). I think it’s a shame we have moved away from that traditional and excellent design for our hot climate!


    • House design is a huge factor in managing the heat, but even people who own their houses can’t always change the basic design. It is high time the ABC did some programs on what you can do, both short and long term, and ideas both that are low-cost and also those have to be saved up for.
      People just don’t know how effective some simple things can be. Tall bushy plants in tubs on a balcony or deck can make a difference: if buying a plant is too expensive, then doona covers or blankets on the inside, sealing the window right to the edges, so no heat can get in at the sides or top can keep the heat out too. (We sealed all our windows with doona covers on Black Saturday—our outside temp at 4pm was 43, and inside it was 34, and we hadn’t turned the aircon on all day.)
      One of the most useful concepts in The Handbook is the idea of the one cool room. That is, identifying the room that stays coolest, and then doing whatever else can be done to make that room a comfortable refuge.


  9. I had not even heard of this book! Thanks for alerting me about it.


    • Essential reading.
      Plus, I have another tip. Somewhere in the book the advice is to have a supply of drinking water to get you through if the water is cut off in some kind of natural disaster. (It’s usually the first thing to be emptied off the supermarket shelves). We have found that the most painless way to do this *wink* is to repurpose empty bottles of wine, labelled H2O and kept in the shed.
      … And this of course is why you need to share what you learn from the book with your neighbours and work with them so that, without being alarmist, everyone else is prepared too. What good would it be to us to have plenty of water if our lovely neighbours and their small children don’t? And #HorridThought what might they be willing to do to make sure that their children get some?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. At the moment in my large regional NSW town we are all out of toilet paper…twitter is running amok about it! You’ve gotta laugh..

    Meanwhile our excellent library is going to purchase this book, I put in the request this morning and it’s approved.


    • Wonderful!
      Well, not about the toilet paper… but I do love the jokes about it.


  11. […] climate change (2015): This is an older book now, but it’s Australian and I know from Lisa (her review) that it is packed full of practical strategies which, I’m presuming, will still be valid […]


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