Growth Run Amok

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.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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