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Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009

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Learning from the past: Azby Brown's sketch Natural Cooling Streets, in his new book, "Just Enough," which explores how Edo Period (1603-1868) living could be a beacon for sustainable living today © AZBY BROWN — KODANSHA INTERNATIONAL

Eco-warrior looks back for the future

Can the practices of sustainable farming and green living during the Edo Period be adapted to modern-day Tokyo?

Special to The Japan Times

Modern-day Tokyo may seem at odds with conservation and sustainable living, but a new book "Just Enough," written from the perspective of an Edo Period (1603-1868) observer, shows how we could perhaps take some tips from history. Author Azby Brown depicts the old capital of Edo as a vibrant, bustling city carved with efficient urban waterways and covered in swaths of green — a place where frugality and inventiveness resulted in a low-impact, waste-free lifestyle.

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Azby, a New Orleans native, came to Japan to study traditional carpentry before becoming a professor of architecture at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology. He now heads the university's Future Design Institute in Tokyo and has written five books, including "The Very Small Home" (Kodansha 2005). He spoke with The Japan Times about possible solutions to environmental problems and the challenges of living green in the big city.

Can micro-farming, which your book shows was widely practiced in Edo, return to Tokyo?

It would be very tough in the center of Tokyo. A little bit further out, though, there are people doing it in places where there are a lot of vacant lots and pieces of leftover farms. Within the center of the city, the only possibility is rooftops, or some kind of vertical farm. Some people do grow climbing vines like goya (bitter melon) or tomatoes if they live in a neighborhood of houses.

Over the past year, I've seen more and more of these "green curtains," especially in institutional settings such as schools and banks. People have been doing it for a long time, and I hope that the idea gets more popular.

In your book, you advocate the recycling of human waste. What are the benefits and how can the technology be applied in an urban environment?

In Asia, it was very common. It can be done safely and there is a movement now to return to it. Nature is a closed-loop, where all living things and the things they produce — including waste — return to the biological cycle. We spend a lot of effort putting our waste into the water supply. In the 19th century, that was considered a perfect solution, but in retrospect it was a very short-sighted idea.

One way to separate our "black" wastewater streams from the freshwater supply is to do what the Edo people did: make it into a valuable fertilizer to use in agriculture.

Composting toilets that turn waste into an inoffensive, peat-moss-like substance can be installed in homes. To make the system work in a city, imagine something that resembles recycling.

There are all kinds of systems being developed. You would remove a canister from your toilet, put that on the street corner, and then someone would come around to collect it and give you a new replacement canister. It just requires an extra step and extra thoughtfulness.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the environment today?

The biggest single challenge is population pressure, which is certainly leading to deforestation in many places. We're cutting down more trees to make more farmland. The worst practice is clearing trees to make grazing land for cattle, like they're doing in Brazil and increasingly in China. That's leading to desertification. Deforestation is bringing a cascade of environmental problems, including CO2 sequestration.

Moreover, the pressure that increasing population puts on the water supply is huge. The problem that's going to hit us the quickest is the freshwater issue — deforestation really exacerbates it. Now, in many places of the world, we've pretty much exceeded the capacity of our natural watersheds — the replenishable supply of water every year — and are "mining," or pumping, fossil water. That's really bad news. When that water's gone, it's gone.

Increasing population also increases demands on energy. If we could quickly replace the fossil fuels that contribute to CO2 in the atmosphere with systems that don't — for example, solar, wind and maybe nuclear — that would help a lot. But the fact that we don't seem to be able to make that transition quickly enough is a serious problem.

How much do economic factors affect the choices people make?

These things establish the overall balance of what's available and the pricing and value of things. When we buy something, like an appliance or a shirt, we're not pricing in the embodied energy and the embodied water. In many cases, when we look at the monetary value of things, we're not able to judge the real costs to the environment.

For most people, price will be the biggest factor. Until people find themselves with both the mental space and the economic freedom to choose the better option, even if it's more expensive, they're not going to lead a greener lifestyle.

Is there any good news?

A lot of things will become mainstream and affect the way people live. In terms of home design and energy use in the home, it's almost happening on its own because energy costs are so high. The market's already there for people to find ways to use less energy. This has been going on for decades. Energy systems for the home will likely get better and more efficient the quickest.

What are three things that everyone can do to start living greener today?

Start growing vegetables, stop wasting water and turn things off. Now, if I could only get my 14-year-old to do that . . .

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