Sunday, May 2, 2010

Precis - Deep Economy

In the chapter “After Growth” of Deep Economy Bill McKibben argues that humans have passed the point where economic growth produces a better life for individuals. McKibben calls economic growth “more” and argues that growth is simply the accumulation of more goods. For most of human history economic growth has been tied to improvements in people’s life and their happiness but recently growth has led less and less to improvements in people’s happiness and quality of life. Recent economic growth has not produced greater happiness rather it has led to increasing inequality, with most people seeing very little improvement or even a diminishment in their quality of life while a very small minority become exponentially wealthier. Additionally the focus on continual economic growth has led to environmental degradation. McKibben argues that because economic growth, particularly since the industrial revolution, has depended on fossil fuel consumption and not factoring in the costs of environmental degradation in calculating growth our current economic system has favored resource depletion and environmental damage in a way which makes our economic system unsustainable. Beyond the issue of our current economic system ignoring or undervaluing resource and environmental costs, our current economic system ignores the personal costs of growth. Growth beyond a certain point produces progressively less happy satisfied people. McKibbens argues that despite the gospel of continual growth professed by most economists, continual growth has made those of us who are “on the happy side of the growth equation” more stressed. The focus on growth has also forced an extreme attachment to the supremacy of the individual. In the same way that the value of the environment and happiness are disregarded, in the economic gospel of growth communities are illegible. McKibben believes that part of the reason that those benefitting monetarily from growth are less happy is because they have lost touch with other groups of individuals. There is increase in happiness up to ten-thousand dollars, but that after that increases in wealth have mixed results. Although economists have created beautiful mathematical models, these are increasingly out of touch with reality, in general, and actual people’s needs. Economics have become attached to people who are completely separate from one another and are guided only by selfish interests, even though this conception of humanity is so far removed from actual people.
The text is aimed at those in the economic systems that are growing as a whole, but who are not getting improvements in their quality of life and happiness in general. McKibben assumes an audience who recognize environmental destruction is occurring and are not religious fundamentalists who believe the rapture is imminent. In particular McKibben seems to write this text for an average American, who McKibben imagines is a Christian, middle class suburbanite. He repeatedly interjects himself into the text, trying to present himself as an ideal American to garner a sense of shared beliefs between the readers and the author. McKibben presents himself as ideal in his choices, such as in being a Methodist sunday school teacher and a hybrid car driver. The author makes this attempt to find unity with the audience in McKibben’s repeated use of we. In some ways I see myself fitting some characteristics of the intended audience, but in other respects I feel outside of the intended audience. I feel that the continual citation of the author’s personal beliefs and lifestyle, which are intended to include what the author imagines to be mainstream, often make me less trusting of the argument and the author. The chapter “After Growth” does not recognize many objections. The only clear objection the author seems to recognize is the argument that if economics is so concerned with growth, how could this concern be so disconnected with people’s actual lives. He answers this objection by stating that up until some point the single-minded pursuit of more produces an improved life, but that we continued to pursue this goal even after the corresponding improvement in peoples lives stopped.
The biggest issue with this chapter is the disavowal of economics as a objective, scientific way of studying the world and making decisions and the of similar statistical data to support his argument. McKibben compares his unexplained statistical data to scientific certainty stating, “money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears. That’s a useful number to keep in the back of your head - it’s like the freezing point of water, one of those random numbers that happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet.” (McKibben 41). He fails to explain how this study was conducted or how happiness was defined or how the fact that ten thousand dollars has vastly different buying power in different parts of the world. All of the explanation of methods used to gather and to reject or accept scientific hypotheses are missing from his text, yet somehow the reader is supposed to accept this data as scientific fact. Beyond the problem of both disparaging unsupported statistical data of questionable use and the use of similar statistical data the text also at criticizes materialism and valorizes it.
In the story about the shower curtain factory in China, McKibben presents the desire of the girls working in the factory for more and more stuffed animals as understandable or positive in seeming contradiction to the text’s continual call for less stuff. McKibben asks the girl about stuffed animals stating, “I asked her if she had a stuffed animal ... like everyone else. Her eyes filled ominously. She liked them very much, she said, but she had to save all her earnings” (McKibben 41). In describing her eyes as filling ominously, McKibben conveys the real impact a stuffed animal has on the girl’s happiness. He re-iterates this point further down the page stating “China’s relentless economic growth... was indeed lifting lots of people out of poverty and in the processes making their lives somewhat happier.” (McKibben 41). The two previous quotes suggest a confusion between being pulled out of poverty and materialism. McKibben criticizes the coupling of more and better beyond the point where humans have their basic needs met, and yet in explaining how for much of the world more and better are still connected McKibben cites the accumulation of non-essential items as making the girl’s life better.
The text seems to argue for creating a new way of determining the value of an action or item that is less dependent on that action or item’s potential for economic growth and more focused on the improvement to peoples happiness. This project requires a shift from a focus on individuals to focusing on communities. The text suggests that it will seek a new way of considering economics that places equality, human happiness, and protection of the planet as the central concerns rather than growth.
Kelsey A. Mulherin

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