October 2007

John Marsh

nonfiction

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben

One Saturday not too long ago, my spouse and I needed to pick up some food for a dinner party. So, that morning, we hitched up our two dogs and walked about a mile to the farmer’s market held in the parking lot of our college town’s more or less abandoned -- though centrally located -- mall. We bought what we needed for the party, the dogs got to sniff some people and even another dog, and we headed home. Until reading Bill McKibben’s recent book Deep Economy, I confess that I had not given too much thought to the farmer’s market or what it meant. I go mostly because while I am not a vegetarian, my conscience is troubled enough about eating meat that I try to eat grass-fed and humanely-raised animals, and the farmer’s market is one of the few places in town where that is readily available. If I thought about it a little while longer, I might say that, except for the days when it’s raining, the farmer’s market is a more pleasant place to shop. We walk instead of drive; we get to bring the dogs; and people are friendly but will also leave you alone.

For Bill McKibben, however, the farmer’s market is more than just a pleasant, ethical convenience, and more than just an alternative to the Kroger’s and Wal-Marts of America. It is, instead, the only sustainable model for a twenty-first century economy; a model for the local production and distribution of everything -- food, energy, communication, democracy -- that people need to survive.

McKibben’s praise for farmer’s markets starts as a sustained critique of the current economy and its monomaniacal emphasis on “growth.” That growth economy, McKibben argues, is unequal, unsustainable, and, perhaps most surprisingly, depressing. It is unequal because, as he puts it, “Though our economy has been growing, most of us have relatively little to show for it. The median wage in the United States is the same as it was thirty years ago. The real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers has declined steadily: they earned $27,600 in real dollars in 1979, $25,600 in 2005.” If the wealth created in the last thirty years has not gone to the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers, where has it gone? The math is fairly obvious: like the latest round of tax cuts, it has gone to the richest 10 percent of Americans.

But inequality is not the fundamental problem of our economy. We could, assuming the political will existed, spread that growth more evenly through a variety of wage and redistribution policies. But that would not solve the problem of sustainability. Simply put, we are in danger of (1) using up all of the fossil fuels -- especially oil -- that power our current growth economy and/or (2) imperiling our lives on this planet through the build up of carbon in the atmosphere, which is produced, of course, by burning all those fossil fuels in the first place. In short, even if we liked the economy we have now, we have little chance of keeping it.

Perhaps most devastating, though, and controversial, will be McKibben’s take on the economics of depression. Just as we could do a better job of redistributing the fruits of economic growth, it is conceivable, although unlikely, that we could invent our way out of the problems of peak oil and global warming. In other words, that somehow or other we could continue to fuel not just the living standards of the Western Europe and the United States -- Americans currently use about 24 barrels of oil per person per year -- but the booming economies of China and India. But why would we want to, McKibben asks, when the growth economy -- and its avalanche of stuff -- has not made us any happier? Indeed, when it has made us decidedly unhappier? Drawing on research in the field of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, McKibben argues that “more” does not always -- and hasn’t lately -- equaled “better” or “happier.” Despite a tripling in gross domestic product per capita since 1950, despite driving more cars, despite living in bigger houses, and despite, when not working, being constantly and instantly entertained, Americans are not considerably happier -- and in many cases much unhappier -- than either their forebears or people living in other developed countries.

Every year since World War II, the National Opinion Research Council has asked a sample of Americans whether they were “very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy.” To judge by the responses, the U.S. was at its very happiest in the 1950s and has grown steadily gloomier since. The number of the not too happy has increased as well. As McKibben reports, “people born in advanced countries after 1955 are three times as likely as their grandparents to have a serious bout of depression” -- and this increase does not owe just to better diagnosis or more awareness of the disease. The same pattern holds for other developed countries as well. Up to a certain point -- for those living in poverty, for example -- “more” increases aggregate and individual levels of happiness; after that point, though, happiness becomes subject to the laws of diminishing returns, until the returns become losses and “more” actually correlates with unhappiness.

One cause for this unhappiness may be work: in order for the economy to continue to grow, Americans must work as much or even more than they have in the past -- and much more than workers in comparably industrialized countries. For example, on average Americans work 199 more hours per year today than they did in 1973. And while Americans make 29 percent more money than European workers, they also work about 338 more hours per year than a German worker. That schedule leaves, McKibben theorizes, much less time for what does make us happy: spending time with our families and in our communities. To put it bluntly, we work longer hours to buy more things to make ourselves more miserable.

The solution to all these economic ills -- inequality, sustainability, and happiness -- lies, McKibben argues, in revitalizing local economies and local communities. The remainder of his book documents various efforts -- most of them drawn from his home state of Vermont -- to do just that. McKibben visits local farms (including urban ones), local radio stations, local wind farms, and local town hall meetings. He is careful not to wax sentimental about such efforts, but equally careful in trying to show that not only are such efforts possible but in many cases thriving. Moreover, that they are a welcome and perhaps even an unavoidable alternative to our current unsustainable, immiserating economy. He does a tolerable job, too, of responding to those who argue that abandoning economic growth means abandoning the half of the world currently living in poverty to their poverty. One, he argues, does not necessarily follow from the other.

Bill McKibben is perhaps best known for his work on popularizing global warming. In 1989, he published The End of Nature, which was the first work to introduce carbon accumulation and the greenhouse effect to a general audience. He was right then, and I fear -- and, to be quite honest, part of me even hopes -- that he is right again. We could do much worse than to live in a world of farmer’s markets.  

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben
Times Books
ISBN: 0805076263
272 Pages