on March 12, 2007
"Deep Economy" may be the most disturbing and challenging book published this year.
Disturbing? It's like the doctor telling you that you have cancer. And not just you --- you and everyone you know.
The good news: There is a cure. And with the energetic support of business and government, you and everyone you know can be saved.
The bad news: Our economic system is based on a crude, outdated model: More = better. Blinded by the mantra of growth, our leaders will try to make that model last as long as possible --- even if they destroy the planet in the process.
The challenging action item: You want to help save the world? Think local. Think community.
Your reaction is mine: No way. Shopping at a farmer's market: nice, but unimportant. Better bus service: handy, but inconsequential. Solar panels and wind turbines: of anecdotal importance. At best, the "economics of neighborliness" will divert us as the temperature and water rise.
On the other hand, this is Bill McKibben talking. And only a fool doesn't pay attention to this guy. In 1989, he published "The End of Nature," the first book to call attention to global warming. He's written about population control and television and the challenge of remaining human as the world becomes digitized. (And he's not just a brainiac. In "Long Distance," the 37-year-old McKibben put himself through Olympic-intensity training to see how good a cross-country skier he could become.)
McKibben has the ability, rare among writers, of identifying a problem, reporting on it, thinking it through and proposing solutions --- all in 225 pages. Here the problem he sees is unchecked growth. The usual suspects say we're in no danger of draining the planet's resources. McKibben points out that we --- that's Americans --- suck resources out of all proportion to other countries.
McMansions: Until 1970, Americans lived in houses about the size of today's garages.
Food: 75% of the apples sold in New York come from the West Coast or overseas, even though New York produces ten times more apples than its residents consume.
Energy: Americans use twice as much as Europe.
McKibben's argument gains force when he gets down to examples. His idea of name-dropping is charming: "When I was last in Bangladesh...." Other stops on his travels: Brazil, China, India. And in each place, he discovers some brilliant innovation that saves energy and boosts the quality of life. (But that doesn't take America off the hook. If rich countries don't change, he says, the poor ones won't --- they take their dreams from us.)
The great sociologist Philip Slater points out, "The first cure for illusion is despair." These pages give you plenty to mope about; our earliest prophet of global warming unleashes some gloomy predictions here. One hundred eighty million dead Africans by century's end if we don't change our wasteful ways. Twenty per cent of the global economy sheared off. The rich in bunkers, the poor at the gates --- it's not a pretty picture.
But life wants to live. And so, like grass pushing through the cracks in cement, people --- nameless, uncelebrated people --- find a way to sane living and greater satisfaction. After he scares the hell out of you, Bill McKibben shows you where to look for those people and tells you why you'll be happy if you join them.
Prepare to be very, very excited.
on May 9, 2007
This is a promising but ultimately disappointing book.
Among its strengths: it is very well-written. Compared to books with similar themes by Herman Daly (e.g., "For the Common Good", written with John Cobb), Michael Shuman ("Growing Local"), and Gar Alperovitz ("Making a Place for Community", with Imbroscio and Williamson), this McKibben book is written in an accessible, engaging style, with plenty of real-world stories of interesting individuals.
Another strength: This book is much fairer than the non-fiction essays by Wendell Berry on similar economic issues. McKibben at places does make a real attempt to acknowledge the arguments of economists about the benefits of economic growth and about the potential for economic adjustments to deal with some of the problems he identifies. This is particularly true in chapter 1, which critiques the mainstream view of economic growth.
A third strength: chapter 3 contains some powerful arguments for putting a greater value on local communities in considering economic policy issues.
However, ultimately I think McKibben shies away from really confronting the difficult issues he raises in a manner that would be convincing to a broad audience. As a result, I think the book is likely to be more of a comfort and support to readers who already agree with the views he expresses, rather than a powerful challenge to readers who disagree.
For example, one of McKibben's key arguments against economic growth is that economic growth will overuse energy, increase global warming, and damage various natural economic systems. The mainstream view of most environmental economists is that these problems of growth can be dealt with by various specific solutions such as imposing caps on carbon emissions, allowing energy prices to rise or even taxing energy resources, and rigorous environmental regulations to protect ecosystems. These measures may reduce per capita economic growth, but do not require that it be eliminated. McKibben acknowledges these arguments, but does not really confront them.
In fact, McKibben does not really acknowledge the existence of environmental economics as a field within economics. He writes as if the only economists who seriously consider environmental issues are ecological economists. This is a much smaller group of economists who happen to agree with McKibben that economic growth is inherently and inescapably destructive of the environment.
His discussion of "happiness research" is also disappointing. One of McKibben's arguments against per capita economic growth is that some research on subjective perceptions of happiness indicate that individuals do not seem to become significantly happier beyond about $10,000 per year in per capita income. However, is it true that the only goal of public policy is to make people happy? What about increasing the options of individuals? Happiness research also shows that most people quickly adjust to physical disabilities that may restrict their mobility or other activities, so that most people are just as happy a year or two after becoming disabled as they were before. (See, for example, the work of Daniel Gilbert, for example in "Stumbling on Happiness") Does this mean that society should not try to reduce the incidence of physical disabilities?
Finally, McKibben's discussion of solutions is interesting but sketchy. He is interested in promoting more local economies, and spends some time describing some specific programs and experiments in local food production, local energy production, etc. I am not really convinced that most of these options would take off and become prevalent even if we tripled the price of gasoline. I suspect that truly relying on local production would require too great an economic sacrifice in standard of living for most people, even if we "got the prices right" for various environmental goods and natural resources.
If I were promoting a discussion group on the issues raised by this book, I might use McKibben's book, but pair it with a book that gives the other side of these issues, such as Benjamin Friedman's "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth".
I've been a fan of the author since I read his book on The Age of Missing Information, and I then lost touch with his work. I was reminded of him by Paul Hawken, whose book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming I will review this afternoon.
DEEP ECONOMY is a very fine personal effort with a very straight-forward prescription for localizing food production, energy production, radio, and currency. The author is a gigantic intellect, and writes clearly.
The core point in the first part of the book is an emphasis on a need to restore humanity to the process, to reduce industrial era efficiencies in order to enable more intangible values such as community. The opening chapter is a great review of the literature the author is familiar, but I take off one star because the other books I list below are not mentioned, hence this great book is incomplete in that sense.
The author puts forward three areas where life as we know it is going downhill:
1) Our political systems continue to emphasize industrialization and consolidation that is not affordable by our current rates of depleting energy and water;
2) There is not enough energy for China, let alone Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Wild Cards like Turkey and South Africa, to follow in our steps.
3) All this "more" is not making us happier. Indeed the author documents, as others have, that the US was happiest in 1946, and it's been downhill from there. He pegs financially-stimulated happiness at $10,000, after which more money does not bring more happiness in relation to self, community, and eternity.
He educates in pointing out that 50% of the global economy is tied up in food systems; that 50 acres can support 10-12 families; that a gallon of gasoline releases five of its six pounds of weight as emissions.
He introduces Bob Constanza and the calculated value of the ecosystem we are destroyed at $33 trillion annually. I learned of the Earth Stakeholder Report and about Behavioral Economics from this author. To that I would add the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility (WISER) and the inspiring works of Paul Hawken with "true cost" metrics and Jon Ramer with local currencies, Interra.
The middle book focuses, as others have, on the loss of community, on hyper-individualization, and on how Wal-Mart can save someone roughly $58 a year, but cost them their entire local economy. He uses this to emphasize the urgency of restoring our sense of community so we can make decisions as a collective, for the common good.
Like Al Gore, but with less pomp, he rails against advertising as the engine for unnecessary consumption.
I was surprised by, and then in agreement with, his voiced need to restore local radio stations that actually focus on local needs and concerns and news. His critical comments on the conglomerate shows that feature Rush Limbaugh and morons talking about pornography are properly devastating.
Take home message: localization is the only way to achieve resilience--the federal government is not going to be effective in the short or long term as things now stand. We learn that the ideal community size for participatory democracy is no more than 500 voters, of whom 40% can be expected to show up for a town hall meeting.
We learn that Anthony Lovins has reported to the Department of Defense that if they spend $180B over the next ten years--$18B a year--that can cut US oil imports in half, and save $70B a year in addition. Now that is what I consider to be a key piece of public information.
He is generally negative on Tom Friedman, with which I agree, and Jeffrey Sachs, for whom I hold out more hope.
Below are the books that teach us beyond and before the scope of this book, which I am very happy to have read and added to my library.
Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
The Future of Life
The Ecology of Commerce
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution
Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy
Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource
Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict With a New Introduction by the Author
Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health
Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming
on March 8, 2007
Humanity is in a crisis. The IPCC has turned out more than enough reports for policy makers. It has outlined the economics and warned of the imminent threats. The danger is real, the danger is now, and it's up to us.
Bill McKibben has shown us how it can be done. He shows no disillusionment in regards to the truth; the future will not sustain this method of madness. Unlimited growth from the stored hydrocarbon fuels is in need of being phased out, quickly. China and India have gotten a foot-hold on this destructive path and their progress must be made more sustainable before it's too late.
Let's lead the way and quantify it all for the hyper-individualistic capitalist with compromised morals.
Be a yokel, buy local. Your future depends on it.
on April 12, 2007
McKibben doesn't expose any new data but his interpretation is refreshingly different or maybe just a reaffirmation of what we knew in the Sixties but didn't follow -- Think Global Act Local. I have been thinking alot lately about why there aren't any more Southern restaurants in the South, why my kids aren't happy when we buy them yet another game, toy or gadget, why all the radio stations sound alike, why we have a dumpster packed to the gills with "stuff" in our driveway, and why I can buy tilapia imported from China for $2.50 per pound in our local supermarket but no fish from North Carolina. Apparently I am not the only one thinking about these things but judging by the number of reviews this engrossing book has garnered thus far there still aren't that many of us.
The concepts McKibben puts forth are important and hopefully gain a wider audience.
on January 5, 2008
Deep Economy is a very well written and important book. What I like best about it is the way Bill McKibben puts together a comprehensive way of looking at contemporary problems. He smoothly shows how individual consumer decisions, such as buying locally, and large scale environmental issues such as global warming are closely connected. I haven't read any of McKibben's earlier books, but he has been studying and writing about environmental and economic issues for several decades. The title is a play on the term "deep ecology," used by radical environmentalists. McKibben makes a persuasive case that economics is the best way to attack many of our most serious problems.
McKibben's most fundamental point is that we must question the widely held assumption that growth is necessarily a good thing for the economy. He concedes that for people living in extreme poverty, a certain amount of growth is indeed necessary, but that beyond a certain point it is counterproductive. Not only for the environment, but for happiness and well being. He quotes statistics that suggest accelerated growth in income and spending has been associated with a decline in overall happiness for Americans.This is partly due to what he calls "hyper-individualism," the extreme focusing on self that leads to alienation and the collapse of communities.
This is not, of course, an objective look at these issues, nor is there any pretense of this. I don't necessarily agree with all of McKibben's political assumptions. One could, for example, take many of the facts and possible solutions McKibben puts forth and interpret them in a more libertarian (rather than the anti-individualist, communitarian bias he has) way. But political ideology is not really the point of the book. McKibben believes, as do an increasing number of environmentalists, that global warming, peak oil (the world may be running out of oil very soon) and other environmental problems will soon make our current way of life (meaning Western, especially American) impossible. This is no longer a fringe position. With nations like India and China trying to emulate the American lifestyle, the prospect of running out of resources such as coal and oil no longer seems like a distant prospect. Add to this the issue of climate change and we really are facing a serious challenge to radically change the way we live.
Deep Economy is more than an alarmist tirade. It contains many hopeful ideas for the future, many of which are already being done. Probably the most basic and radical idea in the book is that local food production is actually more efficient than the mass production system that dominates the marketplace today. From local farmers markets across the U.S. to innovative solutions implemented in African, Asian and Central American countries, McKibben shows that the solution to virtually all food problems is simply for more people to grow and consume locally. The vast amounts of energy used in transporting food, the health concerns presented by genetically engineered crops and factory farmed meat all point to the extreme wastefulness of the agribusiness status quo.
McKibben prefers the term "durable" to sustainable, but it means basically the same thing. In this book, he makes a very good case that the only durable future we have is one that is far smaller, less wasteful and community-based than the present American model. Perhaps some of the most significant statistics he sites are towards the end of the book, where he compares American and European consumption patterns. This is important because Western Europeans are not poor or disadvantaged -in fact they have longer life spans, superior educational systems and work shorter hours compared to Americans; all this while driving smaller, more efficient cars, living in smaller homes and consuming about half the energy as Americans. This is proof that the American notion that "more" and "bigger" is better is a fallacy, and one we can no longer afford to believe in.
McKibben is one of our best modern thinkers on environmentalism and conservation, ever since debuting with his classic "The End of Nature" in 1989. In this new book he has largely tackled mainstream economic theory and how it has inflicted worldwide damage on the environment and on human communities. Standard development economics suffers from an unyielding focus on efficiencies and consumption, but this more often than not leads to widespread damage and unhappiness. Planners and politicians focus obsessively on per capita utility and efficiency, and vehemently disdain anything that may reduce efficiency for some individuals but may very well improve communities and the planet. McKibben's great contribution here is his coverage of new studies of human happiness. Especially in America, we have passed the point of gaining any more happiness from increased consumption of things, and we have become largely unhappy over the ensuing loss of community and nature. A new worldwide understanding of how economics really works has become imperative - more is no longer better.
McKibben has located many useful examples around the world of communities practicing new sustainable development strategies with demonstrated benefits for all involved. Unfortunately, the areas in which such great things are happening have particular political and economic conditions that make such experiments beneficial (including the American location McKibben covers most often - politically distinctive rural Vermont). The underlying flaw in this book is that McKibben must resort to pretty wishful idealism when applying these local success stories to the world economic system. A related problem is that the second half of the book, where the rubber should be meeting the road in realistically applying the local to the global, largely degenerates into repetitive descriptions of benefits in lieu of real prescriptions for change. However, McKibben definitely deserves credit for explaining in an accessible way all the tragic flaws of mainstream economic theory (see the books and articles he cites for the real lowdown), and it's about time us regular folks resisted the power players - for the benefit of ourselves and our larger community. [~doomsdayer520~]
Since the end of WWII, North Americans have created a new outlook on the individual and social relations. Where once we were part of small town rural communities or even close-knit urban neighbourhoods, now we've moved a major part of our population into the suburbs. Single houses, fenced or hedged keep us insulated from each other and the world. McKibben calls it "hyperindividuality" with each of us following the myth of More and Better. We demand More and Better appliances in our kitchen, More and Better vehicles in the garage with More and Better roads to drive them on. An economy based on this philosophy has touted Growth as a beacon to set the direction of our thinking. The resulting high consumption lifestyle has masked the true costs of how we live.
In this comprehensive and long overdue study, McKibben describes the way our current mindset is driving our lives. As an expressive reformer, he also provides a set of almost painless cures to restore without abandoning what we've become accustomed to. We can rebuild "community" without serious disruption. The "almost painless" simply means a small change in outlook and a willingness to undertake the work to achieve sustainable lives and communities. Finding each other and building more more communicative relationships with each other is a major first step. From those initial contacts healthier and more responsible lifestyles can result. The thin edge of the wedge in achieving this is simply for each of us to ask ourselves "How much Growth do we need?"
Personal interaction is best enhanced, according to McKibben, by the shift to local food and other products. With vegetables travelling thousands of kilometres to reach your dining table, paying increased attention to what is available locally has many advantages. Among the greatest of these is knowledge that the products money stays in your vicinity and are likely right at hand in your area. In North America, the "family farm" has disappeared, replaced by huge tracts of land run by distant owners. Still, "Farmer's markets" have burgeoned in recent years and are increasing in number. The "organic" product has even entered the supermarket chains, a step McKibben feels should be further encouraged. Community-supported agriculture is a major aspect of this book. Along with local small farms, the "urban garden" utilisation of vacant lots has also grown . In both forms, the money you spend remains in your community. In some places, that has given rise to a local currency to facilitate support for local farmers and manufacturers.
The author stresses that our situation doesn't require rapid nor radical change in how we live. What he seeks is a "patient rebalancing of the scales". His native country, although its population still believes it stands above the rest of the nations, has slipped drastically in essential features. He has travelled many lands to witness various solutions that have been implemented. Many of these can be applied here, and it is here that the rebalancing is needed most. Our past values are not flawless, but he thinks we have sufficient common sense to find and use the best solutions where they can do the most good. Living in Vermont, he is favoured by his proximity not only to his neighbours, but to the politicians from the township to the federal level. That situation grants him and his fellow townsmen the opportunity to urge things like shifting subsidies from corporate farms to community ones.
None of his proposals embraces the "warm and fuzzy" feeling the word "community" often evokes. The romantic myth of small towns of closely-knit families is just that - a myth. For starters, there's no defined limit of what size a community must be to be workable. There are, McKibben argues, many "data points" to be considered. The difficulty is that our new mind-set has kept us from considering which ones are available to you and how to utilise them best. This volume, which is as much a guide-book for the future as it is a lamentation of why we need such a road-map, explains how to assess those data points by which you can help create a viable future. Read it and find out how and why. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on April 8, 2007
Bill McKibben's concepts in his book 'Deep Economy' should be read by everyone in the world. This book should be required reading in all schools and for all political leaders as well, for it describes some key concepts we humans need to implement (now) to increase the odds of humanity surviving, and even prosepring, well into the future.
These concepts are summarized as:
1) We need to consume fewer goods and services per person (Past a certain point, More does NOT equal Better)
2) We need to produce the goods and services that we do consume in a much more efficent and environmentally sustainable way.
Mr. McKibben seems to have left the obvious 'third leg of the sustainability stool' on the woodshop-room floor:
3) We need to achieve population stability...that is, zero population gowth.
However, fear not, for this essential element of the suatainability triad is the subject of another one of Mr. McKibben's books, 'Only One'.
Even if we achieve huge strides in ideas #1 and #2, if the total number of people in the human population increases unchecked long enough, then humanity will inevitably exceed the carrying capacity of our planet.
'GNP Growth' and 'Be fruitful and multiply' should not be suicide pacts...'The Truth Shall Set You Free'...
I highly recommend reading 'Deep Economy' in conjunction with 'Only One'. Even though I have not read 'Only One' yet, I am sufficiently impressed with Bill McKibben's thinkging and writing that I am confident it will be just as enjoyable and necessary as 'Deep Economy'.
Mr. McKibben's easy-going, non-pretentious, conversational writing style combines with his inescapable logic to make this an enjoyable and profitable read.
Peace, Hope, Understanding, Love and Compassion for All.
on August 30, 2008
I'll grant that we're rendering the planet unfit for human habitation, and not just rhetorically, but because I agree with McKibben. But his solution to the dilemma -- localized economies, and less consumption -- begs a few questions. His solutions might be the answer, but he's disingenous in not acknowledging their downside, and he puts far too much faith in good intentions trumping the self-interest of the rich world.
1. Can local economies work everywhere? Large-scale economies have made it possible for humans to live in many environments that could probably not otherwise support large populations. Los Angles, after all, is a desert.
2. Those of us in rich countries have long been reluctant to sacrifice for the rest of the world, and in the US, even for our own countrymen. Why does McKibben think we'll start now? After all, the economic benefits of localization will accrue to others, not to us in the rich world. And won't an emphasis on local economies make us even less interested, if that's possible, in the fate of, say, Africans and Africa?
3. McKibben has an absurd faith in neighborliness. For example, he claims that local currencies have no downside, because local governments won't issue more currency than they'd be willing to accept in payment of taxes and fees. But if national governments abuse the power to print money, why won't local governments?
4. Small farms are more productive per acre, but less per person. This of course means many of us will be returning to the farm. How is that going to be sold to Americans?
5. So I buy apples from a nearby farm because they taste better, even if they're more expensive. Why would I buy more expensive shoes from the nearby factory if they're no different from cheaper shoes from Vietnam?
6. McKibben tells us how how horrible ecologically it would be if the Chinese lived like Americans do today. But of course they won't be able to; with the recent increases in commodity prices, even Americans can't continue to live like Americans. Increased demand for natural resources will prevent these horror stories from playing out.