Green Light at the End of the Tunnel: Learning from the Art of Living Well without Causing Harm to Our Planet and Ourselves by Anna Edey. Trailblazer Press, 2014.
Anna Edey’s latest book is a beautifully illustrated, autobiographical, self-published volume by one of our Island’s most impassioned environmental citizens.
A plea for caring for the planet in a more sustainable way, she asks the question: “How shall we live? In what ways can we live without continuing to ruin it all?” She lists degradation of our air, water, soil, forests and oceans all as a result of our unsustainable use of resources and the planet. And then offers a vision of living on Earth in ways that are low-cost, comfortable, locally based and sustainable. She imagines a world with little need for fossil fuels, that provides us with all the comforts and technologies we currently expect and enjoy, includes ways to grow fresh food locally and allows us to keep using cars without harm to our air, soil or water.
It is often a challenge for environmentalists to find the best way to convince people to live more sustainably. Many approaches to building a case for caring for the planet include predictions of a grim future overrun by climate change. This is often not an appealing reason to live differently. As was once said at a gathering of environmental nonprofits, “Martin Luther King said, I have a dream, not I have a nightmare.” Anna’s approach is an appeal to American sensibilities: it is cheaper to live efficiently and you can do so while continuing to enjoy the comforts you are accustomed to.
Anna grew up in Sweden, and moved to the United States in 1957 and to the Vineyard in the early 1970s. As an adult, she was self-educated, and used her Vineyard home as a laboratory to develop and refine her ideas. Many remember her as the first one to grow salad greens year-round that she made available to the Island community.
Her book traces her own educational path from wastewater management, heating, food production and electricity to transportation. It is encyclopedic in nature and is not easy to digest in its entirety at any one time. Instead, it might serve as a reference book that you consult when you want to think about one of these topics and see what you might do. Each section includes her in-depth analysis as to why the status quo is detrimental and her ideas, complete with her own carefully drawn illustrations, as to how to better solve the problem and the benefits of doing so. This makes the book unique.
You might consult the book for ideas about composting toilets and graywater systems; designs for houses that include both living space, and, space for year-round food production; ways to construct greenhouses to grow vegetables — and chickens — in a sustainably heated environment year-round; or ideas as to how to provide for your own heat, electrical and transportation needs using sustainable methods.
Many of the ideas are described as simple, but require a dexterity with materials, and equipment to be successful. If you are such a person, you might use her book, with its many illustrations and photographs, to duplicate her ideas using the low-cost methods and materials she suggests.
A second approach might be to instead be inspired by her words about the planet and use a more conventional approach to achieve similar results. A number of years ago, I had a client who was inspired by Anna’s greenhouse/living space combination and wanted to duplicate it for herself. It was difficult to find the materials Anna had used and the use of many pumps, fans, and underslab heat storage impractical for a variety of reasons. We were, however, able to build off her inspiring vision to create a greenhouse/study using current technologies that provides heat in the winter for the study and ample sun and growing space for the plants my client wanted to grow.
Or, as an architect or homeowner who is involved in the building of a new house, you might read portions of the book to raise your awareness about the state of the planet and be inspired to build a house that is a near-zero energy house, using today’s knowledge and technologies to do so.
Finally, you might delve into the book at different times, depending on your interest, to embark on specific projects. Having been disappointed a number of times of late in the freshness of kale at the supermarket, I am now interested in growing kale for myself year-round. Ana’s greenhouse designs and elaboration of the considerations needed to grow vegetables successfully, can give me a starting point from which to design and build something, that allows me to grow my own kale.
The book is very dense and can be overwhelming. Anna’s passion for finding ever greater ways to help the Earth are too far-fetched at times. For example, her idea of using polar fleece for bed linens, outfits and warmth to decrease heating bills might seem too extreme and a turn-off to many. But insulating one’s house, being sure it is tight, and using a heat pump powered by solar electricity to reduce one’s heating load might be inspired by her words but accomplished in a way more in keeping with the lifestyles of today’s homeowners.
Similarly, her book is filled with calculations that she often follows by the abbreviation AMC (according to my calculations) which she challenges us to verify.
But it is not essential to appreciating the value of her knowledge and passion that the numbers be verified. I find myself more interested in learning from her successes and using them to further expand my own contribution to the health of the planet. I urge you to do the same.
Kate Warner is a West Tisbury architect.