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Review of Just Enough by Azby Brown

My somewhat-worn copy on my desk.

Admittedly, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan by Azby Brown has been out since 2009, but like the ideas it offers up, it remains as relevant as the day it hit the shelves. I have reviewed it in a couple of different places, but a recent conversation over at Urban Farming Tokyo had me digging the book out once more and my reviews. Here's a fresh look at this unique and thoughtful book.

As climate change makes steady headway resulting in increasing economic disparity and a fiery mix of political turmoils, Azby Brown asks us to take a moment to look back to find the solutions. In Just Enough, Brown takes readers on an intimate tour of Edo Period Japan (1603-1898) where, shortly after a stint of environmental and economic crisis, the country entered a time of unprecedented economic and environmental stability.

Divided into three sections - Field and Forest, The Sustainable City, and A Life of Restraint - with two parts each, Just Enough literally takes readers on a tour of distinct parts of Edo society. In the first part of each section, we are travelers with Brown, our very able and informative guide, on a walk to Edo (Tokyo's former name) from the rural areas. We explore each setting (rural, urban Edo, and the samurai home); witness the activities of everyone from farmers to carpenters to villagers, townspeople to tradesmen; and wander through homes temples, and shops all while getting a feel for community life. Vibrant descriptions accompanied by detailed sketches and diagrams introduce daily practices, designs, materials and systems.

The second half of each section shows how these same principles and methods can be incorporated into modern life. Some require grand infrastructure rethinking (remove highways from above waterways) to cultural shifts (leave room for public foraging). Others focus on personal activities (grow a green curtain) as well as design (graywater resuse plumbing) to name just a few. Brown leaves few stones unturned and gives readers plenty of good ideas to think about.

For Edoko, or 'children of Edo' as former residents referred to themselves, such careful management of resources resulted in a vibrant economy. Tinkerers found ample work repairing everything from ceramics to metal tools. Carpenters not only built but dismantled buildings and then reused the components in new projects. Public baths made efficient use of water and fuel while offering a place where community members gathered to talk. Food vendors also made good use of fuel by cooking large quantities for sale to supplement evening meals. Many of these traditions - public baths and the daily purchasing of prepared foods - carry on today.

Just Enough is a perfect example of how the past can inform the present, how traditional technologies and mindsets can provide answers to modern problems. People, writes Brown, "...overcame many of the identical problems that confront us today - issues of energy, water, materials, food, and population." Brown's detailed picture of life in Edo and how sustainable principles were incorporated into daily to create a high standard of living is as inspiring and thought-provoking as it is engaging.


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