Book Review: Toolbox for Sustainable Urban Living

Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s guide, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, is an accessible, well-organized, and convincing read.  From the introduction, which clearly lays out the authors philosophical beliefs, to the conclusions, which ties the ideas presented within together, Kellogg and Pettigrew have done an admirable job of compiling different systems that could be used by the urban dweller to live sustainably. The reader will be prompted to constantly look at how they are living and look at possible changes they could make to their own life to help create a more sustainable world, thus increasing our planet’s longevity. The author’s propose the questions of ‘How can one live sustainably in an urban environment?”, “What practical changes are possible?”, and “If changes are made, will society be able to avoid a total collapse?” and make a valiant effort to convince the reader that change is possible, while at the same time giving practical ways in which one can obtain sustainability.

The majority of this guide is spent giving the reader clear systems that if put into place will help the reader achieve their own individual sustainability.  The author’s touch on water use and recycling, micro-livestock and growing one’s own food, and how to compost scrap food, to name a few. Given are instructions on how to create these systems of sustainability and encouragements that they can be implemented even in apartments, small lots, and other urban dwellings.

                Kellogg and Pettigrew, with the backing of their humanistic ideologies, argue that governments are not, and are not going to, make the types of changes that are required for sustainable urban living. Instead, “…change’s will take place at the grassroots level”, as governments are continually resistant and slow in their progress of towards this ideology (Kellogg et al., 2008).  There are many factors for this (economics, politics, etc.), but the author’s say that shift from a consumer or capitalist society towards an individual sustainability society is desperately needed.   The author’s subscribe to Malthusian ideologies and the “J-Curve Model”, believing that at some point, the world will reach its environmental limit, and that societal collapse will shortly follow.  In order to slow and potentially reverse this inevitability, the author’s urge readers to live in more sustainable ways.

                To support their thesis, the author’s often referred to the Rhizome Collective, a compound where the author’s, with the support of like-minded individuals and eventually the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), have put the systems of sustainable living on display. Though hard number statistics are not presented in their writing, the systems presented in this book appear to work successfully.  Evidence of their success can be seen in a $200,000.00 EPA grant and the establishment of a number of different organizations including Bikes Across Borders, The Inside Books Project, and the Austin Independent Media Center, to name a few.  To the authors’ credit, however, they do recognize their lack of results and explain the difficulty in collecting sufficient resources. They identify that they are merely taking the first step towards sustainable living.

                At first glance, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living appears to be more of a “Do it Yourself” step-by-step guide to creating a sustainable urban environment, and less like a book promoting an ideology. It appears that the only sort of ideological sentiments to be found are in the brief introduction and the even shorter conclusion. Whether it was the authors’ intentions or not, a thorough read through exposes thoughts and ideas that permeate out from the guided sustainable system creation.  By only referring to their ideologies in the briefest way, this book has the potential to be accessed by people who are not just interested in Geography, Environmentalism, or Sustainability, but also to gardeners, handymen and women and do-it-yourselfer’s. This allows exposure, but also allows the spread of ideas.  Books on sustainable living often refer more to ideological beliefs, understandings, and rhetoric, and less about how this is to be achieved.

                This is where Toolbox for Sustainable City Living really shines.  Displays of practical systems that can be undertaken by all city dwellers convince the reader that not only is sustainable living important, it is something can be achieved. It is likely that many more people will be able to lead more sustainable lives through reading and putting into practice this book, then will be convinced by a set of textbooks, theories and lectures.

                There are some areas in which this work would have benefited in some acknowledgement of various scenarios.  While the authors’ did well in identifying that some State laws may prevent the systems they are suggesting from being implemented, they completely ignored one other determining factor; the weather. In the northern states, parts of Canada, and other areas around the world, the authors’ fail to acknowledge that some systems will only work in the right environment. It may be possible to filter greywater into usable fresh water in an area of the world that receives positive temperatures (Celsius) year-round, but this same system become completely impractical in places receives snow for 50% or more of the year.

                The books also suffers from its lack of head evidence support the success they claim to achieve by implementing the systems described. Ideas are nice, but hard facts would really support the authors’ original thesis. It would be effective to see numbers in how much energy was used prior to and after starting to use the suggested systems of sustainable living.

                As a book arguing an ideology of sustainable living, Toolbox for Sustainable Living does exceptionally well. Kellogg and Pettigrew are convincing in their statements about the current environmental situation and the changes they feel can be made by urban dwellers. Its strength lies in the way that it subtly supports ideologies through the do-it-yourself projects described.  This book has the potential to create new believers to the ideology of sustainable living by showing how simple changes can lead to big changes and will encourage all who read to look at their own lives to see what they themselves can do to move towards creating a sustainable environment.


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