Bill McKibben

Deep Economy

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Deep Economy Summary

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Bill McKibben, widely known for his books exploring the environmental impact of global warming, switches gears with his 2007 non-fiction piece, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Instead of facing the issue of how sustainable the current environment and climate are, McKibben questions how sustainable the United States economy is.

Deep Economy is rooted in the theory of “deep ecology,” which was first presented by Arne Naess in 1973. Deep ecology is defined as moving beyond just the surface matter of things to understand them on a more spiritual basis. Rather than just focusing on the hard facts about the nation’s cash flow and efficiency, McKibben uses this approach to analyze the United States’ economy in a more personal way.

McKibben’s argument hinges on one simple fact: “more” does not necessarily equate to “better.” He laments that the United States has focused on more, more, and more for decades, even centuries, and questions how to fix the economy from succumbing to this mindset. McKibben presents facts and statistics, but he personalizes them with anecdotes and vivid stories of different communities with their own unique economies.

McKibben’s central argument grows as he introduces more firsthand experiences. He plays the devil’s advocate by questioning what is never questioned. Growth in the US economy does not necessarily make people happier, he claims, echoing the age-old sentiment that money cannot buy happiness. Yet, 90 percent of Americans overwork themselves, miss out on time with their families, and still suffer financially, while the top 10 percent grow wealthier.

The economist’s argument against economic growth is further broken down into two main points. For one, it is a political matter; as the economy grows, so do the rates of inequality. As the United States becomes more efficient and generates more cash flow and business, the wealthiest top 10 percent of Americans are the ones who are benefiting, not the average worker. He states, “Nations don’t get richer; people in them do, and often not very many of them” (195). Secondly, it is a psychological matter. He cites the fact that the rates of reported happiness have steadily declined year after year since 1950, while the average American works more hours. Depression levels are at an all-time high, as well. Americans have become selfish and hyper-focused on material goods. Housing sizes have nearly doubled even though they, on average, contain fewer residents, because it is every man for himself in the current economy.

McKibben argues that the nation cannot sustain an economy – or a life – like this. Here, McKibben also calls upon his environmental background to further support his theories. He states sustainability should be prioritized over any further advancement, because soon enough, the nation won’t even have the resources to advance at all. He blames fossil fuels, primarily oil, for the rut that America is in. As the nation continues to advance, it produces more and becomes extremely efficient, using more natural resources and increasing its carbon footprint. Quantity is not an issue in the American economy – quality is, as people rush to push out greater quantities of goods and food to serve their individualistic needs. However, the detrimental environmental effects of mass-producing goods are quickly becoming apparent. He states that the United States is in danger of using all of its oil, which powers its economy – what will be the solution after it is gone?

This is not a sustainable approach to the nation’s economy. McKibben displays this by exploring different global communities, comparing the United States’ economy to them. For instance, he introduces the reader to the Chinese city Yiwu, which is home to the International Trade City. This city should act as a warning for all Americans, he claims, because it is built solely on materialistic values. It is a huge mall that offers every item you might need, but it is an eerie sight: people have to move from the country to the city because they have no other local option to make money. In Yiwu, they use absurd amounts of natural resources, which will not sustain them for the long run. McKibben fears the United States is next.

McKibben also contrasts Yiwu with local farms and communities, which he feels are more sustainable options. He describes the freshness of the food at the local farmer’s markets in Vermont, the pesticide-free farming community of Bangladesh where all residents are happy and healthy, and the positive impact of community-oriented programs. He even compares the “rich,” greedy, and depressed residents of the United States with those of Kerala, an impoverished state in India. In Kerala, all of the residents have a high life expectancy, are healthy, and are well-educated because of their local economy.

McKibben argues that the solution to the nation’s ill-fated economy is to focus on local products and goods. Instead of giving in to mass production and feeding America’s carbon footprint, people should venture to their nearest farm stand and eat local, organic food. However, he also addresses the inevitable counterargument. McKibben acknowledges that all of his theories are built from anecdotes, but he also reminds critics that it is impossible to even test his theory since the nation is so accustomed to the gigantic economy that it would be difficult to implement anything new. However, he reminds his audience, it does not hurt to start small by eating locally, shopping within the community, and by being mindful of the implications of the present economy.