March 29, 2020

Book Review: Building a Better World in Your Backyard

How many of you have spent some of your extra home time reading a good book? I have one that's well-written and filled with lots of interesting ideas. It's by Paul Wheaton and Shawn Klassen-Koup.

The aim of the book is to help you make an impact—not by being a better and louder complainer, but in realistic practical ways and without sacrificing personal comfort. The authors define this as "luxuriant environmentalism." That in itself ought to grab your attention, because most people claiming to try to save the planet tell us we need to make personal sacrifices to do that saving. The ideas in this book, however, offer less wasteful but comfortable lifestyle changes that will also save you money.

Do you already consider yourself environmentally conscientious? The first section of this book will absolutely challenge you on that. The authors begin with a very simple test, and then challenge some of the popular eco-ideas with which we've been greenwashed. This section wraps up by presenting three different footprints which can all be reduced without a sacrifice to personal comfort: carbon footprint, petroleum footprint, and toxic footprint.

Part 2 addresses general strategies to reduce these three footprints. It begins with the Wheaton Eco Scale, which gives the reader a chance to see how they realistically line up in a scale of zero to ten.

Several interesting ideas are presented. One is a system of rating the production of food according to its carbon footprint: from the Standard American Diet (SAD) of purchased foods with its footprint of 10.5 tons of carbon, down to VORP grown (virgin—i.e. raw, fresh, or minimally processed—, strictly organic, rich soil, polyculture/permaculture) with a carbon footprint of -1. Another interesting idea is to label foods with a GAT score indicating the amount of government-mandated acceptable levels of toxicity in each food item.

Part 3 addresses reducing energy consumption within the walls of your home, but without sacrificing personal comfort. Analyzes general energy usage in typical homes and numerous small and easy ways to make a big impact. Chapter 15 offers numerous ways to reduce the toxic footprint in your home, all economical and easy to do.

Part 4 is entitled "More Than Half of Each Footprint Can Be Resolved in a Backyard." Of course, not everyone has a backyard, but you'll still find an interesting discussion of one's possibilities. The ideas in this section start with the easiest ("Double the Food with One Tenth the Effort") and progress to ideas that will take a little more work but reap huge benefits ("Harvesting Electricity in Your Backyard" and "The Conventional Lawn vs a Mowable Meadow.") Also discusses the dark side of native plants, 20 things to do with twigs that fall in your yard, not composting, and greywater recycling.

Part 5 offers even more ideas for those with the ability to homestead. Entitled "Counter the Footprint of 20 People on a Homestead," it discusses the benefits (to everyone) of livestock, replacing petroleum with people, dealing with poop and pee, natural swimming pools, and why you should destroy your orchard! (Shocked? Read the book for a great reason why!) For those entertaining the idea of building their own home, there's an excellent chapter on "A Building Design That Solves Almost Everything."

Part 6, "Conclusion," summarizes the book's message nicely.

One thing that impresses me about the authors is that they respect folks who have a different opinion regarding environmental problems and their causes, yet still give an extremely compelling rationale for adopting the ideas advocated in the book. This respect is extremely important. The current trend of trying to belittle those with different opinions by calling them names will never solve the problems. If we truly believe things need to be changed, then we can only be successful through cooperation. And cooperation requires respecting one another, something that's completely disappeared in politics, activism, and  journalism these days.

The only thing that's missing in this book is an index in the paperback edition. I always prefer paperbacks and often use an index, so that's a feature I will miss. However, the sections and chapters are clearly defined in the contents, so I'm sure I'll be able to go back to ideas I want to explore further.

So. Do you want to make a difference without sacrificing comfort? Then this book is for you. Do you want to cut your bills and save money? Then this book is for you.

It's available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook.


Michelle said...

If the book is half as good as your review, it sounds well worth the read!

CityCreekCountryRoad said...

Sounds interesting, I put it on my wish list on ThriftBooks.

My library doesn't have it and is not accepting regular and Interlibrary loan holds while closed.

I just finished reading Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit." While mainly aimed at creative types, there was a lot of interesting info especially when you are home all the time.

wyomingheart said...

We can always improve our footprints, and this book sounds like it does not disappoint. Thanks for such a great review. Not sure about the getting rid of the orchard! I may need to read the kindle version just to see the explanation... that’s a tough idea, seeing how long it is taking us to get an orchard going! Have a wonderful day!

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh - Having read (and enjoyed) A Soil Owner's Manual, I will take the recommendation. That said (and having not read the book), my question on books such as these has become more and more unless the directly address the fact that urban living is a significant contributor to and destroyer of resources, they are not really interested in solving the problem. They are interested in advancing a world view which looks a lot like government control of every aspect of our lives (which, I suppose, is really more and more of what we are actually living).

GiantsDanceFarm said...

I've got my hard copy of "A Soil Owner's Manual" and now have ordered this book in Kindle format. Thank you for the recommendations, your reviews are
just excellent!

I like that this book seems to be applicable in a sort of step by step manner. so many books on Permaculture and organic living are very all or nothing. I'm hoping, as a disabled person, t be able to begin doing some of the suggested changes, adding which on as I can. I've been doing what I call "modified Permaculture" - which currently consists of nine 100 gallon horse troughs and a few trash cans with rotting wood in the bottom, topped with well-composted horse manure and kitchen and yard compost. This works especially well for me as I can plant and weed and water sitting on my walker pulled up to each container. Each year I replace a few inches of the soil with new compost and once a week I switch from just well water to compost tea.

Last year we had a young man come by once a week for a few hours to help with heavier jobs. His family are HUGE gardeners, and he was so amazed at the size of the plants I had and the massive production that he took pictures to show his parents.

I enjoy your blog and especially your book reviews!

Shelley in NE Michigan

Leigh said...

Michelle, I'll take that as a compliment! It is an excellent read with something for everyone.

City Creek Country Road, the closing of libraries has been the worst of this coronavirus scare. But it is an excellent time for reading. Do request your library get a copy of this book once they are up and running again.

Wyomingheart, think edible food forest. That doesn't mean actually tearing out an existing orchard, but learning how to augment it for healthier plants, soil, and productivity. The concept is definitely worth looking into. From personal experience, I know that standard orchard species (apples, peaches, pears, etc.) require an awful lot of pampering.

TB, I agree with you, and have to say that this book's take on the urban problem isn't directly addressed. The authors are permaculturists, so their direction is definitely toward healthy and proper land usage, but the book itself tries to reach people at whatever level they find themselves, with ideas to take more control themselves. As the book progresses, the increased options of having land and acreage are an encouragement in that direction.

Shelley, thank you! You will definitely like this book. Your modifications and progress are amazing! Well done. That's how it's supposed to be. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions and you are an excellent example of how to find your own fit.

Shawn said...

Hey Leigh, thanks for the generous review! I'm glad you liked the book!

Leaving out the index was a tough choice. We were trying to keep the book as small as possible and had to make some tough choices on what to leave out. It was either the index or main content, so we sacrificed the index. As an author yourself, I'm sure you've had to leave some great stuff out of your books too!

~ Shawn Klassen-Koop

Powell River Books said...

We are in Bellingham and don't have a backyard. Even so I am writing a post next week about my "backyard." - Margy

Rain said...

Great review Leigh. I think that most people, once challenged, will be surprised or shocked at how little of a footprint they are leaving when they think they are doing all they can.

Mama Pea said...

Thanks for a great review, Leigh. We aren't familiar with this book but will be checking it out. The more we research and read, the more we think about changing all kinds of things we're attempting or actually doing. I think it's sometimes difficult to read what others have suggested as "the right thing" to do because of our extreme different climates. And sometimes the only way to find out if one thing or another will work for you is to do the hard work to gain the personal experience. Not to say we all shouldn't keep trying. We're keeping at it and I'm thinking this book will have lots of good information for us to ponder.

Leigh said...

Shawn! Welcome! Yes, I very much liked the book and yes, I know about the tough decisions that have to be made. Not having an index definitely doesn't detract from the book's content, and folks with a Kindle version will be able to use the search feature. The table of contents is well enough defined to be able to find a topic again easily. Congratulations on a well-done book.

Margy, well, you have a floating backyard! I'm looking forward to your post.

Rain, thanks! I agree with you. That's why a book like this is invaluable; it presents things we haven't thought of before and motivates us to do more.

Mama Pea, thanks! I second that on personal experience. You will find this book especially helpful because the authors both live in northern climates, so their experience leans toward those conditions. They are upfront about this, however, and also have suggestions for my climate as well. All in all, a good read.

Cockeyed Jo said...

I've been eyeing that book since it came out, but not yet purchased it. I'm waiting for it to hit my library circuit like I do most books. It's my way of conservation. I no longer have a 14x14 room for a library. If I check a book out more than three times, I buy a copy.

Goatldi said...

Voice of treason. I will step back into the closet now.

Goatldi said...

Opps that would be reason

Leigh said...

Jo, that's how I often do it too! Those of us on a strict budget have to be discerning about our book dollars. But also, I never mind requesting the library buy a book, because it's still a sale for the author plus it gets it into the hands of a lot more people.

Goatldi, LOLOL! One of the authors (Paul) is the brains behind, and they have a "world domination" link promoting helping folks change the world through permaculture. Your slip of the fingers seemed appropriate under the circumstances. :)

Ed said...

Interesting book review. I've been doing a lot more reading lately than normal which is really rare for this time of year.

Although we don't actively try and reduce are carbon footprint other than not trying to create waste, I'm guessing we have a much smaller footprint than most of our peers. We have a very small house by today's standards (and especially among peers), drive cheap vehicles and don't spend a lot of money. I've never been one to keep up with the 'Joneses'.

Leigh said...

Ed, I don't necessarily think in terms of carbon footprint either, but I do think in terms of waste because that's something tangible. I can't see and measure carbon, but I can see how much we're throwing away. My ideal would be zero waste, i.e. never having to make a trip to the landfill. Consequently, I'm always interested in new ideas. Trouble is, most sources seem to keep repeating the obvious (to me, anyway). This book interested me because it has a more creative approach and gave me more tangible ways to evaluate myself and make progress. Not trying to keep up with the Joneses is definitely a good starting point.

Bohemian said...

If Decor books filled with pixs qualifies as Reading, yes, I Read! We just bought a Mini Farm so will soon be experimenting with what we can grow or raise on our little slice of Heaven.

Leigh said...

Bohemian, congratulations on your new Mini Farm! That's exciting news. And yes, any kind of reading counts. :)

Chris said...

Libraries closing are a terrible thing! Thankfully in this day and age though, we have electronic books. It sound like an interesting read, and we probably could all go further in our attempts to make a difference. Great review. :)

Chris said...

I forgot to mention Leigh, I left comments on some older posts, and they haven't been published yet. Wondering if they got moved to your spam folder for approval, or it was a user-error at my end, and they didn't get submitted at all. If you could check, that would be great. I replied to your solar, kidding, and master-plan updates :)

Leigh said...

Chris, as you can see, I've been pretty slow with comments these days! Thanks for the heads up. Sometimes I don't realize there are comments on older posts awaiting moderation until I think to check the folder. My bad!

Our library went from a two-week closure until now, further notice. I'm so glad we have good resources in our homestead library. Videos are another matter. I buy them when they're a couple of dollars, but Dan is always interested in something new! lol. Trouble is, it's hard to find something new and worth watching. :)