Sustainable Living



Table of Contents

1. Personal Context

I have lived on and with the same land for 50 years. Where there were farms, and then raw bulldozer gashes and new homes, there are now modest regrowth, a few chickens, and old homes ready for teardown. Our own home is patched and upgraded but still inefficient, the land needs terracing, and we wonder what global warming will do. I (and others) are in a battle with developers who want to turn the last natural and rural places of our county into gated communities, high-rise condos and office parks.

2. Emergencies

The big disruptive events (earthquakes, snowstorms, hurricanes, floods, terrorist bombings, etc.) either break/damage normal infrastructure (police, fire dept, AAA, medics, phone system) or make it difficult to reach them. You should be prepared to survive several days on the road while making your way home, and then survive for weeks at home while you and neighbors reinvent necessities. See emergencies

3. Native Culture

Local technologies which work over generations. Highly tuned to local conditions. Here in Western Washington we have (or had) temperate rain forests dominated by Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and salmon-bearing streams.


Jan Halliday, Gail Chehak. "Native Peoples of the Northwest", 2nd ed. Sasquatch Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57061-241-2. Guide to cultural heritage centers and museums. Visit with the intent to understand and carry on the technologies, not just to be mildly amused for an afternoon.


Hillary Stewart. "Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast". University of Washington Press, 1977. ISBN 0-295-95803-0. Fishing from boat and shore, ocean and river, line-caught, spears, nets, weirs, etc. Salmon is the reason there was a Northwest culture at all. Exterminating the salmon has had the same effect locally as exterminating the bison had on the Great Plains.


Hillary Stewart. "Cedar: Tree of life to the Northwest Indians". University of Washington Press, 1984. ISBN 0-295-97448-6. How to make life's necessities from cedar trees. Once you read this book, you will realize how precious they are, and how insane to reduce them to shingles and patio furniture.

4. Hunting, Fishing, Food Gathering

These are similar to native culture in their focus on non-domesticated resources, but they often use high-tech (and possibly not sustainable) materials and tools.

With growing human population, shrinking wilds, and ever better technologies, hunters/fishermen/food-gatherers can wipe out a resource quite easily. Thus we must live within artificial restrictions. As a rule, the more effective a technique, the less approved it will be. However, even in that world it is possible to add food to the larder.

One aspect of better technique is better knowledge of the prey. Game-cams, wildlife biologists, and tracking collars have given us insights native cultures barely glimpsed. Thus, start with biology. Then apply common sense and a few fairly low-tech tools.

Wild plant gathering is easiest, with greens, nuts, berries, and mushrooms being the most obvious. Unfortunately, ruthless businessmen hire people to stripmine these "common" resources.

Coastal shellfish are next. Crabs, mussels, clams, and oysters are the primary targets. Again, poachers over-harvest resources husbanded by the rest of us.

Fishing with spears, nets, and weirs is so effective that it is largely off-limits. Among legal techniques, live-bait-with-bobber is effective (and therefore declasse). At the other extreme fly fishing with ultra-light tackle and barbless hooks is an art which might incidentally produce fish. It may be sustainable for the fish but not necessarily for the fisherman's family.

Hunting with modern firearms, esp. large game on public lands, is a low-percentage affair. Hunter's orange clothing somewhat negates the skills of primitive hunting, but is a necessity. The sheer number of hunters in a small space and short time window also cuts the results.

Bow hunting allows using more hunting skills, but a modern compound bow is no more primitive or sustainable than a 30.06. A hand-crafted yew bow backed with sinew (a la Ishi) on the other hand would be a real adventure. Then again, how many yew trees can our forests sustainably provide?


Tom Brown, Jr. "Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tacking". Berkley Books, 1983. ISBN 0-425-09966-0. How to read natural signs of past events, esp tracks. The book is actually much more about becoming one with nature than pure technique.


Field & Stream. "The Complete Hunter". The Lyons Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59228-427-2. A collection of articles primarily on bird hunting and bow hunting.


Tom Forbes. "The Invisible Advantage Workbook: Ghillie Suit Construction Made Simple". Paladin Press, 2002. ISBN 978-1-58160-310-1. A ghillie is a Scottish gameskeeper. A ghillie suit is coat or cloak of rags and brush that blends into the terrain. Originally used for hunting, but adopted by military for snipers. We take it back to the original purpose.


H. Lea Lawrence. "The Ultimate Guide to Small Game Hunting and Varmint Hunting". The Lyons Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58574-566-9.

There are a lot more squirrels and rabbits out there than elk and moose. So if you hunt for the larder, small game matters.


Glenn Newick. "The Ultimate in Rifle Accuracy: Getting the Most Out of Your Equipment and Yourself". Stoeger Publishing Co, 1989. ISBN 0-88317-159-7. This tends more to benchrest than to hunting, but it helps to know what the pros worry about even if you are just doing 100 yd shots at 3 inch targets.


Matt Richards. "Deerskins Into Buckskins: How To Tan With Natural Materials, a Field Guide for Hunters and Gatherers", 2nd ed.. Backcountry Publishing, 2004 ISBN-10: 0965867242 ISBN-13: 978-0965867245.

Explains the chemistry, biochemistry, and mechanics of the beginning resource and the final product. Explains step by step what needs to happen and how to make it happen in the transformation steps. Clear, concise, and to the point. Provides both traditional and modern techniques.


Wayne Van Zwoll. "The Hunters Guide to Accurate Shooting". The Lyons Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58574-468-9.

5. Traditional Agriculture

Typically powered by oxen or horses. Includes woodlot, field crops, orchards, pasture, gardens, and assorted livestock. Requires knowledge of the biologies/life-cycles/ailments of each species, plus tool making from raw stock. Similar to native cultures in that it is sustainable over generations, but not as tied to local conditions. Thus, the same technologies might be used in temperate zones around the world.


Howland Blackiston. "Beekeeping for Dummies". Hungry Minds, 2002. ISBN 0-7645-5419-0. Bees are critical for pollination, and incidentally can provide honey as well. Even if you just do mason bees (no honey), the biosphere is thankful.


Alan Bridgewater, Gill Bridgewater. "How to Use and Care for Woodworking Tools". Stackpole Books, 1998. ISBN 0-8117-2794-7. Hand-powered, but more modern than Underhill.


Gail Damerow, ed. "Barnyard in Your Backyard". Storey Publishing, 2002. ISBN 1-58017-456-6. How to raise chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, cows. Appropriate for a few acres. For many parts of the world, this would be a normal family's subsistence homestead, but for the US is is more like a large suburban yard with odd pets.


Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan. "Putting Food By", 4th ed. The Stephen Greene Press, 1991. Drying, canning, jellies, freezing, etc.


John Spiecher, project director. "Crafts and Hobbies: A step-by-Step Guide to Creative Skills". Reader's Digest, 1979. ISBN 0-895770-63-6. Skills we now think of as hobbies were once essential life skills -- and may become so again. Spinning, dyeing, weaving, sewing. Candle making. Pottery. Basketry. Leatherworking.


Frank D. Gardner. "Traditional American Farming Techniques". The Lyons Press, 2001. ISBN 1-58574-412-3. Originally published as L. T. Myers, "Successful Farming", 1916. You might call this "scientific farming", circa 1900. I have read farming texts back into the 1600's and the better ones are quite well-thought out for the technologies of the day.


John and Martha Storey. "Storey's Basic Country Skills: A practical guide to self-reliance". Storey Publishing, 1999. ISBN 1-58017-202-4. Wells, farm buildings, gardens and greenhouses, root cellars, etc.


Roy Underhill. "The Woodwright's Shop". University of North Carolina Press, 1981. ISBN 0-8078-4082-3. Tools and technique to start with a forest and end up with a nice home full of furniture.


Roy Underhill. "The Woodwright's Companion". University of North Carolina Press, 1983. ISBN0-8078-4095-5. Addendum to underhill81.


Aldren A. Watson. "The Blacksmith: Iron Worker and Farrier". W. W. Norton, 2000. Originally published as "The Village Blacksmith", Crowell, 1977.

6. Sustainable Culture

Tuned for local conditions, but using the best available "appropriate technology". May be a mix of wilderness areas, protected habitats, multi-use, native culture, traditional agriculture, computers, bio-diesel, and solar panels. Of course any such hybrid may take centuries to prove to be sustainable or not. This leads to debates over what is in fact sustainable.

Given the negative payoff for a mistake, we should be quite risk averse on these issues. Yet the standard economic model does not adequately value the things lost, and thus the equation never favors preservation. Only religion seems to have the power to sway human behavior in an adequately safe direction.

The key issues are:

  • Home construction (e.g., green products, passive solar, good insulation) Commercial buildings are going green faster than private homes.

  • Water supply and sewage. It is incredible that city dwellers are allowing their water supplies to be compromised or even sold to private parties. It is also strange to find sewage shipped many miles for treatment.

  • Food supply and compost. Largely turning back to pre-petro traditional techniques, but with better scientific insight, which allow highly productive organic farming.

  • Renewable energy. We don't know where this is going, except that we are addicted and nothing has a chance of replacing our full dependence on oil. Reduced usage and higher efficiency have to be part of the solution.

  • Access to extremely high-tech. It takes high-tech to run the compute models which tell us when to make more solar panels, or to analyze the DNA of a crop infestation, or to design products which can be recycled after they have been reused to oblivion.


Edward Allen. "Fundamentals of Building Construction", 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons, 1990. ISBN 0-471-50911-0. Steel, concrete, wood. Structure, plumbing, electrical, etc. All the "modern" technologies, most of which can be sustainable if applied with "green" architectural design.


Arthur Cote, ed. "Fire Protection Handbook", 16th ed. National Fire Protection Association, 1991. ISBN 0-87765-378-X. No matter how you build, make sure it doesn't burn down. I got this one to better understand 9/11 and the official "the insulation fell off" story about the collapses. I am still sceptical.


Williams H. Kemp. "The Renewable Energy Handbook: A Guide to Rural Energy Independence, Off-Grid and Sustainable Living". Aztext Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9733233-2-9.


Bryan G. Norton, ed. "Searching for Sustainability: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Philosophy of Conservation Biology". Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-00778-X.


Clarke Snell, Tim Callahan. "Building Green: A Complete How-to Guide to Alternative Building Methods". Lark Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1-57990-532-3. Siting for passive solar. Cob, cordwood, straw-bale, etc.

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2008-11-26