In all of the sustainability-type books that I've read, none of them really directly tackle the economy; what role it has played in our current environmental situation and what needs to change to make a better future. So I had high hopes for Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007). While I wasn't blown away by this book, I did appreciate that it approached the climate crises from a different perspective. I found it to be somewhat meandering. He seemed to lack focus and a certain directness in his writing, but I think his assessment of the situation is right on, as are his suggestions for the future: a smaller, more localized economic system that focuses on building community, rather than building wealth.
McKibben provides us with a very brief economic history that explains how unrestrained growth became the mantra of The United States. He stops; however, to ask exactly what we as individuals and as communities are getting out of all of that growth. He points out that while the GNP goes up and up and up, the median wage in the US has been stagnant for 30 years. Not only is growth not making the majority of us wealthy, new research shows that growth also does not necessarily make us happier. More and more Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs and unhappy in their marriages. This is due in large part to the fact that we are very lonely because we don't need each other for anything anymore. If we have enough money, we can buy everything that we need and we can totally isolate ourselves from one another. We are all strangers with no social ties to maintain. This is a novel situation for humankind. Never before have we not needed our neighbors.
He also explores the obvious environmental consequences of this system. By substituting oil for people, we've destroyed the ecological balance that makes life on this planet possible. Not only do we have environmental pollution when "something goes wrong" (i.e. the oil spill in the gulf), it is also the expected and accepted result of the system. How did we screw things up so incredibly badly? Inertia. Simply by continuing to do something (make money) beyond the point where it was actually making us happy. Growth transformed us into individuals who can make choices about our futures. This shift has brought us very real benefits, like democracy, but we've taken it so far beyond the point of usefulness and are now at a point of hyper-individualism that is actually causing us harm. Not only have we shed our fixed identities, but we have also lost out community. By lionizing efficiency, we have given up things that are of real personal value in order to benefit the bottom dollar, but are of no real benefit to ourselves (leisure time, for example).
So what are the political options that we've been presented thus far? Conservatives tell us that growth is and should be our top priority, no matter what the cost. Liberals agree that we should continue to grow, but they throw in the caveat that wealth should be redistributed more equitably. McKibben disagrees with both.
He explores the "economics of neighborliness" and ecological economics as paths to a better future. He sees an inability of rational utility to describe how real humans actually behave in life. We don't always make rational decisions about how to spend our money, as many studies have shown (i.e. test auctions where people will bid $1.50 to win a dollar and the overvaluing of sunk costs) and yet this is what everything is based upon. However, by becoming smaller and more localized, we personally know all the people that we do business with, making us base our choices on what benefits our community, because what benefits our communities will also benefit us. Hand in hand with this, ecological economics calls for a true accounting of environmental costs. Currently to describe how productive (good) our economy is, we just add up expenditures. So the most economically productive person is a "cancer patient who totals his car on his way to meet his divorce lawyer." By accounting for things like pollution and disease, we have a more real-life picture of our system and whether or not we are actually better or worse off and whether or not we are really happy.
As an example of how this works, McKibben focuses on agriculture and our food system. To make these systems more local, he wants to eliminate agricultural subsidies, or at least tilt them towards small, local producers, and to take back the agriculture departments of the land-grant colleges from the agrochemical companies (who now provide most of the funding) and put them to work on developing local markets and low-input farming methods. In addition to farming, he looks at how a variety of social and economic sectors would benefit by being based more locally: energy, communications (radio, Internet), timber, currency, music and entertainment, as well as government, should all be small, local, and accountable to their participants.
In short, McKibben asks us, "Why don't we start building an economy that works for our current needs, rather than constantly readjusting our lives to serve the growth of the economy?"