Depletion and Abundance...

Victory Garden!

Depletion and Abundance are just two sides of the same coin. We're no longer speaking of the future when we talk about climate change and peak oil. So now the project is to accept depletion, and still find a good and abundant way of life, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. We can do this - it is one heck of a challenge, but we have to find a way, so we will. That's what this site is for - finding a way forward.

I am the author of three books. Depletion and Abundance: Life On the New Home Front explores the path to finding a good life in spite of tough times. A Nation of Farmers:Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil analyzes our current food situation and offers steps for creating meaningful food security. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation explores the connections between food storage, food preservation and our democratic heritage.

Planning for Irene

Sharon August 24th, 2011

It may be that Irene heads offshore and does no harm, but it is a good reminder for all of us to keep our preps up.

Keep safe, folks!


12 Books For Every Sustainability Nut!

Sharon August 23rd, 2011

I bet you haven’t read these!

Worms Eat my Laundry by Alcea Grovestock – Worms are hot – in-house domestic composting is everywhere. But have you considered the way red wigglers could augment your laundry routine? After all, so many of us, taken up with homestead and farm work, garden and family chores have developed that layer of laundry that never seems to get washed, composting at the bottom of the hamper. With the addition of red worms and regular contributions to the pile, your laundry worries can be over, and you can build up a healthy layer of topsoil to be added to your garden! A must-read.

Holy Fuck! by Gene Logsdon. Building the tremendous success of his book Holy Shit which revealed the ways we waste valuable fertiity and contaminate land and waterways with our wasteful relationship to human and animal manures, Logsdon turns his attention to sex, and the millions of barrel equivalents of oil wasted in heating fuel by human beings’ unfortunate aversion to just having sex all the time. Logsdon proves that we could virtually solve our ecological crisis if we’d just stop avoiding sex and concentrate on doing it more or less all the time.

Peak Brew by Richard Heinberg. The man who brought us knowledge of Peak Oil (The Party’s Over), Peak Coal (Blackout), Peak Everything (Peak Everything) and more has now turned his focus to the deepest of all our depletion crises – the end of beer as we know it. Heinberg carefully draws a picture of our international brewing crisis, and paints a bleak picture of a world without beer. If no other ecological and environmental crisis could move the American mainstream, this one will!

Why Your Neighbor Should Definitely Use Less Energy by Jason H. Thidwicke Millions of climate activists have tried, and largely failed, to get the developed world public to take Climate Change seriously, and begin to consume less and conserve more. Thidwicke makes a compelling argument that books that focus on what you can do to save the earth are seriously mistaken in focus, and don’t appeal to our real interests – which are to make other people do the work. Cunningly crafted, Thidwicke makes a compelling case that we can only change our life when we get to enjoy making other people miserable. His strategies include lying, cheating, manipulation and if all else fails, enslaving populations, and will be an eye-opener for every environmentalist who wants to make real and lasting change.

Where There Is No Plastic Surgeon by the Hepzibah Foundation. There’s a new, passionate, engaged back to the land movement – not young folks going to the country, but the affluent and middleaged, convinced that we’re all doomed, and ready to build the perfect sustainable doomstead where they and their families can comfortably live out an apocalypse with plenty of servants. They recognize that the end of the world will be inconvenient. But there is no need tor one to accept a lack of attractiveness or a dimunation of standards of beauty and youthfulness (especially since no one actually young will be able to afford to live there) in the face of disaster. This critical text on home plasic surgery, the culture of botulism toxin in canning jars for wrinkle removal and other strategies for making sure your husband doesn’t take a fifth wife into the bunker will have a place on every shelf.

Collapse II: How Dave in Human Resources Chooses to Succeed or Fail by Jared Diamond Not content to rest on his laurels after the stunning success of the first volume of _Collapse_ which cast a wide ranging look over societies that underwent ecological disaster, this time Diamond takes a micro-look at collapse, choosing as his subject, not Easter Island or Greenland, but Dave in Human Resources. Watch how Dave’s decisions about his personal ecology – his habit of consuming vending machine products wildly in excess of the carrying capacity of his abdomen leads towards collapse, while the emergent strain in his marriage from staying up and playing World of Warcraft until 3am every night and the hordes of barbarians (his two children) mass on his borders. Diamond makes the compelling case that Dave chooses his destiny.

Bend Over and Kiss Your Ass Goodbye: Strategies for Suriving Peak Oil, Climate Change, Economic Collapse and Plagues of Rabid Musk Oxen by R. S. Albert. The territory of explaining how we are totally fucked is old hat for most of my readers, but Albert offers a new, two step approach that conveniently breaks down the strategy necessary to prepare the coming disasters, which he describes in equisite detail and definitely involve your children being eaten by Musk Oxen if you don’t buy his book – a purchase of one copy for each person you hope not to be devoured is recommended by the author. Even the dedicated doomer will learn something new from this book, which offers a host of suggestions for the stiff who has trouble bending over far enough to reach their buttocks, and for those made nervous by the idea of kissing their own asses.

Radical Pantywaists by James Haroldd Biederman In this book, we see an emergent critique of works by Shannon Hayes and other writers who have argued that true sustainability emerges from diverse egalitarian family structures that take traditional “women’s work” and domesticity seriously. Biederman argues that those who believe that the lower-energy future belongs to men and women who take equity and domestic life seriously are completely out of their minds, and probably gay. The future, he contests, will be a future of manly, heterosexual men with no need to change diapers or make pickles, because they are off riding horses and fighting communism or something.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Common Carnivores by Randi Heller. Have you ever considered adding a flock of major carnivore’s to your small farm or homestead? Besides filling an important ecological niche controlling the overpopulation of deer, rats, pigeons and neighbors, Carnivore’s can provide many benefits to the sustainable homesteader including pelts, meat and exercise running away from them. Heller covers all the major species, from Mountain Lions to Cheetahs, Grizzly Bears (actually omnivores but covered in the material) and also exotic, like re-introduced Smilodons, bred from fragments of DNA. She suggest appropriate housing, diet (think ‘UPS Guy’) and a host of otheri mportant issues, necessary before you introduce your new predators to your backyard.

You Can Make It Rot! by Helene Nurdwinger. Have you mastered pressure canning? Bored with lactofermentation and filled up your root cellar? Nurdwinger introduces you into the exciting realm of home food decomposition, and offers hundreds of exciting recipes for rotting food. She discusses traditional ways of prompting decomposition including “forgetting it in the back of the fridge” “leaving it in the sun for three days” and “I’ll definitely get to those tomatoes tomorrow when it isn’t so hot.” Her recipe for hyper-emesis sauce was just one of the odiferous delicacies she offers!

Finally, there’s my own newest book You Can Be Exactly Like Sharon by Sharon Astyk. Building on other models of farm women who have cashed in on their beautiful, elegant, sustainable farmgirl lives, I offer a book with thousands of totally undoctored, not at all fake pictures of my gorgeous, perfect life, with my perfect children, my perfectly sustainable farm where I get it all done every day, my clean house and my own total awesomeness. This honest, revealing book tells you everything from how I grow all my own food, including bananas and mangoes in upstate New York, blacksmith my own pedal-powered automobiles, sew my children beautiful clothing that they never get dirty, distill biogas from my shit that doesn’t stink and otherwise, do all the things that you wish you could do, only better and more graciously than you ever could. Buy my book, and your life will magically too become just like mine.

How Do You Decide What Changes to Make?

Sharon August 22nd, 2011

As we move into the Riot for Austerity, a lot of us are thinking about life changes.  But how do you decide what makes sense and what doesn’t?  How do you decide whether to put limited time into hand-mowing your lawn or making pickles, to spend that dollar on cloth bags or on rechargeable batteries?   In a perfect world, of course, we’d do all of it, all at once.  But the reality is that particularly as we’re making behavioral changes, we have to pick and choose. Once putting the cloth bag into your purse and using the cloth diapers and hand mowing the lawn get to be normal, you’ll find you have more time for other changes – but there is a learning curve to habituation, and it is hard to do more than a few changes at a time.

If you wanted to organize your energy reductions, you might take two approaches. The first one is the “Pick the Low Hanging Fruit” plan. That is, you look and see what the easiest changes to make are. For example, you’ve been running to the library on Thursday and the grocery store on Friday. But suddenly, you realize you can combine those choices if you go to the other library branch, and do it on Friday – and without any major effort, you’ve cut out 9 miles of round trip driving. Or you suddenly realize that you’ve had the computer on all the time, but don’t use it on Mondays because you don’t have time – so you start disconnecting the computer on Sunday night and leaving it off until Tuesdays. The low hanging fruit is simply a matter of applying your mind to the obvious, and picking up things as they seem easiest.

Another way of approaching this to decide to make your cuts in your biggest expenditures. That is, you might look at where your energy usage is and see that your electric use is way above average. So you might concentrate on electric usage – removing some bulbs, replacing others with Compact Flourescent or LEDs, turning off your computer, cutting phantom loads, maybe saving up for a more efficient fridge or getting rid of the fridge all together. You could divide your energy consumption up into categories, much as we have in the Riot for Austerity, and decide to focus on that – water this month, heat next.

One of my favorite ways of sorting these out is economically and temporally. If I’m trying to decide between two choices, I tend to prioritize those things that give me either the gift of time or money, and a large number of choices do. For example, in October, I will buy 10 bushels of local apples for 140 dollars. My local Walmart would sell me 10 bushels of apples for 400 dollars. No contest.  Not only does it save me money, but time as well – because I can buy all the apples we’ll use for the winter over a week, and save myself several trips to the store.

We tend to assume that labor-saving devices save time – but this is not always the case.  Sometimes they do – my washer saves me considerable time over hand washing.  A dryer, however, doesn’t – when you add in the time I would have to work to purchase and maintain the appliance and to run it, the three minutes daily longer that it takes me to hang a load of laundry than stuff it in the dryer is not a significant time savings.   It takes me longer to wash the food processor in many cases than it would to simply chop something myself without power.  These things must be tested – sometimes labor and money saving projects really save, sometimes they don’t.

Or there’s the pleasure sorting method – what gets you the most fun?   I love to cook and hate to sew, and if I have to choose between a method of energy reduction that involves cooking something or sewing sometihng, let’s just say it isn’t always that much trouble to decide. So while I make my own crackers, granola, popsicles and yogurt, I’m still buying my underwear and bras.    I like hanging laundry – I enjoy the time outside in the quiet.  I love the pleasure of cooking with the sun in our solar oven and the coolth in the house.

However you approach it, the best trick is simply to do it. In many ways, it is the breaking of old habits, automatic consumption and assumption that is hard, more than the practices themselves.  All of us worry that we don’t have time to do things – but when ordinary things are part of our routines, we find that they fit – it is the process of making them fit that can be challenging.


Quick Update

Sharon August 18th, 2011

Just to keep you all updated, we learned yesterday that the children’s social worker has decided to separate the children, and place them in three homes.  Two will stay with the current foster mother, one with one home, and they are seeking a home for one child and the newborn – since we will take larger groups than two and there are very few homes that do so, they don’t want us to take those two, saving us for a larger group.  I admit, I’m relieved not to have to make a decision about taking these kids – it isn’t the numbers, so much as the ages – I realized about myself that while I would happily take a baby, we really would prefer to work mostly with a slightly older group.  That said, it would have been very hard for us to say no if we were their only chance at staying together, and otherwise were a good fit.

As much as I’m relieved that my gut intuition that this wasn’t the group for us didn’t come up against any actual decisions (and as much as I’m grateful that it isn’t my job to make decisions that hard about small children!), I’m terribly sad for the kids who are losing each other.  Unfortunately, of course, that kind of sad happens all the time, but it doesn’t make it better.  The only consolation is that at some point some other larger group that would have been separated will be able to stay together.  But oh, how sad for them.

This was a really good experience for us, in a lot of ways.  It revealed several things we hadn’t actually figured out before – when faced up with the decision, it was useful to know them.  First, we found out how much both of us really secretly want a daughter or two out of this.  When we first talked about it, Eric and I both said that we were wholly contented with our boys, and that in some ways, it would be easier to take a sibling group that was male.  We even talked about submitting our homestudy for a legally-free group of three boys available downstate, although our homestudy wasn’t done before they were placed.

Despite all that,  most larger groups are mixed gender.   We expressed no gender preference in our homestudy, but we did sort of have in our head that once we got up to three or four, there probably would be a girl.  One of the possible scenarios we were being asked to consider had us taking three of the kids, and not the only girl – and we both had to admit that while three more boys would be entirely wonderful once we got our head around it, we both sort of wished that there was a girl included.  I don’t think either of us had realized (although I probably should have gotten a clue when I went to goodwill and bought a range cheap girl clothes in a large range of sizes so that I’d have some if we got an emergency placement – some girls are fine with wearing boy clothes, some mind, and I didn’t want to have nothing pretty for a girl who needed something new – but I’m not sure I needed quite so many things ;-) ) that we’d allowed ourselves to dream about a daughter.  I don’t think that means that we wouldn’t accept an all boy group, and with enthusiasm, but it was good to talk about the images we have in our heads.

It is funny, because for years I wasn’t aware of any desire for a daughter – I love my boys, I love having a big group of sons and in many ways, I think I’m a really good boy Mom.  I was never disappointed when I learned I was having boys (actually I was sure from the beginning with everyone).  Eric initially wanted a little girl, but by the third boy had gotten over it, and was happy to have more boys.  The big revelation of this isn’t “we’d only take a group with girls in it” but “sometimes you have dreams that you aren’t even fully aware of.”

The other thing that was useful was that this was a good reminder of one of my own worst failings – intellectualizing things I don’t especially want to do and talking myself into them.  Sometimes this is a good quality, when there’s a strong moral case to be made for doing the thing you don’t enjoy – and this may have even been one of those times.   But over the years, I’ve periodically made major, and inevitably mistaken life decisions because they made rational sense, even if at a gut level, they didn’t seem right.  Many years ago, we almost bought a house that in retrospect, we all would have hated, because it seemed to have so many rational good qualities.  Fortunately, the friend we were purchasing with (this is many, many years ago) backed out – again, to my sudden relief.

In the end, we’re probably only going to take one sibling group (hopefully, but at least one at a time) – that is, we’re not going to be able to save all the kids in the world, and we know that intellectually.  That means that we might as well trust our instincts – historically speaking, whenever I talk myself into things, I usually am making a mistake – but I suspect  I will know when a match feels right.  I would like to go into this with more enthusiasm and energy than I could have gone into this particular arrangement.

It is hard to say that those things are necessary – thousands of kinship placements begin in ambivalence “I thought I was done with children…but they are my grandkids.”  Most foster placements begin too little knowledge for enthusiasm – “Sure, three kids, you think they are all boys but haven’t checked the little one’s diapers, yes it is 1 am, ok, c’mon over…”   I don’t have to have those feelings to take children – and I know that you can grow to love children you don’t start out loving.  Unlike those who at the moment of birth felt instant adoration, I remember looking at Eli after my long labor with a “Ok, he’s pretty interesting, but I don’t adore him or anything yet.”  Love came along somewhere later in the process.

In this scenario, however, it was necessary –  I could have imagined my pushing harder, telling the social worker not “I would need X and Y more information, and then may we would consider it” but “I really want these kids, and would like you to think about placing them together with us, because they sound right.”  In that case, they might have kept them together (or not).  This time that didn’t happen – but I suspect I will know when it is right. I just have to listen, and pray for happy homes for those children I didn’t know but who might have been.

I know I owe y’all some content, and you’ll be getting it, but not today ;-) .. In other news, I’ve agreed to push up the deadline for _Making Home_ my adapting-in-place book to this fall (since I’ve got all this free time now ;-) ), and the book will be available next spring!  So there’s some good news!


Low Energy and Large Family Logistics

admin August 15th, 2011

As some of you may have heard, we got a call last week about (possibly) taking a group of five siblings – or possibly three or four of them.  It is not entirely clear that they will all come into care, or that we would be asked to take all or any of them.  It is also possible we would decline – five is more than we bargained for, the group is very, very young (ages 5 to newborn) and we don’t have enough information about them yet to make a decision. We probably won’t get that information until the county makes its decisions about what they will do, so we wait.

Still, the thought of going from four children to seven, eight or even nine has me curious about the logistics – how will all of this work for us?  Technically, I have a large family – in the US large families start at 3 or 4 kids.  I still remember, shortly after Isaiah (third child) was born, I went to a tea party held by a good friend for a group of women who had all had babies recently.  All of us had our second or third, and one woman, on her second, said to me “Well, you have all those children!”  I blinked, because it had never occurred to me that a family of three constituted “all those” but in fact it does.

Indeed, when I recently attended an event to receive an award in New York City, I was as much a curiosity as a three-headed bear because I was a professional writer of some minor note *with four children.*  In New York, where outside some ethnic and religious populations, one or two children is an absolute maximum, I found myself surrounded by women stunned that anyone could have multiple children and write books as well.  Everyone asked “how does she do it” as though accomplishment plus children were impossible – and perhaps it is if women have to do all the domestic work alone. I’m fortunate in that it is a shared project in our household.

But if mine is a technically large family (four kids, two adults, sometimes additional adults, as when Eric’s grandparents lived with us or our housemate Phil did), the shift from four to seven, eight or nine (probably in a matter of days)  is a pretty big one in this culture.  Ok, not just the culture – in our lives as well, and yes, I’m freaking out a little ;-) .   Besides that, however, there’s public perception too, however.  Despite the tv-show prominence of a few large families, most households in the US are 2.7 people – ours would be 11 if we took all five kids.

If four children is already a big family, what the heck is eight or nine kids?  As Melissa Fay Greene writes (she’s the bio and adoptive Mom of 9) in _No Biking in the House Without a Helmet_, that many kids marks you as weird and makes people put you in “…among the greats:  the Kennedys, the McCaughey septuplets, the von Trapp family singers and perhaps even Mrs. Vassilyev, who, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, gave birth to sixty-nine children in eighteenth century Russia.”  Now there’s a company I never thought to join.

Besides the fascination with sheer numbers,  everyone who writes and reads about large families is fascinated by the logistics – how many gallons of milk a week, how do they do the shopping, how much laundry and how many dishes?  I admit, I’m no different – I want to be able to envision how this all works, to try and have a set of strategies in my head that might make the transition doable if this – or some other – group of siblings joins my extant herd of boys.

So I googled – a bunch – about larger family logistics, and how do people do it.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I found didn’t really apply to us, in the same sense that a lot of standard american cultural assumptions don’t apply to us.  The advice offered to large families is centered on families that don’t seem terribly worried about their ecological impact.  Maybe they can’t worry about it, or maybe it isn’t part of their consciousness.

Whatever the reason, advice for parents of large families (ok, let’s actually admit it is almost always mothers of large families!) tends to emphasize big appliances at lots of them.  Get three fridges one family suggests – one just for the milk!  Two industrial washers and two matching industrial dryers as well – that’ll keep the laundry under control!  Use paper and plastic at every meal to minimize dishes!  Color code everything  - every kid gets a color, and everything they own – socks, underpants, towels, backpacks…it all comes in purple or green or puce (for the truly mega-families, what happens if you are the last kid and your color choices are puce and ashes-of-roses ;-) ).

I’m not sitting in judgement here – many of these families, particularly the large adoptive families with many kids with special needs, may simply not be able to add on energy reduction.  Indeed, for the families that keep large sibling groups from separation, or take in hard-to-place older and disabled kids, just giving the kids a family will probably reduce their energy and resource consumption considerably by reducing visitations, consolidating kids into one home instead of four, etc…, not to mention the other deep goods – the fact that kids get families.  My point isn’t that other families should do differently, but that it was hard to find role models, except by digging into the past.

I don’t have a working refrigerator – we use a small fridge as an icebox.  It is a side-by-side (inherited from Eric’s grandmother), so I might open up the other side, but I won’t be buying a plug-in model.  I will be buying milk when the kids come, because I’m not legally permitted to feed foster children our goat’s milk, but I don’t see myself with an infinite number of gallons of industrial milk in a fridge, as so many blog pictures show.

While when our present front loader washer meets its inevitable end, I do anticipate replacing it with a commercial model, that probably won’t be for quite a while –  who knows about things that far away?  My mother asked me recently if I would need to get a dryer to keep up with the laundry – my assumption is no, since generations of women raised large families without them, but I haven’t done the laundry for more than 7 people yet (although at one point I was doing laundry for a baby, a toddler and an autistic, non-toilet trained five years old, as we as an incontinent elder, plus others so I’ve got a faint sense of this).  The plastic and paper are not part of my plan, and where would I find that much color-matching stuff in my usual shopping haunts, Goodwill. Savers and various yard sales?  Besides, who wants to wear purple every day?

Some of the advice for large families is good – make lists, get organized, get rid of stuff you don’t need.  Organize the kids into buddies, with a bigger kid keeping an eye on a younger one.  Cook double and freeze.  Chore charts, calendars – all good advice.  Most of it is good advice for those of us with small-big families too, which is why a lot of it is already in place, and I have some doubts about my ability to do some of the other stuff.

Some things we are already doing – bulk purchasing, a large pantry, buying clothes for larger sizes in advance – I’ve just added girl things into the mix and am starting to accumulate a stash of clothing for potential daughters, if any. The kids already have chores.  I already have multiple calendars.  I’m just now sure how much new will be required of me as I scale up.

Then there’s the old-fashioned advice – wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, etc…  But I don’t iron, and I have to do laundry just about every day as it is – much of the year the limiting factor is drying space, so a “day” to wash is out.  I can imagine modifying it – preserve on Monday, bake on Tuesday, weed on Wednesday, mend on Thursday – but I haven’t quite pulled it together yet in my head, and I’m not clear that baking on Tuesday, rather than when we’re low on bread, will actually have me any time.

So those of you with large households, particularly trying to Riot or keep your energy use down in other ways, what do you do?  What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you for managing a large household?   How do you organize yourself? Keep up with the clothing and the washing, the cooking and shopping?  Do you use a full range of appliances?  Do without?  What’s worth having and what isn’t?  I want your advice!


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