Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Reviewed March 2008)
Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007)[****] Years ago, my dad gave me a book called The Conserver Society by Ted Trainer, and ever since I've been looking for someone a bit more in the mainstream to make the argument that economic growth (the sort that is the opposite of the recession we are headed into, for example, and the kind most of us probably depend on for our retirement savings) is, for all the many wonderful things it affords those of us in the First World, simply unsustainable, given a finite planet. A couple of years ago I started reading Jeffrey Sachs's The End of Poverty (I think I left it in the seat-back pocket on an airplane, and never finished it), and was disturbed that his solution seemed to be "what we have, for them too!" (i.e. agri-business to feed our bodies with toxins, consumer culture to likewise feed our souls. This may be entirely unfair -- as I said, I didn't finish it). But as McKibben points out, "if the Chinese ate meat the way we do, they'd use two-thirds of the world's grain harvest; if they drove as many cars as we do, they'd use all the oil the world currently produces plus 15 million extra barrels a day." And this was a startling statistic to a beer-lover's ears: 'To raise beer consumption for each Chinese adult by just 1 bottle per year takes an additional 370,000 tons of grain ... three additional bottles per person would take the equivalent of Norway's annual grain harvest." Not only that, McKibben argues, but American economic efficiency and growth isn't even making us happy or content any more; if you're dirt poor, more stuff definitely makes you happier, but there's apparently a threshold after which more stuff has a sharply diminishing return, and most of us in the US are way past that point. Rather, what we lack -- what, in fact, our relentless, hyper-individualistic pursuit of efficiency, growth and stuff has destroyed -- is connection and community. McKibben's manifesto is full of hopeful examples of local, smaller scale economies -- he looks in depth at agriculture, energy and entertainment, as well as a few discrete commodities such as wood and coffee -- that are good for both the planet and the people engaged in them. I appreciated that McKibben highlights not only hippies in Vermont, but also rice farmers in Indonesia, rabbit farmers in China, and public transportation systems in South America; this isn't just about groovy white folks living in their Eco-Villages. Still ... while this book is in many ways the argument I've been looking for, and it is certainly accessible to a mainstream audience ... I guess what I wanted was something a bit less soft-focus, less preaching-to-the-choir. I'm completely convinced -- McKibben validates my sense for years that economic growth is not sustainable on a finite planet -- but I'm not sure this is the book that is going to change the mind of a traditional economist. If any of you booksters are not members of McKibben's particular choir, I'd love to hear your critique.