Keep Things Small, Stop Buying All That Stuff At Costco
Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy, may be a landmark publication like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. Carson’s revelation of the lethal effects of the pesticide DDT ignited public concerns about degradation of the environment at the hands of a mindless industrial economy. Carson died, tragically, of breast cancer in 1964 but her work raised public consciousness about man-made dangers to natural systems and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
A writer who lives in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, McKibben doesn’t dabble in palliative efforts by companies to curb pollution and/or commit to sustainability. His argument comes down to a frontal assault on how companies are organized and how the consumer economy functions. He’s not looking for a quick fix. He’s looking for a radical transformation that would end the notions that growth is good and that the more you have the better off you are. He advocates small farming, strong local communities and individual responsibility. “If we’re so rich,” he asks, “how come we’re so damn miserable?” And he warns that the consequences of continuing along the path we’re traveling are dire. McKibben’s views are the polar opposite of those put forth by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose book, The World Is Flat, has been on the best-seller list for nearly 100 weeks now. Friedman believes that technology, free trade and globalization will deliver unparalleled prosperity to all corners of the world. Here is McKibben’s take on what that means: Given current rates of growth in the Chinese economy, the 1.3 billion residents of that nation will, by 2031, be about as rich as we are. If they then eat meat, milk, and eggs at the rate we do, they will consume 1,352 million tons of grain each year, equal to two-thirds of the world’s entire 2004 grain harvest. They will use more steel than all the West combined, double the world’s production of paper, and drive 1.1 billion cars – 1.5 times as many as the current world total. And that’s just China; by then, India will have a bigger population, and its economy is growing almost as fast. And then there’s the rest of the world.
McKibben maintains that “trying to meet that kind of demand will stress the earth past its breaking point.” Noting that average temperatures are expected to rise four or five degrees in this century, he points out that this will make the globe “warmer than it’s been before primates appeared. We might as well stop calling it earth and have a contest to pick some new name, because it will be a different planet. Humans have never done anything more profound, not even when we invented nuclear weapons.”
I can imagine a possible rejoinder from developing countries:
“So, you guys in the U.S. developed this dynamic economy that is the envy of the world. Americans are the richest people on the earth. They have more cars, bigger houses, more computers and TV sets, greater varieties of food and drink than anyone else in the world. Your form of capitalism triumphed over socialism and communism. And your cultural exports, through films, music and literature, have become models for the rest of the world. And now when we try to reproduce that system in our countries, you tell us: Hold up, we have discovered that the side effects of this prosperity are damaging to the health of the world. You can’t build your own steel mills, consolidate small farms into vast agricultural conglomerates, put up shopping malls and pave over roads so that millions of cars can traverse them to reach pizza joints and Starbucks cafes. The game is over. Besides, we know now that those are not the kinds of things that bring happiness to your lives. Trust us, we know best.”
We will need a lot of Bill McKibbens to drive home that message.