A good half dozen or so people have been encouraging me to read Bill McKibben’s book “Deep Economy” and Griff and Tracy have been urging me to write a post now and then. So I guess this is at least two birds with one stone.
In case you haven’t read the book, I’ll give you my summary in a sentence. McKibben argues that our drive for never-ending growth is colliding with the physical limitations of our world and recommends that we switch our goal from “more” to “better”.
He starts with a historic overview. The major accelerator in our economic growth, and, I’ll note, the expansion of wealth, the sharing of political power, the increase of education, and the improvement in health, resulted from the invention of the steam engine. The simplify a virtually all encompasing change in paradigms, by converting a natural resource of fossilized energy, in this case coal, into power, human muscles with shot at roids could be replaced by mechanical machines.
This scientific breakthrough resulted in great gains in efficiency. Fewer people could do more work. The push for greater efficiency in everything began.
McKibben initially focuses, even obsesses, on the impact of shifting from human muscles to fossil fuels in the economic sector affectionately known as “food”. Most of you have long heard of some of the downsides of our current food production system, such as tomatoes with the consistency of baseballs, various food-borne disease outbreaks, and the destruction of the rain forest. The author instead focuses on an issue that is increasingly noticeable to us, a fossil fuel based, or dependent, system requires a substantial amount of energy. He notes that it takes a half gallon of oil to produce a bushel of midwestern corn.
The author advocates for increasing the consumption of locally-grown food. McKibben cites a Japanese study that found that eating local food would be the equivalent of cutting household energy use by 20 percent. He suggests that by disengaging from the global model of massive corporate farms and nurturing locally-scaled food systems would have other benefits. McKibben cites the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture which notes that “smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars”. Finally, he raises recent studies that have found that switching from petrochemical-based agriculture to sustainable agriculture “has led to an average 93 percent increase in per hectacre food production”.
McKibben illustrates successful models of this shift. They’re not all in exotic locations like Japan, Cuba,and England either. One of them is in Burlington, Vermont. The Intervale Community Farm, next to the city’s power plant, and former site of the town dump, produces 7 to 8 percent of the fresh food consumed in Burlington, a city with a population of about 40,000 people, on just 200 acres of land.
The author argues that the financial feasiblity of fossil fuel-based agriculture may have peaked and is now being maintained by false economies, pointing out that “about 70 percent of the value of American soybeans comes straight from the government”. He notes a New York Times article that looked at Denison, Iowa, a town that was once known for the variety of fruit that it produced, but followed an economic development strategy that was linked to government subsidies and now produces only feed crops for livestock.
But enough about agriculture. Let’s get to a topic of greater interest, at least to me, density.
The next target of McKibben’s criticism is sprawl. Quoting James Howard Kunstler on the 1990s, “The dirty secret of the American economy was that it was no longer about anything except the creation of suburban sprawl and the furnishing, accessorizing, and financing of it”. He goes on to offer statistics from the U. S. Census Bureau: “the average density of cities, suburbs, and towns in 1920 was about 10 persons per acres’ by 1990, it had dropped to 4 persons per acre…and the average density of the most recent housing developments in America is only two people per acre”.
He goes on to illustrate the individual costs of a sprawling lifestyle. Reduction of quality time between parents and children, husband and wife, coaches and young atheletes, and volunteers and their communities, are all too common examples. McKibben, coupling it with what he calles hyper-individualism, expands it to the deterioration of our civic institutions, pointing to the decline of public schools, increase in our prison population, and collapse of our highways and bridges.
McKibben extends his solutions for our food sector to the overall economy. He sees hope in a “shift to economics that are more local in scale”. He finds the building blocks for the recreation of our economy, and social relationships, in the farmers’ market: “sociologists studying shopping behavior reported recently that consumers have ten times as many conversations at famers’ markets as they do at supermarkets”. He suggests a return from society to community, quoting neuroscientist Peter Whybrow, that as we move away from local toward global, “the behavioral contingencies essential to promoting social stability in a market-regulated society – close personal relationships, tightly-knit communities, local capital investments, and so on – are quickly eroded”.
This last bit was quite interesting to me. I had read the book, and written the notes, earlier this past summer. When I reread Whybrow’s quote, it seemed that he had been writing about Wall Street.
McKibben concludes this thread with a slogan that could be an empirical goal, “one-tenth the energy; ten times the conversation”.
The next sector is the media, in this case, radio. The spotlight shines on WDEV, an independent in Barre, Vermont. It’s a great story, but with local radio personality and entrepreneur Jeff Johnson taking over KYMN, we can check that one off our list. The next topic that caught my interest was “complimentary currency”. There’s Berk-shares, issued by three banks in Western Massachusetts. It struck me as another way to potentially increase liquidity, at least in the local economy.
It’s not just progressive idealists generating creative ideas for decentralizing the economy (and the currency), there’s real money involved. Even in a small state like Vermont, if local consumers “substituted local production for only 10 percent of the food we import, it would result in $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 new jobs”.
Back when I was studying developing economies as an undergrad, I believe that such a strategy would have been called “import-substitution” and was considered radical, even threatening, by some global powers. Taking back control of some of our agriculture, some of our media, and some of our capital investment, is it a radical idea?
Or is it no more threatening that what Wayne Eddy has been saying for years, “Keep Your Money in Northfield”?