Bill McKibben’s writing is like brain candy for the environmentally aware. Always concise and candid, he manages to say all the right things at just the right time. In Deep Economy, McKibben once again tackles a vast topic – this time the persistent paradigm of “endless economic growth” – only to distill it down to polite conversation full of anecdotal nuggets. He argues that the “culture of More” is the root cause of our current environmental crises.
For McKibben, there are three fundamental challenges to Western society’s fixation on growth, which taken together deal an absolute knockout blow to Adam Smith’s claim to fame. First, there is the political argument concerning the glaring economic inequalities that are inherent in capitalism’s dark side. The second and most obvious is the physical challenge that says we simply do not have enough “Earths” to go around for endless growth. Perhaps this is all McKibben needs to say. It is true by definition and so immune to rebuttal that it hardly warrants any further support. But then again, the environmental movement has been a broken record on this point for decades, with precious few results.
McKibben recognizes that it’s no longer useful to appeal only to environmentalists. His most important audience may be those with no scientific or environmental background, who are not swayed by graphs and statistics. He focuses on a third sociological challenge to our unprecedented growth and its economic adherents by asking a simple question: Are we really any happier? Americans, for example, have shown in countless polls and surveys a gradual decline in happiness over the last 50 years, even as the average citizen has accumulated more and more wealth.
He argues this affluence has made us increasingly isolated – in our long commutes in personal vehicles and even longer working hours, our lonesome
shopping for pre-packaged food from who knows where, and in all the ways that we’re now rich enough to do things alone. I don’t think McKibben would suggest these social issues are nearly as dire as our environmental ones, only that they are both components of a larger problem, and by solving one we will necessarily solve the other. But his choice to focus on the social is a tacit recognition that its explanatory power may be our only way out of environmental collapse. He’s focusing less on doom and gloom and more on the day- to-day activities of ordinary people – on what a sustainable economy would look like on the ground.
McKibben’s picture – a localized economy based in tight-knit communities – is painted using various case studies, from Cuba’s organic revolution after the collapse of the Soviet Union to smaller communities in his native Vermont. His analysis of our current food system shows that the factory farms producing concentrated pollution and increased energy use are the very same ones driving small farmers out of business, and their traditional communities right along with them. Though smaller farms have been proven to produce a higher yield per hectare, they rely more on people power to get there, so they’re bound to lose out to the bottom line of centralized efficiency and concentrated profit. As McKibben explains, “we have substituted oil for people” and there’s really no better way to describe it. Similar trade-offs occur for most other industries – the energy sector, forestry and transportation being the big ones. Ultimately, local alternatives provide the solution for both our loss of community and our environmental problems.
For many environmentalists, these arguments are almost subconscious. Part of McKibben’s charm is that he often tells us exactly what we want to hear. But his genuine hope is to create awareness and influence behaviour for non-environmentalists as well. The real question, then, is whether this book will be effective to that end. The advantage of focusing on our relative happiness is that it’s a language we can all understand. But I’m not so sure people will buy this idea. They may be unabashed fans of free market globalization or simply pragmatic people looking out for their future. In either case, it’s hard to imagine them being persuaded toward environmental action because they’ve been supposedly less happy – especially when the claim is based on abstract polls and statistics.
That said, Deep Economy does not disappoint – it’s a typically engaging read from McKibben. I wanted to hear more about conventional economics and its often-ludicrous defence of endless growth, since the claims of ecological economists make so much sense in contrast. Instead, I was given a comprehensive defence of our traditional notion of community. Who knows? It might just work.
Fraser Los is program manager of Earth Day Canada’s national environmental scholarship program.