The Schlock Doctrine: A Precis on Deep Economy
By: Evan Wilder
In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben outlines what he sees as the main problems with a large-scale, global Capitalism such as ours, as well as suggests an alternative that could act as a solution to the problems he sees arising from the status quo. McKibben’s main issue lies with the ideological wedding of “more” to “better,” a relationship that he sees as having come apart over time. Whereas in the past, more and better may have had a strong correlation, now McKibben says that this relationship is no longer intact. This is for three reasons: “[economic growth] is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress”; “we do not have the energy [i.e. natural resources] needed to keep the magic going”; “growth is no longer making us happy” (11). In response, McKibben proposes an alternative paradigm to global capitalism, focused more on the development of communities and local economies.
I tend to agree with McKibben on a general level. I agree that the mantra of “more is better” has been proclaimed with pernicious effect for far too long. That being said, I almost find myself disagreeing with McKibben as I read simply because his argument is couched in the worst type of pandering schlock that I have encountered in this class thus far. Rather than attempt the impossible and examine all of the many egregious flaws in McKibben’s style, I will focus on one passage that I find particularly offensive.
At the end of the introduction, McKibben attempts to answer a possible objection to his zealotry. He introduces this with “it’s easy for those of us who already have a lot to get carried away with this kind of thinking” (3). People reading McKibben’s introduction, which has all the gibbering excitement of a child explaining the diegetic world of his favorite TV show, might be thinking: “But what about people in developing countries, for whom more might actually be better?” In answer to this, McKibben gives a dripping example from his journalistic experience involving him travelling to China.
In this story, he travels to rural China and meets a poverty-stricken but brave young girl who is trying to get educated while facing the restrictions brought on by a lack of funds. The details that McKibben chooses to provide in this example may or may not be true, but even if they are, they are arranged in what I believe to be a deliberate and shameless attempt to make an appeal to pathos, obscuring the issue enough so that he can avoid actually answering such a difficult objection. McKibben offers the fact that he met a twelve-year-old girl, who also happened to be a poor, rural villager; a more traditionally vulnerable figure probably could not be found. He then offers that her name is “Zhao Lin Tao,” helping to mark her as foreign other, and pandering to liberal Westerners’ love of championing the causes of ‘helpless’ third-worlders to help themselves feel socially responsible and ergo morally viable. He goes further in this direction by offering a couple more details that are ridiculously trite tropes of third-world otherness, including Zhao’s having struggled to learn English in an overcrowded school and living in a poor, rural village. Furthermore, her mother abandoned her to go work in a factory and her father beats her and her sisters “because they are not boys.” The government will pay Zhao’s school fees for awhile, but when they stop as she enters high school, she will essentially be unable to get educated, despite her desire and ability to do so. While her sister has already given up, we are told that Zhao is persistent. As if our heartstrings weren’t being gratuitously plucked enough, we are also told that Zhao breaks into tears as she tells her story to McKibben. How touching.
McKibben says he is going to answer an objection, but then he spends a paragraph offering us the heartrending and irrelevant details of this example. Finally, instead of offering anything concrete, he concludes with: “Any solution we consider has to contain some answer for her tears” (4). By this point, I think his hope is that we will all feel so bad for the poor little girl that the vagueness of his suggestion will be overlooked by the supposed hopefulness it seeks to provide for little Zhao.
The way that McKibben basically weasels out of providing any concrete answer to the objections that may be raised is par for the course in Deep Economy. McKibben has a lot of grand ideas that he is indeed passionate about. However, this passion replaces any logic in the execution of McKibben’s argument, in my opinion discrediting his case completely.