Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reading Journal: Deep Economy

At the recent G8 summit in Japan, the faltering global economy was high on the agenda. Food and energy prices have been rising, and (according to a recent BBC poll) there has been an increasing awareness worldwide that both the costs and the benefits of globalization have been unequally distributed. In setting his goals for the summit, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote: "Never in recent memory has the global economy been under such stress. More than ever, this is the moment to prove that we can cooperate globally to deliver results: in meeting the needs of the hungry and the poor, in promoting sustainable energy technologies for all, in saving the world from climate change—and in keeping the global economy growing." Most economists and world leaders, like Ban Ki Moon, unquestioningly accept the idea that continued economic growth is necessary to "deliver results": to feed the hungry and bring prosperity to more of the world. McKibben, in Deep Economy, presents a minority view: that economic growth cannot be sustained without irreparable harm to the planet, and that fostering sustainable local economies—and a sense of local community—is necessary if we are to keep ourselves from outgrowing the capacity of the Earth to sustain human life.

McKibben's book offers a wealth of anecdotal evidence—from Burlington, Vermont, to Cuba to Bangladesh—that local economies can offer a viable and sustainable alternative to globalization and growth. One of the most interesting examples is that of Cuba, where the fall of the Soviet Union cut the island off from its supply of oil: Cuba was the first place on Earth to experience "peak oil." Without a steady supply of petrochemicals—specifically, fuel and fertilizer—Cuba was forced to redesign its agriculture or starve. What emerged was smaller scale organic farming, often in small urban gardens (organop√≥nicos). A careful fostering of small-scale local agriculture has been able to feed a post-oil Cuba.

Outside of Burlington, two hundred acres of reclaimed landfill now produce about 8 percent of all the fresh food consumed in the city. According to a member of the states House Agriculture Committee: "If Vermont were cut off from the rest of the world tomorrow, I think we could be feeding ourselves by the end of a single growing season." The growth of the global economy is predicated on the supply of oil; if oil runs out, where will we be? McKibben argues that we need to start looking around us, at our local communities, for the answers. As Northfield considers annexing good agricultural land for industrial and residential development, it should think hard about its food security in a post-peak oil world.

Throughout Deep Economy, McKibben is careful to show that thinking, growing, and shopping locally (and generating power locally through solar and wind) is not just a yuppie, co-op member thing. His examples show that it works in Bangladesh, in Cuba, in India, in Afghanistan, in China—as well as in hippie Burlington.

Finally, McKibben points out again and again that increasing wealth only delivers increased happiness up to a point. A Chinese worker living in dire poverty will be happier if she has more stuff. But Americans continue to accumulate unnecessary stuff—much of it made in China. As Americans work harder and longer, and become wealthier, and acquire more stuff, they are not becoming happier. Instead, they are becoming more cut off from the things—primarily, the sense of belonging to a community—that provide real satisfaction.

2 comments:

Jim H. said...

E. F. Schumacher made many similar points decades ago in his book "Small is Beautiful." He was widely quoted and then widely ignored.

Bleeet said...

Shit, Rob, I thought this post was about the long-awaited sequel to "Deep Throat". Why must you taunt me with worthless education when porn would have sufficed?

Incidentally, in the future, all porn will be produced and harvested and consumed locally.

Two New Online Publications

Two of my very brief essays were published online this summer. The first was the essay " Telephone ," which appeared in June in t...