The Vermont solution: Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy

Published online 20 April 2008.

This is a new review of Bill McKibben’s book of last year, Deep Economy, from a critical-theory perspective; it’s informed by a fair reading of McKibben’s opus, observance of a recent speaking appearance by the author, and a reading of his DKos diaries.

There are a lot of citations of Bill McKibben on DKos; kudos to hof1991 for an oh-so-brief review, and to Gmoke for his 350 ppm or bust diary.  And of course to Bill McKibben himself.

posted on Flickr by lollyknit

(crossposted on Docudharma)

Book Review: McKibben, Bill.  Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.  New York: Henry Holt, 2007.

Accumulating evidence of imminent, abrupt climate change due to the burning of Earth’s fossil-fuel endowment has apparently caught world society’s consumers by surprise.  Proposed “solutions” to the “problem” of “carbon pollution” are often of dubious value.  Often, we read of “alternative energy” being proposed as a “solution” to abrupt climate change without a real explanation of how “alternative energy” will do anything more than supplement the world’s voracious energy appetite.

Writing in a recent piece in Asia Times Online (“Capitalism at stake in climate crisis”), Walden Bello argues: “Psychologically and politically… the North at this point does not likely have what it takes to meet the problem head on.”  Bello’s argument is that the “rich” nations, especially the United States, are trapped in an economy “whose main dynamic is the transformation of living nature into dead commodities, creating tremendous waste in the process.  The driver of this process is consumption…” (2)  This is not cause for optimism about the American response to climate change.

A number of distinct ecological problems (abrupt climate change, of course, but also the overfishing of the oceans and the destruction of the forests) can be fingered upon overconsumption.  So the “rich” nations are flailing.  What is to be done?

In my forthcoming book, From Capitalist Discipline to Ecological Discipline, I will be suggesting a solution: for the past two centuries at least, the habits of world society have been increasingly conditioned by “capitalist discipline” – the discipline of the money system, which has obliged working people to work for wages.  This, in turn, has structured the world we live in.  At this point in time, “capitalist discipline” has built a world in ecological crisis, so what we need is a world society based on “ecological discipline.” “Ecological discipline” will be a form of conditioning which will be based upon the need to maintain ecosystem resilience.  It will have to be the organizing principle of the world society of the future.  It will demand that we think ecologically about everything we do.

Now, I know what capitalist discipline is.  I wrote about it in the second diary I posted for, a year and a half ago.  But ecological discipline has been a harder thing for me to pin down.  What we need, in short, are local models of how to “behave ecologically,” so we can start where we are.  Changing our behavior will require, at the very least, a direct interface with the ecological world.  What are the American models for ecological discipline?

One popular author who seems to be asking questions and providing answers of this sort is Bill McKibben, who also wrote The End of Nature (a book which questions human management of the Earth) and The Age of Missing Information (a book which compares the content of television with the direct experience of nature).  This book, Deep Economy, addresses the current ecological dilemma head-on.  It’s like his earlier (1998) volume Hope Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly On The Earth, except this time with more of an emphasis upon persuading consumers.

At the beginning of the book, we are confronted with the matter of consumerism and its ecological problems.  In addressing consumerism at the level of principle, McKibben wants to persuade us of one thing: more is not necessarily better.

Since the end of World War II, he argues, the US economy has been dedicated to the pursuit of more – endless growth.  It’s gotten to the point where growth, McKibben tells us, “is no longer making most people wealthier but instead generating inequality and insecurity.”  (11)  The screed at the beginning focuses upon opposition to economic growth, though he does let through an important reason for why he thinks we ought to be unhappy with growth: “Almost all the growing wealth (of the economy) accumulates in a very few (silk-lined) pockets” (12).  This, of course, is telling; if we are not satisfied by growth, then that’s because it isn’t accumulating in our pockets.  We have, in short, been fooled by propaganda, and by ideology.

The argument of the first chapter proceeds to a short discussion of global warming (18-21) and of what a climactic disaster it will be, and of how difficult it will be to deal with global warming while our world society continues to grow economically (22-25).

McKibben then continues with a discussion of ecological economics.  The discussion is nothing pedestrian or Earth-shaking; he cites Robert Costanza as having

joined with twelve coauthors to publish a paper in Nature that for the first time tried to set an economic value on “ecosystem services,” such as pollination and decomposition that had always been counted as free.  (Their estimate of the wroth of these services was $33 trillion annually, far larger than the human economy taken all together.  (27)

But the estimation of monetary values as such is just made-up stuff.  “Ecosystem services” don’t have dollar values because they’re nobody’s labor to exchange.  There is no dollar value higher than the human economy.  If we were to destroy “ecosystem services,” there would be no way to recoup the resultant cost to society.  Environmental values, as Joan Martinez-Alier points out in The Environmentalism of the Poor, are more fundamental than dollar values; what kind of dollar value value is there in our freedom from cancer-causing agents, or in our right to breathe clean air?  The main reason we make up dollar values about the environment, as Martinez-Alier points out, is to use said calculations as a cudgel against polluters.  But how effective can that be?

Dear readers, you might well ask why I am going on and on about this detail of McKibben’s book.  To be truthful, this sort of rhetoric pops up elsewhere in Deep Economy, as when (on p. 41) McKibben suggests that “in general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears.”  Now, I know that he’s written some brilliant stuff on the state of Kerala in India (in Hope Human and Wild), where people are dirt-poor but ostensibly live fulfilling lives.  But when you state everything in the universe in money values, you assume the existing money system as a given, and thus the existing power structure as well.  $10,000 means one thing in India, and quite another thing in southern California, and the reason for this is that southern California commands so much more money/ power than India.  The price I, personally, pay for living on about $10,000/yearly in southern California is economic insecurity.  Maybe I should move to India.  Can’t we get beyond this sort of rhetoric at some point?  I think we will soon discover that, starting with the $9.3 trillion US national debt, or with the trillions of dollars which change hands in currency markets each day they’re open, our money system is in need of a radical overhaul.  The main problem is this: people are subservient to money.  When we say we “work for money,” it is really that the money controls us rather than vice versa.  We need to bring into being a world where money, or more specifically the money system, works for us.  This is what the British women who wrote The Politics of Money were arguing.

McKibben concludes the discussion of ecological economics, at any rate, by citing an ecological economist who argues, “you can’t get richer, at least for long, by impoverishing the world around you.” (29) This is idealistic and contrary to the world of facts created by the neoliberals and described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.  The people in power have been getting filthy rich while bringing the world much nearer to ruination.  The concept of “moral capitalism” is confounded by such people.

At any rate, McKibben’s main point, throughout the whole first chapter, is that “we” (meaning world society) have been pursuing “growth” and “prosperity” well past the point at which it grants us any returns in terms of happiness.  This is a really good point to make, given the type of audience McKibben addresses: well-off college people.  I was in that audience Friday night, at Balch Auditorium on the Scripps College campus in Claremont, California.  McKibben was asked to speak on the subject of genetic engineering, though the themes of Deep Economy were intertwined with the rest of his talk: the excesses of the “more is better” model, global warming, the need for human community.  At any rate, McKibben’s meaningful effort, here, is to persuade the well-off that they would be just as happy if they would quit the relentless pursuit of wealth and get closer to community and to nature, and this is something worth applauding.

The rest of Deep Economy is devoted to this effort.  Chapter 2 is about locally-grown food, and why it’s better for you and for your planet than our global food megamachine.  Chapter 3 is a sustained criticism of the hyper-individualism of American society combined with a sustained argument that the rebirth of community would be facilitated by “a shift to economies that are more local in scale.” (105)  Chapter 4 is about community-based economics, from a specifically Vermont-based perspective; McKibben does probe his local environs in detail, yet is also focused however on how we all might return to community-based economics.

Chapter 5 is an overall discussion of global sustainability; McKibben talks about China, where he’s been.  He depicts the Chinese economy being adapted to American way of life, as fast as it can, and coming up against the ecological limits of mass production of commodities such as beer, or meat.  McKibben chronicles the growth of slums, as well, borrowing from Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums.  Briefly, McKibben discusses inequity, too.  “Most obviously, if the rich world began making less extreme demands on the planet, poor countries would have more physical margin to work with – a little slack.  This is desirable, of course, because the poor world is too poor.”  (197)  McKibben names the reason why the urban poor are poor: peasants are moved into the cities, where they’ve got nothing to do.  But the cause of rural poverty is – well, it’s domination.

The so-called “free market” is actually a set of power-relationships, and the “rural poor” are getting aced out.  This McKibben can indeed see; yet he only discusses these power-relationships in “free market” terms.  On page 207 we are told about Ren Xuping, a millionaire Chinese rabbit entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who teaches peasants to raise rabbits.  Ren Xuping is praised in this book for “turning people into capitalists” (209), but he has a real-life business competitor in this regard, a woman named Wang Yumei, who fits the mold of a “bigger is better” entrepreneur (210).  McKibben clearly prefers Ren Xuping; but, after all, the economic successes of Chinese rabbit-farming over, say, planting corn, are due to the comparative advantage of rabbit-farming.  When everyone in China has a comparative advantage, then nobody will have a comparative advantage, and all will be “poor.”  It is the system of comparative advantages, then, that will have to go, if we are to trust the future of ecosystems upon something more solid than the comparative advantages of rabbit-breeding in China.  “Markets” may be expedient, in the calm before the coming storm, but they won’t save us when that storm comes and the vast majority is left with nothing to sell or trade.

McKibben comes close to being an ecosocialist with his emphasis upon community engagement, which he calls “an unwillingness to embrace the individualism that often comes with modernity and a desire, instead, to build from solidarity with your neighbors,” (214) he praises the environmentalism of the poor in Bhutan, and he celebrates the success of socialist Kerala in India.

His universe, though, is composed of anecdotes; this allows him to develop a good career as a writer, while pushing his versions of system analysis in the direction of immediate arguments to use in persuading immediately-present audiences.  Live lightly on the land, he tells the well-off.  His concern about global warming has led him to develop the website, which addresses global warming in idiosyncratic, yet communitarian ways.  When I asked him last Friday about shutting down the oil and natural gas wells and abandoning the coal mines, the only efficacious way of making conservation real, he suggested that the coal mines could be shut down with a strong communitarian effort but that oil and natural gas were “too valuable” and that every last drop that could be extracted would be extracted.  Such an answer only addresses 35% of the greenhouse gas problem, unfortunately.  If we can’t stop them from refining oil and natural gas, then where are we?  McKibben, then, is an example of one of the lead agents in discussing ecological discipline; and yet he himself is still sorting it out.


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