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Survival of the Nearest 

Book review: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben

Published April 3, 2007 at 8:57 p.m.

The year is 1989, and Bill McKibben is the young author of The End of Nature. In it, he has the audacity to suggest that the triumph of modernity has been a tragedy for the Earth: Through the emission of greenhouse gases, we have murdered nature, or at least our idea of it.

Lewis Lapham, the distinguished editor of Harper's Magazine and great-grandson of a Texaco founder, reviews the book and is insulted by the "nakedness" of McKibben's "disgust for human beings." Outside Lapham's Manhattan window, the world is experiencing the hottest decade on record, but the newly formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has not yet acknowledged humans' role in the warming of the Earth. McKibben's poetic, prescient warning about global warming falls on many skeptical, even incredulous, ears.

Since then, McKibben has written nine more books, many of which deal with troubling trends in human culture, from the meaningless miscellany of modern television to the globe's staggering population growth to Americans' indelible footprint on the natural world. His eloquent moral authority touches a nerve and gets people thinking.

Also since 1989, McKibben has moved from upstate New York to Ripton, Vermont, where he is a scholar-in-residence in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. Increasingly, he has become an activist - or at least inspired a new, climate-conscious generation. Step It Up 2007, with McKibben as its figurehead, is one recent outcome. Based in Burlington and linked via the Web, the loose amalgam of DIY activists was launched by Middlebury College grads with the goal of collectively petitioning Congress, this April 14, to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

Because, of course, it is now clear that McKibben was right: The IPCC recently concluded it is "very likely" that the burning of fossil fuel is causing the Earth's average temperature to rise. And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Clean Air Act does allow the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide - including auto emissions. Even with that victory for eco-activists, many of McKibben's readers may be wondering where we go from here. In Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, he tries to fashion an answer.

Many of McKibben's previous concerns about climate change, the planet's carrying capacity and consumption intersect in this latest work. But here they coalesce at those bosoms of "community," the quintessential village green and town hall. "For community, it turns out, is the key to physical survival in our environmental predicament and also to human satisfaction," McKibben writes.

McKibben begins on familiar ground with the assertion that "more" no longer equals "better." He reminds us that the steroidal growth of the First World economy has overshot its objective, leaving us unhappy, the Earth exhausted, and the chasm between prosperity and poverty growing ever wider. How did this happen? He artfully traces our dilemma from the invention of the steam engine in 1712, through the idolatry of efficiency in the early 20th century, to the consolidation and globalization of today, when limitless growth is considered a foregone conclusion - if not a categorical imperative.

What we need now, McKibben argues, is a "basic shift." Though he's been saying and writing this for years, Deep Economy zeroes in on the way we do business. Here, what McKibben means by a "shift" is the not-so-basic task of rebuilding local economies. That project augurs not only a change in values but a retooling of the mechanisms of production. No longer should we "worship markets as infallible," McKibben writes. Instead, we "will need to downplay efficiency and pay attention to other goals. We will have to make the biggest changes to our daily habits in generations - and the biggest change to . . . our sense of what constitutes progress."

The phrase "deep economy" owes a conceptual debt to "deep ecology." The latter movement advocates an end to stop-gap measures designed to enable our current unsustainable lifestyle and a profound rethinking of humans' place in the natural world. McKibben's deep economy defines "progress" as a significant reordering of daily existence to emphasize community relationships for a durable - a.k.a. sustainable - future.

The word "economy" comes from the Greek oikonomia, which literally means "household management." By that definition, it would appear we have given the purse strings and the car keys to a Red Bull-addled teenager, and he's crashed the Excursion on the way home from McDonald's.

Unlike that teenager, we don't have parents to scold us and suspend our allowance. But Mother Nature is our de facto parent, and when she scolds it has the sting of finality. Given its focus on a mismanaged global household, Deep Economy might be seen as the meeting of Adam Smith, the 18th-century author of The Wealth of Nations, and Jared Diamond, contemporary author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. In fact, this book could have been titled The Economics of Survival.

The Cubans, McKibben points out, know a thing or two about survival. For them, the fall of the Soviet Union meant economic and political isolation. Suffering their own version of peak oil, Cubans were forced to fend for themselves - the cavalries of grain-laden boats from Eastern Europe stopped sailing. Yet, through thousands of organic urban gardens and small private farms, McKibben writes, "Cubans have created what may be the world's largest working model of semisustainable agriculture."

The author juxtaposes Cuba with Burlington's Intervale, which supplies "7 or 8 percent of all the fresh food consumed" in Vermont's largest city. Though that's not a huge contribution, McKibben sees it as one rising star in a constellation of alternative food-production projects. These "data points," as he calls them, are important indicators of communities' thinking differently about their food sources. Connecting those dots into a coherent picture - one that provides realistic alternatives to the sprawling suburban grids and strip-malls of Anytown, U.S.A. - will be the defining challenge of the 21st century.

But suburban sprawl is not the root of the problem, McKibben argues. Rather, it is merely a symptom of Americans' "hyper-individuality" - a boastful self-sufficiency that is the most egregious antagonist of community. Hence McKibben expends considerable energy decrying the "temple of More": Wal-Mart, whose success depends on consumers' selfish infatuation with low prices and ignorance of their hidden costs.

Here, Vermont makes another cameo, as an example of a state that held off - at least for a while - the big-box onslaught. Art Woolf, a professor of economics at UVM, "calculated that a full complement of Wal-Marts would save Vermonters $36 million annually" - which, McKibben surmises, translates into $58.14 per resident.

"That's real money," he admits. But, for all the convenience just inside those sliding doors, even Wal-Mart does not make us happy, McKibben offers. Community does: "Think of yourself as a member of a community and you'll get a better deal. You'll build a world with some hope of ecological stability, and where the chances increase that you'll be happy."

This thesis raises questions: What effect will a pursuit of community - Americans kicking the one-stop-shopping habit - have on the economy? How will we get by without globalization?

McKibben doesn't blithely assume the success of an economic about-face in the U.S. Instead, he gives examples of effective small-scale industries of all kinds. Once again, Vermont is Exhibit A. Citing low-impact logging in Addison County, the local-currency experiment of Burlington Bread and the down-home democracy of town meeting, McKibben argues that Vermont's smallness is a blessing, and an example of what future economies should emulate.

Despite the title of his book, McKibben does not purport to be an economist. "If all this seems anecdotal, that's because it is," he concedes. Thus, the primary message in his work is not that it's technically feasible for the First World to go "local," but a harder admonition that we need to figure out how to do it.

McKibben warns that, with the impending ecological conundrums of global warming and the rapid economic development of China and India, business as usual won't last long.

If China's coal burning were to reach the current U.S. level of nearly two tons per person . . . the country would use 2.8 billion tons annually - more than the current world production of 2.5 billion tons . . . And that's just China. By then, India will have a higher population, and its economy is growing almost as fast. And then there's the rest of the world.

In his sobering conclusion, McKibben says that localized economies will use far less energy than globalized ones, and thereby stand a chance of lessening oil shortages and climate change. But he also cautions, "It's too late to ward off these crises altogether. They're coming at us very fast."

Still, there is immense power in our communal brain, and McKibben's contribution here, as always, is to encourage it to think differently. More importantly, as he asserted in his previous book Wandering Home, "What we need more of are people who actually know what they're doing out in the physical world," such as farmers, engineers and, lest we forget, creative economists.


From Deep Economy

There are communitarians and social conservatives and progressives for whom "community" has become a magic word, a mystic goal. But it is in our economic lives, even more than our moral choices, that we play the crucial role in rebuilding our communities. We need to once again depend on those around us for something real. If we do, then the bonds that make for human satisfaction, as opposed to endless growth, will begin to emerge.

Every new farmers' market is a small step in this direction. It requires new connections between the people who came together to found it, the farmers who come in from the country to meet their suburban and urban customers, the customers who emerge from the supermarket trance to meet their neighbors. The market begins to build a different reality, one that uses less oil and is therefore less vulnerable to the end of cheap energy. But, more important, the new reality responds to all the parts of who we are, including the parts that crave connection. One tenth the energy; ten times the conversations - that's an equation worth contemplating.

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About The Author

Kirk Kardashian

Kirk Kardashian

Kirk Kardashian has been a Seven Days contributing writer since 2006. He's the author of Milk Money: Cash, Cows and the Death of the American Dairy Farm, published in 2012 by the University Press of New England.


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