Act locally, think globally, revisited

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
By Bill McKibben
Times Books / Henry Holt and Company
New York

At the heart of Bill McKibben’s new book is the contrarian idea that rapid and widespread economic growth is not the key to global well-being and prosperity.

Rather, he argues in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, the overarching emphasis on economic growth by governments, corporations, and most consumers is not merely bad for the planet (it leads to global warming) but also mostly unsuccessful at providing the human happiness it seems to promise.

“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,” writes Mr. McKibben.

“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.”

Compellingly argued with statistics and anecdotes from around the world, Mr. McKibben says humanity must move towards an updated version of community-based economics that emphasizes buying and selling at the local level first.

Specifically, humanity should shift to eating more locally grown food, to using more locally produced energy, and, even, to new local financial arrangements — such as currencies issued by municipalities. The term he coins for these ideas, taken from the phrase “deep ecology,” lends the book its title.

Such a shift, he believes, would reduce carbon emissions by reducing the energy used to transport food while at the same time serving to de-couple food and energy production from centralized, oil-intensive sources. It would also, he suggests, open the door to a rediscovery of the joys of community life, which he believes lies at the foundation of human happiness, as opposed to the endless consumerism and “hyper-individualized” approach to life that is currently marketed worldwide as the epitome of civilization.

“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,” Mr. McKibben writes. “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.”

He also believes such an approach can do more in the long run to eliminate global poverty than growth-intensive programs promoted by economists like Jeffery Sachs who argue that “the only way to relieve the planet’s grim poverty is to speed up the cycle of economic expansion.”

His main argument against the paradigm of endless (and mindless) economic expansion comes when he examines what might happen if the current growth paradigm succeeds on a global level. What would happen, he asks, if China and India were able to achieve the economic prosperity currently experienced by Americans.

He lists what China alone would consume by 2031, when its economy at current rates will have theoretically “caught up” with the United States and adopted its lifestyle. On its current path, China would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the world’s entire 2004 grain harvest; 99 million barrels of oil a day, which is 20 million more than current world demand; and more steel than all of the West combined.

“Trying to meet that kind of demand would stress the earth past its breaking point in an almost endless number of ways.”

Then he asks: has all of the “stuff” provided by the American lifestyle — which the rest of the world desperately wants to emulate — actually achieved its underlying goal of making people happier. For Americans, he writes, the evidence is that it has not. He notes, for example, that studies suggest that while the United States was the happiest country among advanced economies in 1946, now it ranks 10th.

“All that material progress — and all the billions of barrels of oil and millions of acres of trees that it took to create it — seems not to have moved the satisfaction meter an inch.”

Mr. McKibben strives to practice what he preaches. His second chapter describes a year spent eating only food grown or produced in his region of Vermont. He says while he may have paid a little bit more and had fewer fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter, he was able to enjoy a surprising variety of foods, from locally brewed beer to venison burgers. Moreover, he says, the exercise meant meeting dozens of new people. “Every meal comes with a story,” he writes.

His vision extends far beyond Vermont. He tells of the successes of the New Farming movement in Bangladesh, where a regional experiment in organic farming has been successful at reducing exposure to dangerous pesticides and dramatically increasing the varieties and quality of locally grown grains, fruits, and vegetables.

“Local economies would demand fewer resources and cause less ecological disruption; they would be better able to weather coming shocks; they would allow us to find a better balance between the individual and the community, and hence find extra satisfaction,” he writes.

For Bahá’ís, there is much in Mr. McKibben’s overall vision to agree with. There are numerous passages in the Bahá’í writings that support the idea that human happiness will never be found in purely material pursuits, but rather in stronger connections with our neighbors — not to mention the Creator.

The Bahá’í writings also emphasize the importance of agriculture and a “human” scale of living. “The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “All must be producers.”

And, certainly, Bahá’ís would say that a successful, sustainable global civilization must be much more deeply rooted in a rich community life at the local level — albeit one that is also tightly connected to the “global village.”

On this last point, however, Bahá’ís would suggest that Mr. McKibben’s ideas fall short. His plan for creating a more “durable” future is hopeful and inspiring, but he neglects to discuss the kinds of real world changes that must be made to the structure of global institutions if the world is to succeed in any serious effort to eradicate poverty, halt environmental degradation, and create true global prosperity.

The most difficult problems facing humanity today are tightly interconnected and global in nature. While individual lifestyle changes and community-based reforms are surely part of the answer, it seems unlikely that such steps can heal humanity’s deeply rooted sicknesses — from global warming to ethnic conflict to hopeless poverty — without strong global coordination. Bahá’ís would say that if humanity were truly unified, with appropriate governance structures, all kinds of new scientific, sociological, and spiritual expertise could be unleashed to address any and all such problems.

The next question is what can motivate such widespread transformations? Mr. McKibben is asking people to give up a huge part of what they currently feel defines the “good life” — whether that means out-of-season fresh fruit or a gas-guzzling luxury vehicle.

Such transformations will be difficult to achieve without a much deeper understanding of the spiritual side of human life. All of the world’s religions teach the necessary principles: detachment, sacrifice for the common good, and the fact that true happiness comes from beyond the material realm.

For Bahá’ís, such imperatives are further fortified by a conception of faith that includes the idea that God has sent down a new divine Revelation to knit humanity into a unified entity, with the aim of creating an “ever-advancing civilization.”

Deep Economy is a timely and important book. Written in a voice and style that engenders readability, the book is a treasure chest of ideas for how humanity might ameliorate the dark side of consumption. It is, at the least, a positive prescription for how to live more lightly on our small planet.