Bill McKibben’s general premise in Deep Economy is not new: ‘we’ own too much, consume too much, and still aren’t happy. The old notion that ‘more is better’ has become a dangerous mantra, leading to the rapid destruction of our planet via global warming and the frightening depletion of fossil fuels. I agree with these arguments in a general sense, and I confess that I really wanted to like Deep Economy. As someone who falls slightly outside of his intended audience of yuppies, however, I found myself unable to fully accept his program for fixing the world’s economic ills.
For me the most troubling aspect of the text was this vague conception of the ‘we’ and his treatment of economic class. He speaks of the inequality created by unfettered economic growth, but does so with a lack of real connection to it. Despite his insistence on the importance of community, his only acknowledgement of class difference seems to emphasize an ‘other’, an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ relationship. The most obvious example is the Chinese girl Zhao Lin Tao (oddly described as “the most statistically average person on earth”, p.4—fairly dehumanizing in itself), whose story seems meant to be an empathetic force but ultimately marks poverty as foreign. He achieves this same effect, though, in his analysis of poverty in the United States. Although readers are inundated with McKibben’s personal anecdotes, testimonies of Vermont oat rollers, and the like, we are only given facts and figures to describe the ruin generated by economic growth and disparity. It becomes quite clear that the community McKibben envisions is one that mirrors his own: relatively wealthy, well-educated white individuals living in the many suburbs sprinkled across New England and the West Coast. His conception of that community, and of his audience, is separated from those who actually suffer from financial challenges. It is this separation that makes the $10,000 figure, and its comparison to an inhuman, scientific measurement (the freezing point of water) feel so disturbing. There is so much lost in the use of statistics to convey human experience.
In outlining possible futures (already a problematic pursuit), he reduces reactions to hyper-individualism to three—including, of course, his desired shift to local economies. To the left, he responds: “Our lives may not be making us particularly happy, but the institutionalized anti-individualism that marked the Soviet and Maoist experiments was infinitely worse” (104). Okay. He then outlines the program of the ‘contemporary liberal’: “continued economic growth, but with the benefits distributed more fairly and more of them put back into the public realm” (104). This he finds unsuitable as well, because it does not address peak oil and global warming, and “can’t fundamentally alter the dynamic of dissatisfaction that I’ve been describing” (105). To reduce the entirety of human potential to these three outcomes is already enormously damaging, but to completely dismiss the ‘contemporary liberal’ strategy also makes it clear that environmental concerns are foremost in McKibben’s mind. In terms of environmentalism, a shift to local economies makes complete sense. His arguments start to weaken, however, when he sees that as a more promising economic solution than something like welfare programs or financial redistribution. McKibben is essentially writing a text about economic environmentalism—and as I was reading, I kept wishing he would just come out and say that. Deep Economy cannot function as a programmatic fix for the American, or global, economy. McKibben says that “any solution we consider has to contain some answer for [Zhao’s] tears” (4)—but, as Evan mentioned in his précis, he doesn’t really have that answer.
Katie (Katherine) Carroll