The Abundance of Less
Reviewed by Erin Humphrey

The Abundance of Less

By Andy Couturier
North Atlantic Books
August 2017
432 Pages
Size: 5.9 x 9 in

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The Abundance of Less holds a prominent place in my permaculture library. A revised version of his 2011 publication, “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.

Snug right up next to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, this book holds its own as a mainstay of spiritual and practical insight for those dark nights of “will we ever get there?” despair over the current global human situation.

Here, 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 every-day person seeking an authentic, sustainable, and creative life.

Through intriguing chapter titles, Couturier introduces the interviewees by communicating a respect for the true complexity and diversity of each person. The reader meets Wakako 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 waterwheel. 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.” “Going over 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 about 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 Period Tokyo was a fully regenerative and sustainable city of over one million people), Japan may offer the most relevant examples of how over-developed 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.”