This is my third book for the World Citizen Challenge, in the category of Economics.
I didn’t get as much out of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben, as I expected to, although I think it contains some important ideas. McKibben’s goal in this book is to challenge the idea that a growth economy is the only and best type of economy. He proposes that in the developed world we have reached a point where more no longer equals better, and that for a sustainable and happier future we need to structure our economy differently. He presents through anecdotes a picture of what such an economy might look like, much more local and community based. In addition, he proposes that we will be happier and be able to live more sustainably if we turn away from the path of hyper-individualism and return to living in communities.
One reason that I was a bit disappointed in the book is that I did not care for the writing style. McKibben writes with a very casual style, using slang and even some swear words. It is written the way one might talk. Some people might feel that this makes the book more accessible, but I felt that it was sloppy. It flowed, in some senses, but it did not hold together as crisp, well-constructed sentences do.
Aside from the writing itself, one reason that I may not have gotten much out of the book is that I have been disgusted by the rampant consumerism in the United States for a long time, and I did not need to be convinced by McKibben’s many horrifying examples that our current economy is not sustainable and does not make us happy. Some of the statistics McKibben presents are staggeringly depressing, and they mostly served to make me feel depressed and hopeless about how we could ever separate ourselves from endless growth.
Another reason I did not get much out of it is that an entire chapter is devoted to discussing food production and how it can be and is better if more localized. This was also not new to me since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma last summer, and I felt that The Ominvore’s Delimma was the much better written of the two.
McKibben tries to give hope and a vision for the future through many anecdotes of particular places where a more local approach to one aspect of the economy is working. He cites farmer’s markets across the country as a prime example, and mentions a small town in Montana that started a cooperative locally-run department store to combat the presence of Walmart on the outskirts of the town, the town meetings held through-out Vermont, and the excellent bus system in Curitiba, Brazil. These examples and the many others he discusses are all very inspiring, but as of yet they are isolated. It does not seem that our momentum as a society has yet shifted from the path of growth and hyper-individualism to one of local economies and community. It is difficult to stay hopeful and see how this will ever happen.
There were a few things that the book made me think about in a new way. In particular, he pointed out clearly that up to a point, more does equal better. That is, for someone living in extreme poverty, having more makes an incredible difference in their happiness. Essentially, our problem in the United States is that we assumed that this meant more would also equal better, when in fact after a point having more stuff does not make us any happier. I also liked the way in which he talked about the importance of community and in particular the importance of needing each other. A sustainable, happy community consists of people who are inter-dependent. This got me thinking about how I could create this kind of community in my own life.
I think that I was hoping for a deeper analysis than this book gives; one that presented a compelling discussion of not only why such local economies are better, but how we can get from here to there. Perhaps, however, such an analysis does not exist: as McKibben points out, by the very nature of localized economies, they are going to have to grow up in an ad hoc manner, looking different in each community. They cannot be imposed from the outside; that is precisely the problem with our current economy. So perhaps this book is important, especially for people who have not already thought so much about the subject as I have, because it can help stimulate the momentum necessary to change our path.