Review: Building a Better World in Your Backyard

When it comes to nonfiction environmental books these days, I feel that we’re reaching “peek dystopia.”

Or, at least I hope we are. Because it seems that between books about our warming planet, animal extinction, water shortages and wars, I’m sufficiently enlightened and depressed.

What we don’t have enough of these days are hands-on books about doing something to make the world better right in your own backyard, which is the subtitle of this very practical and subservisely entertaining book by Paul Wheaton and Shawn Klassen-Koop.

I was already familiar with Paul Wheaton through the website he founded Permies.com. If you want to know everything about permaculture, homesteading, solar power, you name it, this is a very good place to start.

And this book is in many ways a “best of” Permies.com.

The authors are promoting what they call “luxuriant environmentalism.” By that, they’re saying that you can still be comfortable and sustainable. And you can save money along the way. In other words, just because you can’t afford a Tesla and a solar array doesn’t mean you can’t achieve significant energy savings. And they’re right. A Tesla, after all, is just a really big lithium-ion battery — which carries a host of its own environmental baggage. So why not just focus on the little things, like light bulbs and the thermostat and cutting back on the clothes dryer.

Where the book shines is in its focus on permaculture. Permaculture is a word I find difficult to explain because its really a way of life. It’s about recycling, about keeping chemicals out of the soil, about gardening in ways that work with the soil and not against it, and about getting along with all those critters that we’ve been raised to believe are pests.

As a vegan, I was worried the book would focus too much on using animals (as so much of homesteading does) but the book is actually much more about saving energy, smarter gardening, Hugelkultur (sounds complicated but not, and very cool), and healthier living. It’s impossible to cover everything in this book — like building a “freaky cheap home that doesn’t look freaky cheap,” or “better than solar panels: a solar food dehidrator.” But I guarantee that by the end of this book you’ll find a nugget or two of advice (probably many more) that will help you improve the world and your life.

In the end, we need to spend less time complaining about how those in power are ruining the planet (which they are!) and focus on what we can do. As Paul writes:

Nearly all these massive problems are caused, indirectly, by us. By you. And when we get angry at “them” it turns out that we paid “them” to create this problem. . . . The problem is ourselves. We need to own our own shit. We need to clean our own backyard and stop feeding the monsters that are, in turn, harming (and even killing) our friends and families. If we stop giving money to the monsters, they stop being monsters.

Building a Better World in Your Backyard