Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Book warns of economic collision course

We have more stuff, we live longer and our houses keep getting bigger. Every second of every day, the world's economic machinery churns out a continuously growing stream of wealth.

So, what's the problem?

According to Bill McKibben, author of the new book Deep Economy, the process of accumulating "more stuff" is putting our happiness on the chopping block.

If that wasn't enough, we seem to be endangering the planet's ability to sustain human life.

"For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both," writes McKibben, invoking a fundamental tenet of market capitalism: As a population accumulates wealth (more), people benefit by an increase in quality of life (better).

In Deep Economy, however, McKibben argues that we have entered a phase in which More and Better are uncoupling. The two concepts may even be at odds with one another.

McKibben believes that "the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you've got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It's More or Better."

There are a lot of voices in the fashionable milieu where economics, environmentalism and psychology overlap, but McKibben has been here from the beginning. His 1989 treatise on global warming, The End of Nature, was one of the earliest books on climate change that was intended for a general readership.

McKibben is back with Deep Economy, applying the ideas behind local, decentralized economics to various aspects of contemporary life: the gathering of food (in small farms and farmers' markets), the production of energy (on your roof or in your backyard), the happiness of communities and the sustainability of an ecological system he believes is already on the brink.

McKibben argues for what he calls the Durable Future based on human goals of happiness and sustainability, not the abstract goal of accumulating wealth. Local economies, he writes, are the key.

We've heard this line of reasoning countless times. But as oil prices stay high, conflicts light up the globe and each week a new report is issued damning practices responsible for global warming, the idea of sustainable (or durable) economics is gaining currency.

What makes McKibben's book stand out is the completeness of his arguments and his real-world approach to solutions. He is just as comfortable calling on economist John Maynard Keynes as he is visiting neighborhood farmers. (He writes about successfully relying on locally produced food one Vermont winter.)

And while it is easy for some in the developed world to talk about paying a little extra for local goods, McKibben is mindful of the fact that any solution should also work for those in the developing world.

McKibben talks about a 12-year-old girl he met in China while researching his book. She cries when she talks about her life, about her mother leaving for factory work in the city and never returning, about her father beating her because she was not a boy and about how there wasn't enough money for her to complete school past the ninth grade. In this world, "It's perfectly plausible that More and Better still share a nest. Any solution we consider has to contain some answer for her tears. Her story hovers over this whole enterprise. She's a potent reality check."

What is clear is that fossil-fuel supplies are limited, the climate is undergoing change, and something has to give. "So here's the punch line: The movement toward more local economies is the same direction we will have to travel to cope with the effects of these predicaments, not just to fend them off."

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