Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

by Bill McKibben

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The bestselling author of The End of Nature issues an impassioned call to arms for an economy that creates community and ennobles our lives

In this powerful and provocative manifesto, Bill McKibben offers the biggest challenge in a generation to the prevailing view of our economy. For the first time in human history, he observes, "more" is no longer synonymous with "better"—indeed, for many of us, they have become almost opposites. McKibben puts forward a new way to think about the things we buy, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the money that pays for it all. Our purchases, he says, need not be at odds with the things we truly value.

McKibben's animating idea is that we need to move beyond "growth" as the paramount economic ideal and pursue 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. He shows this concept blossoming around the world with striking results, from the burgeoning economies of India and China to the more mature societies of Europe and New England. For those who worry about environmental threats, he offers a route out of the worst of those problems; for those who wonder if there isn't something more to life than buying, he provides the insight to think about one's life as an individual and as a member of a larger community.

McKibben offers a realistic, if challenging, scenario for a hopeful future. Deep Economy makes the compelling case that the more we nurture the essential humanity of our economy, the more we will recapture our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805087222
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/04/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 234,151
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.05(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Bill McKibben is the author of a many books, including The End of Nature, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, and Deep Economy. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and lives in Vermont with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, and their daughter.

Read an Excerpt


For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production. The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society, make one another richer and the idea that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More. It has built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading this book. It is no wonder and no accident that they dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better.

Some of the argument I’ll make in these pages will seem familiar: growth is no longer making most people wealthier, but instead generating inequality and insecurity. And growth is bumping against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that continuing to expand the economy may be impossible; the very attempt may be dangerous. But there’s something else too, a wild card we’re just now beginning to understand: new research from many quarters has started to show that even when growth does make us wealthier, the greater wealth no longer makes us happier.

Taken together, these facts show that we need to make a basic shift. Given all that we now know about topics ranging from the molecular structure of carbon dioxide to the psychology of human satisfaction, we need to move decisively to rebuild our local economies. These may well yield less stuff, but they produce richer relationships; they may grow less quickly, if at all, but they make up for it in durability.

Shifting our focus to local economies will not mean abandoning Adam Smith or doing away with markets. Markets, obviously, work. Building a local economy will mean, however, ceasing to worship markets as infallible and consciously setting limits on their scope. We will need to downplay efficiency and pay attention to other goals. We will have to make the biggest changes to our daily habits in generations—and the biggest change, as well, to our worldview, our sense of what constitutes progress.

Such a shift is neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” It borrows some elements from our reigning political philosophies, and is in some ways repugnant to each. Mostly, it’s different. The key questions will change from whether the economy produces an ever larger pile of stuff to whether it builds or undermines community—for community, it turns out, is the key to physical survival in our environmental predicament and also to human satisfaction. Our exaltation of the individual, which was the key to More, has passed the point of diminishing returns. It now masks a deeper economy that we should no longer ignore.

In choosing the phrase “deep economy,” I have sought to echo the insistence, a generation ago, of some environmentalists that instead of simply one more set of smokestack filters or one more set of smokestack laws, we needed a “deep ecology” that asked more profound questions about the choices people make in their daily lives. Their point seems more valid by the month in our overheating world. We need a similar shift in our thinking about economics—we need it to take human satisfaction and societal durability more seriously; we need economics to mature as a discipline.

This shift will not come easily, of course. Focusing on economic growth, and assuming it would produce a better world, was extremely convenient; it let us stop thinking about ends and concentrate on means. It made economics as we know it now—a science of means—extraordinarily powerful. We could always choose our path by fixing our compass on More; we could rely on economists, skilled at removing the obstacles to growth, to act as guides through the wilderness. Alan Greenspan was the wisest of wise men.

But even as that idea of the world reigns supreme, with the rubble of the Iron Curtain at its feet as deserved proof of its power, change is bubbling up from underneath. You have to look, but it’s definitely there. A single farmers’ market, for instance, may not seem very important compared to a Wal-Mart, but farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy. They’ve doubled in number and in sales and then doubled again in the last decade, suggesting new possibilities for everything from land use patterns to community identity. Similar experiments are cropping up in many other parts of the economy and in many other places around the world, driven not by government fiat but by local desire and necessity. That desire and necessity form the scaffolding on which this new, deeper economy will be built, in pieces and from below. It’s a quiet revolution begun by ordinary people with the stuff of our daily lives. Eventually it will take form as legislation, but for now its most important work is simply to crack the consensus that what we need is More.

A word of caution, however. It’s easy for those of us who already have a lot to get carried away with this kind of thinking. Recently I was on a reporting trip to China, where I met a twelve-year-old girl named Zhao Lin Tao, who was the same age as my daughter and who lived in a poor rural village in Sichuan province—that is, she’s about the most statistically average person on earth. Zhao was the one person in her crowded village I could talk to without an interpreter: she was proudly speaking the pretty good English she’d learned in the overcrowded village school. When I asked her about her life, though, she was soon in tears: her mother had gone to the city to work in a factory and never returned, abandoning her and her sister to their father, who beat them regularly because they were not boys. Because Zhao’s mother was away, the authorities were taking care of her school fees until ninth grade, but after that there would be no money to pay. Her sister had already given up and dropped out. In Zhao’s world, in other words, it’s perfectly plausible that More and Better still share a nest. Any solution we consider has to contain some answer for her tears. Her story hovers over this whole enterprise. She’s a potent reality check.

And in the end it’s reality I want to deal with—the reality of what our world can provide, the reality of what we actually want. The old realism—an endless More—is morphing into a dangerous fantasy. (Consider: if the Chinese owned cars in the same numbers as Americans, the world would have more than twice as many vehicles as it now does.) In the face of energy shortage, of global warming, and of the vague but growing sense that we are not as alive and connected as we want to be, I think we’ve started to grope for what might come next. And just in time.

Copyright © 2007 by Bill McKibben. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents


1. After Growth

2. The Year of Eating Locally

3. All for One, or One for All

4. The Wealth of Communities

5. The Durable Future





Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. Bill McKibben begins by discussing More and Better. At what point does More stop being Better for you personally? Is your life easier than your parents' life? Is it happier?

2. Have you been to your local farmers' market? How is it different from a supermarket? What would your diet look like if you were only able to eat seasonal food grown in your area?

3. How did you react to "The Year of Eating Locally"? What does it prove about local economies in general? Can we stop being dependent on superefficiency and vast factory farms?

4. Though lobbyists have stood in the way of government funding for research on solar and wind power, McKibben provides many examples of successful grassroots campaigns for it. What would it take to get you to put solar panels on your roof? Are there wind farms in your state?

5. What did you discover about the relationship between wealth and global warming? How can you act on McKibben's distinction between pollution (a symptom of "doing it badly") and carbon-dioxide emissions (a symptom of "doing too much of something")?

6. In his recent speeches, McKibben has been saying, "Cheap fossil fuel has made us the first people in the world who have no practical need of our neighbors—and we're much the sadder for it." Do you agree?

7. What is harmful about the "individual" mentality described in "All for One, or One for All"? Do most humans want community, or deep down do we prefer independence?

8. How has your job been affected by the drive for productivity? Would you rather be rich or have more time with your family and friends?

9. McKibben's description of the "economics of neighborliness" describes the rise of radio conglomerates. Has the rise of Clear Channel changed radio programming in your area? What is the impact (environmental, economic, and otherwise) of losing community institutions?

10. What does the Internet produce more of: powerful villages or corporate power?

11. What do you believe the future holds for the world in terms of economics, environmental stability, and general happiness? Could the utopian traits of Kerala become universal?

12. What does Deep Economy add to the portrait of human nature that McKibben produced in his previous books?

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Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
smarlaiswells on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Deep Economy reads as a response to two very influential economic works: Adam Smith's The Weath of Nations (alluded to in McKibben's subtitle: The Wealth of Communities) and Thomas Friedman's much more recent work, The World is Flat. McKibben argues that economic theory and political doctrine valuing growth above all has led us to debase the environment. Moreover, since increasing wealth provides diminishing returns, we are not even becoming happier through this destructive growth. In fact, people in developed countries (particularly America) are becoming less happy. McKibben's urges us to return to community values and local economies. Doing so, he says, is the only way we can regain happiness and avert environmental disaster. Actually, he presents the latter as all but inevitable and asserts that we will need to rediscover local economies because working together in communities will be the only way we will be able to survive the effects of global warming and environmental degradation.The most interesting thing about this book for me was the conscious dialogue McKibben had with the field of economics. He is very consciously responding to the religion of economics that he traces back to Adam Smith. Importantly, his argument is not with Smith's book itself. He notes that Smith believed that community structures would enable markets to function properly. Smith assumed, for example, that people would know the merchants selling them their goods, and this would prevent dishonest behavior and prevent consumers from making uninformed choices. Today, however, as McKibben argues, markets have gotten so big that they no longer work in our best interests. His most compelling arguments probably center on food. He demonstrates that the food we eat increasingly travels immense distances to reach us, and he argues that this is the result of the economic doctrine: it is less expensive to have one farmer manage a huge monoculture crop than to have many small farmers. The tragedy is that those many small farmers would grow crops in a more environmentally sustainable manner, they would grow a greater variety of food (thus supporting the varied tastes of local consumers), and small farms would actually grow more food per acre.
1greengeneration on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have been making personal lifestyle changes for years now. I've replaced toxic home products with non-toxic products, and now I'm replacing those products with handmade cleaning and beauty mixtures I make from simple ingredients. I've reduced my family's CO2 output down to just 10% of what the average American household emits. I live in a small apartment that has a relatively small land and utility impact. Most of my furniture and at least half of my clothing are used. I eat just about as locally as I can. I don't live perfectly sustainably, but I'm doing a pretty good job.And there came a point a few months ago, where I realized that all of those personal changes were great, but not enough. I needed to do more. Because as I make these changes, I am confronted daily by hundreds of people around me who are not making those changes. And as I make these changes, our community, our city, our state, our country and the world as a whole still has a lot of work to do.So I came to read Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben. And I loved it. It was a book that exposed some of the real risks of climate change and resource depletion. And then -gasp- it began to delve into possible solutions. It hinted at an idea I'd been thinking about: that sustainable living is not just about eating locally, it's about living locally.It is a wonderful gateway into the world of a "green", socially responsible economy. From here, I have gone on to learn much more....
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben triangulates a range of world problems of disparity of wealth and access among three common factors: capitalism/consumerism, the global economy, and global ecology. He argues that productions¿ pursuit of efficiency has essentially crippled itself in the long term by being unsustainable. Furthermore, the requirement of extreme efficiency in order to be competitive in the global economy has widened the wealth disparity gap: large and successful corporations in developed nations have the capital, personnel, and image to continue to build their wealth and better their production; small businesses or developing nations have none of the above, and their chances of competing against more capable mega-corporations shrinks as the global economy gets ever larger.We currently know the sum difference between bottom-line production costs and ability to maximize profit as the ultimate measure of efficiency ¿ the highest good of capitalism. But measuring `goodness¿ of a system by only these two simply quantifiable values disregards the more qualitative, delicate values affected by the system. Quality of life for workers, long-term sustainability, and overall impact on the environment. So here is Bill¿s ecological and sustainable proposal: ¿I¿m not suggesting an abrupt break with the present, but a patient rebalancing of the scales. The project will not be fast, cheap, or easy. Fast, cheap, and easy is what we have at the moment; they are the cardinal virtues upon which our economy rests (and if they also happen to be the very adjectives you don¿t want attached to your child, well, that should give you a little pause). The word we use to sum up these virtues is `efficiency,¿ and on its altar we have sacrificed a good deal¿.But the time has come to throw some grit into the works. To make the economy less efficient, heretical as it sounds.¿It is heresy to American capitalism, no doubt. But as we become more aware of the interconnectedness and ultimate damage American capitalism has done so far both environmentally and economically, such heresy could be a prophetic and necessary voice.
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