A talk with Sharon Astyk | Although I didn’t attend the ASPO-USA conference in October with the Transition Voice team, I had the pleasure of meeting Sharon Astyk and hearing her speak recently at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. There, Astyk spoke about food security and our need to return to Jefferson’s idea that America’s stability came from our being a “nation of farmers,” which is also the title of Astyk’s second book.
Astyk enjoyed the chance to speak where Jefferson so lovingly did so much with farming experimentation and plants. Though time was tight, she managed to give two presentations of her own and then took “a fabulous woodland medicinals workshop.”
As a writer, farmer, ASPO-USA board member, speaker, mother, wife (and probably many more things besides), life these days keeps Astyk fairly busy. That made the trip even more special. “It was the first working trip that we had gone on as a family, so we took turns being with the boys.”
ASPO on the march
Her appearance at Monticello was just a few weeks before the ASPO World Oil conference in October where Astyk also spoke on food security and how to communicate peak oil issues. Astyk says the conference, the first she has attended since 2006, has come a long way.
“I felt it was a very successful conference, really remarkable. The degree to which there was balance between the technical, like peak oil geology, and the transition-oriented material, was super.”
Not everyone in the peak oil community may have heard about ASPO, but Astyk hopes that will change, and that the group can exert more influence on those looking at issues in a lower energy future.
“Our goals for the year are to open an office in Washington and have our executive director right there, ultimately to be better poised to influence policy. Things could be better for us all with more government attentiveness to reality. Otherwise we are wasting our money and efforts and perhaps even making things worse. We would hope to encourage the government to put resources towards improving our future. To that end, we are planning a major media campaign, and building ties with larger organizations. We will be focusing on educating about food security and advocating at the state and federal level.”
Adapting in place, with vigor
In addition to helping direct strategy for ASPO, Astyk writes books and articles, runs two blogs, manages a farm, and mothers a houseful of young boys. Though it’s hard to imagine her doing more, this energetic and influential woman just keeps chugging along into more things, including greater involvement with the Transition movement. Next up for her is a trip to Connecticut to give a workshop on “adapting in place” for the Transition Town New Haven group.
“Adapting in place is making do with what we’ve got, as individuals and communities, to adapt to a lower energy future.”
While she’s on a traveling jag right now, Astyk says generally she travels a lot less than she used to. “I have two books in progress. One is a novel for young adults. The other is about adapting in place, planning for things in the future and integrating them with the realities of here and now that will be out in the fall of 2012.”
Astyk’s blog introduced her idea for a “whole life redesign” over the past year. This includes an evaluation of income, ways to be more frugal, reassessment of goals, organizing your household, and rebuilding community ties. It’s a big project that a lot of people can relate to, which, based on her enthusiastic following, will likely generate a lot of input from readers. That’s just the kind of two-way participation that Astyk values, knowing that no one person has all the ideas or time.
“We always have lots of farm projects going. We run our farm without a tractor. It’s very low-input, so we’d like to open it up to the public as an example of how it can be done. That gets into insurance issues and other complications. It’s a chaotic life and I’m always a little behind, but we’re used to it with four kids. To have the advice and support of my readers is very important to me.”
Sharing the challenges that others face also resonates with Astyk.
Parenting at the end of the era of cheap energy brings up a lot of issues about life just ahead for older kids and young adults, especially those contemplating college and what to do with themselves. A big supporter of education for its own sake, Astyk hues that view by arguing that it’s no longer worth it to go into debt for education unless the payback is very clear, such as “becoming an oil geologist!”
She believes that kids today are less inclined to buy the paradigm that says you slavishly pay your dues for half a lifetime just to collect on retirement at the end. Instead, they’ll be more eager to integrate learning into their paid work. Astyk says young people are required to adapt now more than ever in order to make the transition that a shifting energy model compels, but she also says that young people are the best ones to do it.
“We’ll be worse off if the next generation stays with the status quo or blames our predicament on the previous generations. Youth are good at collaboration and communalism. They should go with their strengths, explore the informal economy and trades, couch surf and work together.”
Lower the barriers to entry
While young people are already somewhat tuned in to converging issues of energy and the economy, most Americans blithely move forward either unaware of the implications of peak oil, or fixated on the notion that there’s a push-button technological solution not dependent on energy that will answer all future needs. The urgent need to build awareness for the issue remains important but, says Astyk, “Don’t try to convert people.” Instead she urges those who find themselves preoccupied with peak oil to seek common ground with others, whether on the issue of kids, food, money, or whatever else brings you together with others.
“I’m a big tent person,” she says. “We need to look at the big picture. I think the Transition movement sets the barriers to entry too high. We expect people to change their beliefs first. But it’s much harder to sway beliefs. Instead, we need low barriers. Work on common ground such as planning for a better quality of life.”
A better quality of life can feel ephemeral, particularly when darker visions about the future loom. Does the cheerful and productive Astyk ever despair?
“No, well, sometimes. Brief moments. We never see change while it’s happening, but then you look back and you can tell. Its like corn growing; it’s just sitting there one day, and then in a little while, it’s a couple feet tall. We don’t have time to make the change seamless, but in the six years since they asked me to write Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, the change is enormous. It’s remarkable how many people are writing and talking about it. But, I still don’t think we’re going to get the outcome we would like.”
If she could wave a magic wand to get exactly what she wants, Astyk would first want a mass conversion to the issues in peak oil, where a general awakening to reality had already set in, allowing for more seamless change. She’d also like the ability to speed up our adaptation to the issues, including practical changes in lifestyle. “We should have started that the year I was born (around 1970).”
“Most of all I would wish to keep the pleasurable parts of our lives: having good food, decent lives for our kids, healthy local economies. To keep the possibility that these things will be at the center.”