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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Deep Economy by Bill McKibben

Most Americans, even those who consider themselves educated and fairly intelligent, find it difficult to navigate the intricate complexities of today's economy, especially as one wades through the muck and mire of the current economic recession. For me, reading Deep Economy was a refreshingly human way to contemplate the best elements of what makes economies work: the way they can pull together communities and provide us with a meaningful way to work and toil. McKibben's description of deep economy is actually about deep community. Local community, that is. McKibben's suggestion is that it is time to think about decentralization, creating local communities that are self-sustaining.

Deep Economy begins by criticizing the current economic axiom that we all take for granted: that our economy should expand. He questions our national obsession with growth, for three reasons. First, McKibben asserts that our current system has produced inequality and insecurity. The rich and powerful keep getting more rich and powerful, and the poor remain poor. The current system is also prone to the up turns and down turns that make us all feel insecure.

His second criticism is ecological. Our current global economy runs on cheap oil. What happens when the oil runs out? Or when oil becomes more and more difficult to find? Furthermore, we must ask if we can deal with the pollution caused by our current mode of operation. Further still, can we afford to fill the air with more carbon, thus contributing to greater and more devastating consequences from climate change.

McKibben's last criticism is the most simple: are we happy? Is our approach to work and economy enriching our lives. We may be producing more, we may be buying and selling more. We may be pushing ourselves to work harder and smarter, but is this all really translating into a full life?

Still, McKibben is understanding. "Up to a certain point, more really does equal better." He continues, "money buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and after that point the correlation disappears." In other words, we are wired to think that more is better, and that is understandable; but after a certain point, the law of diminishing returns kicks into high gear.

McKibben's solution is to localize. We should, as a society, reduce our consumption while at the same time locally producing most of what we consume. This is where McKibben is folksy and old fashioned, in the very best way, because by moving economies to a smaller scale and relying on locally produced goods and services, communities will be more closely bound to each other, working together and becoming more neighborly in the process. This is the antithesis, says McKibben, of the hyper-individualism that now dominates and controls our national psyche.

Food is a good example of the main arguments of Deep Economy. "The average bit of food an American eats has traveled fifteen hundred miles before it reaches her lips." This requires oil to ship this food around. It also requires oil to fuel the machinery that runs the farms. Americans have gone from having half the population farm to now only 1%. Machines have replaced the human worker, with the profits not going to farmers but to owners, distributors, retailers. Farmers get "less than 10 cents of the typical food dollar."

What if we produced our food locally? It would keep the profits in the hands of the farmers, keep more of us busy with farming, and reduce our dependency on oil (with its resulting harm to the environment). It might feel better, too, to get to know your local farmer. After all, McKibben says, people who shop at farmers markets are 10 times more likely to stop and chat. This is the good old fashioned community values that is so refreshing to read.

One of the icons of our current growth-motivated economy is Wal-Mart. I was interested to read McKibben citing a study showing that Wal-Mart makes communities poorer. "As University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded in a particularly comprehensive study, counties with Wal-Marts have grown poorer than surrounding counties, and the more Wal-Marts they had, the faster they grew poor." (See cecd.aers.psu.edu/pubs/povertyresearchsm.pdf) Wal-Marts (and the global economy in general) also rely on cheap oil and contribute to sustaining sweatshop workers and exploited labor.

McKibben, though, is no economist. Dealing with the complexities of the current economy is not his area of expertise. So, in a world that is already running in this direction, it is unclear exactly how (and if) we could make a transition from the current economic engines to a more localized model. McKibben himself seems to acknowledge that such a transition would likely take a while and move slowly. Still, for those who are really schooled in economic theory, Deep Economy would leave much to be desired; but then again, the book was not written for those schooled in economic theory. It was written to motivate average people to act in practical ways, changing the way they buy and sell: to buy less stuff (that we don't really need), to live a life that is fulfilling, to support local artisans and food growers, and to get people out of Wal-Marts and into farmers markets.

Deep Economy seems to be suggesting that we can succeed and live a rich life without the cut throat competition that marks our current economics of globalized capitalism. This doesn't mean that McKibben wants to do away with markets or the market system. It's just that he sees it working better (in a more sustainable way that is more life giving) in localized contexts where neighborliness and community are rediscovered as an important element of a sustainable economy.

I found this book refreshing and hopeful. It is also very empowering, because there are very simple things that individuals can do to impact the economy in positive ways while at the same time making life a little bit richer and more fulfilling.


Joy said...

I suppose it's the farmer's daughter in me, but buying more locally has always been something I've preferred. I remember my parents were on a first name basis with all the shop owners in the towns near us. We went to the neighbor's dairy farm to get our milk and exchanged our eggs and chickens for the milk. It's a great way to live!

john doyle said...

We've already discuss some of these ideas elsewhere, Erdman, so I'll try not to repeat myself.

"What if we produced our food locally? It would keep the profits in the hands of the farmers"

This is how medieval feudalism worked, isn't it? The landowners kept the profits skimmed off the work of the peasants in a very local sort of economic exploitation. I'm not sure the peasants felt any better about the situation because they happened to know their local lord personally. I.e., why should the local landowning farmer's profit be preferred to the shipper's profit, or the processor's, or the retailer's, or the restaurateur's? Aren't they all equally owners, making profits from the work done by non-owners?

Historically, the people who became traders and transporters and shopkeepers and bakers and craftsmen were the people who didn't own land and who were trying to escape the exploitation of peasantry. Landowners tended to divert their own exploited captive workers' resentment onto these free workers, identifying them as foreigners, money-grubbers, not really part of the local community. Of course the prototypical example is the European Jews.

In America it was the blacks, followed by the immigrant Irish and Poles and Italians and Mexicans who didn't own land but who worked the plantations and the mines and the railroads and the sweatshops and the mills, usually for less pay than the locals would accept. Instead of turning on the owners, the locals tended to turn on the immigrants. Howard Zinn talks about this tendency of owners, either local or international, to pit worker against worker in order to prevent the workers mounting unified resistance against the owner.

"Maybe it's the farmer's daughter in me," Joy says. Maybe it's the immigrant miner's and millworker's grandson in me.

john doyle said...

On further reflection I think that skepticism triggered by my family's historical mistrust of landowners and farmers should have no real bearing on how I respond to the deep economy idea. Neither should the historical association between the romanticizing of local German ecology and national socialism be a reason for rejecting other strains of ecological ideology. McKibben's ideas should be judged on their merits, not the company they keep. And since I've not read the book my views are tenuous at best.

I think there's a problem in building a sense of community around the local marketplace, just as there is a problem in building a sense of universal solidarity around the global marketplace. In both ideologies the market economy becomes foundational. And both versions center not on the workers nor the consumers but on the profit-making owners of businesses. For the global market economy it's the international businesses from whom benefits trickle down to the people in the form of jobs and consumer goods; for the local market economy it's the local businesses around whom people build their community values, social solidarity, and happiness. I think it would be better if the businesses built themselves around and for and by the people rather than vice versa, on both a local and a global scale.

I realize you're busy catching fish, Erdman, so I won't feel slighted if you don't reply. It's food for thought, this post.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks for your comments!

I appreciate any skepticism leveled at absentee landowners or any system of worker exploitation. It's something I'm very sensitive to. McKibben's book is written with the purpose of creating a sustainable economy in the U.S. He's very pragmatic, and he isn't deeply theoretical, so he's working with the capitalist system that currently exists in the U.S.

His idea of moving economic transaction down to the local level is specifically to avoid exploitation. Currently farmers make very little from the food we buy. It goes to the grocery store corporations, the seed guys, the machine manufacturers, the marketing and distributing companies. His suggestion is to buy from local farmers who would be able to keep the profits and would, presumably, care for the land in a way that is more sustainable than corporate agriculture conglomerates.

I don't think he's suggesting a form of medieval feudalism at all. My sense is that his vision is for local economics precisely because he believes it will lessen exploitation. As the system currently exists, we have little or no idea whether the workers who labored for our food were fairly compensated or not. If a person buys locally and gets to know local farmers, a person can know that the dollars they spend go directly to the farmers who are doing the work. I think most Americans would want to send their dollars to fairly paid farmers, if given the choice. Most would probably pay extra, if they knew with certainty that their money was supporting farmers. Trouble is, most of us don't know b/c we've been shielded from the source of our products. I agree with McKibben that going more local might give us a better chance in fighting exploitation. Laws and regulations to hold corporate ag. accountable might be another way, too. But I'm a bit more suspicious of this route, given the fact that politicians are often funded by big business. The go-local route seems to put the power directly in the hands of the consumer.

john doyle said...

Thanks: I'll keep an open mind about it. Based on subjective impression, the Boulder farmers' market prices seem higher than the grocery store, so cutting out the middle men doesn't seem to result in savings to the consumer. In prior summers our neighbors bought a share of a local farmer's produce, but this year they quit doing it. I think it's because they always seemed to get huge amounts of kale but no edible vegetables ;)

I just looked up some numbers on the Internet: in 2003 the largest 2% of all US farms accounted for 50% of total agricultural production. I suspect that, in the wake of the real estate foreclosure catastrophe, farmland ownership has further consolidated at the top. In most industries oligopoly leads to price increases. Maybe McKibben talks also about the deep economic value of co-op grocery stores, owned by locals who negotiate prices with the local farmers.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ah yes, the local Co-op....McKibben doesn't discuss this, but he should have. To me the general theory of co-ops are very healthy and sustainable, cutting out big business while still generating the collective bargaining power and centralized distribution of pools of buyers interested in the same product (healthy, local food).