Weekend Review: Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front

I just finished reading Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Homefront  (2008) and am very happy that I picked it up. I discovered Sharon's blog several months ago and was really interested in the topics she was exploring, but I was also impressed by her style of writing. She has an academic background and she's very good at synthesizing really complex (and sometimes intimidating) information and relaying it in an accessible manner. It's really fun to read. Her writing revolves around preparing for the coming changes due to Peak Oil and Climate Change, specifically reducing personal and family energy use drastically (The answer, she says, is not in buying an energy star refrigerator. It's getting rid of the refrigerator).

The two things that I like most about this book are her positive attitude and how she frames the reduction of personal energy use as a moral imperative. She stresses again and again that living with less (less energy, less consumerism, less garbage, etc.) doesn't have to be the sacrifice that one might assume it to be and, beyond that, she shows how her life has actually become richer and fuller because of it. While we might have "less" from the perspective of the formal economy, this is more than made up by the gains that we get in increased time spent with those we love, the building of true community, increased leisure time, and independence from corporate control of our consumer choices.

She spends a good deal of time writing about our responsibilities to ourselves, our fellow people, and the planet as a whole. She lives with less because it's the right thing to do. Because it's wrong to take more that your fair share and to live in extravagant wealth (of goods, of convenience, as well as of money) when that extravagance is only possible because more than half the world lives in abject poverty. This rings true for me and served to strengthen my resolve to try harder.

I especially appreciated her analysis of the rhetoric surrounding public vs. private actions in the environmentalism, Peak Oil, and Climate Change movements. There are those who are overly critical of people for thinking that making small personal changes in how they live their lives (using a reusable shopping back, growing your own produce in a garden, using less electricity, etc.) are wasting their time. True change, they say, on a scale that will actually matter can only come by putting pressure on corporations and governments to change. Astyk fully acknowledges that these large public changes are necessary, but she explores the gendered element of this debate that is present around assumptions of public (male) and private (female) actions and how this is tied up with corporate power:

"For a long time private labor was demeaned in part because women were considered secondary and inferior, and much private subsistence labor was done by women in the home. When women began to work more often in the public realm, they, for the most part, accepted industrial capitalism's diminuation of the importance and meaning of home-based labor, deciding that working 'out' was a way to achieve political and social power. Women came to see abandoning 'women's work' as means to power. So some of it we stopped doing (gardening, canning, much cooking and sewing); other parts (childcare, housecleaning, food preparation) we contracted out to low-paid, often non-white workers of low status. So while women's status in society rose, domestic, private work fell even further in cultural value, and so did the status of 'private life' an all its practices." (26)
She goes on to point out the public power of many private acts, specifically in food politics. I found this chapter really inspiring and empowering. Trying to live a sustainable life is hard enough and when I read over and over that I should be doing this instead of that if I really cared about the movement, it's sometimes enough to make me want to give up. But, I do think that the choices that we all make in our daily lives really do matter. I'm not naive enough to really think that by bringing my own bag to the grocery store I'm in some way "saving" the world. But I am keeping plastic bags out of the waste stream. I am reducing the number of bags that need to be produced. I am demonstrating an alternative that may inspire someone else to at least think about the choices that they are making. These moments matter. These actions matter.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who has a budding interest in Peak Oil and/or living a more simple life. It's a good introduction to the topic. She doesn't burden you with a lot of science (but does provide an excellent bibliography should you want more detailed information), she doesn't preach. What she does do is talk about the changes that she's made and how it's affected her life and is very encouraging of the reader to do the same.

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