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Review: Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front
By Sharon Astyk
273 pp. New Society Publishers – Sept. 2008. $18.95.

Why are so few peak oil authors women? There’s been much debate about this, and no one has yet arrived at a definitive answer. But whatever the reason, Sharon Astyk has established herself as a true rarity within the peak oil community by virtue of being a woman who has chosen to write about peak oil. The perspective that she offers is thus both uncommon and vital.

Her new book Depletion and Abundance is a call for communities, families and individual citizens to mobilize in the creation of a “New Home Front” in America (analogous to the Home Front that existed during World War II). This New Home Front would center on the crucial work traditionally done at home (such as housework and cooking) that Astyk holds to be far more important to our national economy than the “formal” economy of “taxes and forms, official business, job growth and GDP statements.”

Our present culture demeans these sorts of domestic activities because of its uncritical acceptance of the Victorian-era division between the private realm (traditionally the province of “female” work like cooking and childrearing) and the public realm (long associated with the supposedly “male” activities of economics and politics). But this division is wholly artificial, and we need to get beyond it if we are to formulate a productive response to the crisis now facing us.

Astyk sees us gradually moving toward a peasant economy as peak oil and climate change conspire to turn us into a poorer nation with dwindling access to basic necessities (much less our beloved, gosh-wow gadgets). What she proposes is that Americans begin making this transition now, while there’s still enough time to do so gracefully. In Depletion and Abundance, she shows how rewarding life on her New Home Front could be, immeasurably improving our health, nutrition, sense of community and overall well-being.

Chief among its benefits would be all of the extra time that we’d have. While it may seem common sense that a life of farm labor would leave a person with fewer hours of spare time than our present automated society allows, Astyk demonstrates that this is simply not the case.

She points out, for example, that people in medieval times worked far fewer hours than Americans do today, and that most people in modern-day peasant societies also work less hard than we do. She also describes how she and her family have seen their own leisure time increase significantly since they abandoned the formal economy. (Astyk put a career in English literature on hold after becoming peak oil-aware, to take up a life of subsistence farming with her husband and kids in upstate New York.)

As for the benefits of increased health and nutrition, these would come as we shifted our medical system away from treating existing diseases and toward preventing disease in the first place by fostering good health habits. Our health and nutrition could also be helped by moving toward a locally grown, organic diet far shorter on meat than our present-day American diet, and completely free of pesticides and other industrial chemicals. Astyk offers a wealth of practical advice and personal stories related to gardening, food preservation and the cultivation of herbal antibiotics like garlic and eucalyptus.

Another benefit that Astyk foresees as we shift to a subsistence way of life is an improvement in the quality of our home life. As life becomes more local, parents will spend more time at home bonding with their children, as well as with each other. They will no longer be scattered among the separate, competing spheres of home life, work life and a school system segregated by age group. Extended family members will grow closer and learn to bury old conflicts as hard times make intergenerational households the norm.

With regard to family size, Astyk advocates one-child families and delayed childbearing as part of an effort to reduce the global population to 1 billion within the century. (This is familiar advice within the peak oil community.)

On schooling our children, Astyk proposes an entirely new educational system that does a better job of integrating kids’ school and home lives, helps them develop a deeper connection with nature and offers practical training in matters such as agriculture and sound environmental practices. She gives plenty of interesting, entertaining examples of how she and her husband are providing just this sort of education for their own children.

A final benefit of implementing Astyk’s New Home Front would be a fairer distribution of resources among all of the world’s people. Because each American is the equivalent of 30 people in the world’s poor nations in terms of consumption, any cuts that Americans can make will go a long way toward freeing up those resources for others. We should welcome such curtailment measures as part of ensuring a “fair and just share” of resources for everybody.

What I’ve described so far of Astyk’s vision may sound like a blind romanticism of peasant life—but it isn’t. Astyk backs up all of her claims with hard evidence. For example, she cites a follow-up story on participants in PBS’s documentary series Frontier House, who found that they unanimously preferred their newfound lives of austerity to the luxurious modern-day lives that they had left behind in order to film the series. And of course, Astyk knows what she’s talking about from firsthand experience, having devoted her life to subsistence living ever since becoming peak oil-aware. In short, her book truly embodies New Society’s slogan “books to walk the talk.”

This, along with Astyk’s unique perspective as a woman, a mother and a peak oil activist, makes Depletion and Abundance well worth a read. The ring of authenticity to her writing will hook you—while its relaxed style, ineffable humor, personal anecdotes and comforting touch will soothe your melancholy peaknik soul like a warm hand on the shoulder.

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is an ardent peak oiler who participates regularly in Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA). He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

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