Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Depletion & Abundance discussion post - Part Two

Sorry for the delay, but here's the second discussion post for the Depletion and Abundance book club.

Chapter 4: Meet the Real Economy. Sharon argues in this chapter that the real economy is not the one that we are used to hearing and reading about. The idea is that the "real", or informal, economy is the one that is uncounted for. Some examples of this includes all the work that is done at home by stay-at-home moms, wealth that is created through bartering, even under-the-table transactions (babysitting) and criminal activity. These are all part of the informal economy.

The wealth generated by some of these activities are easier to calculate (illicit drug sales, housecleaning) than others (tending to a sick elder). But all of this input is not represented in what is considered the formal "economy". Her argument is that this unrepresented labor, this informal economy, is what really runs things.

Furthermore, she points out that the idea that this informal, or subsistence, economy is subsidizing the formal economy is inaccurate. In fact, it is often the other way around. Her examples of this are generally related to third world countries and those in economic turmoil and this makes sense.

[The rest of these chapter comments are my own, just to be clear...]

I do take issue with the concept of Peasant Economics in that all one needs to do (and I'm assuming that the majority of the readers of this book are middle class Americans and not sub-Saharan Africans) is to slowly slide outside of the formal economy. The benefits of this I'm still somewhat unclear or dubious about, although she states at the end of the chapter that "we should reduce our participation in the formal economy because it is the right thing to do".

I know very few, in fact, pretty much nobody that participates in the informal economy. We all work for the "man", hire legitimate child care, educate our children through public schools, pay our taxes and buy most of our food from someone else. So, aside from cooking at home and the occasional toilet cleaning, there is little in the way of supporting the informal economy.

So, if we decide to take a few steps toward self-sufficiency, what exactly is that gaining us? Maybe I can trade a few pumpkins with a neighbor for apples or sell some rosemary to the guy down the street, but it's really not going to keep me from relying completely on the formal economy. For very few of us will the formal economy be a supplement to a subsistence economy, even if we find the time or interest to spend on making that transition.

The problem with this has to do more with the assumption that people actually want to do these things that lead us to be more self-sufficient (growing their own food, making things by hand, repairing items). The idea that families will gather around to pitch in and do these tasks with relish and wonder what they've been missing all this time is misconstrued.

The reason why people stopped doing all these things and why convenience appliances and services are the norm is because most of these tasks, for many people, are a huge pain in the ass and they don't like doing them. Some people prefer to work at their career than struggle with teaching their children at home. There's a reason why there's specialization - it's because it's not only more effective (higher productivity), it's also because some people just don't have the interest to learn how to do everything and do it well. Bartering for services just isn't a reasonable way to obtain them in modern society where goods and services are based on a monetary value.

She makes a huge value judgement in that staying home to work on the "home economy" has way more value to society. This "good and honorable work" for one person is drudgery in chains to another. The woman's movement into the workforce speaks a great deal to this and it's not all because of finances - it's a way to escape. Would I rather employ my time doing something challenging, using my intellect and doing work that I know serves a great deal of people in a positive way or stay home chained to household chores with its never ending litany of laundry, dishes, ironing and cooking?

Being a part of the formal economy affords me the time to do many of these self-sufficient things with pleasure only because I know that I have conveniences available to me if I don't have the time or energy to do them. In other words, these tasks have become pleasant hobbies, but if they were all I did all day long, they wouldn't give me the same sort of satisfaction.

[One other thing I wanted to point out in this chapter is that I believe Sharon's analysis of 11th century serfs is inaccurate in the amount of time they spent working. The estimate of labor is under-represented and her calculation on the number of days put in during harvest time is wrong. Unless harvest time lasted only one week.]

Chapter 5: Making Ends Meet. Rather than buying our way out of our problems (either though retail therapy or the misconception that buying things will make you a better, happier, sexier person), "the goal is to reduce our costs by extreme frugality." Additionally, all that purchasing produces climate changing and oil-depleting gasses, so we are better off limiting consumption.

Purchasing goods is the root problem, even if you are buying greener products. So, the end result is that we need to be buying a lot less items. Sharon advises using what you have rather than buying more of things you don't need.

The next item towards gaining self-sufficiency after reducing spending is to reduce your debt. Because of interest, debt makes you poorer so focus on reducing your spending and putting that saved money towards paying off your debt. The other adage is to use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

Finally, do what you can to stay in your home. If that is not feasible then cut your losses and move on before investing a ton more in paying down a mortgage you will end up forfeiting anyway. This makes the assumption that the housing market will never recover or, at the very least, it will take a longer time to recover than you have or can afford to wait. So, before taking this advice you should really weigh that one - I'd hate to see people sell their "underwater" homes at a huge loss when, if they had hung onto it for 5 or 10 years, they would have regained that loss.

In any case, paying down your mortgage is a good way to reduce your financial exposure. Sharon advocates doing whatever you can to reduce your other debt even if that means cancelling all your other services (like cable) and selling the financed car or items that you are no longer using or need. Basically, reduce your costs and consumption in other areas.

If you are truly cash strapped you may not have the funds to spend building the garden that Sharon recommends, but you'll have to do your own cost-benefit analysis on whether or not the monetary input is affordable enough to try growing your own food. I know from personal experience that just because you plant a fruit tree doesn't mean that you'll actually get anything edible off of that fruit tree and maybe that $35 would have been better spent on beans and rice this year.

Related posts:
Depletion & Abundance discussion post - Part One
Depletion & Abundance - the book club

Related books:
Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front
The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience
Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book, but have some comments on your remarks, nonetheless. First of all, all moms participate in the informal economy. Even if you have a job or career outside the home, the work you do raising your children is not figured into the formal economy. And I don't know many women who work outside of the home who are "freed" from the chains of housework by their outside work. I know some are, but I don't know them. For most, they come home from their "paying job" and the dishes and the ironing and the children all await.
Additionally, the "women's movement into the workforce" was a phenomenom of the middle class. Poor women have always worked, mostly doing jobs which freed middle and upper class women of their "chains". Women's lib did little for them.

Tara said...

I have to say I am struggling to get through this book. Maybe it's the author's style of writing, but I find it very heavy and depressing at times – as if the only answer is to give up every luxury and toil from dawn to dusk. I'm hoping her tone lightens up a little further into the text.

jewishfarmer said...

One note, Crunch, you are correct, there's a typo after my quotation of David Howarth's contention about how long serfs worked (which you'll have to take up with him if you disagree with the larger issue) - it says "three days per year" when it should say "three days overtime a few weeks a year." Thanks for catching that - if I make a second edition, I'll correct it.

It is perhaps churlish to argue with critiques of your book, so I won't, but I would note that the first paragraph of the chapter observes that the reason we might want to enter the informal economy is because we may not have a lot of choices - because the informal economy has been shown to keep people fed and functioning when the formal economy fails. I suspect from our other conversations, we disagree pretty strongly here on the risk of a deep formal economy failure.


Lisa Zahn said...

Ooh, this is going to be a great discussion! Crunchy takes on Sharon...

I'm grateful for your perspective, Crunchy, because I think you represent a far greater portion of the population than does Sharon. But I also admire Sharon and want to emulate her almost to a fault. Both of you have readers that follow both of you with great admiration, and to have a discussion of this type brings some reality into the scene. I love that.

As a SAHM, I do participate in the informal economy every day of my life. I also am an herbalist who helps people in return for little or no money on a regular basis (I hope to change that a bit by earning some money eventually, but I'm just getting started...).

It's great that you love your job outside the house, but in fact if you're not doing all the daily home things that need doing (cooking, laundry, raising your food, cleaning, etc.) SOMEONE else has to be doing them. And maybe for the person you've hired to do those things, the job is fulfilling and gets them what they want in return (money). That type of set-up will exist no matter what the economy--there have always been servants and people who could hire them.

I can't remember what else I wanted to say, but thanks for starting this discussion, which promises to be a good one. (I hope!)

Michelle said...

I rather thought that Sharon's point was that *by* doing the tasks that are part of the informal economy (growing our own food, trading childcare with family and friends) we can become less dependent on the formal economy. Therefore, WTSHTF, we will be able to feed ourselves, and if we do have employment outside the home, we will still be able to go to our jobs, because we will have informal but effective arrangements for our children's care.

I'd like to say much more, but I have to skedaddle to a class now. Thanks for engaging us in discussion about this - I hope it will be a fruitful exchange!

Connie said...

I don't know how we'd stay in our house or do much of anything without our rather nice jobs.

Not to over state what we earn, but I marvel at what we make compaired to what a couple of folks working minimum wage would earn.

We do everything we can to be a part of an informal economy - we grow at least 50% of our vegies, eat beans and rice, buy beef and milk from friends, sometimes watch the neighbor kids for free.... and yet we'd be sunk faster than the titanic without our jobs. We certainly do our own cleaning, laundry, cooking, and repairs.

I rather hope that through the earning of our jobs we can buy ourselves to be less and less grid tied and more able to support ourselves and our neighbors with a local economy.

I know my Grands kept a family in food and body with a large garden and a gun in the (last) Great Depression. I still have the quilts made from their old winter coats and army blankets.

Lisa Zahn said...

We are trying to get ourselves to the point where if our jobs (at this point just my husband's; I used to work part time but now am home full time again) no longer exist, we will be able to keep our home and feed ourselves (the most important things we can do, after all). Maybe we shouldn't "aim" for that happening, and we're not, but it sure looks like it could possibly happen in the not too distant future. (My husband is a public school teacher, a pretty secure job even in tough times, but if no one can pay their taxes he won't be making any money.)

We're paying our debts off (yes, we took our money out of retirement savings to do so, just last week b/c I don't trust our govt. and bankers at all right now and we decided to opt out of that system and rethink our savings plan completely). We're getting more and more frugal. We hope to be left with only a house payment within the next two years if not sooner. Even if my DH loses his job, I think we could and would find ways to pay for the house and heat and electricity for a long time. But we have to be completely out of other debt to do so.

We will take in boarders (informal economy), we will do odd jobs if that's what's available (mostly informal), we will sell stuff (if anyone's buying), we'll find a way.

For now, I'm certainly very grateful for my husband's good job and the 50k we live on feels like a luxury right now! I know many will be living on little or nothing in the near future, if they aren't already.

Matriarchy said...

TSHTF a long time ago in my life, and I have been part of the informal economy for a long time, even through I have a college education and the skills to work for The Man. I supported myself with a bootstrapped flea market tie-dye biz when my first child was born, then a bootstrapped paint contracting biz, then a bootstrapped web technology biz. I am now heading into bootstrapped green businesses focused on gardening and food security.

After a while, I was *choosing* to make a living that way, not forced into it by pennilessness. I think of myself as self-employed, not a SAHM or WAHM. I make a living for us first, and wedge in the mom parts around it. It's what poor people do, rather than "opting in or out of the mommy track," as it referred to in the media.

Along the way, I got a lot of time to raise my kids, and homeschooled them part of the way. I gardened, helped my aging mother, sat on the board of my church. I also volunteer in the community and have assorted intellectually-stimulating hobbies. The times that I felt marginalized or undervalued intellectually were when other members of society treated me poorly, based on assumptions related to my formal socio-economic status. I don't have enough cool consumer stuff to be seen as "successful" in a consumer society, and some folks would think of me as white trash. On the other hand, I have no consumer debt, do not own a house worth less than its mortgage, and I have lived on cash for 20 years. We have cash reserves, stored food, and several housing options. My kids are smart, healthy, creative, and active in social justice work. I have a happy relationship, lots of books, and good food. But still, by the measure of institutional society, I live below the poverty line and need help - often in the form of helpful pamphlets, it seems (instead of health care or attic insulation).

My point is that I believe that a lot of people are soon going to find themselves on my short end of the stick. The layoffs and plant closings have begun. 35% of my small city already lives below the poverty line. The informal economy is already hot here, building on years of flea marketing, bartering, day laboring, street mechanics, and tramp taxis. I see people bartering firewood and scrap metal on Craigslist and Freecycle, and selling produce and meat from the backs of trucks.

We have a lot of skills we are ready to share with folks that are not used to being cash-poor. :-)

Alison Kerr said...

I'm enjoying the discussion. I've not been a very big part of the informal economy to this point. What I'd like to comment on is that women in particular seem to be assumed to be willing to be part of this informal economy by default. Soon after I started my Usborne book business I noticed that women just expect me to do things for them for nothing. Maybe this is part of the deal of women in business finding it hard to be taken seriously. We keep so much going not only at home, but also through school volunteering etc (not that I'm saying men don't) it's kind of taken for granted that we'll do it. I just was continually surprised at how hard it is for a woman to buy something from another woman. She kind of seems to expect that free books will be given away as a favor, with, or without, anything in return, but certainly without money changing hands. I certainly think we may be heading for increasing importance of the informal economy. How that will work I'm not sure, but I don't think it will be comfortable for any of us.

Green Bean said...

I agree with Lisaz in that, Crunchy, I think many more folks look like you than Sharon. Most of us do not live an ancient farm surrounded by acres of land. Many of us choose to send our children to school rather than homeschool. Many work outside the home, etc.

I did enjoy these chapters, though, in that I can see the informal economy becoming a bit more helpful in tough economic times. I am a stay at home mom who works in my child's class several days a week, swaps carpool duties and sometimes play dates (read: free babysitting) with other moms. I sometimes trade cooked meals with my neighbors though not that often. Many folks, I think, don't look beyond carpooling or swapping playdates/babysitting. It would be nice if they did, though.

Indeed, for me, there seems to be a real divide between people who work full time and stay at home or part time working parents. Maybe divide isn't the right word but those who work full time mostly cannot participate in the informal economy. They're too busy working and therefore aren't able to reciprocate with rides home, play dates, taking kids to 4H or soccer, taking turns going to the CSA pickup. It is not that those full time working parents do not want to participate in the "informal economy". It's that they simply cannot. And who can blame them? Like a good friend of mine who is a single parent and had to go to work full time to support her children and have health care?

We, as a society, are in a bit of a bind. As more and more people find themselves out of formal work, though, they might find some small refuge in the informal economy.

Anonymous said...

I think (and now I'm in this argument here and at Sharon's blog) that we need both formal and informal work, partly because the two economies don't boom and bust on the same schedule, so a family is most secure with one foot in each. And for myself, I need both because it preserves options in the face of an always-changing present.

But one thing to remember is that the ability of middle-class people to withdraw from the informal economy is based on inequality and externalized costs; my work is no more valuable than housework or childcare, but it pays a lot better, so if we were paying someone to clean the house it would be a fraction of my salary for those same work hours.

In the same way, when I decide to work overtime and drive the car because I don't have time for the bus, the ecological damage is a subsidy to my salary.

So any move out of that system is an honorable one.

Anonymous said...

I have a clearner 2x a month for 4 hours, and it makes a great difference to my life. However, I can't say that I think what she is going (preventing my family dying from typhoid or me being even more sleep deprived and nut-bar) is less important than the work I do at the public library. I feel liberatated to sleep a bit more (and to not have to vaccumm with dd the younder firmly in tow as she likes to chew on the cord), but not that I'm freed to do something more important. More enjoyable, yes, but not more important.

If I used paid childcare (instead of relying on my parents and a housemate who "pays" rent in childcare and home up keep), I don't feel I'd be doing something more important than caring for children.

I need to work as as long as I can for the insurance benefits more than anything else -- most of the cash goes in taxes and medical costs (more than 1/2 my salary) and gas.

I'm outside of the formal economy for a good bit of our food (I think the CSA counts as formal), our clothing, childcare, most toys, books, etc., but not for education and music lessons, instraments, etc.

For various reasons I'd like to be more like Sharon, and more out of the formal economy -- the most important reason being that I think we're going to be forced into it sooner or later, and I'm glad of a head start. However, I think I'd fall more into the Crunchy camp, if she considers herself to be mainstream.


Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Good to read another perspective on Sharon's book. I think if a couple is used to a 2-income lifestyle, where they have to pay other people to do and make a lot of things for them, learning the skills of the informal economy would be wise.

Scenario: Say the wife loses her job, and the husband gets a pretty large paycut, so they have to survive on less than half their previous salaries. The wife might contribute more to the family, economically, if she would grow and make their food, search for thrift store bargains, barter with friends, arrange for carpooling, learn to fix the car, make the house more energy efficient, take care of the baby instead of putting her in daycare, arrange for a boarder to live in their basement, and make some money selling crafts or doing bookeeping on the side - INSTEAD of getting a crappy job that pays bupkes during a Depression.

Farmer's Daughter said...

As I wrote about in my review of Sharon's book, my husband and I both have feet in the informal economy. I trade labor on my family's farm for groceries from our farm market and my husband does odd jobs for cash or trades things with friend (he'll let them borrow our wood splitter if we can get some of their wood, we'll split and stack it if we can take half, etc.). I could also tutor as part of the informal economy. A certified teacher can get $50/hour for tutoring (in our area, anyway). A lot of my friends do this during the summer or when on maternity leave. It make sense and it makes ends meet.
However, outside of the formal economy, we wouldn't have healthcare. Our insurance comes from my job as a teacher, and that's just the way it is. Who knows, though, with our new president, maybe healthcare would be affordable.
I can certainly see Sharon's points, though.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Sharon - I'm assuming that Howarth's estimate of how long serfs worked to pay off their dues to the landholder is accurate, but in your estimate you didn't include the work they needed to do in addition to that.

For example, how much time was spent growing their own food, mending and repairing their tools, cooking, cleaning, etc. I don't have the book in front of me, but it seems like you took Howarth's estimate for repaying debt and used that as their total labor to emphasis your point.

You are correct in the !Kung labor hours being low. But they are also a hunter-gatherer society where they move rather frequently (following their food) so the labor is less intensive and the number of their possessions are low since they have to pack it all up every few weeks.

This is not a type of "lifestyle" that would be sustainable for 6 billion people. The cost of living in a semi-permanent location is increased labor (mostly a direct result of creating food and resources).

Churlish! Now there's a word that doesn't get enough usage. Right up there with squabby and phlegmatic.

LisaZ - We don't have any hired staff, as it were. Fortunately, both my husband and I love to cook so that's not an issue and the cleaning, well, it gets done but it's not a high priority thing. Laundry is like brushing your teeth - you just do it regardless of whether or not you like it. It doesn't take much time as long as you keep on top of it. The lawn? Look! Over there!

One other thing I forgot to mention is that we do take advantage of my mom watching the kids quite a bit - this would be part of the informal economy, so in that regard we are more in it than I stated.

Matriarchy - You are participating in the formal economy if you pay taxes, even if you own your own business selling your wares.

Alison - That is an interesting point and you are right - very few people would feel comfortable asking for the same sort of handouts from men as we do from women and I think that it's because we inherently respect or value a man's time more than a woman's.

Hausfrau - I would venture to say that, in your example, the wife would not only do all those things you mentioned (in other words, living more frugally), but would also need to find a crappy job that pays bupkes.

Too many people are, especially under those type of circumstances, house poor and finding a few dollars here and there aren't going to pay the mortgage.

Many of the suggestions Sharon shares with us in her book are helpful in the extent that it guides us into taking more control over our lives and becoming less dependent on the economy as a whole (less debt = less dependence).

This is something we discuss a lot on this blog as I see a lot of value in it. But, until we are able to mostly relieve ourselves of needing an outside income to survive, the informal economy will stay a small part of our lives.

Now, I may be acting more like Tigger to Sharon's Eeyore, but I don't think the formal economy is going to be tanking to the degree that we are all resorting to relying on the informal economy for some of the bigger basics (food, housing, energy, transportation). Many hard hit individuals will no doubtedly be doing so, but I suspect it will be only until they are able to find employment.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think what's coming could be summed up as

Informal Economy = Black Market.


Anonymous said...

I think informal housing is going to be the rule for a while for a lot of people. We have so many foreclosed and/or condemned houses in my neighborhood. A lot of multi-units foreclosed because the landlord got behind on the mortgage. All of those people are going somewhere - shelters, relatives, friends.

Last time this happened in my neighborhood (late '80s), a lot of those houses were bulldozed as a way to discourage illegal activity. Then it took more than ten years to build the housing stock back up, so starting in about 1998 we had a huge affordable housing crisis with rents skyrocketing and people doubling and tripling up for affordability reasons - or pushed into subprime loans to buy houses because landlords wouldn't take them at any price. High prices drove building on the empty lots and they were *mostly* filled...when the market crashed. One lot I go by a lot was permitted for a new duplex last summer, but no work has started, I assume because of the market.

If a lot of our housing stock is left empty for financial or commuting cost reasons, it will deteriorate and need to be rehabbed or rebuilt when the money is available again.

Anonymous said...

Interesting debate. I don't think it should be a matter of formal versus informal rather its about shifting the balance. Like our water supply and electricity, dependency on state provision is highly risky. We need distributed systems - both state run AND individual collection of water, electricity and income generation. This way we spread the risk. Many people these days would have no idea how to fend for themselves. Learning skills will help reduce their dependency but I agree with Crunchy I don't think we can go back to an informal economy and nor would we want to. State run education, health care (its better in Australia) welfare etc, are some of the advantages of a modern society.

One comment on the informal economy - its not that small. Certainly its big enough that the Australian Bureau of Statistics are trying to work out how to measure it.

Theresa said...

What I took from Sharon's book regarding the informal economy was that it would be wise to expand ones' involvment in it now, when the formal economy is still intact-ish. This will make the transition easier as some of the formal things start to unwind. The main thing I took from it was that the informal economy is actually a way to build community sentiment, such that people are more inclined to help eachother in tough times rather than just stand around in a daze.

I also wonder about the so called drudgery of household tasks. I consider my self a feminist, but over the years I've come to enjoy doing things like cleaning and baking and cooking again. The problem isn't that these tasks are inherently crappy, it's that they've been devalued by society. Granted, doing everything by hand all the time wouldn't be a fun-filled joy ride, but I must say that when I do household tasks with the mindset of gratitude to have a house to do them in, it's not half bad.

Anonymous said...

I know plenty of people who participate in informal economy, if at least partly. My sister is a nanny (under the table) and as a server gets more in tips than in a formal paycheck. Most of my adult immigrant students are babysitters under the table. Many of their husbands are construction workers, under the table. I do tutoring, under the table. My friend is not authorized to work here, so she tutors corrects papers for a university teacher, under the table. Other friends barter for babysitting. I think this is pretty common.

Problem? No retirement, no benefits. This is all dependent upon good health or wise investment decisions. Also, these informal economies make people more vulnerable to abuse without legal recourse.

nemo said...

These ideas make no sense at all.

The real economy is the people growing food. Once people can grow enough food to feed strangers, the strangers are freed up to do other stuff.

That other stuff consists of services such as healthcare, law, religion, baby-sitting, etc. and the production of widgets.

The non-food producers can now trade their wares in return for food.

The more "efficient" the food producers are the more the non-producers there are and the more these guys can engage in fancy, non-essential stuff.

In 1940 the number was 19 for every producer, in 1950, 27, in 1960 46, in 1970 it was 74 and today it is 129. The activities of these 129 are largely responsible for our enormous energy consumption and waste generation.

Anonymous said...

I am a SAHM who participates alot in the informal economy. Bartering services and products. babysitting, baking, tutoring etc. If I weren't into the informal economy my hubbys paycheck wouldn't go so far in the formal economy. We grow alot of our own food, make most of our basic stuff and alot of what I use to make our basics comes from the informal economy.

In our area the economy is ailing badly so theres alot of informal economy going on just to get by.

Hubby still has to go out into the formal economy to pay the mortgage and have health care, gas.

I would have to say we are dependant on both formal and informal to make it wotk.

Anonymous said...

What a great discussion! I finished the book a few weeks ago and thought it was interesting. I have some friends who are also preparing for the worst case scenario. I don't think it's going to happen and if it does I think a lot of their preparations will be for naught.

The reason why is that there are some wacky people out there with lots of guns who would overrun their Utopian urban farms and take whatever they wanted. They'd raid the food stores, cut down trees for firewood, and take the energy efficient houses as their own. Generally, when humans are faced with adversity on a grand scale many of them revert to primitive behaviors. Also the whole issue of health care or lack thereof was not really addressed.

That being said, I do what I can to improve our family's personal environmental footprint and support our local economy. This weekend for instance we're going to a local organic farm for a day of gleaning. Most (95%) of the produce will go to our local food bank and the gleaners will take home the remaining 5%. I volunteer my time to our community gardens, the elementary school garden and a local "grow foods not lawns" group which hosts seed and plant exchanges and sheet composting workshops.

I've also participated in our Local Living Economy project and our sustainable living fair. We eat as much home and local grown food as we can. I have the luxury of not having to go to work, but if I did have to work full time there's no way I could be involved with so many activities.

Thanks for setting up this great book club.


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Depletion and Abundance and really appreciated the holistic and big picture view of what may be coming.

I have a natural interest in gardening and cooking so that part doesn't scare me. It's mainly the fear of losing our income from the formal economy and of course health insurance. At some point I will probably need to have heart surgery to fix a valve problem so I'm holding on to health insurance as long as I can!

One of the reviews I read of the book lamented that frugality and DIY actions like gardening, shopping at thrift stores, etc. that many of us have been doing as a "viable alternative lifestyle" (in the words of Amy Dacycyzn) have been cool and fun because we're out of the mainstream and sticking it to our consumer society and maybe we'll be able to retire early. But it's not quite as quirky and fun when it's a requirement. I try to not focus as much on the coming hard times and instead think of reducing harm to the environment through my personal choices. Somehow it's more hopeful that way.

knutty knitter said...

I've nearly always been poor so it won't be anything new. We pay our way with whatever work we can and are thankful for free health and education.

We do own our house and that saves rent which is expensive round here.

I've always wondered what it would be like not to have to count the pennies and just to spend whatever but we've never been in that position and not likely to be.

the informal economy rules!
viv in nz

Anonymous said...

I'm halfway into Sharon's book and don't feel at all depressed - but really motivated and energized. I think her description of Pat Meadow's "Theory of Anyway" - that this is all stuff we should be doing anyway for the good or our children and grandchildren helped put it in context. As the title states, this is a book about both the downside (depletion) and the upside (abundance) - how the loss of the consumer lifestyle fueled by oil and funny money can actually lead to a very good, meaningful new lifestyle based on basic things that matter.

Another thing influencing my postive reaction to this book is the fact that my family lives and works in a "House of Hospitality" that serves the needs of folks for whom our current system never worked. An additional influx of people have joined them this year (number of homeless families up %43 this year in my town) - folks who were getting by, but are now newly unemployed and homeless or nearly so. The hardship scenarios Sharon describes are already here for some people, and the victims are literally knocking at our door every day.
While we don't have a farm (yet), we are working to build more community gardens, certify our kitchen so we can help folks can produce, and create a cottage industry sewing clothes from donated and thrifted sheets, curtains, and other large pieces of fabric. Sharon's book was the straw that broke the back of my procrastination.
Thanks for the discussion, Crunchy.

Composed said...

I've not read the book (though I do read Sharon's blog so I'm familiar with her economic thinking) but I want to chime in with some comments.

re: informal economy- I know of no one that doesn't participate in some way and a majority of my friends participate in large ways. We trade and barter for everything from clothing, cloth, food, babysitting, household goods and more. If I weren't in an apartment I would be participating (and have) in a larger way by producing much of my produce. As it is I harvest what I can from nature and certainly no one is tallying that up. I homeschool. I do what I can for myself and my family so I don't have to rely on someone else- nor pay someone else- to do something I am able to do. When I can't do something myself I search for someone who can.

I don't believe everyone needs to quit their job and stay home baking bread, but I do think a bit more self reliance would be nice.

Not having read the book I can only assume that what Sharon means is that the more people slide away from the formal economy, the less of a toll it has on 1) money 2) environment and the less it GIVES of the middle class to the upper class. Being able to barter with self-made goods can help those who can't pay for the goods otherwise. It can keep food on the table.

Chili said...

Radical was my first impression of the book. The majority of people will NOT live the way Sharon suggests -- or even try. But now that a few weeks have past, the concept of the book is taking over and sinking in considerably and I think others will find themselves doing the same thing. Cost savings, conserving fuel consumption (or eliminating?),living more within our needs and avoiding affluence, buying local and something near and dear to my heart - growing the biggest garden I can to do my tiny part in saving the environment. All these things are doable and practical and make sense -- if only people realize it. A news reporter commented on the economy "people are looking for anything positive and its not there." And I thought, but it IS -- they just don't realize it or want to accept it. Living more simply is the answer -- and it CAN be as nice (or nicer!) than living that affluent lifestyle folks have gotten used to. But it isn't an easy task for most people. Best of luck to everyone -- please try!

Unknown said...

Excellent blog Crunchy! The moniker is great!

Forgive my disjointed un-writing :)

I'll admit, that my take on this, is colored by the various forces moving through the "real" economy.

It seems in my reading on this post, that there are unidentified semantic errors with this discussion.

Crunchy, your critique supposes that what you have identified and presented as the real economy, IS in fact, a real economy.

It COULD have been... and certainly was in the not too distant past... but there is nothing much real about it today. And I mean that literally... not figuratively.

Not because there can't be or shouldn't be, a "real" economy. But because that which we identify with as being a real economy has a subtext, that is not unlike that music that builds in the background during a scary movie...
You don't notice it at first, but it finally gets under your skin and makes you tense, right about the time you realize something bad is getting ready to happen.

For the sake of discussion, your take on what folks can or should be willing to do, or NOT do, in order to have the support of a more localized informal economy, versus the real economy is spot on to me.

The majority of folks, myself included, don't relish the idea of becoming instant farmer/rancher/handymen types.

In reading this, I felt "along for the ride" in your critique, much in the way one watches a very suspenseful scene in a movie... when you SEE that there is an iceberg (or monster, or T rex... etc...) RIGHT THERE!!! But the participating main characters do NOT see it... yet.

3 years ago, a few very brave economists as well as folks who asked questions and could do simple math, were warning of an unavoidable collision with powerful conflicting elements of the "real" economy. Most were ridiculed for it.

They were contrarians, because they were able to see, that there was very little real about the current market economy, and could also see, that there was basically, a massive money laundering operation underway in the "real" economy.

From the mid 90's to 2001, over 2 Trillion dollars went missing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development... the current figure is far higher than that. That money has gone somewhere... but where?

There never was a housing bubble... there was (still is, but rapidly deflating) a MASSIVE credit bubble, and it's NO accident.

It sounds crazy, but in 2005, you could get turned down on a cell phone application... yet walk down the street and get a mortgage for a half million dollars on a home you certainly couldn't afford.

For those with the intestinal fortitude to entertain the numbers, AND the willingness to examine multiple market segments within the economy at large, and the cracks in these markets that have been forming for some time... they will discover numbers that just don't add up in our (the public) favor.

Frankly, I confess that I totally relate to your criticism Crunchy, from a utility standpoint.

If I should move, am I going to ask all my friends to help me move?

Heck no. That's what money is for!

I would rather not repair plumbing or electrical, or repair the damage squirrels have done to my soffits. That is what money is for.

I'm not a real fan of cooking... since I live alone with my dogbert friend.

I have a preferred great restaurant that cooks a reasonably priced fare from food grown locally, and I don't have to clean up the dishes.

Do I want to be the farmer and rancher and craftsman, just to provide for my own basic goods and sustenance? Hell no!

All these things are made easier with the utility of money in the real economy.

But the grease in the gears of this economy, cheap credit, deficit spending, and negative savings rates, coupled with foolish highly leveraged purchases... has all but dried up.

The gears are starting to make that sickening sound they make when they are starting to lock up.

As silly as it may sound here... you would be surprised at how many people living in an urban environment don't comprehend that food doesn't come from grocery stores... it comes from somewhere else TO grocery stores. Grocery stores are limited to a 2 or 3 day supply of food on hand.

Whether we are sustained by the real economy, or an informal or underground basic agrarian economy, may not be left open to choice.

Do you really think the real economy can't go away? Do the math... then follow the money. It actually IS going away... before our eyes.

The informal economy might just be the real economy after all...