'Deep Economy' challenges the more-is-better worldview

May 09, 2007

Try to imagine a world where "more" doesn't necessarily equal "better."


It's not easy, is it?


In a world economy where growth serves as the measurement of a nation's success we are programmed in every way to equate "more stuff" with positive outcomes.


In his book "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future," Bill McKibben suggests that the gospel of eternal growth as we know it can't exist forever. We're headed for certain disaster, he writes, if the current growth models continue. 


McKibben also proposes alternatives. We can, he argues, become happier individuals while maintaining economically robust societies if we turn our sights toward going deeper: rebuilding our community life while pursuing locally-based solutions to unsustainable ways of meeting our food and energy needs.



'Think globally, act locally' revisited


McKibben admits the changes he advocates will not come soon, nor will they be easy. This is the man who raised the first alarm for the consequences of global warming in his 1986 book, "The End of Nature." He has traveled the globe and observed the impacts of the current sky's-the-limit growth policies in first- and third-world nations. He says our time is running out and we'd better come up with solutions, fast.


The book reports examples from communities around the world where local activism has succeeded in revitalizing close-to-home food and energy supplies, creating sustainable economic growth and promoting people's overall sense of well-being. It is reminiscent of the "spaceship Earth" movement in the 1960s and '70s which produced bestsellers such as E.F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" and Amory Lovins' "Soft Energy Paths."


In the years since those environmental policy works were published, the growth metric has continued to be the most widely accepted idea. But in the background, many remained committed to  smaller-scale enterprises: local food co-ops, community-run power projects, cooperative farming networks, sustainable-yield companies, fair-trade product suppliers. A few have become more efficient over time; by McKibben's analysis, their moment for widespread appeal may be approaching.



Happy days?


In 1946, the United States was the happiest country among four advanced economies, says British economist Richard Layard in his 2005 book, "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science." Thirty years later, it was eighth among 11 advanced economies; a decade after that it ranked 10th among 23 nations, many of them from the third world.


In the interim, McKibben reports, the average American family has come to own twice as many cars, travel farther, occupy ever-larger homes, and accumulate billions of tons of belongings. Gross domestic product per capita tripled, he writes. The Internet has opened vast networks of communication, cable TV offers hundreds of channels of programming to millions of people.


"What's odd is, none of this stuff appears to have made us happier," McKibben writes. "All that material progress -- and all the billions of barrels of oil and millions of acres of trees that it took to create it -- seems not to have moved the satisfaction meter an inch."


McKibben cites multiple studies to support his own anecdotal finding that money consistently "buys happiness" right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears. This number holds true across geographic and economic boundaries, he says. The satisfaction index of homeless people in Calcutta almost doubled when they moved into a slum, the author reports, at which point, "they were basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations."


With this data point in mind, McKibben would say that a Western businessman is likely to find less pleasure in the acquisition of yet another Lexus, than a peasant in India who is given a bicycle.


"On the list of important mistakes we've made as a species, this one seems pretty high up," McKibben observes. "A single-minded focus on increasing wealth has driven the planet's ecological systems to the brink of failure, without making us happier. Where did we screw up?"



The road to a solution: dig deeper


McKibben challenges readers to expand the definition of "better" by digging deeper, forging bonds of community and creating synergy from collective skills and creative talents for the benefit of ourselves, our neighbors and an overarching sense of well-being.


He offers examples from all over, from the poorest of peasant societies to wealthy nations: Towns in New England where collectives are starting community-focused radio stations, countering the Clear Channel-dominated "one tune fits all" network; a small Wyoming town where residents, in anticipation of the opening of a nearby Wal-Mart, banded together to invest in a clothing store to encourage shoppers to patronize the local downtown; another town where roof-mounted windmills are paying everyone's utility bills; a small city in South America where an innovative transit system reduced local traffic congestion and sold commuters on the value of hopping onboard.


McKibben argues that such projects make sense on a number of levels: they make economic sense, and are environmentally smart. Not least of all, they bring a sense of community pride which promotes a collective sense of well-being.


This is a value we must not underestimate, according to McKibben.


"In a changed world, comfort will come less from ownership than from membership. If you're a functioning part of a community that can meet at least some of its needs -- for food, for energy, for companionship, for entertainment, for succor -- then you're more secure."



Bottom Line:


In his book "Deep Economy," Bill McKibben describes three fundamental challenges to the global fixation on economic growth. "These three objections mesh with each other in important ways," he writes. "Taken together, they suggest that we'll no longer be able to act wisely, either in our individual lives or in public life, simply by asking which choice will produce More."


  • Growth, at least as we now create it, is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress.
  • We do not have the energy needed to keep growing as we have been, and deal with the resulting destruction of the environment.
  • Growth is no longer making us happy.