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May 07, 2007
Book Review: Deep Economy: The Wealth Of Communities And The Durable Future
    by Francesca Rheannon

Author Bill McKibben's latest book helps lay the groundwork to create a more livable and viable world in which less is actually better.


In some ways, you could call Bill McKibben a conservative. The environmental journalist has argued in several books, including the End of Nature, Enough, and now, his latest, Deep Economy, that the modern world, with its untrammeled growth and destruction of traditions, is unsustainable.

McKibben states that the global system of production and marketing is not only degrading the natural environment, but is also impoverishing the quality of life. But whereas the first two books focused on nightmare scenarios, Deep Economy has a hopeful message: by using methods we already have or are developing, we can not only tackle global warming, but also create economies that better serve our human needs.

Deep Economy goes beyond the usual environmentalist focus on pollution. Clean up the inputs and use “green” production methods, this focus implies, and the problem is solved. But McKibben says the environment is hurt not only when “things are going wrong.” It’s also hurt when “things are going normally,” because ceaseless growth uses up resources at a rapid and accelerating rate. This means that simply “going green” won’t save the planet.

McKibben assails the core capitalist precept: that more is always better. While this was a good principle for nineteenth century societies scrabbling up the early rungs of the development ladder, he says that in a world outstripping its energy resources and facing global warming, a different ethos about the scale and structure of production has to be adopted — one that can help us live within our means (including developing giants like India and China).

But living within our means doesn’t imply that we have to return to the poverty of our pre-industrial forebears. It can also mean living better. In fact, McKibben says that growth without limits doesn’t makes us happy or satisfied. He points to studies in the new field of “hedonics” that claim that after a certain basic basket of needs is filled, the correlation between happiness and money disappears. Americans are the most affluent, but the least content people in the advanced industrial nations, according to these studies. Europeans, who consume about half the resources we do, far outstrip us in reported “well-being.”

McKibben says one difference may be that Europeans place a higher value on local community. Like the philosophy of “deep ecology,” which promotes the idea that humans need to experience a deep connection to the natural world in order to be happy, McKibben says that people need “community” to attain satisfaction. And they must use “technologies of community” to achieve it. Such technologies are locally based, promote direct connections between producers and consumers, and tend to be small-scale, although they can be integrated into a much larger network. They shift the balance away from globalization and toward localism in production and distribution.

He gives many examples, the most detailed of which involves agriculture. McKibben writes about a winter he spent eating food that was entirely locally produced. Since he lives in the Champlain region of Vermont, this meant a considerable narrowing of his food choices. But giving up some favorite foods (like bananas) was balanced by the wealth of connections he made with local farmers.

He had the satisfaction not only of decreasing his carbon footprint—since his food didn’t have to trucked or flown across long, energy-consuming distances—but also of getting to know the people who produced his food and the conditions under which they produced it.

McKibben’s winter of local food may be an extreme example that few would want to adopt, at least on a regular basis. But he says that locally based food systems — like other local economies — can be more efficient; small farms grow more food per acre than giant agribusiness concerns. But he defines “efficiency” differently, I suspect, than Archer Daniels Midlands.

For one thing, a small farm uses more labor to produce a given quantity, so it’s more expensive in the short term than production with a higher ratio of capital inputs. But if you include such cost factors as rising energy prices for food inputs, the impact of global warming (he claims local food systems can cut carbon emissions by 20%), depletion of water supplies, the loss of biodiversity in crops (making them more vulnerable), and the loss of jobs (a negative multiplier effect) when family farms go out of business, local food production not only looks more efficient, but much, much cheaper.

Add in the possibility of disruptions in long-distance distribution and supply networks (such as during an avian flu pandemic or oil shocks) and you can see why McKibben thinks that local food systems make sense economically for the producer, as well as for consumers and the environment.

Although McKibben’s argument is not primarily directed toward entrepreneurs, his ideas about the value of “technologies of community” are as valid for them as for consumers. A farmer who runs a “CSA”, or community-supported farm, where consumers buy advance shares in the harvest, is guaranteed a return, no matter what the vagaries of the weather.

Likewise, a local raw milk dairyman gets a higher price for his milk, not only because he sells direct to the consumer, but also because people are willing to pay more for the quality of the product and the trust that comes with a personal connection.

But the question McKibben begs is how quickly and extensively can such technologies of community be scaled up to really make a difference, for example, on the impact of global warming or fossil fuel depletion. Doing so will take several important shifts in the larger business environment, something else McKibben touches on only lightly, if at all. He mentions that policy support will have to come from civil society, without talking about how difficult it might be to get interests that are entrenched in the global-business-as-usual model, both in government and business, to change. For example, some of the subsidies going to corporate farming would need to go to sustainable, locally-based farming. This represents a shift from underwriting consolidation to underwriting diversity, something that won’t be easy to convince legislators to do.

The concept of economic man as hyper-individual bent on maximizing personal satisfaction (defined as getting the most at the least cost) will have to give way to a more collective sense of satisfaction. Even the concept of ownership will need to undergo some transformation: not to socialism, but to a sense that private ownership and what some are calling “the commons” — environmental, cultural, intellectual — need to negotiate a sustainable balance with each other in a common socio-economic space.

Finally, the very notion of profit needs to metamorphose into something more inclusive and longer-range. Costs currently externalized to the environment, the consumer, or the worker, will have to be entered onto the ledger sheet. Less- (or non-) quantifiable benefits will have to go there, too, such as “well-being” or “future generations.” If profit depends on growth and growth is destroying our planet, then green business, for example, will have to look more toward quality than quantity. It’s not enough to produce more of less polluting products, if their production uses up resources at a non-sustainable rate. A radical restructuring of the notion of profit—away from the purely economic—is necessary if we are to survive.

McKibben may not deal directly with these questions. But he poses two others fundamental to finding answers to them: what "economies of scale will support a standard of living most of us can be happy with, yet not overwhelm the earth’s physical systems" and where can we find the “sweet spot between individuality and community”? Deep Economy goes a long way toward laying the groundwork for citizens, consumers and entrepreneurs to work together not only to avert disaster, but to create a livable world in which less is actually better.









 

 
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