Books For the Sustainable Life

Like many others, I’ve been building a ‘green library’ of books relating to sustainability. Here’s an annotated booklist of the books in my collection. Every title was purchased based on a reviews and/or recommendations I found on other peak oil, sustainability and related sites.

The list is by no means comprehensive, but I hope that you find a title or two that you hadn’t heard about previously, and that it helps you in your personal quest for a more sustainable and enjoyable life. It is my plan to update this list as my library grows.

Peak Oil

I only have one book in my peak oil library, “The Long Emergency,” by James Howard Kunstler. Not everyone is a fan of his, but I enjoy his writing style, and I feel that his book covers a suitably wide range of issues that we all will be confronting in the 21st century. There are more problems facing us than declining oil production…

I have read plenty of other books relating to oil production and depletion, including the standard titles by Heinberg, Simmons, and Deffeyes. In my area, they are available in the local library system or via ILL. However, after reading them and having digested much of the information contained therein, I didn’t see the need to add them to my permanent collection. Soon enough we will have moved from the ‘peak oil is coming, and here’s the proof’ stage to the ‘peak oil is now a historical fact’ stage. Considering this, I have concentrated on collecting ‘how-to’ books instead.


I’ve separated permaculture from gardening due to it’s more wide-reaching subject-matter. While it obviously has a lot to do with agriculture, permaculture also covers the topics of shelter, landscaping and resource conservation as well.

Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” is considered the permaculture bible by many if not most practitioners. The book is thick, heavy and expensive, and reads like a university textbook. It covers pretty much everything the aspiring permaculturist needs to know for designing sustainable edible landscapes in pretty much any environment on the planet. It is a great collection of advice and instructions, but it is so comprehensive that many people will find large chunks of the book that they won’t use. Still, I’m glad to have it in my collection.

A much more friendly introduction to the subject is “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway. There are many introductory books out there, but this one seems to be the best-suited one for my climate and geographic location (upper midwest USA).

Another book I’d encourage permaculturists of any experience level to pick up is “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” by David Holmgren. Mr. Holmgren was a developer of the concept of permaculture together with Bill Mollison in Australia back in the 1970’s. If Mollison’s “Designers Manual” is the ‘how to’ book for permaculture, Holmgren’s is the ‘why to.’ I’ll need to re-read it several times before all of the information sinks in, but Holmgren’s book delves deep into the concepts of permaculture, and how we can use it to help synthesize a new pattern of living that fits into our low-energy future.

Finally, I’ve recently picked up the two volume set “Edible Forest Gardens,” by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. These books are aimed specifically at permaculturists working in North America, and as such may be of limited value to folks living elsewhere. Volume One deals with the concepts, while Volume Two covers design specifics.


My list of gardening books covers several different areas of focus, based on my personal preferences and current interests. It is sure to grow over time.

I started out by growing tomatoes and peppers in containers. Container gardening is an easy introduction into the world of vegetable gardening, especially if you either have poor soil in your yard or if you have limited space. The best introductory text I have found is “McGee & Stuckey’s Bountiful Container,” which is a great introductory guide to growing vegetables, fruit, herbs and edible flowers. If you’re interested in the new self-watering containers that have been recently introduced, Ed Smith’s “Incredible Vegetables From Self-Watering Containers” is book to check out, though it contains less useful information in my opinion compared to McGee & Stuckey.

Biointensive gardening is very popular with self-sufficiency types. John Jeavons is a leading practitioner of this style of gardening, and his books “How to Grow More Vegetables…” and “The Sustainable Vegetable Garden” are two primary resources used by biointensive proponents. The former is a more in-depth look at biointensive practices while the latter is more of an introductory text from what I can tell. Jeavons makes claims of impressive yields from small parcels of land, though his critics maintain that his numbers are hard to match outside of perfect conditions. That said, there is a wealth of information in these books, and I m glad to have them in my collection.

Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seed, may be the ‘anti-Jeavons’ of the gardening world. His book “Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times” can be seen as a rejection of biointensive methods. Solomon’s book gives the novice gardener plenty of advice on how to grow enough food to make the difference between barely surviving and living comfortably. He covers how to grow food in imperfect conditions using only a handful of tools and working a few hours a day. A different and in my opinion equally valid way of doing things compared to biointensive gardening. Mr. Solomon also maintains a free online library of old, usually out-of-print books relating to farming, health and social issues.

For general organic gardening, Eliot Coleman’s “The New Organic Grower” is a classic text that any home gardener or small farmer should look at. Barbara Ellis’ “The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control” is one of the best-recommended titles on the subject I could find. Another good general text I recommend is “The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Food” by Tanya Denckla.

Seed saving is a part of gardening that is easy to overlook in a society where procuring new seed packets is easy and cheap. “Seed to Seed” is a great book on the subject put out by the Seed Savers’ Exchange.

Cooking & Nutrition

Food preferences are a very personal thing, so I don’t plan on offering up too much in this area. For what it’s worth, I’m not a vegetarian, though I have followed such a diet in the past. If you don’t know how to cook much, there’s a wide variety of introductory texts out there that can help you. I personally am partial to the Alton Brown books, but there are plenty of other good choices out there as well.

If you’re interested in learning more about old-fashioned eating like your recent ancestors did, the book “Nourishing Traditions” is a good place to start. Part textbook and part cookbook, it covers a lot of the staple food of the past, including broths, stew, soup, fermented food and the like. There’s something for everyone, and probably parts you won’t want to read and/or sample from. In my case it was the chapter on organ meats.

(NEW) I’ve recently gotten into baking bread at home. The book recommended to me by Beo was “Bread Alone.” It’s focused more on what are considered ‘artisan breads,’ but it has lots of good knowledge on how to create tasty loaves of bread with just your hands.

(NEW) A great introduction to fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, cheese, bread, wine & beer is “Wild Fermentation.” And added plus is the fact that all of the recipes rely on only a few basic pieces of equipment and no energy inputs.

If you’re interested in learning how to make cheese, the book “Home Cheese Making” by Ricki Carroll is a great introduction to the hobby.

(NEW) For canning, it’s hard to beat the Ball “Blue Book of Preserving.” Lots of good information, recipes, and a price that won’t hurt your wallet. For more recipes, the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving” has over 400 recipes for everything from jellies to pickles, to condiments of all sorts. For other methods of food preservation, one of the best references out there is “Putting Food By.

I’m a homebrewer, and make my own beer, mead and wine. If you’re looking for a good introductory text on the basics of brewing beer, it’s hard to beat John Palmer’s “How to Brew” or Charlie Papzian’s “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.” “How to Brew” is the more up-to-date and technical resource, while “Complete Joy” is the classic bible of homebrewers. If you’re interested in mead, Ken Schramm’s “The Complete Meadmaker” is the best book you can buy bar none. There are many books out there on winemaking, but many of them focus on making wine exclusively from grapes, which is too bad since you can make many very good wines from other fruits, flowers and even vegetables(!). A dated but good introductory text for all types of winemaking is “First Steps in Winemaking” by C.J.J. Berry. Another good choice is “The Home Winemaker” by Gene Spaziani.


For a general reference on a wide variety of rural/sustainable skills, Carla Emery’s “The Encyclopedia of County Living” is a good choice. Much of the focus is on homesteading and farming tasks that will be of little use to me in the burbs right now, but it’s still very interesting to read, and there’s plenty of knowledge to be had.

The SAS Survival Handbook” is a good guide for city folk like myself who might want some information on how to stay alive in all sorts of different scenarios.

Updated March 29, 2007

4 Responses to Books For the Sustainable Life

  1. Mark Roest says:

    Which of these books that you know are good for tropical agriculture (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa), and which are good for arid regions (from northern to tropical)? What are your thoughts about using your recommendations in a wiki for oneVillage Foundation ?
    Mark Roest

  2. Bart says:

    Thanks for your comment. Keep in mind that these are only a list of the books I own. I live in a temperate climate, so my acquisitions have revolved around that environment… This is by no means a complete listing of available resources.

    Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” has sections that deal with pretty much all environments. Likewise, Solomon’s “Gardening When it Counts” deals with a wide variety of climates, though not in nearly as comprehensively as Mollison does.

    I would have no issues with my list being used in the wiki… just remember that I’m an amateur enthusiast of these subjects. Others will have different opinions and more resources to add. I’d hate to have my short list of titles being put out as anything more than just a starting point.

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