Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review: "Depletion and Abundance" by Sharon Astyk

The whole title is:
Depletion and Abundance; Life on the New Home Front; or, One Woman's Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times.

By Sharon Astyk, who is described on the back cover as...

...a former academic who farms in upstate New York with her husband and four children, raises livestock, grows vegetables and writes about food, climate change and peak oil. Check out her widely read blog at

My View
This is a book I loved and hated. I have found myself quoting from it and referring to it in conversations multiple times since I read it this winter. But as I read it, I had my pencil in hand to cite all the things that, while they may be true and right, just bugged me. I know the mere thought of it is revolting, but I'm going to share those citations with you.

I think my expectations of this book were perhaps unfair. I read "one woman's solutions" and twisted that into "everything I'll need to know to survive whatever calamaties lay ahead." It's not that. I'm still looking for my Martha Stewart of the Apocalypse. Sharon's not her. Sharon tells me a lot about what the "apocalypse" might look like and a bit too much about what might bring it on, and some about what to do to get ready for it and a little bit about how to cope when we're in it. I wanted this in different proportions. Mostly, I want the how to get ready and how to cope. I think that anyone who would read this book is likely doing so because they've already had a good dose of info about what could happen and why.

She uses Katrina as a case study of what can happen in a disaster--everything breaks down. And it's certainly true that we are likely not cognizant of how utterly dependent we all are on our civic infrastructure. It's not just electricity and water, although even if only those two are seriously affected for any significant amount of time the safety and security of everyday life are seriously compromised. Garbage, other power sources besides electricity--gas for instance, transportation, fire services, and all kinds of medical care, FOOD... In a true disaster, all of these things can be dimished or even completely unavailable. We saw it with our own horrified eyes on network television in a well-loved major American city. It can happen anywhere.

Okay, now I'm doing it too. It's such an easy point to make, it's very tempting to just park on it and hammer. But okay, we've got that. Astyk also emphasizes that what we saw is that we cannot rely on our government to prepare for and get us through this sort of disaster. Which I agree with. It's just not something politicians seem to be able to look squarely at. I was however, put off by her way of talking about "the government and the media" versus her own observations. She maintains that her observations are more realistic because she buys food and has to feed her kids and she can see the data on oil depletion. It's too easy to invent this entity of The Government, attribute characteristics to it (I think it's also called Straw Man in some versions of the story) and then compare yourself favorably to it. But this "government" of which you's just a bunch of people. So is The Media. In fact, Astyk, as an author and blogger, is The Media too. Every human has to eat. They aren't any less able to see what Astyk sees. Whenever we de-humanize our adversary, we've lost an important part of our argument.

The good point that Astyk makes is that by their nature governments follow, they don't lead. It really comes back to that great quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." That's us, guys. Let's get to it. Okay, we're at it already. Good. Let's keep on keepin' on then.

Another thing that sets off my alarms for less-than-rational arguments is the "things are so much worse now" argument. If you want to argue that point with regard to the burgeoning human population and its affects on the planet, okay, you've got the cards in your favor. But in pretty much any other context related to human behavior, it's a fallacy. Astyk asks, rhetorically I imagine, "Has there ever been a time when citizens felt so powerless to stop the forces that were driving them to disaster?" I'm no historian, but the Civil War era comes quickly to mind. I think of this argument as the "kids today, tsk tsk tsk" way of thinking. This argument just pretends or forgets that human nature hasn't changed one iota and the strife and conflict we face today is a problem of ...what? I don't know, it just seems like the arguer wants to blame someone. It seems to me that it would be more fruitful for someone who wants to convince us that we need to do things dramatically differently to argue that Hey! It's been like this forever and see where it's gotten us? We got turn this Titanic around--we gotta go in another direction because we don't want to be the same as we have been! Maybe that's too scary.

Here's an excerpt that I like, it reflects my feelings on this whole doomsday vision thing (but that doesn't mean I think it's reasonable.)
When I realized everything's 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 invovled 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 grew up worrying about The Big One(s). Either the Big Earthquake that would shake San Francisco into the ocean or Big Bomb that would flatten everything and cloak us in a nuclear winter. And I was conscious of a little piece of myself that almost wished it would just happen. To get it over with, for one thing, but also because getting it over with would mean starting over. Starting fresh. A new beginning. An even playing field. Like going all the way back to Eden. Utopia... Perhaps you can see how a little kid could get kinda swept along by this romantic ideal. I'm not saying that Astrk suffers from this childish notion. But I do have that as a reference point from which to listen to the folks who are so closely, relentlessly (hopefully?) monitoring for us our impending doom/rebirth.

No comments: