In February, the United Nations released a report warning that climate change is upon us. The droughts have begun, the hurricanes are gathering steam and the sea levels are itching to rise. The best we humans can now hope for is to mitigate as much disaster as possible.
Eighteen years ago, Bill McKibben literally wrote the book on global warming. Called The End of Nature, McKibben's tome was the first account of climate change for a non-scientific audience, and he's been re-sounding that alarm ever since. His latest book, Deep Economy, takes a look at the way our globalized economy-a world in which a head of lettuce needs to travel 1,500 miles to make it to your table-and our obsession with relentless economic growth is predicated on a fiction.
Fossil fuels, he says, underwrote a one-time-only period of far-flung supply chains and free-wheeling consumption that no alternative energy source can match. To compensate, in the future we'll have to turn inward, taking a look at what we can produce locally and how we can trade community life for cheap goods. Ironically, McKibben argues, our standards of living are likely to increase as our piles of stuff decrease.
CityBeat : The American economy is carrying so much debt that, if consumers stopped spending freely, we'd be in danger of slipping into a serious recession. But the studies cited in your book show that Americans are unhappy with consumerism. Do you think our current economy demands our unhappiness to stay afloat?
Bill McKibben: There's certainly something to be said for that. It's definitely predicated on us thinking mostly of ourselves as individuals, and that's what drives consumption more than anything else.
It's kind of weird and interesting to contrast it with the European experience, where their disposable incomes are only a half to two-thirds ours, even though they're just as productive. The difference is they're taking more of their pay in leisure, and their money is going towards public goods, towards mass transit, towards national health insurance, towards all those kinds of things. And oddly, although they have less money to spend on themselves, they turn out to be more pleased with their lives. And they have the great benefit of using about half as much energy as the average American does.
Do you buy the argument that Americans are an intrinsically hyper-individualistic crowd?
There was a very interesting book [American Mania] by a guy in Los Angeles named Peter Whybrow a couple years ago that dealt to some extent with a genetic argument that Americans tended to be descended from people who had a sort of wanderlust, and they think they've discovered some of the genetic markers for that. So maybe it's not surprising we have a tendency, in some of these directions, to be more individualistic.
But, as Whybrow points out in the book, that was held in check for a very long time by a series of institutions in your community. Even if you were an entrepreneurial, aggressive capitalist, you depended on the local banker for your money. And, in turn, you needed to keep your reputation and character clean and be seen as a good member of the community and all of that. That's no longer true.
I think most of this hyper-individualism is a lesson we've taught ourselves in the last 50 to 75 years, and by now it's become almost a civic religion, because we're so convinced that the most important thing we can do as a society is make the economy grow larger. Anything that happens, that's our response. Terrorists blow up the World Trade Center, and George Bush goes on TV and tells us to keep shopping. That's about as pathological a response as you can get, it seems to me.
You've pointed out that Ronald Reagan's election was crucial to creating the economic reality we currently live in.
There was period in the 1970s where there'd been a real reaction against growth. You had the beginning of the environmental idea, you had books like Limits to Growth. We'd had the first oil crisis, and on and on and on. The polling is pretty clear that Americans [at that time] were evenly divided about whether they were interested in continuing growth or they wanted to bring a halt to it. Reagan tipped that balance decisively. His "Morning in America" argument carried the day, and ever since then, we've been singing off the same song sheet, more or less. It was a very decisive moment in our history, and frankly, I think it's hard to argue Jimmy Carter doesn't look better and better in hindsight.
What do you see as the role of government in the "deep economy"?
I'm not talking about a kind of utopian future. I'm talking about changing the trajectory, so we're headed towards the local, not the global. The federal government has a big role to play in doing that, because they've been the big supporters of that globalization. So a change in trade policy, a change in subsidy policies, a change in tax policies, all would be things that would change the economic force of gravity a bit, and make it easier to rebuild local food systems or build local energy systems. But I think, eventually, we'd be far better served with more of our governing taking place on smaller scales.
I live in New England, where we decide most of the things we're going to decide in our local communities at town meetings once a year, with people getting together to talk about it. I think it's a mighty fine way of doing things. But one thing it demands is communities that are small enough. It doesn't mean you can't have cities, because cities are great, but you have to figure out how you can divide them up to allow neighborhoods some real voice. There are some amazingly interesting experiments with just that sort of thing going on in Latin America.
One of the problems, in cities, in trying to do things neighborhood by neighborhood, is that the scale of the city has gotten large enough that the sort of news coverage that promotes honest, open government is hard to carry off. It's pretty hard for the L.A. Times to keep track of each neighborhood's local business, which is one of the reasons it's nice we're seeing a real rise in things like low-power radio stations that serve particular communities, and that sort of thing.
What shift in values do you see occurring when people shift towards a more local economy?
That's when people quickly start realizing they value relationships more than accumulation-belonging more than belongings. That's not true for everyone in the world. If you live in rural China, you're up to your eyeballs in community. There are eight people living in your room. So, yeah, you'd change some of that for some privacy, some more stuff, more calories, a bigger house, whatever it is. But by the time you're rattling around in a huge house in some far-flung suburb and feeling completely isolated from everyone, you go in the opposite direction.
And that's where more Americans are now. We're a country where storage lockers are a growth industry. We've got enough stuff-everyone can test this out for themselves. You can figure out where you are by asking yourself the question: "If tomorrow someone gave me the choice between a 48-inch flat-screen TV and a new close friend, which would I take?" It doesn't come out to quite that simple a choice, but in a sense it does. That's been American history for the last 50 years, and we've pretty consistently chosen the TV. I think we're tired of it, although we don't yet have the language to put that in, and that's what this book is about.