Book review: Toolbox for Sustainable City Living

This book review was originally published in Peacework Magazine, April 2009.  – Katherine

Sustainable Joy: Reclaiming our Energy for Environmentalism

Katherine Fisher is a Quaker with a longtime concern for social justice and environmental issues. Here she reviews Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide, by Scott Kellogg and Staci Pettigrew (South End Press, 2008).

When I was in college studying environmental science, people sometimes asked me, “Isn’t that depressing?” And to tell the truth, it kind of was. I graduated feeling burned out on environmentalism, and eager to do some work in ways where I could see more immediate tangible results. I have felt both sad and guilty about distancing myself from the environmental movement over the last five years. But I just read a book that makes me excited to be an environmentalist again.

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living is mostly a how-to book, with some background information and philosophy tying it all together. The main purpose of the book is to provide people with tools to meet basic human needs as the global climate changes and fossil fuels become more scarce. It contains sections on food, water, waste, energy, and bioremediation of land, as well as an excellent resources section and glossary at the end. The text is full of inspiring descriptions of groups that have successfully implemented these techniques (including the Worcester Roots Project, and Pedal People in Northampton, MA), and almost every page contains a photo or drawing of a working system. The drawings by Juan Martinez of the Beehive Design Collective in Eastern Maine are particularly engaging.

The systems the book describes are designed for urban areas, and include microlivestock (raising chickens and fish), collecting and purifying rainwater, constructing graywater systems, composting (including human waste), passive solar cooking and hot water, wind turbines, and removing toxins from contaminated land using plants, mushrooms, and bacteria. Gardening is noticeably absent, and the authors explain that because gardening is very well covered in other books, they chose to focus here on less well-known techniques. The descriptions are enough to get a good start on a project, and they also point the way toward other resources for more information.

Collective Action

The authors are founding members of the Rhizome Collective in Austin, Texas. A rhizome is an underground root system that sends up a large network of above-ground shoots. Similarly, the Rhizome Collective is a growing network of people who are working to build an underlying culture of sustainability and justice. In 2000, the Rhizome Collective acquired a warehouse and turned it into a community center and a place to try out urban sustainable designs. Currently, they provide space for community organizations such as Bikes Across Borders and the Austin Independent Media Center, and recently they were given a 10-acre former landfill and a $200,000 EPA grant to turn it into an ecological justice park.

The underlying philosophy in the book is not confined to environmental concerns, but also encompasses the politics of anti-racism and economic justice. The Rhizome Collective operates from a perspective of “dual power anarchism,” which they define as “working for social change within today’s society while at the same time building functional alternatives to oppressive dominant institutions.” For example, the consequences of waste disposal systems like incinerators and landfills have been disproportionately placed in low income neighborhoods and communities of color, and the book cites this injustice as a reason for developing autonomous waste disposal systems. Similarly, the concept of climate justice acknowledges that the burdens of global climate change will fall disproportionately on people in the Global South, who bear the least amount of responsibility for fossil fuel abuse. The Rhizome Collective uses this perspective to inform its work on sustainable energy, and cites Rising Tide North America and the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative as other organizations working on climate justice.

The authors apply their philosophy to the projects in the book through a set of characteristics of autonomous systems. Autonomous systems must be affordable; made of salvaged or locally abundant materials; simple; repairable by the user; replicable; and decentralized. These characteristics help to make sure the systems will increase community self-reliance, and decrease dependence on large resource monopolies. It is clear from these characteristics that the authors are not just imploring people to drive less and change a few light bulbs. They argue that the current fossil-fuel-based system will never be sustainable, and that radical change is necessary.

Don’t Be Scared

Scott Kellogg and Staci Pettigrew offer a refreshing perspective on the timing and urgency of environmental issues. They don’t hold back in their descriptions of what is happening, but they don’t fall into a trap common among environmentalists: the assumption that if people can be convinced of just how horrible the threat is, they will be scared into doing something about it. (See Getting a Grip by Frances Moore Lappé for more about this pitfall and how to avoid it.) Rhizome’s perspective is that environmental problems are real, and urgent, and more serious than most US Americans will let themselves believe, and that this is exactly why we need to focus on finding life-affirming ways to take action. Rhizome isn’t just talking about climate change; they’re modeling what we need to do about it.

A practical application of Rhizome’s perspective on the time-sensitive nature of environmental action is the idea that we should experiment and make mistakes now, while we still can. In the future, when we do not have access to cheap energy from fossil fuels, acquiring and transporting materials will be much harder. This is a hard truth, but the best way to deal with it is to face it, and use the resources that we have available now to refine techniques that we can use in the future. Rather than scaring us, Rhizome invites us to experiment.

This book made me excited to be an environmentalist again because it’s not just about environmental issues. It also addresses social justice in a real, radical, substantive way. It makes sustainable technology accessible to the majority of the world’s people (rather than just super-educated “experts,” or people who can afford hybrid cars). Rather than getting bogged down in fear and grief about what is happening to the earth, Rhizome invites us into a joyful, proactive response. I’m done researching the details of how bad things are. I’m ready to start building the solution.


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