Friday, May 11, 2007

Future Fridays: The End of Endless Growth?

I have to recommend Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. I am surprised by how much I like it. It's perhaps not much different than a lot of environmental books, and it didn't tell me anything, beyond specific examples, that I haven't been thinking about since the 70s. But McKibben is fun for me because he rekindles my sense of the future as a project--not idealism or optimism or even hope, just local, green stuff to do because 1) local and green is the right way to go and 2) because, who knows, it might work. In other words, the book manages to take the alternative piety out of environmentalism--neither the fire and brimstone alarms of global warning prophets nor the sanctimonious saintliness of tree-hugging messiahs. Rather, the book lays out the basic framework of what's wrong and the pragmatic everyday things people around the world are doing to better their lives and communities.

McKibben lays out quite readably and sanely the familiar basic problem:
  1. Passing the peak of oil supplies means the end of the industrial economy as we've know it for two hundred years.
  2. The global warming caused by the oil economy is coming and will change things, no one knows how much.
  3. The globalization of the oil economy leads to vast inequities and an overworked and highly stressed population in this country, even more enormous social and ecological problems for countries developing on the U.S. model exported through the IMF and the World Bank, and points without question at the unsustainability of fossil fuel industrialization.
McKibben lightens the load of these interconnected disasters by looking beyond classical Adam Smith economics that emphasizes growth we cannot sustain, the kind of growth measured by the GNP and stock market prices, which must always go up, up, up or the economy is in trouble. In view of the "deep economy," however, we shouldn't even want to continue growth, because growth doesn't make us happy. Our relentless exhaustion of natural resources and human energies to produce ever more stuff for us to consume and throw away is not only ecological madness, not only social madness on a global scale, but also psychological madness. Frenetically producing and consuming stuff makes us less happy, so we should stop. Instead, we should focus on what would make us happy, what we don't have enough of, and what we are squandering fast: community.

McKibben's most prominent, most pressing, and most promising example is agriculture. Currently, we are ruining the planet with a "poisonous brew" of petroleum fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and heavy gas-powered machinery that produce monocultural crops to travel thousands of miles in the global economy. Industrial agriculture: 1) depends entirely on a dwindling supply of oil; 2) wreaks havoc on ecosystems, human health, and global temperatures; and continues to dislocate farmers from the land, disenfranchising them, and sending them to urban slums and shanty towns in search of work. To counter this historically brief two-hundred year trend, McKibben points to dozens of innovative, technically advanced, and above all local agricultural practices that people everywhere are turning to.
  • In the U.S, for example, where the process of industrializing agricultural is most complete, local farmers markets are nonetheless growing fast, making possible a livelihood from the land for increasing numbers of local farmers. It also strengthens community, as folks become more aware of each other and the sources of the food we eat. Who doesn't like the farmers market? It's way more fun than the generic grocery store. The food is better and healthier. And local agriculture is better for the community and better for the planet.
  • In other, developing countries, McKibben points to dozens of indigenous, local practices that tend toward the small, local, and sustainable. Often as innovative and technically marvelous as they are low-investment, practices like "biogas" heating or raising chickens in cages above fish ponds (so that the chicken shit fertilizes the water grass that the fish eat) may not even show up in the GNP, but they provide food and livelihoods for local folks. And the local folks are healthier and happier, working within their communities and in charge of their futures.
The best part is that McKibben never preaches. Even his description of his year of eating locally mentions his and his family's malaise over the endlessly boring meals, and he celebrates when the year is over the fact that he can drink a Guinness. He's just a guy redefining the good life in a way all of us, saints and sinners, can aspire to live.

1 comment:

Queen Whackamole said...

Revisiting the whole "growth! growth! growth!" idea is going to be a HUGE challenge for this country... always the bigger, faster, more efficient... Yikes.
Here's to relocalization and community!

 
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