Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy”

I was fortunate enough to check out Bill McKibben’s latest book, “Deep Economy” from my local library before the wait list started filling up. I take it as a positive sign that new books covering subjects like these are sought after among other members of the community.

Mr. McKibben, the author of numerous books dealing with the enviornment, sustainability and related subjects, writes in “Deep Economy” of the need for people to take stock of what is truly important in their lives, and lays out a path towards a more sustainable future. As usual with McKibben, it’s a well-researched and well-written book that does it’s best to inform rather than preach.

The book starts out with an interesting premise: money can buy happiness… up to a point. According to McKibben, studies have shown that earning more money does in fact increase peoples’ overall happiness until they reach the point that they can take care of all the primary needs for themselves and their families; the number McKibben uses is around USD $10,000. Beyond the point where one’s basic needs are taken care of, the ability of money to produce more happiness is a study in the law of diminishing returns. We are able to buy more stuff, but usually that does nothing to make us happier beyond perhaps a fleeting feeling of satiation right after we purchase the item in question.

McKibben’s main argument is that we have a choice to make in our lives: “more” versus “better.” For a long time we thought that the two concepts were joined and that as long as be got more stuff, life would naturally be better, but as the above-mentioned study shows, that really isn’t the case after a while. For most of us in the first world, we are drowning in “more” yet the incidence of depression and unhappiness seems to grow, not shrink. We are facing a time where we may not be able to keep on accumulating more stuff, so we need to think about what is truly important in our lives, and work on trying to get “better” more often, for “more” is deeply intertwined with the growth paradigm that is approaching its day of reckoning with the realities of peak oil, resource depletion and climate change.

The largest part of “Deep Economy” delves into various areas of life and economy that are improved by focusing on the local scale. The stories McKibben tells are thought-provoking and inspirational; it’s the most inspiring book on any subject related to the economy that I’ve read in a long time. In order to more effectively ‘sell’ his message, McKibben more-or-less avoids the fact that peak oil and climate change are going to push us into operating on a more local scale until the very end of the book. I was originally a little miffed by this, thinking that McKibben was soft-pedalling the urgency of the situation, but after thinking about things for a few days, I realize that I’m not really his intended audience, and because of that keeping the doom & gloom out of the way until the end makes a lot of sense. Keeping this information tucked in the back does help focus the book on the positive aspects of trying to live and work on a more local, human scale and I applaud the author for addressing the problems awaiting us while not allowing them to dominate the book. “Deep Economy” works much more effectively as a message of hope rather than yet another Cassandra-like warning of doom.

Relocalization is gaining steam as time goes on. The modern global economy works only because we have ignored the energy costs associated with moving goods and food around the world. The miracle of ridiculously inexpensive oil has allowed the United States to move most of its manufacturing base overseas, since labor costs are currently seen as the dominant factor in modern production. When energy prices will rise, we won’t be buying nearly as many manufactured goods from China, and there will be no such thing as a cheap bottle of Australian wine. If we don’t take steps to start rebuilding the capacity to manufacture necessities like clothes or tools, we will be in deep trouble when the energy crunch truly takes effect.

McKibben’s book takes a look at the bright side of a relocalized economy. What he doesn’t get into is how we get from here to there, since moving down in scale and complexity goes against everything that makes Wall Street hum. Jeffrey Brown (aka ‘westexas’ on the Oil Drum) promotes one way with his “Economize, Localize, Produce” concept. Brown, a former (I believe) oilman, is very pessimistic about the prospects for our economy as time goes on and is promoting several policies for reducing the USA’s energy footprint, including electrification of transport (rails, not roads) and urging construction of “tiny houses” that are much more energy efficient that the current houses most of us inhabit. Moving to that model would require drastic changes in how we view the “American Dream” and success in life.

I’ve rambled long enough. The relocalization movement is something I think warrants a lot of attention from people (especially those of us in the US), and Bill McKibben does a very good job in showing us some examples of work-in-progress along with some ideas for the future. If you have the chance to pick it up, it’s worth your time.

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5 Responses to Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy”

  1. Thank you for this post. Looks like I’ll have to find the book!

  2. There’s a lot of wisdom in the “soft-sell.” Check out Kut Cobb’s post this week, Is sustainability a drag?

  3. Bart says:

    @singaporecityzen: You’re welcome. I think you’ll find the book of interest.

    @Mauricio: You’re right, the ‘soft sell’ is important, it’s just slower at getting the word out. Cobb raises interesting points as usual, including stressing the need to make ‘sustainability’ something other than an exercise in self-denial and drudgery.

    I personally love looking at the “Path to Freedom” website. Those folks look like they’re mostly self-sufficient in the middle of LA, and they don’t appear to be unhappy at all. The pics of their gardens in full bloom are just amazing.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the recommendation Bart. I’m on the waiting list at my library, so hopefully I’ll be able to read it soon.

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