Reshaping Our Life Together: A Review of Sharon Astyk’s “Making Home”

This review originally appeared in the Ordinary Time 2012 print issue of The Englewood Review of Books.
Reprinted here with permission.  CLICK HERE for subscription info.


Take a moment to think about your life in the next 5, 10, 25 years. What do you see? If your vision includes a car, reliable and cheap electricity, food from a supermarket, or a climate-controlled house, you may be in for a rude awakening. In Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, Shannon Astyk invites us to practice a new way of life that we both need and will inevitably be forced to acquire. She calls this new way of life “adapting in place” and bluntly describes it as “the only thing left that can save the world.” While her vision of the future is bleak and a bit frightening, she is nonetheless hopeful that another world is possible. She sets out to provide the tools and strategies that will give birth to this new world wherever we are – city, country, or suburb.

Before instructing us to compost our solid waste, give up our cars, and heat our beds with warm stones, Astyk uses the first three chapters to reveal the stark realities ahead as we face the consequences of living as if our homes were gods. Homes were meant to serve their inhabitants, but we have made them idols. Our worship is costly because it requires us to transcend the natural limitations of land, family, climate, and culture. Instead of ordering our lives around these limitations, we invest in cheap energy to power short-sighted, destructive solutions. The return on our investment: a lifestyle that is absolutely unsustainable for the 7 billion co-inhabitants of our planet. The god we have created has now become an economic and ecologic monster that threatens to consume our lives and those of several generations to come. Some – those who refuse to acknowledge the frequent failures in our complex systems – have chosen to ignore the monster’s presence. Others – driven by a conception of beauty that rejects utility for shallow appearances and hides the realities of messy, everyday life – choose to continue in their adoration, even as they are consumed. Where does this leave us? Collapse. We have passed a point of no return. Irreparable damage has been done and the storm clouds are brewing in our not-so-distant future.

How does Astyk respond to this bleak reality? She urges us to redefine home to be “an attachment to one place, one house, one set of people, one relationship between [ourselves] and a bit of dirt” that asks us to thrive with less of everything. This sacrifice is necessary if we hope to pass on a life worth living. She recommends that we assume failure and live in ways that serve our needs in and out of crises. These new ways of living should both lessen the impact of the coming collapse and build up our resilience against it. Finally, she encourages us to see beauty in old things made new, in dead things come back to life, and in the ugly, drab tools that actually help meet our real needs. She asks us to put down our Better Homes and Gardens and to fall in love with a “working home” – one that works for us. Bringing this vision of a “working home” to life will require us to come together as communities to think creatively about how we can say no to more energy, money, and resources and yes to more time with our families and more health, happiness, and resilience for all.

Over the course of the next 11 chapters, Astyk systematically deconstructs the “fossil-fueled, private solutions” that fulfill our basic needs and offers very practical strategies to help us “adapt in place.” She begins with triage: should we find a new place or just stay put? If we need to find a new place, Astyk helps us decide by offering a vision of how life in the country, city, and suburbs will be transformed in wake of collapse. From there, she marches through a litany of changes we will need to consider that address every aspect of our modern lives: heating, cooling, lighting, cooking, sanitation, transportation, and food and water production. As a general rule, if a system relies on cheap fossil fuel, it has no future.

Astyk cherishes no illusions about the difficulty of these changes, especially in our relationships. As a now married and formerly divorced mother of several kids, she knows the challenges of family life and gives strategies for navigating these changes with spouses and partners who may not be on board. She provides thoughtful advice on how to include your children even when they can’t or don’t really want to help. Since a working home incorporates extended family, Astyk critiques our somewhat ridiculous need for privacy and space (the average American is given 850 sq. ft. of personal space) and asks us to embrace a communal future with a broad and inclusive definition of extended family. She offers very practical tips to help us prepare our homes to be hospitable during short-term crises and suggests a renewed focus on caretaking, especially with our aging family members. Expanding into the sphere of neighborhood and community relationships, she echoes a well-known Biblical command: Love your neighbor. The alternative is simple: die.

Finally, Astyk shares her thoughts on issues of work and money and asks us to broaden our skills and learn to do things for ourselves. She even provides a list of seven skills that every adult will need. She emphasizes the coming importance of the informal economy, made up of “subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under the table work, domestic economics, and self-employment in the cottage industry,” and suggests that we will need to be very flexible in how we define “jobs” or “careers.” With government services either failing or becoming unreliable in most places, those who adapt in place need to think about their personal and collective security. Astyk lists several ways individuals and communities can prevent violence but also ways to respond to violence if necessary.

As the book comes to a close, the idea of “making home” may will seem overwhelming, but Astyk ends with a message of hope. She and her husband were not experts in “making home” when they began this project 10 years ago, but they have made significant progress. In between some chapters, she helps to assuage our fears by inserting personal anecdotes from several folks who are making the kinds of changes she has suggested. Astyk is adamant that her goal is not to provide a rigid list of do’s and don’ts that are required for adapting in place. Rather, she insists that this book is a way for us to get started, a way to get our minds thinking differently, and a guide that may need some tinkering along the way.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Astyk’s analysis of the crises I and my family now face and her vision for adapting in place struck me in several ways. First, I was deeply challenged to move beyond the empty lip-service I pay to my belief in the goodness of creation. Simply put: I say creation is good, but I live comfortably in ways that destroy it. Second, my understanding of the depth and reach of sin in our world was challenged by Astyk’s embrace of failure as the human condition. As it turns out, the seemingly “good” things I enjoy are actually very sinful when their human and environmental costs are rightly assessed. A robust understanding of sin must include the destructive effects of our lifestyles. A final challenge came to my belief in what has been called a “theology of enough.” Too often, I embrace the hope of this belief – creation’s abundance and God’s generosity – without accepting its command: take only what you need (Exodus 16:16-18). Thankfully, several affirmations came along with these challenges. Chief among them was how Astyk’s primary thesis of “making home” gives serious teeth to the Church’s call to practice hospitality. Since, as Christine Pohl says in her book Making Room, “the front door of the home is the side door of the church,” we would be wise to heed Astyk’s advice in transforming our homes if we desire a more hospitable world for all. While she does not claim to offer an exhaustive solution, she provides more than enough to spark further conversation.

I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to any individual or family in search of practical, down-to-earth advice about how to live in ways that honor creation, use a fair share of resources, and lead to stronger, more resilient families. While the changes she recommends are drastic, Astyk is very reasonable and humble in her guidance. She mostly assumes that her readers are very familiar with the concept of peak-oil, as well as the pace and consequences of climate change. If these are not familiar ideas, I would recommend some light research (use Wikipedia… while you still can) before reading. In conclusion, this book serves as a wonderful catalyst in an extremely important conversation about the reshaping of our life together in order to serve and protect the web of diverse, interdependent relationships that bind us to one another and our planet in ways more intimate than we sometimes like to admit.


A nice little milestone

Did you notice the byline up there?! Over the summer, I wrote this review of Shannon Astyk’s new book Making Home for the Englewood Review of Books (ERB) and now its published! Pretty cool stuff…

A big thank you to Chris Smith and Englewood Review of Books for hosting such a great place for these important conversations. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend you check out ERB and like them on Facebook/follow them on Twitter. While you’re at it, make sure you keep a close eye on a blog that Chris is co-authoring: SLOW CHURCH.