Deep Economy

The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

Bill McKibben

St. Martin's Griffin

Introduction

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production. The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society, make one another richer and the idea that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More. It has built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading this book. It is no wonder and no accident that they dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better.

Some of the argument I’ll make in these pages will seem familiar: growth is no longer making most people wealthier, but instead generating inequality and insecurity. And growth is bumping against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that continuing to expand the economy may be impossible; the very attempt may be dangerous. But there’s something else too, a wild card we’re just now beginning to understand: new research from many quarters has started to show that even when growth does make us wealthier, the greater wealth no longer makes us happier.

Taken together, these facts show that we need to make a basic shift. Given all that we now know about topics ranging from the molecular structure of carbon dioxide to the psychology of human satisfaction, we need to move decisively to rebuild our local economies. These may well yield less stuff, but they produce richer relationships; they may grow less quickly, if at all, but they make up for it in durability.

Shifting our focus to local economies will not mean abandoning Adam Smith or doing away with markets. Markets, obviously, work. Building a local economy will mean, however, ceasing to worship markets as infallible and consciously setting limits on their scope. 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, as well, to our worldview, our sense of what constitutes progress.

Such a shift is neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” It borrows some elements from our reigning political philosophies, and is in some ways repugnant to each. Mostly, it’s different. The key questions will change from whether the economy produces an ever larger pile of stuff to whether it builds or undermines community—for community, it turns out, is the key to physical survival in our environmental predicament and also to human satisfaction. Our exaltation of the individual, which was the key to More, has passed the point of diminishing returns. It now masks a deeper economy that we should no longer ignore.

In choosing the phrase “deep economy,” I have sought to echo the insistence, a generation ago, of some environmentalists that instead of simply one more set of smokestack filters or one more set of smokestack laws, we needed a “deep ecology” that asked more profound questions about the choices people make in their daily lives. Their point seems more valid by the month in our overheating world. We need a similar shift in our thinking about economics—we need it to take human satisfaction and societal durability more seriously; we need economics to mature as a discipline.

This shift will not come easily, of course. Focusing on economic growth, and assuming it would produce a better world, was extremely convenient; it let us stop thinking about ends and concentrate on means. It made economics as we know it now—a science of means—extraordinarily powerful. We could always choose our path by fixing our compass on More; we could rely on economists, skilled at removing the obstacles to growth, to act as guides through the wilderness. Alan Greenspan was the wisest of wise men.

But even as that idea of the world reigns supreme, with the rubble of the Iron Curtain at its feet as deserved proof of its power, change is bubbling up from underneath. You have to look, but it’s definitely there. A single farmers’ market, for instance, may not seem very important compared to a Wal-Mart, but farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy. They’ve doubled in number and in sales and then doubled again in the last decade, suggesting new possibilities for everything from land use patterns to community identity. Similar experiments are cropping up in many other parts of the economy and in many other places around the world, driven not by government fiat but by local desire and necessity. That desire and necessity form the scaffolding on which this new, deeper economy will be built, in pieces and from below. It’s a quiet revolution begun by ordinary people with the stuff of our daily lives. Eventually it will take form as legislation, but for now its most important work is simply to crack the consensus that what we need is More.

A word of caution, however. It’s easy for those of us who already have a lot to get carried away with this kind of thinking. Recently I was on a reporting trip to China, where I met a twelve-year-old girl named Zhao Lin Tao, who was the same age as my daughter and who lived in a poor rural village in Sichuan province—that is, she’s about the most statistically average person on earth. Zhao was the one person in her crowded village I could talk to without an interpreter: she was proudly speaking the pretty good English she’d learned in the overcrowded village school. When I asked her about her life, though, she was soon in tears: her mother had gone to the city to work in a factory and never returned, abandoning her and her sister to their father, who beat them regularly because they were not boys. Because Zhao’s mother was away, the authorities were taking care of her school fees until ninth grade, but after that there would be no money to pay. Her sister had already given up and dropped out. In Zhao’s world, in other words, it’s perfectly plausible that More and Better still share a nest. Any solution we consider has to contain some answer for her tears. Her story hovers over this whole enterprise. She’s a potent reality check.

And in the end it’s reality I want to deal with—the reality of what our world can provide, the reality of what we actually want. The old realism—an endless More—is morphing into a dangerous fantasy. (Consider: if the Chinese owned cars in the same numbers as Americans, the world would have more than twice as many vehicles as it now does.) In the face of energy shortage, of global warming, and of the vague but growing sense that we are not as alive and connected as we want to be, I think we’ve started to grope for what might come next. And just in time.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Bill McKibben. All rights reserved.