Alterna-nomics

I finally got my hands on a copy of Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy and I’m tempted to call it my non-fiction book of 2007. It manages to be both troubling and hopeful as it paints a bleak picture of what our present obsession with “growth” is doing to us and to the planet, while holding up examples of alternatives to full-speed-ahead globalism that actually seem to work.

McKibben has written about environmental issues for years, publishing the first popular work about global warming back in the late 80s. But here he offers a critique of our entire modern economic system and its effects on body, soul and environment. His argument is actually very straightforward: conventional economics which seeks growth as its ultimate aim is failing us for three reasons. First, it breeds inequality, something which has acheived fairly staggering proportions. Second, it’s bumping up against the physical limits of the planet, both in the effects its having on the environment and its depedence on resources that are rapidly dwindling. Third, it’s not making us happy.

It’s this last argument that offers a somewhat novel twist on an assessment that will be familiar to many. To critique go-go capitalism for creating inequality or ravaging the earth is nothing new (even if we still haven’t really accepted it). But the idea that all that stuff isn’t making us any happier flies in the face of some of the most fundamental assumptions of our political and economic system.

His contention is that, for a long time, More and Better have come as a package deal. As we get richer we get happier. Someone who shares a tiny room with five other people, doesn’t get enough to eat, and works long hours of drugery isn’t likely to be happy. So, an increase in wealth can make a real difference for someone like that. The problem is that we in the prosperous West have largely overshot the point of diminishing returns: more isn’t better anymore. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that Americans, for instance, are less happy on the whole than they were in, say, the 1950s despite tremendous increases in wealth.

I tend to agree with Caleb Stegall who, in his review in the American Conservative, lamented McKibben’s reliance on the trendy new “science” of “happiness research,” but I suspect that McKibben is drawing from deeper wells than that. Virtually our entire religious and philosophical heritage has told us that riches aren’t the path to lasting happiness and satisfaction, and, in fact, are often obstacles to it. If “happiness studies” provides some measure of empirical verification of this tried truth, great. But I don’t think much in McKibben’s argument really hangs on it.

Part of the problem, McKibben thinks, is that our greater wealth has come at the price of the erosion of our communities. Getter richer has meant working longer hours, being willing to move frequently in order to climb the ladder of success, and generally maintaining tenuous relationships with those around us. A recent Washington Post piece illustrates the point: busy professionals are actually outsourcing the tasks of daily life to professional “lifestyle managers.” McKibben calls this phenomenon “hyper indvidualism,” the way our wealth insulates us from the demands, but also the support, provided by community.

McKibben recognizes that wealth and its attendant individualism has benefits, but he thinks the pendulum has swung too far away from community. Socialism was a failure, and the market works. But we need markets that are “embedded” in social contexts that tame and humanize them. McKibben’s favorite metaphor for his vision is the farmer’s market, a place where people come to buy and sell, but which is knit together by thicker relationships than those at the supermarket (or on the Internet).

Localism becomes the key virtue in the alternative economics that McKibben is encouraging us to build. Not only are local economies more ecologically durable (globalism as we know it is probably dependent on what will turn out to be a one-shot binge of fossil fuels), but they enable communities to flourish and individuals to find contexts in which they can be at home. McKibben is at his best as a reporter and storyteller, and much of the book consists of his descriptions of local economies in action: a farmers’ co-op in Vermont, a community department store created as an intentional alternative to Wal-Mart, local radio, Cuban farmers forced to turn to sustainable agriculture once they could no longer depend on industrial subsidy from the Soviet Union, experiments with local currencies, and other attempts to live outside the channels of the global marketplace.

To me one of the most important chapters is the final one, “The Durable Future.” The moral trump card that defenders of mainstream globalization inevitably use is the poor people of the Third World. Farmers markets and localism may be well and good, they say, but fast-paced industrial growth is the only way to lift the millions and millions of desperately poor people in the world up to a decent standard of living.

McKibbon concedes that growth is necessary for the poorest people in the world. As we saw before, below a certain point misery and poverty certainly go together. But, he points out, there’s good reason to believe that the earth can’t handle everyone living like Americans. If everyone in China drove a car, for instance, the CO2 emissions from China alone would exceed the rest of the world combined. Not to mention soil erosion, pollution, water shortages, and the rest of the environmental strains that go along with rapid industrialization, which are making themselves felt in China now. It’s also not clear that the rest of the world can even absorb all the goods the Chinese (not to mention everyone else) need to produce in order to “grow” themselves out of poverty.

Furthermore, growth in the developing world often occurs as a result of mining natural resources and converting peasant farming to commodity farming, both of which have severe negative “externalities” ranging from the degradation of ecosystems to mass unemployment and migration from the countryside to urban slums and shantytowns. Overall it’s far from clear that the tide can rise fast and furiously enough to lift all boats without drowning the people unable to climb aboard.

Part of the problem is that the West is exporting through its cultural products a picture of the good life that is unattainable by all the world’s people, and which would likely result in diminishing returns in happiness even if it were. But what’s the alternative? McKibben argues that “developing” countries can benefit from a turn to the local just as “developed” ones can.

What should that development look like? It should look to the local far more than to the global. It should concentrate on creating and sustaining strong communities, not creating a culture of economic individualism. It should worry less about what’s ideal from a classical economist’s view of markets, and far more about what’s ecologically possible. It should aim not at growth but at durability. It should avoid the romantic fantasies offered by the prophets of endless wealth in favor of the blunter realism of people looking out for each other, much as they have over the millennia of human existence. In other words, it won’t be all that different from what we need to acheive in the rich world, though we begin so unimaginably far apart that for a very long time North and South will continue to look very different. (pp. 197-8)

McKibben offers a variety of examples of local economies in the developing world that depend on intermediate technology, local know-how, community enterprise, and ecological sensibilites. “The point is not ‘Old ways good, new ways bad,” Rather, each locality, instead of relying solely on Adam Smith as filtered through the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, needs to figure out what its mix of tradition and resources and hopes allows” (p. 217). Western models of “development,” operating from decidedly mixed motives, often assume that the goal should be to make poor people just like us.

At the end of the day, though, the biggest problem is us. We have so much (as a society; there are of course pockets of inexcusably poverty even in the richest countries) and want more still. To imagine less, not to cheer when the economy grows, would requrie a transvaluation of values that would make Nietzsche blanch. Christians, in particular, ought to be receptive to this message since our theological tradition is nearly unanimous in commending frugality, and even downright ascetical lifestyles. It’s hard to imagine an ethos more at odds with the One who told us not to lay up treasure on earth than our modern American prosperity gospel. The irony is that it’s apparently not even making us happy, but like an addict we can’t even admit we have a problem.

6 thoughts on “Alterna-nomics

  1. You write,

    His contention is that, for a long time, More and Better have come as a package deal. As we get richer we get happier. Someone who shares a tiny room with five other people, doesn’t get enough to eat, and works long hours of drugery isn’t likely to be happy. So, an increase in wealth can make a real difference for someone like that. The problem is that we in the prosperous West have largely overshot the point of diminishing returns: more isn’t better anymore. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that Americans, for instance, are less happy on the whole than they were in, say, the 1950s despite tremendous increases in wealth.

    Things that are different are here being conflated. Differences matter.

    I might strongly prefer A to B, and be willing to work quite hard to afford A in preference to B, not because A will make me happier, but because A will make me warmer, or cooler, or safer, or healthier, or much more comfortable, or better-informed, etc.

    The relation between these and any such slippery concept as “happiness” is highly questionable.

    Still less when it is not clear what words to use to say what A makes me.

    Suppose A is a 2004 Hyundai that starts on the first try, requires no engine warm-up time, and never stalls in the coldest winter weather, while B is a 1950’s Austin Healey with a manual choke.

    B, in such a case, makes me frequently aggravated, very cold and wet, and often late for work.

    A spares me all that.

    Note that getting A rather than B isn’t a matter of getting more, necessarily. It might be just a matter of getting better.

    The Hyundai that keeps me punctual, dry, and un-aggravated is better than the Austin Healey, but I don’t see that it’s more.

    An added bedroom window AC that makes me cooler, however, may be thought of as “more.” So far as I know, pretty much nobody had one in 1950. Now almost everyone does.

    But we don’t get them because we think they’ll make us happier. We get them because we think they’ll make us cooler.

    As for Americans being allegedly less happy than in the 1950s, if that is true, mightn’t it be – just as you seem to suggest – because other things got worse faster than these economy-related things got better?

    How many times have you moved in the last ten years, Lee?

    You several times note that the world could not now afford all humans an American standard of living.

    I think what you are saying is that the world is already too over-populated to reach and sustain, overall, American standards of 2007.

    You suggest that one can be richer without being better off and better off without being richer, and so we may hope we can be both poorer and better off.

    I agree.

    But the gap is so vast between those who live in the advanced countries and those who live in the most destitute that I don’t see that that’s what’s coming.

    And I doubt whether yesterday’s holders of the short stick are going to be particularly fair-minded about how things ought to go, tomorrow.

    It’s not going to be fun.

  2. I’m not sure that those states of being the sake for which we buy the things we do can’t be subsumed under happiness. I want to be cooler b/c being hot and sticky makes me unhappy. If I didn’t mind it, I wouldn’t take measures to change it, right? But maybe this is splitting hairs: the broader point, I think, is that there is a point of diminishing returns in acquiring wealth with respect to happiness. But – and maybe this is a weakness resulting from McKibben’s reliance on happiness research – maybe a more “objective” notion of happiness is required to make this claim stick. An aristotelian definition of living a good kind of human life – i.e. one not as tied to subjective reports of one’s own happness – might have more normative bite. Though it’s also not likely to fly in our society.

    I’m also not sure I’d single out “overpopulation” as the problem, so much as over-consumption. What kind of balance there is to be struck between the two doesn’t necessarily mean pushing on the lever of population, especially since global population appears to be leveling off. But I am agreed in being pessimistic about us actually pulling off a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources.

  3. I’m curious, does McKibben talk about the future of medical care? That’s one area that I have trouble fitting into the “organic local” framework. Most places could locally produce food, but locally produced biotechnology is another matter. Also a lot of our present good health comes from industrial-age infrastructure like water and sewage systems.

    I’ve been debating a guy in a Jesus Creed thread who’s arguing that free markets are going to eliminate poverty in less than 100 years. Even with modern science, divination is still a tricky business…

  4. He doesn’t discuss it directly and I’m not sure what he’d say. McKibben is more pragmatist than primitivist and doesn’t make a lot of categorical judgments. I don’t think his point is that industrialism is evil or that we’d be better if it never happened. It’s more that we’ve got to a point of diminishing returns and can’t keep going in the same direction indefinitely.

    It’s interesting to think about how health care might change though. Despite all its undeniable benefits, I sometimes wonder how much of our approach to health care is driven by our industiral lifestyle. The whole mindset of finding technological fixes to illnesses which may often in turn be caused by some earlier “fix” to another problem strikes me as possibly unsustainable, or at least over-relied upon.

    I’m not a market-basher though. I think there’s been a lot of shallow criticisms of “capitalism” over the years, and lately a lot of “post-conservative” Christians seem to be falling for them. What I like about McKibben’s approach is that he recognizes the benefits of markets, but also sees that there is a non-economic context in which they exist, the most obvious of which is the physical world.

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  6. bernardlunn

    I found it a very thought provoking book, as since about 1980 when Thatcher declared There Is No Alternative, I though that there was not. I think now that there has to be.
    Re happiness, I have a theory of “adequate stress”. Too little real stress and we invent it. If all is well with the world and I step in some dog poop on a pavement it can ruin my day. If I am dodging bullets in Iraq, some dog poop on my shoe is not that critical.
    Or, more simply, don’t sweat the small stuff!

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