Deep Economy

A review of an important new book called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007).

Author Bill McKibben, the Harvard-trained economist and activist who’s forged a career reporting on such hot-button topics as overpopulation and global warming, wants to send a shock wave through our retail-addicted culture. “The idea that more is better, which has been orthodoxy for the past 50 years, no longer matches reality,” McKibben tells me from the rural Vermont home he shares with his wife, author Sue Halpern, and their 14-year-old daughter. “More stuff doesn’t make people happier.” In fact, once our basic needs are met, the very opposite seems to be true.

In the past decade the burgeoning field of happiness studies has overturned many of our basic assumptions about where satisfaction comes from, how long it lasts, and where we should focus our energy. The results of our choices are not as life-changing as we think they’ll be (the novelty passes; the credit card bills remain), and many of capitalism’s long-standing assumptions—that acquisitions improve our lives—turn out to be a load of hooey. Consider a have-versus-have-not example from a visit McKibben made to a factory in rural China, where he spoke with a worker named Liu-Xia. Making small talk, he asked Liu-Xia, 18, if she owned a stuffed animal: he’d noticed that many of the girls in the factory dorm had one on their beds. She began to cry. She couldn’t afford such an item, she said. Later, when McKibben brought her a stuffed dog, “the girl was as pleased as I’ve ever seen a person.” For McKibben the contrast was clear. His own daughter, he notes, has a roomful of Beanie Babies. How could a stuffed animal possibly have the same meaning for her? “In that world,” McKibben says, thinking of Liu-Xia, “possessions still deliver.”

Not so in the United States, where the Eisenhower-era ideal of bigger cars, faster foods, and automatic everything has been nearly as devastating to our nation’s psyche as rampant consumption has been to the earth. Once measured to have the happiest citizens in the developed world, the United States is now number 23, according to research compiled at the University of Leicester. Alcoholism, suicide, and depression rates have soared, with fewer than one in three Americans claiming to be “very happy.” Even more frightening is the trickle-down effect of this malaise on our kids. Studies suggest that today’s average American child reports suffering higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s.

Human beings have used more raw materials since World War II than in all previous recorded history.  “All that material progress—and all the billions of barrels of oil and millions of acres of trees that it took to create it—seems not to have moved the satisfaction meter an inch,” says McKibben. “It’s as if we’ve done an experiment in whether consumption produces happiness and determined that it doesn’t.”

The reasons for this paradox are complex. In part, as with McKibben’s daughter, it’s because we all have more than enough stuffed animals in our lives. But McKibben sees a link between our isolated, overstuffed homes and a breakdown in community—the unseen emotional price of cheap goods and big lives. “Our global economy comes at the cost of local economy and human connection,” he says. The pursuit of mammon “has turned us ever more into individuals and ever less into members of a community, isolating us in a way that runs contrary to our most basic instincts.” We scrimp and save for the bigger house, only to find ourselves more cut off from friends and family.

Suburban sprawl has been an undeniable culprit in our widespread alienation. With population density plummeting, and houses getting bigger, the likelihood of bumping into neighbors drops enormously. “An awful lot of boomers began their adult lives doing extremely idealistic things,” he adds. “Many of these ideals fell away as we became immersed in consuming. Now we need to find our way back.”

There are straightforward ways of scaling down our lives. Consider the local farmers’ market, now the fastest-growing sector of our food economy. The average bite of food an American eats travels some 1,500 miles before it reaches our table. Yet it takes a tenth as much energy to grow foods locally, and shoppers are reported to have about ten times as many social interactions at their farmers’ market than in the aisles of, say, Wal-Mart.

To test his own theory, McKibben decided to see if he and his family could make it through a glacial Vermont winter subsisting exclusively on food produced near their home in the Champlain Valley. The author specializes in real-life experiments: he walked from Vermont to New York for his memoir, Wandering Home (Crown Journeys, 2005). The results of this “year of eating locally” are fascinating. The imperative of finding food nearby, while time-consuming, helped forge bonds with neighbors he’d never met and deepened his intimacy with the landscape. Newly connected to his home, McKibben emerges from his citrus-deprived winter a deeper and healthier man, having consumed not a single processed food. “The winter permanently altered the way I eat,” he says. “It left a good taste in my mouth. That good taste was satisfaction.”

Not all of us can afford to give up the bargain prices at superstores. McKibben-the-economist is sensitive to this, though he entreats us to view expenditures differently. While farmers’ market prices may be a bit higher, local foods are fresher (and tastier) and have less impact on the environment. The idea, he says, is not to forgo bulk-item bonanzas completely but to seek a balance between convenience and the economics of neighborliness. “Efficiency has been oversold as a virtue,” he says. “The ability to produce as fast and cheaply as possible has ruined countrysides and abused people and animals.” Study after study shows that our overreliance on processed foods is contributing to a ballooning national obesity problem.

So how did we get here? McKibben traces our troubles to 1712, with the invention of the first practical steam engine. Overnight the energy produced by burning coal could replace a team of 500 horses walking in a circle. “Suddenly 100 percent growth in the standard of living could be accomplished in a few decades, not a few millennia,” says McKibben. It also explains how human beings have used, shockingly, more raw materials since World War II than in all previous recorded history.

The toxic effects of this struck him hard during his China trip, where in Beijing the sky was so polluted “you could stare straight at the sun.” In an inefficiently energized world where getting rich means getting dirty, copycatting the American lifestyle could push our planet over the brink. At current rates there will be some 1.3 billion Chinese as rich and consumer-minded as our middle class by 2031. “But if the Chinese owned cars like we do, they would add 1.1 billion cars to the 800 million already on the road,” he says, not even mentioning India, Indonesia, and nations in Africa. “If the Chinese ate meat the way we do, they’d consume two thirds of the world’s grain harvest by themselves. The earth will never accommodate that.

“Of course the poor nations of the world need to develop. But if they do so using our model, the planet will break under the strain. We in the rich nations must change. We need to figure out a world that works for everyone.” Doing so just might make us happier.

Mark Matousek is a New York-based writer who’s never liked to shop.