OK, quick check: everyone who is concerned about the economic crisis turning into a depression and causing food and fuel prices to rise and pockets to empty — whether for yourself, your parents, your children, your neighbors, your friends, or anyone — raise your hand.
That covers about everyone, doesn't it? Almost every conversation I've had with different people lately has touched on the economy and people's fears about what this situation means. More and more, I'm hearing people talk about stretching their income, doing without little luxuries, and — because I tend to gravitate people who like to talk about food — putting up some food for winter.
Beyond the idealism of the locavore movement and the desire to stock up on delicious fresh produce for the lean months, I think that food preservation has become more trendy in the past couple of years because, ultimately, it offers reassurance. You can't look at a shelf laden with homemade preserves and canned goods and not think, Well, if the power goes out or the snow gets too deep, at least I can live off that for a few days. And you can't help but feel a sense of pride that, having learned how to preserve food, you can continue to feed yourself that way for the rest of your life.
That sense of reassurance in the face of hard times resonates throughout Sharon Astyk's book, "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front."
The alternate title offered on the book's cover — a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the wide-ranging information and wisdom Astyk offers on her blog, from which much of the book is derived — is "One Woman's Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times." It's a mouthful, and Astyk knows she's covering a lot of territory to bring many people up to speed on the various causes behind our current crisis. Her research and thoughtful insight in discussing peak oil, climate change, and the economy are on target, too: I purchased my copy a few weeks before the Wall Street bailout, and even then I could see that her views and concerns were well-founded.
Astyk has years of experience of living a low-energy lifestyle. As a cofounder for the Riot 4 Austerity movement online, she has joined with others to call for deep personal cuts in carbon emissions and energy use, and she regularly shares her tips and progress on her blog as well as through the group site. Though she lays out her information and ideas in her book in a no-nonsense, almost blunt way, her compassion and good humor let the reader know that while what she's asking is difficult, she's struggling right along with the rest of us, and she's finding newfound wealth in consuming less.
The idea of community support of "making do," as exemplified by the Riot 4 Austerity group and explored in Astyk's book, is hardly new. In her discussion of the challenges facing our society, Astyk refers back to the can-do spirit of sacrifice found in earlier times (such as World War II):
In time of war, governments acknowledge what they otherwise generally deny in market economies — that our ordinary human actions have a powerful political and social context. In time of war, we are told that how we eat, what we wear, where we live, what work we choose to do, how we save and spend our money are vital issues of national security and personal survival. The rest of the time such actions are put away in a box called "personal," and we're told our individual actions don't matter. ...
We should ask ourselves why it is that if those everyday actions are a matter of fundamental national security during a time of crisis, why does that change when the crisis is over?
With that question set out early in the book, Astyk proceeds to explain how our everyday actions are critical — for our individual survival, of course, but also for the sake of our communities and our world. She points out that in delegating so much importance to the "public" world and economy, we have neglected the basic fact that an emphasis on the "informal" economy — the work we do at home — is more likely to meet our basic needs than turning over both our work and our needs to an economy based on money:
...work within the home economy, most of us would agree, puts our resources where they are most valuable — into our children and the food that keeps our bodies healthy, into providing a business that serves your neighbors and your community, rather than people you have no relationship with. Thrift, repair, making things, growing things, and nurturing things — this is good and honorable work, and we need to do more of it.
She recognizes that most of us are unable to detach completely from the formal economy, but she offers a gentle reminder that "our economy does not, at present, serve us — it serves itself."
Astyk takes a few chapters to talk about more economic issues, including energy, dealing with less money and less consumption, and housing, but the section that naturally drew me in the most was her chapter on food. If you read her blog regularly, you know that she raises the majority of her family's food and spends a good deal of the summer preserving the farm's bounty for winter, but she also takes the time to offer online courses on food preservation and food storage. Since she spends so much of her time encouraging others to regain control of their food supply (did you know that the average American household has less than three days' worth of food stashed in the cupboards?), it's no wonder that she upholds the need for food independence.
Borrowing the term "independence days" from the late Carla Emery (editor of the enormously useful "Encyclopedia of Country Living"), who used the term for the days when "her family ate from their own land and gardens," Astyk suggests that we declare our food independence by cultivating our own gardens and farms, by preserving the harvest, and by cooking more of our meals from scratch:
We need to recognize that our food dependence affects not just what we eat, but the fundamentals of our democracy and our political power.
We should not owe our lives to entities we deplore. And the only possible escape from that bind is to declare food independence — to meet as many of our basic needs as possible ourselves and through small, sustainable farms with which we have real and direct relationships. And that means not just growing food, but ensuring a stable food supply, reasonable reserves, and a dinner that depends on no one.
Will this be difficult or time-consuming? Possibly. But Astyk also labels it "everyday work," and once you get into a routine, you realize the results are well worth the effort. She's not just talking about the tangible results of having good food on the table and in the pantry: she also proclaims the positive psychological value in participating fully in the home economy, declaring that "The only antidote to fear I know is good work."
After all, the work has to be done somehow. Who else will do it? Astyk reminds us:
Because we do not see ourselves as powerful and rich... we are all caught up in our struggles; we do not tend to think that we are the very people who have great responsibility in the world. ...if we do not, who on earth has the time and the money, the energy and the power to change the world? Who will you ask to do it for you?
Who, indeed? We may be headed into difficult times — and heaven knows, if you read only Astyk's first chapter, you might find yourself too depressed to go on — but ultimately, we still retain the ability to choose a certain amount of independence. We can invest our time and our work in the sustenance of our selves, our families, and our communities, and we can begin to build a more sustainable economy. Sharon Astyk's book gives us the hope and the inspiration needed to take that step.
(Image of 1943 Office of Price Administration poster courtesy of the Northwestern University Libraries World War II Poster Collection.)