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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.