Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk

Published by New Society

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

I'm intensely ambivalent about this book. On one hand, it contains a wealth of practical tips and suggestions for living through hard times, particularly ways to find more places to cut your budget when you've already pared away all the fat. On the other, it is larded with a surfeit of transnational-progressivist social and political philosophy which will almost certainly be intensely alienating to conservative and libertarian readers.

A great many articles and even books that purport to teach their readers how to live on less turn out upon closer examination to be aimed at wealthy people who have been spending money like water. They suggest things like dropping premium channels from your cable TV package or skipping your daily latte at Starbucks in favor of carrying a vacuum flask of coffee from home. Except you don't have any of those expensive habits to get rid of, so what are you supposed to do when the paycheck still doesn't stretch from month to month?

Here we have a book that gets down to the real nitty gritty of how to go beyond the low-hanging fruit of paring unnecessary expenses and find ways to reduce even your necessary expenses even further than you ever dreamed possible. For instance, the author discusses alternative housing arrangements, including various forms of co-housing that can allow people to majorly reduce their housing expenses without having to live in a scummy part of town. People often think of co-housing in terms of moving home with one's parents, but the author acknowledges that not every family has the right dynamic to make it work. Some parents can't let go of enough authority and power to let their adult children be adults, resulting in continual friction, in which case it may be better to look into shared living arrangements with other relatives or friends with whom one can relate on a basis of adult equals and resolve problems by discussion instead of the issue of orders and submission to them.

The author also discusses other forms of community-building that can help us save money. When something breaks, the wealthy person either replaces it or takes it to a shop to be repaired. In either case, it's a purely commercial transaction and the two people remain strangers. When we don't have that much money and need to make it stretch further, we start making connections with friends and neighbors to work together. A lot of people in the trades do work on the side after their regular jobs are done. A mechanic may work all day at an auto shop for hourly wages, then come home and fix neighbors' cars for cash or various barter arrangements. People in the various building trades may well be interested in picking up additional work on the weekend repairing other houses in the neighborhood, especially as the devolutionary spiral of the housing market toward collapse means that new-home construction work is almost completely vanishing.

As long as neighborhoods are full of people who are neighbors only in the sense of living in proximity to one another and otherwise remain complete strangers, people have no choice but to turn to formal commercial transactions for things they cannot do themselves. But as people have to start pulling together, they begin to discover ways they can work together and share skills so that everybody ends up better off. And knowing a few people often becomes a networking opportunity. Your neighbor's handyman is good at framing and drywall, but electrical work is beyond him -- but he has a buddy who's and electrician and who'll be glad to come in on the weekend to rewire the outlet that's been sparking. And his kid may know someone who's really good with computers when yours starts acting up.

The author also has some very good discussion about strategies for getting by with fewer material possessions, including using a single general appliance rather than a dozen specialized ones and learning how to entertain oneself without resort to a multitude of expensive toys and games. But then she starts talking about how it's justice that we wealthy Americans should have to be kissing our material abundance good-bye because we've gotten it by plundering the rest of the world for it, and my tranzi alarm starts going off really loud.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, "tranzi" is short for Transnational Progressivism. It's a school of thought that has become popular among our liberal intellectual elite and which rejects the individual and the nation-state in favor of broad social groupings such as race, ethnicity, gender, and class. More perniciously, it categorizes all groupings as either "victims" or "oppressors" and makes moral judgments accordingly. If you're a member of a victim group, you're owed just for being what you are. If you're a member of an oppressor group, even if you've never done a single mean thing to anybody, you still owe for the past wrongs committed by your ascribed group and you must hang your head in shame and act accordingly. Needless to say, this philosophy doesn't exactly make for an atmosphere of pulling together and bettering everybody -- far from it, it tends to breed festering resentments against faceless Thems who are blamed for one's misfortunes.

Also, her notion that women should somehow have more of a say in social decisionmaking in a future of energy depletion is pretty much wishful thinking -- the ugly truth of the matter is that in low-tech situations, where muscular strength matters more and more, the male body with its testosterone-driven upper-body strength has an advantage over the female body -- with considerable significance for the relative status of the people living in those bodies. If you want to see a grimly realistic projection of what a world of dwindling energy resources and failing technology will look like, read Paolo Bacigalupi's award-winning dystopian novel The Windup Girl -- and even he may be over-optimistic in having a woman holding a position of significant power and authority in the Environmental Ministry in his future Thailand.

Thus I have to advise you to read this book with a strong BS filter in place, especially if you are of a conservative or libertarian bent. There are some good ideas here for going beyond the obvious and reducing your expenses without having to plunge yourself into the squalor of destitution, but you're going to have to sort the wheat from a whole lot of chaff of destructive tranzi notions about the evils of technology, the inherent goodness of nature, and how we privileged white people are perpetually guilty of having taken more than our share and need to abase ourselves and suffer, rather than trying to pull other people up to our own level so that everybody can enjoy the good life.

Review posted October 19, 2010.

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