Friday, February 26, 2010



The best brief on living through economic collapse, a how-to manual on how to survive the shift, is Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance. Astyk is a former Renaissance scholar married to a PhD astrophysicist. After getting the message that economic collapse, augmented by climate disequilibrium, was imminent, she decided that the ecology of Shakespeare's plays was less interesting than the ecology she was blogging about, and became a farmer-housewife-writer. Her writing and his adjunct classes at a nearby NY State university are their sole income (if you've ever been an adjunct, you know that's not much). But they have evolved a low-impact, small farming lifestyle that needs minimal cash, which she argues will soon be a necessity for most of us.

I first noticed Astyk's work when the blogosphere led me to her admirable experiment, the “Riot for Austerity,” in which she and a friend committed to reducing their family's carbon output to 90% of the US average within one year, which is where we need to be by 2050. Both families achieved the goal, and Astyk reports they didn't miss too many comforts and were happier overall. This approach, seeing the future that is rapidly arriving and trying to adjust to it in advance, is the whole gist of her book. The result, as so many studies and observations of life in poorer countries have shown, is that actually being immersed in basic life functions like producing food and heat, and practicing thrift in clothing, energy use, and every other aspect of life you can think of, makes us feel more alive and healthy.

Even before the Copenhagen disaster, the news from Astyk and several other writers with their eyes open has been disconcerting: dont' trust government to make everything all-right, because it's not going to happen, even if we elect an Obama. Electing candidates who promise major initiatives for the public good or governmental reform would still not be able to do it, because our system appears to be terminally flawed, stalled by an over-efficient separation of powers and by continuing adherence to Keynesian economics in an era when the engine of growth cannot make up for government intervention in the form of job-creation, various forms of infrastructure subsidy, and currency expansion.

If nothing else, the present level of debt and promises of future indebtedness render a huge probability that we 'll never dig ourselves out. Just today, a chart was published showing the ratio of the percentage of external indebtedness to GDP for thirty countries with a ratio exceeding 60%, the critical threshold above which economic growth is cut with increasingly severity. At 90%, growth is cut in half. The US., with a ration of 94% stands 26th in this list of countries at greatest risk of sovereign default. Greece, which is on the brink, stands at 163%; Zimbabwe at 164%, but the figures go dizzyingly higher. Check it out at 01:46.

Depletion AND abundance... Many folks have been clamoring about the depletion side of the equation for years. Those in corporate and governmental power continue to deny it, extolling the American dream of endless opportunity with no sacrifice. What I really like about Astyk is that she emphasizes on virtually every page the abundant opportunities for personal and community renewal that a capitalist world crippled by the sudden intrusion of “externalities” like air, water, and topsoil will be unable to provide. These are virtually all in the “real economy,” which has continued to support 2 billion people worldwide who are negibly part of the public economy upon which growth figures are charted. These subsistent farmers point the way for those of us who have disdained the hard (but sometimes deeply satisfying) work of feeding, housing, and clothing our families.

From perhaps the most solitary (and narcissistic) culture in history, Astyk sees the necessity to transform into a “permaculture of family,” where our overbuilt houses will need to shelter family members (like my mother who is in “continuing care” near Pittsburgh, selling her house to be able to afford it), out-of-work friends, and eventually strangers (perhaps sponsored by the church) who need housing. Nuclear families will revert to extended ones, not necessarily based upon kinship. Two-thirds of us will be farmers, at least part-time, and a less-centralized commercial world will need shopkeepers and fabricators of all sorts.

Her friend and neighbor James Kunstler has argued that our country spent more than half a century in the postwar period creating a boondoggle called suburbia that we're going to have to simply write off with the advent of peak oil. Astyk disagrees, saying we will need to reconfigure all that land so there will be enough acreage to feed a hungry world of a few more billion. Rather than being stranded from distant, non-existent jobs, folks will make do with what they have, and anyone who owns a house will do everything they can to hold onto it. Suburbs will become towns, with a grid of markets and shops and the occasion for distributed power; they will not be abandoned because they were foolishly built in inconvenient places.

On the energy front, post-centralized power production, she recognizes what a lot of alternative energy zealots do not: that most people can't afford it, the money for subsides will soon vanish, and most important of all, even renewables aren't sustainable if you factor in all that it takes to produce the hardware: the 'embodied energy” represented by solar collectors, windmills, geothermal drilling and maintenance, etc. I'm still bullish on algae (not cellulosic ethanol), but in general I have to agree with her assessment.

I really appreciate Astyk's practicality and her sharp analysis of the bare necessities of living close to the bone. I also appreciate her honesty, as when, in her fine chapter on population, she confesses to failure in birth control, resulting in being the mother of four children. Hardly a model for a world where even two replacement children is probably too much of a burden on Gaia. But her re-situating the argument from the “old men” to the perspective of women childbearing age is absolutely critical if we're going to make any progress on this front. For those women are the locus of decision making, increasingly even in patriarchal cultures.

Essentially, this is my summary of Astyk's position. From the collapse of unsustainable global capitalism we will return to the way our great-grandparents lived in a more agrarian, localized economy, organized regionally. Much of the work energy will again come from human beings and draft animals. We will need to live in tight, efficient houses, with much larger margins of indoor temperatures, liberally sharing available square footage. The impending crisis can bring out the best in us, but only if we work together, rebuilding community and joining those communities together into a viable network. It's an exhilarating dash of icewater in my boomer's mug.

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