Bill McKibben has long been sounding alarm bells about the perils of unlimited economic growth. In his latest book, Deep Economy, he argues persuasively that the mantra of growth, combined with "hyper individualism," has eroded communities and created extremes of wealth and poverty.
While economic growth has produced obvious benefits, such as a reliable food supply, there are costs. One is that an average bite of food in the United States travels 1,500 miles before it is consumed, resulting in enormous energy waste. Shipping a head of lettuce from California to the East Coast requires 36 times as many calories of fossil energy as the lettuce contains. It's a system that also eliminates family farms, McKibben writes. One company, Cargill, now controls 45 percent of the world's grain trade.
A reader could easily become depressed reading McKibben's litany of environmental and economic woes, but threaded throughout the book are positive stories. One is the increasing interest in community-supported agriculture, in which consumers pay a farmer a few hundred dollars in winter and then receive a weekly bin of vegetables throughout the growing season and into the fall. Another is farmers' markets—the fastest-growing part of the U.S. food economy.
McKibben also tackles the extreme individualism, social isolation, and resultant loss of community in the United States. Three-quarters of Americans say they do not know their neighbors. But McKibben tells the story of the "co-housing" movement, such as EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, in which people have their own homes but share a common kitchen, guest rooms, a laundry room, and tool sheds.
McKibben describes the escalating pace of global warming and the United States' voracious appetite for energy. Americans use "twice as much fossil fuel to power each of our lives as even the citizens of the affluent countries of Western Europe." That gap could widen. European Union nations have set targets of 50 percent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in coming decades, while the U.S. energy plan "foresees this nation spewing 25 percent more," he writes. McKibben proposes small corrective steps, such as requiring solar roof tiles on all new construction.
Although McKibben's passion is evident, he comes across more as a patient teacher, marshalling statistics, anecdotes, and case histories to support his urgent theses.
THOSE WHO KNEEL at the altar of economic growth might look at China to get an idea of what the future holds. China's economy is growing faster than that of any nation in history, and many Chinese dream of an American standard of living. But consider this: If the Chinese drove as many cars, per capita, as Americans do, they would use all the oil the world currently produces plus 15 million extra barrels a day, McKibben writes. China's appetite for coal, natural gas, and oil means that it will soon pass the U.S. as the world's top contributor to greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming the planet.
Economists contend that greater wealth leads to increased happiness, and McKibben concedes that lifting people out of dire poverty does make them happier for a while. But material wealth and the frantic race to acquire it often have a reverse effect. Despite Americans' improved standard of living, such as a doubling in size of the average new house since 1970, they say they are less happy today than a half century ago.
After laying out a solid case for change, McKibben ends on a rather tepid note: "We've gone too far down the road we're traveling. The time has come to search the map for better possibilities, to strike out in new directions." But in contrast to his recent Step It Up Campaign—a nationwide effort to reduce global emissions— here he offers us no call to arms, no master plan, no exhortation to Congress and the White House. The implication is that small steps undertaken by individuals, businesses, and local governments might be enough, even though the book's evidence betrays that conclusion.
Nevertheless, McKibben gives us much to ponder about energy waste, broken communities, and the staggering gap between American consumption and the plight of people in Third World nations.
Bill Williams is a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.