Monday, March 03, 2008 • 11:14 AM Comments (7)

Finding the Sweet Spot between Individualism and Community: Bill McKibben's Deep Economy

posted by Hayley Wood

“Economic growth” has long been a term that inspired questions for me. From NPR’s descriptions of the health (or lack thereof) of the US economy and stock market to local government candidates describing their plans for bringing this growth to my region, I’ve daily heard the term used to describe an unquestioned goal. “Is growth always good?” I remember asking myself after listening to a live debate between two candidates for the office of State Representative. Similarly, in the previous years of the Clinton administration, the “global economy” was extolled as a bright, contemporary reality that was good for the entire world. The Internet, among other forces, had made the marketplace an international playground for creating wealth and improving lives.

Fast forward to 2008. Climate change is an uncontested reality, and we’ve only just begun to experience the incredible loss of life, pain and upheaval it is causing. Most non-food items that can be purchased in stores are now manufactured in China. Jobs are exported to developing nations in which people can be paid much less than in the US. The US is occupying Iraq, many suppose, to indefinitely control its oil supply. It’s common knowledge that the gap between rich and poor in the US is growing, we’re entering an economic recession, and satisfying jobs that pay a living wage and offer health benefits are rare. Deep insecurity has set in.

Is it any wonder that so many of us are suffering from depression or debilitating fears? I’ll be bold and list my top personal fears right now: new diseases that wipe out populations (caused by global warming), my husband or I losing our jobs and therefore our incomes due to the recession, and being stripped of necessities like home heating fuel, drinkable water, and purchasable food. Add to that a general anxiety about the future world our three-year-old son faces. What if it becomes necessary to fend for ourselves? Are we strong and smart enough to make it? Like many, I’ve long since lost any sense of trust in my nation’s government to protect me, particularly since there is no federal plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the near future.

These fears led me to investigate groups of people who are making a conscious effort to rely on each other as neighbors and also make their neighborhoods—and their world—a better place. As Bill McKibben concludes in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007), “we have much to fear, and also much to desire, and together our fear and our desire can set us on a new, more promising course.” It became necessary to my mental health that I learn about alternative ways of living that could contribute to a solution to the earth’s dire situation. I found the Intentional Communities website, which has a directory of most of the intentional communities in the country. I found over a dozen in Western Mass. alone, and I visited five sites among them: three actual operating communities, and two in formation. I briefly described my findings in a previous post on The Public Humanist.

In the Sirius Community’s newsletter, I read a brief mention of McKibben’s Deep Economy; it was described as “required reading.” And so it is. If I could require every American adult to sit down with it and get it read in a week, I’d do it. This strength of feeling and urgency is not in keeping, perhaps, with the ideal, objective humanist. Perhaps I would be more credible were I to analyze his many sources, read for myself the many studies he uses, and explain precisely how McKibben fits into the current American dialogue on how we can change the way we live to protect ourselves and everyone else. Maybe that’s in my future, for I think that the study of intentional communities and local democracy will be the work of a lifetime, but for now let me sum up his main point: economic growth is damaging the planet and making us miserable.

McKibben scrutinizes the GNP as an index of “growth” (and therefore, it is assumed, positive movement), and describes alternative measures of economic durability, making the refreshing point that durable local economies, not rapidly expanding global or national ones, will help us weather the challenges we are going to be faced with. Exposing the way economic success is currently measured in the US, McKibben observes: “Under the current system, as many have pointed out, all we do is add together expenditures, so that the most ‘economically productive’ citizen is a cancer patient who totals his car on his way to meet with his divorce lawyer.” He stresses that smaller economies for specific, diverse regions will provide means of participating in a satisfying way with our communities, from farmer’s markets, to local energy plans, to local government.

Happiness is a topic that he seriously addresses, quoting frequently from Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005). Lifestyles of Europeans and villagers in Third World countries are discussed—China, its own special example, provides much food for thought in this context. As McKibben wisely points out at the beginning of the book, for people with too little (a Chinese factory laborer for example), more is better for a long time. Most Americans have long since passed the point at which more things provide more happiness. The people in this group, myself among them, are McKibben’s intended audience.

We would do well, I think, to consider the many anecdotal examples (many of them first hand experiences) that McKibben provides in order to paint an accurate picture of the world economic and ecological situation in language accessible to most readers. Consider the stunning example of the nation of Bhutan, which “has stopped calculating GNP and replaced it with a ‘happiness index.’” One result of this radical reorientation of the Bhutanese government? “Sixty percent of Bhutan has been set aside to remain forest.”

The book is packed with news of positive change and problem solving—the incredibly dire forecasts of climate-change related upheaval are responsibly paired with diverse and interesting solutions for individuals and groups to consider and enact in their own communities. One thing is clear: there is nothing to be lost in trying a new way and committing to each other as neighbors.

--Hayley Wood, Program Officer, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities
Comments (7)
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Hayley, Your title says a lot. We need both individualism and community. But so much of our thinking is "either-or" instead of "both-and." I understand why you have lost faith in our national government. But I wonder if a "both-and" approach is needed there as well. Committing to our neighbors is important; but reclaiming our national government is, too.
Posted by John Hill on 3.3.08 at 14:04
Economic growth can mean many things though. From building more oil refineries to expanding organic farmers' markets. Adopting national and local growth polices that minimize external costs like pollution seems like the way to go, even if other countries continue doing their own things. I suppose we can lead by example. I believe the idea of a growth economy centers on the arguable premise that we must have an ever expanding and, "bigger economic pie." Otherwise, efficiency/equity trade-offs are bound to occur between different socioeconomic groups, usually meaning those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy suffer the most. If a community can figure out how to wisely grow its local economy, even during a time of national recession, it can move closer to self reliance, longer term sustainability, and greater social equity. That said, I'm not sure what John Hill refers to when he writes about, "reclaiming our national government." Is this an argument for a party change, a class change, a culture change, or something else? (Wondering if I can borrow your copy of Deep Economy...or is it available at the library?)
Posted by Daryl G. LaFleur on 3.4.08 at 6:19
Hi John--McKibben refers to Adam Smith throughout his book, starting on the first page, as the founding father of modern capitalism. He makes the point that the social cohesiveness and constraints of Smith's time would have provided conceptual brakes on the idea of infinite economic expansion and the social consequences we now experience. On reclaiming the national government: I'd love to see it reclaimed by public servants who want to restore a sense of "public" to their vision. I want to (personally) focus on the arena where I might actually have some influence. Also, I think that the national political scene receives a glut of attention (shallow attention, but still attention) that eclipses detailed local stories.
Posted by Hayley on 3.4.08 at 16:49
Daryl, your comment "If a community can figure out how to wisely grow its local economy, even during a time of national recession, it can move closer to self reliance, longer term sustainability, and greater social equity" basically sums up the book and what it's advocating. And he repeatedly suggests that we stop worshipping efficiency and start looking at other goals, like happiness, health, and security. Mark's got dibs on the book, but after that it's up for grabs (he'll want to finish it quickly and move on to Patrick O'Brian).
Posted by Hayley on 3.4.08 at 16:56
This sounds a lot like the rantings of scared yuppies with too much education, and vocabulary and a scarcity of common sense. Quit sniveling.
Posted by nick scroggins on 3.4.08 at 17:44
Hayley, I understand your focus on the local arena. Few have any influence beyond that arena. Perhaps change at that level might eventually percolate up to the national level and contribute to a cultural change. That cultural change would be advanced by understanding the firm belief in justice as fair play that is integral to Smith's thinking. Nick, This is not about scared yuppies. This is patriotic Americans thinking deeply about fundamental issues in our society. Join the dialogue sometime; that is one of the fundamental values of our democracy..
Posted by John Hill on 3.5.08 at 7:42
Thanks, I look forward to reading it. It seems the public is somewhat catered to during election years, and then we are to trust in our elected officials, local, state, or national, while staying out of their way. Sometimes this works out well, other times not so much... It is also interesting to note that many smaller communities receive almost no media attention all.
Posted by Daryl G. LaFleur on 3.5.08 at 10:20
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