First off, I must apologise: this is probably one of the latest reviews of a ‘new’ book that you will ever read — although in the world of publishing, all reviews are probably welcome. In my defence, I was going to read Sharon Astyk’s latest, Independence Days first, but then realised that Depletion and Abundance : Life on the New Home Front had to come first, being Sharon’s first solo published venture and, as I would later come to realise, a book which neatly outlines her entire philosophy on sustainable living. As much a personal tale of change and achievement as a manual for sustainable living for the average civilized person, the author’s humble, often self-effacing nature washes over the pages of the book. Many authors would shun such an approach, possibly to avoid accusations of mawkishness; but not Sharon Astyk, who manages to take us into her world, introduce us to her family, invite us to feed her goats and show us her cupboards, all in the name of sheer practicality. There is not a hint of smugness in sight.
On the other hand, such homely tales of family life misrepresent the intensity of Depletion and Abundance: it is not a book to take lightly, nor is it possible to take it lightly, such is the density of Sharon’s writing style and the flood of ideas that pours from every chapter. No surprise then, that it took me far longer to read than almost every other book of a similar ilk I have read. In the early chapters, which talk at great depth of the situation we are in and how the domestic structures we ignore at our peril are being broken down by a system that only values profit and power, there really is no let-up: so while it is an educational, fulfilling and inspiring read, it is also pretty hard work, which might discourage some from reading on.
I implore you to keep reading.
Like all the best scripts — as I say, this is more story than polemic — Depletion and Abundance is eminently quotable, and lends itself perfectly to prÃ©cis; such as this passage, essentially summing up the reason for the book’s existence:
The simple truth is that I want people who read this book to think seriously about whether they have a viable backup plan for a crisis in the near future. Why? Not because I think the whole world is likely to collapse at once, but because I think any crisis will come in stages and segments.
For me it might be tomorrow; my husband could lose his job because of rising energy costs, for example. For you, it might wait a while — or it might not. We don’t know; we’re playing the odds. And if, like me, you have loved ones you don’t want to risk by playing the odds, the choice becomes clear. Begin now. Begin thinking and preparing for a difficult future today.
From the beginning through to the end, Depletion and Abundance makes the assumption that the reader is ready to make a change of no little significance to their lives. On its own, the passage above may be enough to convince a nascent ‘simplifier’ to move away from the trappings of Industrial Civilization and towards a more survivable way of life; but it must always be borne in mind that the vast majority of people are too brainwashed by the consumer culture to think of any other way. I suspect, even, that Sharon herself doesn’t quite see Industrial Civilization as something to get angry with and wish the end of, more as something that can potentially be manipulated for good:
A good education, up to and including college doesn’t have to cost 30K a year. Basic public medical care including vaccinations, preventative medicine, midwifery, simple palliative care for the dying, many basic medications, birth control and some hospital care doesn’t have to cost us what it does. Neither do libraries, public services and support programs for the poor.
Which is all very desirable but not, I think, feasible without most of the other — more destructive — aspects of civilized society; particularly currency: we are hardly likely to be able to pay for hospital treatment with a bushel of carrots or an offer to repair the roof. Something has to give in a collapsing society, and it will ultimately be the public infrastructures that most people depend upon. It’s a very fine balance, and even writers like Richard Heinberg, whom Sharon quotes from in the book, haven’t really got to grips with this difficult conundrum (I am still reeling from his suggestion that the “Beauty of the built environment” is something to savour!)
One other minor criticism: for most people in the civilized world, reading Sharon’s heartfelt tales of home life may be counter-productive — a first step too far perhaps, especially when she ‘guilt trips’ over her kids eating the odd ice lolly. I just can’t compete with this level of self-flagellation, and perhaps she needs to give herself a break from time to time. No one is perfect, and it is our imperfections that make us individual.
Back to the really good stuff, and I can’t help but notice the number of times I had written “good” or “excellent” in the margins of my review copy. Her treatments of home economy and raising children in a consumer society are second-to-none. Here is a passage from the chapter ‘Making Ends Meet’, which I had commented as being “Great advice to give people in the [debt] trap”:
Are you starting to feel the pinch already? Well cut back some more. Sell the computer, and give up the Internet — go to the library instead. Find a carpool and give up your car, or get on a bike. Dump the tae kwon do lessons for the kids, and teach them to cook from scratch and play pick up soccer with the neighbor kids instead. Go vegetarian, and eat more whole foods. Give up luxuries like coffee and beer. Make your fun at home — play games instead of going out.
For a typical suburban, American parent, this would sound like torture — how could anyone suggest I change my lifestyle! And, of course, it does run counter to the way of life we have been repeatedly told we deserve, like a L’Oreal advert running on constant loop. And, of course, it’s only by thinking the way Sharon suggests, that people will ever be able to ease themselves away from the society that destroys everything it touches.
Where Sharon really excels in, though, is lists: lists of things we should do every day; lists of handy tips for survival (many of which I must admit to not seeing in the sidebars, due to the gravitas of much of the surrounding text); lists of things she does in a typical day — that was my favourite bit, because it really brought home the fact that an ordinary family, albeit one with the guts and determination to survive for the long-term, can change in extraordinary ways, and come out of it with a richer, far more fulfilling life than they could ever have experienced in the dumbed-down world most Westerners take for granted.
Depletion and Abundance is not a book to solve the energy crisis, the climate crisis or the economic crisis (long may it continue): it is a book of ideas and inspiration for those of us who already care enough to change. If you are one of those people, then I throughly recommend it.
Depletion and Abundance : Life on the New Home Front by Sharon Astyk, is published by New Society.
Keith Farnish is author of “Timeâ€™s Up! An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis“. He also writes The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog.