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Deep Economy
The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

by Bill McKibben, 2007
Times Books, New York; 232 pages. 

Review by Dan Jones
Bull! Not bull Guest Author
May 15, 2007

Like many people these days, I have been spending a lot of time being more than vaguely uncomfortable about our impending future.  I see global warming happening faster than anyone realized even just a few years ago; a mounting acceptance of the effects that peak oil will have over the next 10 years; the slow-motion implosion of the housing bubble; and to top it off, the horrific nightmares of the Iraq War.  While none of us can know the future, the simultaneous emergence of these crises (and more) suggests to me that something very wicked this way comes.

Such a threatening state of affairs leaves an aging Boomer such as myself somewhat befuddled.   What can I do to change things?  How can I protect myself and my family?  Is there someplace we can hide?  What is going to happen to my Children’s generation, which will never have the same advantages and endless good times that mine enjoyed?  I need some guidance from a visionary who understands how all these crises fit together and offers a path out of the confusion.  

With his new book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben seems to fit the bill.  McKibben is the founder of the Step It Up movement, as well as one of the earliest authors to address the challenges of global warming in his 1980’s book, The End of Nature.  At the time, his work was scoffed at by nearly everyone in the mainstream, who were eager to pooh-pooh  the “junk science” of climate change.  But today, with the science hardly in doubt, McKibben has taken his interest to the next level.  He is now searching for ways to change the economy itself, and at the same time, the very ways we live.  Deep Economy isn’t just another doom and gloom rehash of the worst projections and speculation on climate change.  Its purpose is to actually provide solutions, and a vision of a better and happier world that can be born of changes in lifestyle and economies.

Deep Economy is based on the odd notion that we collectively have a stake in how our economic fortunes unfold.  As a result, his concept of our common future is incredibly inspiring.  He begins with the assumption that we are facing the triple crises of 1) global warming, 2) financial dislocation, and 3) peak oil.  He clearly reminds us that the effect of these crises will be environmentally and socially horrific unless we collectively act quickly to change the way we live.   To do this however, we must first accept that everything we know about our larger economy is basically wrong for the simple reason that it does not take into account two crucial factors: human satisfaction and social durability.  This book suggests that we have to return to the very roots of our concept of value in order to build something new and better.

Deep Economy, takes on popular wisdom right from the start with the “blasphemous” assertion that “Growth,” at least in the developed world, has now become bad.  McKibben’s Introduction begins:

For most of human history, the two birds of More and Better roosted on the same branch.  You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both.  That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production.  The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society, make one another richer and the idea that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More.  It has built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading this book.  It is no wonder and no accident that they dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But times change.  McKibben doggedly marshals his arguments to show that such beliefs are no longer true.  In our modern world, More no longer leads to Better.  These two values have become decoupled.  He frames his argument with three major features signaling that we are at the end of the Growth paradigm.  First, growth itself: At this moment, it benefits the elite and few else.  Second, the growth economy is dependent on cheap energy, and we are rapidly running out of these cheap energy supplies while literally cooking our world in their waste gases.   Finally, and I think most poignantly, the growth economy is no longer making us happy.

The final point is really the core argument of the book.  McKibben quotes study after study showing surprisingly, that More no longer makes people happier.   But this requires the interesting leap of trying to define happiness in a world that is normally bounded by numbers.   It also leads one to ask if the growth economy is no longer making people happy, then why don’t we seem to be able to stop our acquisitive habits?   Because consumption is the lynchpin of our economy.  It is our patriotic duty to consume. If we continue to do it, then it must make us happy.  Right?  At least that is the common wisdom we have been sold.  But when you really talk to people as in the surveys he quotes, that is no longer the case.  It seems then, that economic growth is no longer providing the Better.

McKibben’s anti-growth dogma will also be anathema to most modern-day economists who believe that acquisitive habits are the chief value in a capitalist economy and the multiplicity of choices in all markets is the key to freedom.  We depend (again, we are told) on this individual acquisition behavior provide the “hidden hand” of the market.   Undaunted, McKibben tries to construct an argument that, at its core, is difficult and controversial.  In essence, he is saying that nominally, markets work fine until you get to those areas of  “cost” which have been ignored in order to preserve the illusion of growth.     What is the cost for that 5 pounds of carbon put in the air by every gallon of gas burned, and who pays for it?   What is the cost of the stress produced by two hours of commuting each day, who pays for it, and how is it paid?  What will it cost to get our food to market when gas hits $5 per gallon?  Those costs are not figured into traditional structures because they are often messy, and assume values that are not easily quantifiable.

For the past two centuries, cheap energy has given us a transient sense of power and freedom.  That is about to change as we are suddenly going to have to start paying for these hidden costs.  But we have a transition problem.  We don’t know how to conceive of an economy that accounts for those new metrics. 

McKibben’s solution to these new costs is to say that we have to utterly change how we do business.  We need scaled back local production systems -- in energy, food, education arts, and even money -- which in turn will provide more support, community and ultimately happiness than the fractured market system we now believe to be the best there is.  And the basis of that new system already exists in certain pockets throughout the country, though the author seems to be most partial to the models he has discovered in the lovely Green Mountains of Vermont.

I know what he means.  It is part of a value system that harkens back almost 40 years – a value system that traditional economists and historians thought had died a long time ago.  It was created and maintained by the real opinion leaders of the 60s – the Baby Boomers that dropped out a long time ago.  Back in 1969, when I was starting out after college, there was a fascinating 4-year period when a lot of the intellectual hipsters of that famous 60s cohort wanted to build a better world and frankly, escape the chaos of the 60s.  All of the anti-war hippies wanted to invent a better way.  I was one of them.   So we all went off to live out on the land, do craft work, grow organic vegetables and blend into the landscape.  The majority of those intellectual hipsters on the East Coast went off to Vermont.  They followed the precepts of  E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful)  and subscribed to Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog.  For the counter-culturalists of the East Coast urban centers, Vermont was a promised land of organic farming and honest communitarianism. 

Like northern California, Vermont sprouted communes and artistic communities. Of course, many of those communes failed, which the press of the 70s used as “proof” that this idealistic vision was fatally flawed.  The Hippies dropped off the news radar.  Most of the Boomer cohort was not part of this movement and was soon doing the expected.  They started buying tract houses and/or became “Yuppies”.  But quietly, and unnoticed, many of the earlier urban migrants simply stayed on in the locale, nourished their ideals, and built themselves into the fabric of their chosen communities.  They became entrepreneurs and created a “culture” that was a real time capsule of those forgotten 60s values.  Strangely enough, these folks succeeded in remaking the local culture by mutual adaptation.  Now Vermont, once the state known for rock-ribbed Republicans, has a Senate that is the only Legislative body in the US that has voted to impeach President Bush.

McKibben uses part of this book to report back from Vermont on a whole range of successful post-Hippie endeavors, some of which just might provide a model for how we can respond to the prospect of the onrushing environmental and financial train wreck.  He doesn’t limit himself only to models from Vermont, but it is fascinating to see how many he actually does employ.  This is probably because his exploration grew out of his experiences in a year spent living only on local agriculture near his home in Ripton, Vermont.  That experiment was his launching pad for this book’s themes.  He started musing on the various aspects of our economic and social relationships, which grow out of our basic relationship to food.  The book is called Deep Economy, because it is an exploration of the roots of our interactions that cause us to get and spend.

As he enters his year of eating locally, he discovers that most of us are so removed from our food that we have no idea what it really costs in terms of energy and the environment.  One of his interesting facts is on that it takes 37 calories of energy to get one calorie of store-bought California lettuce onto a New York plate.  These calories are spent in fertilizer, transportation, packaging and marketing.  On the other hand, one calorie of lettuce bought at a local farmers’ market takes only a few calories to arrive on the same plate.  In other words, our current method of feeding ourselves is causing us to waste oil and create greenhouse gasses.

The same holds true of our work, clothing, entertainment and how we spend our free time. McKibben presents a whole volume of stories of successful local ventures, each of which show how life might be organized more sanely.  And his world has the double advantage of being a way to stop the current environmental threat as well as providing a life raft should things really go to hell in a hand basket.  He takes us to visit an organic cooperative of small farms on an old dump outside Burlington that provides a substantial percentage of the city’s food.  He shows us a small business that prospers in the face of Wal-Mart, and local energy developments that can pay back their collective costs in a reasonable period of time. McKibben even travels to Cuba to see what happened when the Russians pulled out with their subsidies.  Guess what? Cuba went local.  Most of Havana’s food is grown in Havana, and they population seems to have a better quality of life than is ever reported in the US press. 

Across our own country there is story after story of how efficient local agriculture can be. Local farms and businesses can help us save energy and provide food that tastes a lot better as well.  But unprocessed local food requires more time, thought and preparation than processed, pre-packaged stuff.  So most of us continue to load up our carts at the supermarkets and big box stores while ignoring the long-term costs.

Like any book that looks at alternate models of doing business, McKibben needs to address the traditional issues of profit and cost in his proposed new venture.  This is where he starts wrestling with some very interesting ideas.  Beyond the standard costs of materials, production, and distribution, he attempts to count the environmental and human costs that are usually lost in traditional financial calculations.  From this vantage point he postulates a scaled down and less expansive world in which people and markets operate more locally, sanely and humanely.  In order to get there, we have to give up our absolute value on the need for Growth

To his credit, McKibben constantly shows how we can rethink our practices by understanding the real cost of things, and by demonstrating the cost/benefits of his local approach. He also recognizes how much our corporate economy spends on making things cheap and easy for consumers, while ignoring real costs.  He is weakest when he fails to understand how ingrained the consumption ethic is in America because of how powerful the media machine that constantly reinforces it actually is.

His analysis begins to become really interesting when he begins to open the discussion of economics in terms of redefining “cost.”  Take the simplistic idea that the cost of gas is comprised of extraction, transport, refining, delivery and capital costs and profit.  That equation nowhere includes our collective cost of the 5 pounds of carbon released in the atmosphere for every gallon burned.  It doesn’t include the social cost of lost opportunity because corporations like GM and Exxon have furthered their own interests by destroying mass transit to create more demand for gas and cars, etc.  The most interesting discussion that grows out of this book is a redefinition of cost and an exploration of an economy and a society that has to absorb those costs in many dimensions not anticipated by traditional market economics.

McKibben’s grand argument is that we need a new measure of Better, which is a collective definition of happiness.  That Better now must include personal satisfaction and social durability.  This metric then becomes “Quality of Life” rather than GDP.  He cites study after study, each of which shows that more does not equal better in this context.  America may be collectively the richest country, but we are far from the happiest.  When you start measuring that quality, America begins to slip badly.  Our health care system is ranked 27th in the world, our education system 15th, and we are the most overweight people on the planet. 

It turns out, that after a certain point, more money does not make people happier, but instead more nervous, insular and depressed.   We are constantly told that our selfish drive is the cornerstone of American prosperity, but after reading this book, there is a nasty suspicion that we have been given a double whammy of lies.  Not only are we told that our purpose in life is to consume, but that it is just fine to go deeply in debt to finance this consumption.  McKibben provides a real challenge to that deep assumption about our individual and collective pursuit of happiness.  He exposes them as lies and moral cancers.  The factory farms of Archer Daniels Midland spread environmental and genetic devastation.   The urban sprawl of highways and McMansions are both ugly and unsustainable when gas passes $5 per gallon. Our entry into Iraq was caused by a pack of lies.  We do not have unlimited credit, nor good jobs on the horizon, nor the money to retire. Now, having been fed a steady diet of lies, we need to figure out how to do things differently.

This is where the book becomes inspiring and hopeful.  In reporting on the innovations in local economy and technology, he shows us how we can do things differently.  Opening our eyes to the reality of other countries, we can see how we might make quality of life as big a part of our production and consumption decisions as cost and reward.  He provides a blueprint to sustainable lifestyles and vocations.  These choices will not provide big monetary returns.  They will, however, provide immediate satisfaction and the protection and support that come from community.  Making choices that increase social connectivity and a reduced energy footprint are difficult because they run counter to the current assumed culture.

In the near future, some of us will be forced to make such choices by sheer economic circumstances.  Shrinking Social Security and deflating asset prices will mean that lots of aging Boomers are going to have to do things differently.  The real challenge comes for the youth, just entering their productive lives.  A recent survey showed that 55% believe that one day they will be rich.  What will happen when they collectively discover that things are not working out as they had planned?  Will they buckle down in their McJob and wait for the big break?  Or, will they start considering an entirely different way of life?  Will they be young enough to entertain new values, or remain trapped by their celebrity worshiping media?  The answer to this question remains to be seen.

I would like to recommend Deep Economy as a powerful start to a larger debate on all of these values issues.  It is a book that raises strong emotions because of its challenge to the common wisdom.  Those who control the means of perception and those who stake their fortunes on the constant growth machine will likely try to marginalize the ideas it presents.  However, I suspect that another Katrina, the ongoing desertification in the Sun Belt and/or the continuing implosion in home values may make the Vermont alternative more attractive to those not already enslaved by the machine.

It will be interesting to see how the under-35s look at their options when it becomes obvious that those student loans will never be repaid, and that there is no longer a collective ladder to success.  What will they do with a future that offers either urban life with roommates or country life in a FEMA trailer park?   Perhaps they will then be open to finding a new purpose in some locality that could use their honest work and service to build a different future, one small community at a time.  If so, I suspect Deep Economy will provide a useful road map to finding that community.

© Dan Jones, 2007

Questions? Comments? Discussion? Post them at my bulletin board, or you may email Michael Nystrom directly using the link above. Did you like the article? Sign up to my low volume e-mail announcment list to be notified of others like it.

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See also:
Review: The Global Class War
The Fourth Turning - Part I

The Fourth Turning - Part II
Video: Peak Oil, Smoke and Mirrors

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