'Deep Economy': ideas for a better world

Bill McKibben envisions a new economy more attuned to environmental harmony and human satisfaction.

"Small Is Beautiful" has been a counterculture mantra – indeed, an important thread in American thought – ever since British economist E.F. Schumacher's 1973 book of that title. Much further back than that if you count Henry David Thoreau.

In recent decades, many writers and deep thinkers have taken up the twin causes of living more communally and reducing human impact on the environment: Hazel Henderson, Lester Brown, Herman Daly, Wendell Berry, Jonathan Rowe, Sarah van Gelder, Duane Elgin, and Vicki Robin, among others.

Have they had much impact? Well, the Green Party is as irrelevant as ever, but "sustainability" has become at least the stated goal of the corporate world. Some sociologists say there now are upward of 150 million "cultural creatives" in North America and Europe – people with a more spiritual bent who espouse a "post-materialist" lifestyle.

Yet it all seems so tenuous. Houses and cars are bigger than ever. Energy consumption and landfills grow inexorably. Fewer people sense true "community" amid the suburban sprawl. Into this scene writer Bill McKibben – a remarkably jolly Jeremiah, it seems – now leaps.

If anything, the situation he addresses in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future is more dire than ever. Two reasons: peak oil and human-induced climate change, both connected directly to the Iraq war (as well as growing violence, social unrest, and political instability throughout the Middle East).

McKibben's round-the-world reporting and thoughtful analysis give great weight to both his warnings and his prescriptions for change. He's been working at such ideas through 10 previous books (starting with the groundbreaking "The End of Nature" in 1989), so he's rightly considered a modern pioneer in the field.

He's also a bit of a subversive and in some ways he's the anti-Thomas Friedman – the New York Times columnist who's been an advocate of economic globalization, which assumes inevitable growth. ("Growth" here should not be confused with sustainable "development," which measures progress differently.)

McKibben's main thesis: "Growth is no longer making most people wealthier, but instead is generating inequality and insecurity."

Growth "is bumping up against physical limits" [peak oil and global warming] so that continuing to expand the economy may be impossible and possibly even dangerous."

Then there's this wild card: "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."

McKibben is an active Methodist in his Vermont community, so there's a tone of the social gospel here. But I see that as a definite plus – he writes from the heart as well as from the intellect – particularly at a time when all major faith groups (including many evangelicals) see environmental protection in terms of "creation care."

Still, there's a refreshing lack of political harangue here (although it's still not a book likely to end up on President Bush's nightstand). But McKibben is also clear-eyed about the challenge.

"Mainstream liberals and conservatives compete mainly on the question of what can flog the economy faster," he acknowledges. And that is especially true in the burgeoning economies of China and India. (China finishes a new coal-fired power plant every few days.)

Learning how to better live together, McKibben concludes, may be the best and most important way out of the present dilemma: "The key questions will change from whether the economy produces more or less 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."

This can seem like an impossible and depressing dream. Or it can be an exalting point of view and a thrilling goal. McKibben finds enough examples to give him hope.

"Models of these new economies can be found in embryo, in adolescence, and occasionally even in something resembling maturity here and around the world," he writes. "They're exciting possibilities, experiments to try out, ways to imagine humans thriving more fully and durably than at present."

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

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