Deep Economy

NOTE: This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Planning Magazine.

Bill McKibben’s book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books/Henry Holt & Company, 261 pp.; $25), begins with a steam engine and ends with possibilities.

That steam engine—invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen—sent us tumbling headlong down a path of fossilized energy (coal, oil, gas). The ripples of change were felt in every human endeavor. “Suddenly,” McKibben writes, “one-hundred-percent growth in the standard of living could be accomplished in a few decades, not a few millennia.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the cherished belief that more is better began to unravel, leading to McKibben’s main theme–that what we do worked up to a point—but we kept doing it beyond that point. Our single-minded goal of increasing wealth “is no longer making most people wealthier, but instead is generating inequality and insecurity, and pushing the global ecosystem to the brink of failure.” Yet in our modern world, he says, “mainstream liberals and conservatives compete mainly on the question of what can flog the economy faster.” While that last part may be simplifying things a bit, the economic and environmental record of the last 50 years or so makes it difficult to argue with the overall conclusion.

You might say that Deep Economy is a 261-page answer to the question: What is the economy for? McKibben wants economists to abandon the religion of unlimited growth and to work on answering that question. Economists can “play a crucial role in helping us understand what options we have, what scales of enterprise may work to serve all our needs, which kinds of efficiency help and which harm,” he says.

For a compelling example of how our western model of economic growth looks in overdrive, McKibben takes us on an eye-opening tour of China, where over 100 cities boast a population of one million or more and about 30 million people leave the countryside yearly to become urbanites.

The effects on the ecosystem are disastrous. Grasslands disappear at an alarming rate, leading to Dust Bowl-like conditions that creep closer to cities every season. Already inadequate water resources may never be sufficient to meet demand. McKibben sees construction cranes by the dozen standing over every major city, “adding an urban infrastructure equivalent to Houston’s every four weeks just to keep pace.”

Readers who might be tempted to believe the U.S. could never see such conditions should keep in mind that the only important difference is scale: China’s stages of progress mimic our own. The enormity of China’s economy and growth can be difficult to grasp at first, but the facts are convincing and clear.

But Deep Economy is much more than a doomsayer’s litany of woes. Despite offering a convincing case against unlimited growth, McKibben focuses on the possible rather than just the problem, setting himself apart from more acerbic authors like James Howard Kunstler. His hope lies in local economies and the use of local resources. “Local economies equal community,” he writes, “which in turn equals a better shot at deep satisfaction.”

Ultimately, this could be a better way of judging an economy’ success. “The key questions,” McKibben says, “will change from whether the economy produces more or less 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.”