Book Review: The Abundance of Less
The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan
By Andy Couturier
North Atlantic Books (2017), 405 pages
Andy Couturier’s book, “The Abundance of Less” holds a prominent place in my permaculture library. A revised version of his 2011publication, “A Different Kind of Luxury”, this book still maintains the same curious intimacy and timeless quality of the original volume, while providing the readers with updated photographs and stories of each of the ten people profiled in the original. The hand drawn maps and sketches and the intimacy of the photographs gave me the feeling I was opening an old tome, a carefully assembled journal kept for many years. Snug right up next to Aldo Leopold’s “ASand County Almanac” and E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”, this book holds its own as a mainstay of spiritual and practical insight for that dark nights of “will we ever get there?” despair over the current global human situation.
Barely escaping the slightly guilty and overwhelmingly curious feeling I was actually reading someone’s diary, I devoured Couturier’sbook in just under a day. Despite the author’s request in the Introduction to digest each story slowly, ruminating over the chapters to get a sense of this“slowed down life”, I found myself gorging on the realness and sincerity of this book. Here were ten accounts of real people living satisfying, affordable lives in a sustainable relationship with nature. In this updated version, Couturier gives us fresh perspectives of how these individuals have understood and coped with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in March 2011. In a moving and inspiring new afterward he also draws clear connections for what the people profiled in the book have to teach us living in the West.This is a true feast for the reader searching for actual evidence of regenerative living amidst an eco-haze of green-washed capitalism.
Interspersed with insightful and vivid anecdotes describing the homes, interview settings and relationships with the author, every chapter reveals a narrative of each person’s history, philosophy, spiritual beliefs and current way of life. Couturier gives a lucid voice to these ten Japanese lives, representative of not only modern Japanese counter-culture, but more broadly of an emerging global response in both hemispheres to the multi-tasking material madness of mainstream consumer culture. As each story unfolds he probes with humility, gentility, and sensitivity into each individual’s thoughts on the very fundamentals of human life: time, money, work, art, music, food and family. But this is no change-out-your-light bulb kind of pseudo Eco-spiritual fluff.Couturier has crafted a philosophical opus, an essential read for the everyday person seeking an authentic, sustainable and creative life.
Through intriguing chapter titles choice, Couturier introduces the interviewees by communicating a respect for the true complexity and diversity of each person. The reader meetsWakako Oe, organic farming mentor, puppet carver, intuitive painter, botanic sculptor and calligrapher. The author also introduces us to San Oizumi, potter, anti-nuclear organizer, anarchist, community educator, and father. Each story has inherent appeal purely based on the unique methods each person uses to create their home and provide for their material needs in rural Japan. We learn how Osamu Nakamura collects his own firewood, stacks it with artistic care and lives and cooks by the heat of the traditional Japanese irori hearth. We discover how Koichi Yamashita grows all his own rice, wheat, millet and vegetables with hand tools and a wooden water wheel. We follow Gufu Watanabe through his forest garden of rare edible herbs and trees as he gathers ingredients for dinner along the way. However, the real juice of this book comes from the startling new perspectives and values infused throughout each person’s lived story: “Don’t spend. Do. Not. Spend.”“Convenience just speeds you up.” “Satisfaction is happiness.” “Goingover here, going over there. Tiring! Better to just laze around the house.” These are certainly not the axioms I was spoon-fed growing up in the States!
Many of these folks present an organic understanding of their own relationship to and values regarding the natural world (an understanding which many westerners are only now discovering through the modern permaculture and sustainability movements). This book left me intensely curious as to the diversity of living examples of resilient modern life that Japanese communities and individuals may provide to the rest of the world. As a nation with a living memory of both urban and rural sustainable culture (Edo PeriodTokyo was a fully regenerative and sustainable city of over one million people), Japan may offer the most relevant examples of how overdeveloped nations can begin post-industrial, post-carbon renewal. Certainly, Couturier’s work moves us in a new direction and is not just a call to revert to some traditional ideal. As Astuko Watanabe, one of the interviewees asserts, “I am not a traditional person. I am just a woman living a simple life in the mountains.That’s all.”
I wonder how the “extreme” living conditions of many of the people featured in this book might present an unattainable or even undesirable example of sustainable life for many Japanese and American readers. The remote rural settings and lack of modern “amenities” in the houses of those interviewed for this book may cause some sustainability-curious readers to write off these people as radical back-to-the-landers. Although some people featured, like Atsuko Watanabe, are actively involved in their local community, more examples of people living in community may have helped the author create a larger and more complete picture of simple and sustainable living options inJapan. Hopefully, readers will look deeper to the insightful ways in which Couturier connects the choices of these individuals to larger patterns and values, which any aspiring “think global, act local” citizen can adopt.
Yet however intense and possibly unachievable these examples may seem to some readers, they deliver an empowering example of our ability, or even our responsibility, to reclaim two of the most important aspects of our own humanity: time and simplicity. Even I, the committed permaculture designer, organic farmer and sustainability educator, was shaken by the almost alarming directness of the questions raised in this book. Self-sufficient farmer, batik fabric artist, mother and author/illustrator Asha Amemiya asks, “First, you have to think, does it involve money or not? Then you look at whether it is natural or not. That and whether it causes suffering and pain to others… or not.” With an unapologetic precision, these kinds of questions cut directly through to the core of the spiritual-cultural dissatisfaction of the modern grind and bring us back to daily commitment to taking it slow and simple.
Couturier has opened a portal for English-language readers(and hopefully Japanese readers too, as the translation is now finished) to look openly at the lives of ten people living an authentic experiment with what it really means to be human. At the most fundamental level, this book explores the human relationship with the idea of “satisfaction” and our experience with “enough”.These seemingly radical ways of life and points of view are not just a fringe response to the modern rush and grind. They are a clear path laid out for all of us to follow. When we live with less, we can reclaim the time we need to respect and creatively reuse the abundant resources all around us. Feeling overwhelmed? Feeling tired? Feeling busy? This book reminds us we are in control. We are the ones responsible for reclaiming the real luxuries of time, nature and simplicity. In fact, a life lived in the abundance of less may be the very thing, the only thing, which leads us to the luxury we have all been seeking. Just how that unfolds is up to you.