College Quarterly
Winter 2007 - Volume 10 Number 1
Reviews Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
Bill McKibben
New York: Times Books/Henry Holt & Co., 2007

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Human beings have been messing up external nature since time immemorial. Despite the wise words of Chief Seattle (“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”), the ecological footprint of Earth-loving aboriginals was pretty deep long before self-identified Europeans arrived to stay in the Western Hemisphere. North American native people seem to have hunted mammoths, camels and horses to extinction long before now long-dead white European males let loose their proto-capitalist ideology in Massachusetts and Virginia. The myth of the noble savage in exquisite harmony with nature bespeaks a shortage of technology more than an abundance of ethics.

It is pretty much the same world over. From the banks of the Nile to Easter Island, human rapine has attended human population growth and geographical expansion since we wandered out of Africa intended for (if not intent on) global conquest. This pattern may have multiple motivations, but the strongest among them was no doubt that we got overcrowded and experienced a shortage of food.

In fact, the ubiquity of shortages – real or imagined – is not only what drives our economy but what defines it. When I was a child, there was no shortage of television sets, for the simple reason that there were no television sets. As soon as they were put on the commercial market, a shortage was immediate evident; and, as soon as everyone had a TV, a shortage of colour televisions became evident. Now, there is a shortage of really big plasma televisions and a shortage of really small video receivers that you can hold in the palm of your hand in order to watch the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean or Apocalypto – though why anyone would want to do so is a timeless mystery.

I also grew up without a shortage of computers, microwave ovens, voice-mail, e-mail, electric dishwashers and clothes dryers. We computed (often in our heads), cooked, communicated, cleaned dishes dried our clothes, of course; but, we felt no deprivation because of a lack of things that had yet to be invented or made commercially available.

Now, we call the devices that run our lives “conveniences,” and we work longer, harder, faster and sometimes smarter to possess the latest version of these chronically “new and improved” objects. Moreover, we declare that all of this amounts to “progress” and that it is therefore both desirable and inevitable. We are fated to have electronic chips implanted in our heads that will allow us to download the entire inventory of world music directed into our big brains while others trace our movements on global positioning systems that will not just disclose where we are but will also instruct us where to go next.

This is not just a lament about antique notions of community, personal autonomy and “real” life. That has all been done before. Whether in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the ornithology of St. Francis, William Blake’s poetic attack on “dark Satanic mills,” or Goethe’s fabulous cri de coeur in denunciation of Faustian development, sensitive souls have long noted and spoken eloquently against our exploitation and ruination of the global environment and of ourselves. Now, however we have the means to really finish the job.

Bill McKibben notices as well. His book, Deep Economy, takes advantage of the crisis we are currently bringing upon ourselves. He sees in the witlessness of both corporate and consumer behaviour a “teachable moment.” For anyone who has thought seriously about the Earth-altering and ultimately suicidal nature of human activity, he says nothing much that is new. What he does, and what is most worthwhile, is explain why we think as foolishly as we do about what we are, in fact, doing.

Karl Marx once defined ideology as “false consciousness.” I think that was somewhat off the mark. Many people’s sets of interpretive concepts and cognitive categories may be false, but they are not notably conscious. Asked what they believe about anything of importance, and they are likely mutter some seemingly benign banality or imprecise inanity and get back to discussing the matters upon which they are expert or at least highly opinionated, which may be the weaknesses of the local professional sports franchise, the comparative analysis of fast food joints or the charm of various celebrities ranged along the show business-politics continuum.

The really influential ideas that frame their behaviour will rarely be cogently expressed because they are seldom consciously understood. People are influenced by what Eric R. Wolf called a “guiding fiction,” a set of inchoate ideas, perceptions or what are now fashionably called “lenses” through which they view the passing parade of symbols that constitutes their world.

Economics (originally, the science of running a household) provides one of those lenses. It is a major theme in our collective guiding fiction and (the erstwhile efforts of econometricians to the contrary notwithstanding) it is also intimately connected to related domains, not least individual ethics and collective notions of social justice.

By putting economics on the block for dissection, McKibben does not deal extensively with its mystical incantations of supply curves, demand curves and marginal utility rates. He has no need to explain why gas prices go up because of temporary problems, but never seem to go down again. The crude and misleading accounts of factors of production and pervasive technological innovation are of little enduring interest. What he examines are the real fundamentals of economics – namely, its guiding fictions, its inherent myths and the “roadmap” it fashions toward progress or disaster.

Nor is his concern entirely fixated on fetishized commodities. He actually cares about what people truly care about and how they are persistently frustrated in their attempts to achieve medical, emotional and social health by precisely those shared fictions that comprise our sustaining (though not sustainable) social frenzy.

One of the elements is individualism. This is not the healthy individualism of personal liberty and autonomy that would seem to have been the promise of the ideal of freedom which has been part of our philosophical lexicon for several centuries. It is the commodified, competitive individualism that depends on social rivalry in the contest to acquire material toys and that militates against authentic empathy and intimacy – even between lovers, within nuclear families and inside a small circle of putative friends. Individualism has become negotiated loneliness.

Another element is productivity. We no longer produce what we want; we are coerced into wanting whatever is produced. “More” is better; “what” doesn’t matter. In the tumultuous generation of services and goods, we find ourselves in a Poe(tic) maelström of production which is deemed not necessary for, but the definition of “the good life.” Economic myths pretend that productivity rates. Total spending (i.e., consumer confidence) matters more than unemployment rates, income equity, affordable housing, public facilities from libraries to transit, literacy, infant mortality rates or measures of mental illness or any other measure of well-being that cannot neatly be allocated to a monetary category of income and expenditure. After all, in a “sick society,” a proliferation of highly paid psychiatrists adds demonstrably to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Concerns about education, aesthetics, environment and even elusive human happiness are therefore churlishly dismissed as sentimentality, Luddism and evidence of a tree-hugger mentality that has no place in bottom line calculations.

The pathology of standard economics is sublimely revealed in the current behaviour at the World Bank. No, I am not referring to the sexual shenanigans of World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, who earlier brought us the attack on Iraq and has now moved on to better things. Rather, I am concerned with the World Bank as representative of everything that McKibben sensibly deplores. After years of criticism, the World Bank was forced in 2000 to examine its energy policies. In its normal fashion, it appointed someone it assumed would produced the analysis it wanted. It appointed a coal company director and former Energy Minister in the government of Indonesian dictator Suharto to look at the World Bank’s policies with respect, among other things, to carbon emissions and global warming. Unaccountably and counter-intuitively, the gentleman in question, one Emil Salim, recommended an immediate reduction in coal and oil sectors (94% of the World Bank’s energy projects) and their termination by 2008. The World Bank, of course, completely ignored the report and it is doubtful if Mr. Salim will be invited to write another.

While there is still a penny (actually quite a few pennies) of profit to be wrung from fossil fuels, the World Bank will keep squeezing, just as it squeezes the poor by demanding cuts to public services and the privatization of essential goods such as clean water throughout the “third world.” The consequent cost of such hideous and ultimately counter-productive willfulness in terms of environmental degradation and human misery is not factored in to the economic equation.

McKibben wants more and different “factors” brought into the equation. If economics refers to the proper management of our household affairs, it is surely time to consider not just our living space within the walls of our homes, but also the space (and people) outside as well, for we depend upon a larger neighbourhood and a network of neighbours to maintain our quality of life. If economics means the uncontrolled project of purchasing in complete indifference to the nature, the sources and the real ecological costs of the products we accumulate, then is has become self-contradictory. McKibben wants to resolve the contradiction.

The most fully articulated of his alternatives is the management of sensible growth (the acquisition of genuinely useful and healthy products) by means of localization. This is a concept that is winning some popularity. It involves, he says, “pursuing prosperity in a more local direction, with cities, suburbs, and regions producing more of their own food, generating more of their own energy, and even creating more of their own culture and entertainment.” Reducing transportation costs, for example, in supplying vegetables to grocery stores not only has the potential to lower consumer prices but also to reduce environmental pollution. Such reductions will, of course, anger truckers and petroleum dispensers; so, they must part of a coordinated plan that would not exclusively privilege consumers and air quality at the expense of employment. Such co-ordination will be difficult to achieve, since our guiding fictions tell us that only private trucking firms and oil companies have the skill and the proprietary right to plan much of anything.

McKibben’s main challenge and his main strength is to make it seem possible for us to change our ideas. He lays down no fancy statistical formulae to instruct us in the mysteries of macroeconomic forecasting or microeconomic rational choice models. He relies on anecdotal evidence and alternative ways of framing our debates so that ecological and aesthetic ideas are given a proper place in our discussion (household science, another synonym for economics, involves not just mortgage fee calculations but proper grading and interior decorating as well). By encouraging reasonable consideration of the whole project of human living, McKibben simultaneously escapes dismissal as a utopian, and offers sensible ideas about the problems that any potentially effective economic therapy would have to include. Combined with a persistent argument that we have maximized wealth while minimizing the health of the environment and our own happiness, he presents both a credible warning and some timely reassurance: for “those who worry about environmental threats [that] there are solutions to work through the worst of those problems; for those who wonder if there isn’t something more to life than buying, [he encourages you] to consider your life as an individual and as a member of a larger community.”

Most effectively, he explains that the real fantasists, nostalgists and witless romantics are those who believe that we can continue rushing along on our current path. It leads only to a dead-end or, worse, an abyss. One way (international destabilization) or another (globalized toxicity), what can no longer be sustained is the allegedly good life of the upscale North American. Only by altering our “hyperindividualistic economic metabolism,” can we restore a quality of life without valium and overcome our real scarcities (time, friendship and pleasure) among the already materially prosperous and needs (food, sanitation and security) among the desperately poor – both locally and globally.

McKibben, of course, could go further. To take his analysis to heart and mind, we will also have to jettison such falsehoods as the idea that poverty is of its own making; or, in Oscar Lewis’ discredited explanation, poverty is a consequence of the “culture of poverty.” Culture can have little to do with it, as long as entities such as the World Bank set the economic rules. Wealth (whether of individuals, communities or nations) is built upon and depends upon the poverty of others. That is the economic reality, which is either poorly understood or intractably denied by both the rich and powerful and the anxious and alienated producers, consumers and half-citizens who promulgate and process the prevalent guiding fictions that threaten our homes and the world around us.

Going further, however, could risk the entire enterprise of calling the present to account. It is enough to understand the diagnosis and contemplate the need for therapy. Once that is done and we agree that something needs to be done, there will be a more congenial atmosphere in which to contemplate the full nature of the underlying pathology.

But what if he is wrong? Counter-stories, as mentioned, have been told before, and it is hard to deny that the promised conflagrations have either been ameliorated or somehow side-tracked through welfare schemes, organizational innovations or revolutionary technologies. What McKibben shows us is that yesterday’s lifelines (communications, transportation, money and banking, abundant energy, plentiful natural resources, public health and private medicine) are not only stretched to the limit, but may be transforming into the noose around our collective neck.

What he displays are some necessary and realistic alternatives our narrow-minded self-destructiveness. He puts his case in stark terms, he is not shrill. We have, he argues, pushed ourselves and the planet to the brink. Nothing less than a massive metaphysical (as well as a material, political and moral) shake-up is in order. Our species (or, at least, definable parts of it) has done this in the past – but normally only when there was no way out of an impasse. McKibben is a realist who believes we are at such an impasse. He is also an optimist. He thinks we still have time to change our ways. He may be right, but he will not be right for long.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology