"When I realized that everything was going to change, I was at first afraid. Because I thought, if my government or public policy or other choices weren't going to fix everything, what could I possibly do? What hope was there, if I had to take care of myself, if my community had to take care of itself?
But when I began looking for solutions that could be applied on the level of ordinary human lives, that involved changes in perspectives and pulling together, the reclamation of abandoned ideas and the restoration of strong communities, I began to feel hopeful, even excited. Because I realized that when large institutions cease to be powerful, sometimes that means that people start being powerful again."
I consider the above quote by Sharon Astyk the absolute crux of her extraordinary book. Having read every book I've been able to get my hands on regarding collapse preparation, I was at first uncertain about what Sharon might have to offer us that would be new and refreshing. However, that concern was quickly assuaged when I opened Depletion and Abundance.
Sharon is a former academic, but while crisp, clear, and concise, the style of her writing is not so much scholarly as it is incisive and compassionate. Sharon is the mother of four children and a devoted partner of her academic husband, to whom she dedicates her book, and how she keeps just those plates spinning, in addition to writing a book and maintaining a blog eludes me. But as she tells us in the book, the lifestyle and collapse preparation choices she's been making in recent years have significantly simplified the lives of her family and allowed her to both care for them and manifest her literary prowess.
Sharon's introduction is priceless in its succinct, dead-on analysis of collapse, and is reason enough to buy and send this book to everyone you know who is partially or completely clueless about where we're headed. Noting that what is unfolding in the United States is nothing less than a national Katrina, she states that "Unless we get to work both protecting our families and building existing mitigating structures, most of us may face lives that will make those of Katrina victims look rich and pleasant." (page 5) We can't simply go on trusting that rich and important people will fix things for us because, of course, they won't.(page 6)
Depletion and Abundance is not grandiose in assuming that somehow, if we follow ten easy steps, we can protect ourselves from the vicissitudes of collapse, but rather that "...if enough of us can focus our eyes on the future, we can at least mediate some of the worst coming harm for our own families and for others...."
Protection is a lovely idea, but Sharon continues throughout the book to reiterate the reality that protection equals preparation which equals devoting a significant amount of our time and energy to lifestyle changes and conscious, arduous work as well as the expenditure of some money. It means devoting time and energy to gardening, cooking from scratch, insulating one's home, recycling, consuming far less than we do now, buying used items when possible, heating and cooking with renewable energy sources, and so much more. Quoting Samuel Johnson who said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Sharon adds that "there is nothing more likely to change our lives than knowing that our kids and grandkids might go hungry, that we might die in middle age because we can't afford basic medication, that people we love-or even total strangers-might suffer horribly because of our actions. We need to concentrate our minds and our lives on this-it is the greatest challenge in history." (page 17)
Sharon is greatly concerned that in this, the crisis of all crises, we may revert to what is easy-focusing on demonstrating, voting, and writing political leaders, but not integrating our activism with our daily lives and values. Moreover, the days ahead, she says, will compel us to unify-within ourselves and with each other. Gone are the days when we can dis-identify with and feel superior to the most victimized members of our society-the poor, the disabled, and the elderly because we may soon be them.
Sharon is not preachy, although sometimes, I am. She does not tell us directly that we need to put our activism to the acid test of action, but certainly, all of her work communicates it. I certainly believe that while one's activist efforts may be unequivocally noble, the real question is: Are you planting a garden? Are you storing food? Are you preparing your family for a world where necessities cannot be obtained in stores and where unless you're making, growing, or storing them, you won't have them?
Isolation and rugged individualism will get us nowhere except dead. We need to begin deciding right now how our neighborhoods will get water, how we will check on the elderly and disabled, and communities need to decide where and how kids will get an education when the buses stop running. Community gardens and group carpool excursions to what stores may still exist in a few years will be imperative.
Two themes permeate Depletion and Abundance: The necessity of having "a viable backup plan for a crisis in the near future" and the reality that making preparations for collapse is fundamentally good for us in other ways besides planning for the future. What could be more enriching for our lives than eating better food, lowering our energy consumption, getting more exercise, and spending more time with our loved ones? And of course, some of our choices will be easier than others. For example, it's not as challenging to put up rain barrels or grow a garden as it is to pick up and move to another part of the country that may be safer and more sustainable on many levels which, needless to say, is an enormous decision. I should know; I've just done it. Perhaps most emotionally demanding is the reality of living in two worlds at the same time-looking to the future while staying focused in the present.
Early on, the book distinguishes between the "formal" economy-you know, the official one that this culture tells us is the only one that matters (page 55) and the real economy which includes all the work done by everyone. The informal economy is the one in which transactions happen "under the table" or certainly out of the mainstream of the formal economy, and it is into this informal economy that we must increasingly move in order to survive. Sharon is not suggesting that we engage in a criminal economy, but I'm sure she would agree that in times of abject collapse, such as those described by Dmitry Orlov in Reinventing Collapse, the lines between the two economies may become blurred.
In terms of the informal economy, we won't be renting office space to carry on our business, but will need to do so at home. Many people are likely to be living in the same house in order to make ends meet. If we have jobs, the question of how to get to work will be primary. If we choose to own a home, we will have to decide how to maintain it without allowing it to consume most of our resources. The meaning of home, says Sharon, is about to change. "We're heading back to a culture of permanence, so the very first question is not, ‘Where do I go?' but ‘Where do I stop and stay?'" Not only is massive mobility over as a result of energy depletion, but it isn't at all conducive to staying put and making preparations with our families and community. Boiling it down to just five words, Sharon says: "Go home and stay there." (page 151)
What has always drawn me to Sharon Astyk's writing, besides her inveterate, irreverent humor, is her ability to concretize her theories in the most specific and ordinary manner. So after 172 pages of theory interspersed with practical suggestions, she offers us a vignette-a day in the life of Sharon and her family. These pages gave me more insight into how she navigates maintaining a family and her work at the same time, and while I must confess that it left me feeling empathically fatigued, I also realized that for the most part, everyone in Sharon's family works hard together to do what must be done.
Two hard-hitting chapters toward the end of the book left me squirming-"The Hand That Stirs The Pot, Rules The World" and the chapter on health care. Both Sharon and Michael Pollan have exhaustively explored the politics of food, but of course, Sharon has done so from the perspective of a mother. Repeatedly, she admonishes us to be deeply involved with our food which forces us to be involved with seasonality and our food supply's link with nature. Additionally, she tells us that growing and preserving our food is everyday work. If we intend to eat, we must constantly be involved with these two tasks.
If one is not engaged in these tasks and is still dependent on others for obtaining ones' food supply, one will always be at the mercy of the power of corporations which care nothing about nutrition or food security. The challenges Depletion and Abundance toss in our laps are daunting: "Food preservation and food production are keys to democracy....As long as we depend on large corporations to meet our basic needs, we'll never be able to judge them fairly or eliminate their power in our society. That is, we cannot simultaneously call for an end to multinational monoliths and also pay them to do something as basic as feed us.....We should not owe our lives to entities we deplore." (page 206)
That "ouch", however, isn't as painful as the chapter on health care. I've heard many ideas about health care from experts consciously preparing for the complete collapse of that system, and I haven't heard any options for home-based healthcare that don't leave me shaking in my boots. Although I hoped not to mention it in this review, the paltry options that will exist when the system doesn't are grim reminders that many people will not survive collapse for any number of reasons. This is the elephant in the room that we tend to avoid when discussing collapse.
However, nothing could be more real or more poignant. And if the planet, according to many experts, needs to shed 4 or 5 billion people in order to survive, then survival may be the exception, rather than the rule. When we finally recognize this reality, then we are immediately in the territory of something greater and more momentous than our physical existence, namely issues of meaning, purpose, and mystery. Depletion and Abundance does not address these topics, but I do in my forthcoming online book, The Spirituality Of Collapse.
Depletion and Abundance is not a feel-good book, but it is intensely human, compassionate, supportive, practical, alarming, enlivening, and astonishingly accurate. Whatever emotions may surface as you read it, Sharon reminds us that "The only antidote to fear I know is good work...the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are. It isn't required that we not be afraid or that we don't spend a lot of time grumpily wishing that someone else would do the work and leave us alone with our book. But it is required that while we curse fate, previous generations, the current administration, G-d and the Federal Reserve, we get to work."
Sharon and I have sometimes been thought of as "doomer girls", but for all our insistence that our readers face reality, we both endeavor to empower them with opportunities, not for saving a world which may now be un-saveable, but for protecting and preparing on a variety of levels-and finding meaning in doing so.
I've personally bought and sent Depletion and Abundance to several friends, suggesting that we all do the work that is in front of us in order to protect ourselves and those we love and trust. It is my pleasure to recommend the same to you, dear reader, and to encourage you to run, not walk, to read this book and circulate it far and wide.
View Sharon Astyk's blog