Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Precis for Deep Economy

In Deep Economy, Bill Mckibbin attempts to make a b-team argument without a lot of usual trope we have encountered in other readings. He definitely proposes an alter to dominant conception of the market but he does this without pointing out the basic fallacies of capitalism, without pounding our consciences with stories of suffering and without even presenting a cast of enemies. The book presents itself as a book about the solution and not so much about the problem of our capitalist society. The title reflects this because a deep economy, McKibben explains, is “a shift in our thinking about economics—we need to take human satisfaction and societal durability more seriously” (pg. 3). With a focus on community and not individuality and efficiency we transition to local and environmentally friendly economies. This transition is already occurring in what McKibben calls a “Quiet Revolution” of farmers markets and local cooperative initiatives.

In this précis I would like to focus not on his solution but rather on his foundation in the first chapter which talks a lot about More and Better. Apparently they went together before but nowadays they do not and so we need to choose if we want More or Better. But what does he mean? More is the prosperity produced by the market. The prosperity produced by logic of capitalism has lead, McKibben argues, to the ideology of economic growth as a panacea, which we refer to as market fundamentalism. Better is not well defined but there are hints that Better is the same thing as the proverbial “common good.” What I think he means by Better can be inferred from the section in the introduction about the problem of focusing on growth. Growth “generates inequality and insecurity.” It is “bumping up against physical [read: environmental] limits.” And lastly, those of us who do financially benefit from growth are no longer happier according to every survey and measurement. Therefore, we can derive that Better means an equitable distribution of wealth, a healthy relationship with the environment and overall happiness of people.

The way he attempts to challenge that capitalism and Better go together is problematic. The effect by the end of the first chapter is underwhelming. In fact, it is insulting and presumptions when he asserts that his premises are “radical”. Saying “the planet actually belongs to each of us,” (pg. 28) and questioning whether money makes us happy (pg. 30) are neither radical nor new things to do. But back to the point. His major assumption about the historical role of capitalism plays into the same the treatment of the market we have seen from the a-team. On page 11 it says about capitalism in the 21st century that the “magic can run out,” and that we cannot “keep the magic going.” He never attacks the basic premises of capitalism yet still considers it a major problem that growth is leading to more wealth inequality. This opens the door to say that our system is basically “magical” (and workable) and that the inequalities are caused by something other than the market.

The second reason we receive for needing a major change in our society is the insurmountable environmental limits to growth. Besides the depletion of fossil fuels the chief limit is the destruction of the environment. McKibben distinguishes between two kinds of environmental damages: activity that pollutes and activity that contributes to global warming. Pollution can be fixed through appropriate legislation because it results from “something going wrong” (pg. 22). Carbon emissions which causes destruction (as opposed to pollution) of the environment, however, is “caused by doing too much of something, not by doing it badly” (pg. 22). More importantly, it cannot be fixed because it is built into the system. I find the difference between the two to be simplistic and wrong. I see pollution, carbon emissions, global warming, dirty water, etc. as intertwined and all emanating from the shortcomings of the market. Does a car that emits carbon and increases global warming not also pollute the air?

McKibben makes the point that nations can and have responded well to pollution through policy. As for climate change, McKibben claims that western governments never truly committed to lowering emissions and never adopted policies or signed onto international environmental agreements. He fails to connect capitalism and the ideology of growth to the environmental degradation. The degradation seems to be the result of bad policy and decision-making and that maybe we should try before we overhaul our ideas.

The there reason we need a change in our societies relies on an examination of happiness which I think largely fails. But this requires its own précis. Approaching the rest of the book, I am highly suspicious of his call for a “new utilitarianism.”

Asaf Shalev
SID 18495256

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