Knox farmer riots for austerity

The Astyks cut energy use to 10 percent of American average

KNOX — No one has ever rioted for austerity. Until now.

Sharon Astyk, a 35-year-old mother of four and environmentalist, is scaling her household’s energy use down to just 10-percent of the average American’s.
"A lot of the things are really very ordinary, simple things — putting the laundry on the clothesline, or not taking the extra trip in the car to pick one thing up, or getting less supermarket meat and buying local produce," said Astyk.
Shortly after starting the project in April, Astyk and Miranda Edel, her "partner-in-ecology" in Minnesota, both mentioned the project on their blogs. It caught on.
"All of the sudden, there were 300 people doing it with us," Astyk said.

Now, nearly 1,000 people in 14 countries have joined in the Riot For Austerity.

Astyk is the head farmer and gardener of Gleanings Farm, a 27-acre Jewish community-supported-agriculture farm in Knox that delivers produce, home-baked challah, fresh flowers, and free-range eggs. Much of the Astyks’ land is wooded. About an acre-and-a-half is a mixed garden.
"It is harvest time now. We are filling the grain bins and enjoying the lush period of the autumn," Astyk wrote last week in her blog — Casaubon’s Book (

Casaubon is a character in George Eliot’s Victorian novel, Middlemarch. A lapsed Ph.D. student in English literature, Sharon Astyk is an aspiring writer. She contributes to Groovy Green, an on-line magazine that interviewed her when she spoke at a conference for The Community Solution, a community-based energy resource program.
Astyk, her husband, and their four young boys live in a large two-story farmhouse with six bedrooms "which is just crazy for six people," she said.
"In some ways, it’s good because most people aren’t going to build an environmentally-friendly home," Astyk said. "They’re going to adapt wherever they are."


To conserve energy, Astyk and those in the project are making cuts in seven areas — electricity, gasoline, heating fuel, food energy, water, consumer purchases, and garbage production. They save on energy through combustion and by using renewable resources or nothing at all.
"It’s hard," Astyk said. "We’re not really near much so that is a real challenge, and gas is probably the hardest category for us.
"You can do this a whole lot of ways," said Astyk, adding that some have bought more efficient refrigerators or installed solar panels on their roof.
"We don’t have the money for that," she said. "As sort of a modeling project, our goal was to do this on a comparatively low budget even if we had the money"Most people are going to have to figure out how to reduce their energy consumption with the things they’ve already got.
"We’ve emphasized turning it off, turning it down, [and] using it less more than buying new things as much as possible," Astyk said.

Before starting the project, the Astyks bought a more efficient wood stove. They didn’t buy a different car.
"We are using our existing vehicles, and we’re just trying to really use them less," she said.
An astonishing amount of energy savings, Astyk said, comes from "old, sort of boring 1970’s" thinking, and, while saving on energy, they also save money.

Energy-saving measures include: turning off the computer at night, using fans instead of air-conditioning, installing an attic fan, buying used products, putting on a sweater and turning the thermostat down, and turning lights off when leaving a room.
"We made about 60- or 70-percent of our electric reduction just by turning things off," Astyk said.

To save water, they place a bucket in their shower as the water warms up; they then use the water for their garden. They also turn the shower off when soaping up, turning it back on when rinsing.

They have turned their refrigerator off and use a freezer and two coolers.
"We take ice packs out of the freezer and put them in the cooler to keep the food cool, and we just buy fewer things that need to be refrigerated and cook a little differently," she said.

They are looking to replace one or both of their cars with three-wheeled Dutch bikes called bakfiets (backfeets), which have a plastic or wooden box for carrying children in front of their handlebars. The Dutch bikes could be used for most of the family’s local traveling, Astyk said.

The Astyks plan ahead so they don’t run out of things and buy in bulk. If something breaks, they wait until they are near a hardware store rather than making a special trip. They consolidate.
"When my husband goes into work, he stops at the store on the way home. He gets gas on the way home. We’re lucky that my husband only commutes three days a week, and I work from home"We wouldn’t be able to make the 90 percent if we didn’t have that arrangement," Astyk said.
"If we both had to work full-time, then we might be shooting for a 40-percent or 50-percent cut," she said. Not everyone is going to achieve 90 percent in every area, she said.

Their home is about three miles from Duanesburg, five miles from the hamlet of Knox, and 19 miles from her husband’s job.
"This is a big learning project, but Miranda and I had both been living a comparatively low-energy lifestyle for awhile. We didn’t start from where most people start," Astyk said. Some "started from zero," she said, and she thinks that is incredibly admirable and much more difficult.

Monbiot’s book

The inspiration for Riot For Austerity came from the British journalist George Monbiot, who says in his non-fiction book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, "Nobody has ever rioted for austerity."
"I was rather taken with the phrase because I liked it, and we decided, ‘Well, somebody should. It might as well be us,’" Astyk said.

She had read the British version of the book, which, as well as including British emissions, has some American figures. While she agreed with some of the Monbiot’s ideas, she didn’t agree with others.
"It’s a difficult book to read, and the information it has about what can happen if we don’t do this is also quite disturbing," Astyk said.

Monbiot, she said, figured out the highest amount of carbon you can have in the atmosphere while avoiding the 2-degree tipping point, where the climate could accelerate in ways we cannot stop.
"And, believe it or not, nobody actually did that before," Astyk said.
"Two degrees is the figure scientists agree"we really don’t want to hit. Right now, we’re at one," she said.
"I don’t want to imply that [Monbiot’s] is the be-all and end-all of all the books on climate change," Astyk said.

Monbiot also makes an argument about fair-share.

People in India are producing a lot of carbon because there are a lot of people there, but the average Indian is producing one-tenth the carbon an average American produces, she said.
"The issue for me, and the issue that Monbiot articulates, is that it’s not really reasonable to say, ‘OK, let’s everybody make the same cuts across the board,’"That’s not an equal way to do that," she said.

Astyk agrees with Monbiot and thinks it’s fair for people who use more to cut more.
"He does this very common-sense thing that says, ‘We really can’t ask poor people in poor countries to make the same compromises that we can ask rich people to do,’ and figures out what rich people have to do," Astyk said.

There is some controversy about Monbiot’s figures and some minor disagreements but scientists and analysts, in a large part, agree with the idea that we need to have a balanced and proportional response, she said.

Monbiot is skeptical about what people can do on their own, and says we can’t ask individuals alone to make sacrifices but that we have to make systematic changes, Astyk said.

One change he proposes, which she doesn’t agree with, is for people to order their products from Wal-Mart and have them delivered to their home so that everyone doesn’t drive their car to the grocery store.
"I actually think that’s wrong, and Monbiot isn’t a big fan of this either," she said.

Political statement
"What we needed was a visible political image," said Astyk. In his book, Monbiot estimates a 90-percent cut across the board in the rich nations would be necessary to avoid the tipping point, she said. And the writer points out that even the most radical leaders do not propose something like this, because it would be political suicide.
When people say, "Oh, nobody would ever do that," Astyk said, she will be able to say, "Look, over here" and, "Here are hundreds of people who have done this."
"As long as the argument is: No, this isn’t politically feasible, then we’ve got to represent the fact that there are people voluntarily doing it the hard way," she said.
"And wouldn’t it be easier if somebody helped" Wouldn’t it be easier if we started to get public political support for this"
"And, of course, we would love to have done this in a political context," she said. "The entire country is never going to be able to achieve the necessary cuts without public transportation, and without political support, and without tax rebates for energy efficiency."

While Riot For Austerity is "sort of radical-seeming" and "is designed to be a political stunt," and draw people’s attention, Astyk said, it is also about how we want to live our lives.


The project is not just a year-long experiment for the Astyks and their four young boys but a lifestyle they hope to sustain.

The Astyks’ eldest son, Eli, attends a school for children with autism. Simon, their only other school-age child, is being home-schooled.
"We do a mix," said Astyk. "We also do swimming lessons and athletic things, too"We don’t keep them in a cave or anything."

She pointed to other families that share the responsibility of taking their children to and from practices and events.
The Astyks, "at the moment at least," draw limits, Astyk said. "If everybody can go to Tae Kwon Do on Tuesdays, we’ll do Tae Kwon Do, but we’re not going to do three nights a week," she said. "As they get older, that’s going to be more challenging in some ways.
"A lot of that actually at this stage doesn’t have so much to do with wanting to restrict trips. It actually has a lot to do with wanting to have a real family life, and wanting our family to sit down to dinner regularly, and wanting our kids not to be running around all the time," she said.

The Astyks do a reasonable number of activities by their standards, and also try to prioritize things, such as baseball games with the neighborhood kids.
"We probably do fewer activities than most people we know," Astyk said.
She hopes that, as the boys grow older, they will ride their bikes to their activities. Either she or her husband could make the "pretty doable" five- or six-mile bike ride to the community center or the library, she said.

Through the years, they might have to change how they allocate their gas.
"Right now, it’s synagogue," Astyk said. "That’s what we reserve it for, synagogue and Hebrew school for the kids."

Later on, she said, they might need to prioritize it for baseball games.
"That’s fine. We just can’t do everything. It does restrict what we can do. It doesn’t mean we can’t do anything," she said.
"So far, we’re pretty content with that, but I’m sure there will come a day when the kids are chomping at the bit to do something, and we’re saying, ‘No, let’s not.’ And I’m not sure what we’re going to do at that point," Astyk said.

Long-distance travel
"There are some things that are real hard for people," said Astyk. "Flying is really tough.
"Everybody has family far away, and everybody has good reasons to go and people have jobs that require travel," she said. "Flying has been one of those real roadblocks for some people. I’ve been lucky because I work from home, and I have a certain amount of flexibility."

Long-distance traveling has not been eliminated from the Astyks’ lives. Her father lives across the country, her mother lives in Boston, and her mother-in-law lives in Manhattan.

The Astyks take a train from either Albany or Troy to Grand Central Station in New York City and travel by bus from Albany to Boston.
"In both places, we can pretty much get around by public transportation once we’re there," she said.

While public transportation does limit their travels, Astyk said, she is surprised by the number of places she is able to go. She has Amish friends in Palatine Bridge (Montgomery County) who go all over by train.
"Obviously, within our gas and energy parameters, there’s only so many of those trips, but travel on public transportation is just so much more efficient than travel in a car. It stretches the miles a lot further," she said.

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