Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front
by Sharon Astyk


New Society Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-86571-614-8.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 09/16/2008

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

The secondary title of this book—One Woman's Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times—pretty much tells the story.

This is not just another of those doom-and-gloom, batten-down-the-hatches-and-man-the-lifeboat handbooks we have seen so many of in the past few years. I've read most of those other books, and while they are helpful in understanding why we are where we are (in terms of energy depletion, climate change, and overwhelming personal and national debt), they don't go very far toward helping us deal with the problems we are facing.

Depletion and Abundance is different. For one thing, it is written by a woman—a smart, well-informed, and energetic woman. She is also a mother of four small children who manages to grow a garden, put food in the freezer, home school the kids, and write about it. These are not small matters, for all of the other books that have been written about energy, environmental, and economic woes have been written by men, bless 'em. These writers understand conceptually what we are facing and tell us with great authority and occasional sympathy just how bad it's likely to be. But Sharon Astyk is different. She speaks with authority and sympathy, but she focuses on how we can manage when tough times come. She writes with cheerfulness, humor, and great personal commitment. I'm betting that, if anybody can show us the way forward, she can.

For another thing, Depletion and Abundance is a book about the "new home front"—and if you ask me, this is where our real battles will be fought: not in Washington or in some foreign country, and not with guns (we hope). We will be trying to make our lives better at home. We will be working with a toolkit that women will need to know how to acquire and use: food from the garden, low-energy appliances, and care and attention to the wise conservation and deployment of the family's resources of time, effort, and money, in and out of the "official economy." Peak oil and gas, the use of coal and nuclear and renewable resources—these are public issues and must of course be addressed by national and local governments. But as Astyk points out repeatedly, it all comes home in the end. Home is where we will find sufficiency or scarcity, and it is women who will man the home front. This is a new message, an important message. We need to listen up.

Depletion and Abundance is full of important and helpful ideas. Astyk suggests ways we can reduce our consumption, get out of debt, and learn how to use what we have—use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without: the real homeland security, as she sees it. She has learned to live on seasonal produce and local foods. She and her family have faced the frightening fact that our futures may not be fully or continuously electrified (as I write this, Hurricane Ike has imposed this knowledge on some four million reluctant learners). Astyk has learned how to cope and she tells us how. Indeed, she is never stingy with her ideas. There's a 14-page appendix full of good suggestions for turning less into more, and more, and more.

And that, at least for me, is what is most important about this book. Yes, we're facing an unpredictable future where there will be less of everything. But the human spirit, as Astyk shows us, is capable of a marvelous alchemy. We can turn tough times into a test, and pass it. We can become self-sufficient, and in the process, learn how to recognize true abundance when we see it. Hers is an optimistic vision, to be sure—overly optimistic, in some ways. But we need optimism now, don't we? And if we need it now, we'll need it even more next week or next year or the years after that, in what may be a future most of us don't want to think about.

Read Depletion and Abundance and see if it doesn't change your ideas about what's ahead. It just might change your life, too.


Sharon Astyk is a former academic who lives in upstate New York with her husband and four children, raises livestock, grows vegetables and writes about food, climate change, and peak oil. Read her blog.

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