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October 29, 2008

Unplugged - or unhinged?


I'm reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called "Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front".

Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks - energy, protein, biodiversity etc - Astyk does not write to scare us all witless. She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something. (This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we've been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).

On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms. She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.

This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk's work and life. The Times even dug up a so-called "mental health professional" - a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz - who was happy to pronounce Astyk's "compulsion to live green in the extreme" as a kind of disorder.

There is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the "compulsion toward living a green life" but Hirschowitz - a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for goodness sake - said that "certain carborexic behaviours might raise a red flag.

"The critical factor in determining whether something has reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work?".

Aaah: work. That would be the activity that makes tens of millions of people do depressed that they have to be medicated by people like Dr Hirschowitz just so they can carry on doing it?

And that would be the work whose trainees - ten per cent of all American school-age boys - are now doped up to the gills with psychoactive drugs by Dr H and his colleagues to make them pay attention?

Rather than fight The Economy, or try to fix it, Astyk seems to be suggesting that we simply ignore it - that we unplug. It's a very un-male, un-macho solution - which is why the book is subversive.

Astyk may have unplugged, but she's not the one who's unhinged.

Posted by John Thackara at October 29, 2008 10:44 AM


I am currently spending 6 months living in a Newfoundland fishing village, where the average personal income is ca. $13,000 (Canadian). The people in this town would not identify themselves in any way as being 'green'. Two things have been amazing to see here: one is how sustainable everyday life is with many needs being met directly, locally on the island and little interest in the accumulation of conspicuous wealth; the second is how content people are with their everyday lives. This place really has helped me understand what a low quality of life we have in income-and-status-seeking contexts, and how a truly 'green' lifestyle is not about buying more green stuff but about ratcheting everything back - in order to have a *better* quality of life. And one thing people on this island do which is extremely striking to a workaholic academic like myself is that they put work second, or even third, after caring for their families, friends, and households. Everything in life is not about how much it affects your ability to work.

Posted by: Phoebe Sengers at October 29, 2008 02:41 PM

This isn't a comment on the book -- which I haven't read -- but a comment on your interpretation of Astyk's advice as a "very un-male, unmacho solution" (and therefore, presumably, preferable to whatever plans we might devise to mitigate global problems).

There's nothing at all new about appeals to quietism and a retreat into hearth and home at times of stress -- there's also nothing particularly gendered about it.

Indeed, during the era of neoliberal economics which began in earnest in the 1970s -- disconnecting people from active participation in politics beyond voting and styling us as 'consumers' rather than citizens -- personal fulfillment, expressed via individualized shopping choices, pursuing Eastern spiritual practices, exploring the limits of one's sexual tendencies and so on became the normal mode.

If you're right about Astyk's ideas, what she's advocating is a modification of this already existing de-politicization and de-mobilization to help us cope with post this and peak that.

This is a symptom of a flaw in the ecological movement which sees our troubles as being the consequence of too much activity (perhaps you would say too much 'male-ness'), instead of being a result of not minding the consequences of our outputs.

I reject this argument because it seems to be a denial of what humans have long done: build and plan. Of course, we must refashion how we plan and build to de-fang our outputs. But to suggest that we should have quieter goals than say, the ancient Egyptians is to impose current worries on the future and to describe an aspect of human character as a moral failing.


Posted by: D. Monroe at October 29, 2008 02:53 PM

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