JUST ENOUGH: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan, by Azby Brown. Kodansha International, 2009, 232 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

Azby Brown is fascinated by Edo Japan because it once faced dire environmental degradation and yet did not collapse. Through a combination of ingenious technological advances, government direction and a pervading ethos of having "just enough," Edo society (1603-1867) transformed itself into a thriving population that lived sustainably and graciously. Brown is convinced that the Edo way of life holds powerful and scalable keys to our own lurch back from the brink of environmental disaster. As he writes soberly, "Sustainable society will come, because the alternative is no society at all."

Reading "Just Enough" is like taking a walk with an endearing but slightly obsessive-compulsive neighbor, the type compelled to point out absolutely everything: Look, a beam! A genkan! A stepping stone! A rich and meandering look at what Edo Japan looked, smelled, and felt like, the book is a sensory delight. The fictional narrator takes us on a leisurely turn around three distinct locales: a typical farmhouse and its surrounding community, a craftsman's home and shop in Edo (Tokyo), and the home and grounds of a low-ranking samurai. After each visit, Brown briefly describes the lessons learned, ranging from large-scale imperatives ("strive for closed-loop agricultural systems") to more humble initiatives ("redesign kitchens to use less fuel").

The juxtaposition of big and small, communal and private, is one of the central concerns of the book, and also what makes it so intricate and sometimes impenetrable. It is a tightly woven web of fascinated investigation, detailed line drawings, painstaking description and suggestions. This is consistent with Brown's insistence that entry points to change are anywhere and everywhere.