Best Sustainability Books

Reader Contribution by Carole Coates
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I’m a sucker for books that detail how someone else went about the modern homesteading process. It makes me feel like I’m living our sustainability beginnings all over again. Here are five of my favorites. 

Up Tunket Road

Philip Ackerman-Leist and his wife, Erin, did it the hard way, living without running water or electricity for seven years while they built up their farm. In Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader, the author  promotes his story as one of evolving assumptions and beliefs, he’s brutally honest about the choices he’s made and their implications, and he acknowledges that even hard-core homesteaders must make compromises—something I especially appreciate. He sees homesteading as a state of mind rather than something place-based.

Don’t be misled into thinking Up Tunket Road is a how-to manual. It’s not. Yet, it’s much more than a memoir. I see it as a highly instructive cautionary tale for would-be-homesteaders, ensuring that they enter their own homesteading ventures with eyes wide open.

What I love: I’m deeply moved by the philosophy that underlies every paragraph of this book: the questioning, the implicit values, the acknowledgment of our connectivity with each other and the world at large. And it’s definitely worth mentioning that lovely line drawing illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book. They’re the work of Erin.

Rural Renaissance

“If you love something, let it go.” I loved Rural Rennaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist so much that after I read it, highlighted favorite passages, and took copious notes, I passed it on to a young relative just embarking on “the simple life.” The authors’ fresh approach to modern homesteading includes community, interdependence, and “right livelihood.” They take a moral long view, deciding to be part of society rather than isolated from it, sharing their fresh approach to making the world a better place through involved, smart, creative environmental approaches. For instance, instead of living off the grid, they choose to contribute to it from their alternative energy sources.

This highly entrepreneurial couple has forged a way to a good living while living a good life. Modern homesteaders who want to make a living from their lifestyle will find plenty of value in this and other books by Ivanko and Kivirist.

What I love: As with Ackerman-Leist’s book, I’m impressed with the philosophy that’s marked the way for the authors. Their sincerity, creativity, and enthusiasm stand out throughout the book. Their commitment to community is especially inspiring.


Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life by Deborah Niemann is about exactly what the title suggests: how to live thriftily and ecologically at the same time. It covers the gamut: personal care products, fitness, food, home maintenance, gardening, entertainment, transportation, and more.

Not every suggestion Niemann offers will work for every person, but the book is chock full of practical ideas readers can choose from for use in everyday life. In addition to offering a rationale for becoming more ecothrifty, this down-to-earth guide provides options, methods, and recipes for living a more sustainable and economical life.

In her food chapter, Niemann includes a number of tempting recipes. What I like best, though, is her approach to food preparation: it needs to be simple and quick. Tips for easier meal preparation include such things as cutting biscuit dough in squares with a sharp knife, a time-saving method that leaves no leftover dough. So obvious and yet the kind of thing a person might not think of until someone else points it out.

What I love: the sheer practicality along with the author’s research that serves as a wake up call to why we, as society, must change our habits and why, as individuals, should want to.

Back to Basics

There are two editions of the Reader’s Digest Association’s Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills, both of which are apparently out of print but can be purchased used. I have the first edition, published in 1981. You can certainly find more current information on some of the topics, like buying land and building on it. But the basics are still applicable and deserve attention. Besides, it’s a fun read.

My favorite sections are on gardening, homestead crafts, and old-fashioned family recreation. Though scads of gardening books can be found online and in stores, this book is still one of my go-tos. What I love: the down-to-earth nature of this book and its honoring of timeless traditions.

Mother Earth News Almanac 

I can’t help it—I’m drawn to the books that make me nostalgic for our family’s early modern homesteading days. My 1973 edition of the Mother Earth News Almanac: A Guide Through the Seasons is well-worn and yellowed with age. But you can buy a brand new copy of the revised edition, which still retains the back-to-the-land appeal of the original. Same articles, same charming line drawings.

As with Back to Basics, you can find more current information elsewhere, sometimes written in clearer language, but you’ll miss the quaintness of this volume, which is full of articles, tips, DIY instructions, and old-time country philosophy on all manner of things. It’s arranged by season (most relevant for gardening topics), so you know right where to go if you have an issue specific to a particular time of year.

What I love: If you’ve been reading my Mother Earth News blog posts, you already know the answer to this one. It’s the cheese-potato soup recipe on page 294 of the 1973 edition. I also love the nostalgia the entire book evokes.

What are your favorite gardening books? I’m always eager to add more to my library.

Carole Coatesis a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here. You can also find Carole atLiving On the Diagonalwhere she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

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