Monday, May 3, 2010

The shallow end

You know how sometimes you read a book and the whole time you’re nodding your head, the writer crystallizing your own elemental thoughts in such a way to give you a greater understanding of the world around you. Well this book doesn’t do that for me, though I’m struggling as to why specifically it fails. Perhaps it is because I know too much. I mean, as I was reading it I kept having the thought running through the old noggin that this was MY book, the one I was supposed to write, and that, in fact, I could do it better.

So perhaps a little background is in order. I’ve been obsessed with cult of economic growth in society for quite some time now. When you transfer into Berkeley, you have to apply to a specific major. The major I originally chose was Environmental Economics and Policy with the intent to learn the language of economics so as to be able to tell the bastards in their own words that they were full of shit. Well in my first semester at Berkeley two things happened. First, I took an upper division micro economics class and, well, fuck math. Second, the economy collapsed, my inner chicken little felt vindicated ( I had been telling all who would listen, aka no one who it would matter to, that the real estate market was going to bust soon) while at some public roundtable of great economic minds, including one Christine Romer ( you keep smudging your face against that glass ceiling girl, lord knows Larry’s getting a real kick out of it,) some radical in the back asked/shouted ever so rudely the question of did any of them see it coming. To which they all gave each other long sideways, pulled at their collective collar, gave a little gulp, and said something to the effect of “Well not exactly, but that shouldn’t prevent you from listening to us expound upon what we think should and will happen next. We are the experts you know.” I quickly realized translation is a lost cause.

Although I was done with my feeble attempts at economic fluency, my interest in the power of economics did not wane and I took a class on Ecological Economics (for further evidence see: me, this class.) Ecological Economics being one of the many examples of things I’ve studied the past two years here at Berkeley that Bill briefly touches upon. Some others include Agroecology, Political Ecology, Cuba’s artificial peak oil crises, and even Detroit of which I’ve written about 60% of my essays on and want to start an Ecovillage (also menationed). But here’s the ironic thing, despite his insistence that we move towards a ‘Deep Economy’ (I also studied deep ecology in my Environmental Ethics & Philosophy class), he doesn’t give a lot of depth in his survey of what he see as the budding foundation for a ‘Durable Future’.

But then I also get that to do this, to give depth to the wide variety of issues he touches on in the book, would make it a very long read and probably not so hopeful, a goal he is explicit about achieving. However this leaves me with a vacuous feeling, not dissimilar to De Soto, with grand platitudes being supported by literally anecdotal evidence. I thus feel it serves a similar function to Mystery of Capital in that through kid glove treatment (hey, let’s take the successful model of farmer’s markets/American property system and apply it to Energy/Third World) and attempts to appeal to a broad spectrum (Hey, look, he quotes Sachs/Foucault), the converted see it as an effective pamphlet with which to proselytize.

Only I don’t know how well it works in that capacity, my (um, anecdotal) evidence that the most people who have heard of Bill McKibben are fellow enviro-dorks. And if the crowd at the lecture he gave a couple of Fridays ago in Berkeley is any indication, graying enviro-dorks most of the crowd seeming to have arrived straight from the early-bird special at Herbivore. This makes sense in conjunction with some of the points he chooses to focus on in the book. I mean, radio? Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, I love the radio. KALX is constantly kicking out the jams while KPFA and NPR kick’s out the knowledge, but I also don’t own a computer/ipod/anything more technologically complex than a four year old free phone whose sole feature is the ability to make your own ringtone (pure awesomeness), so my relationship to technology is far from normative. But even I know the kids don’t listen to radio these days.

But beyond his baby boomer tendencies, I think he fails not just in attracting a wide spread audience but in also achieving some sort of synthesis between the various subsets of the environmental movement. And Mckibben name checks nearly everyone of them. But his attack of that beast growth through the mantras of local and durable is far from novel and far from strong enough of a contender to knock off growth from its hegemonic position as the ideal society strives for. Combined with his woefully unrealistic futurological Vermont-ification of the world, and I’m left wanting. Wanting to write this book better that is.

So what would I do different? First I would explore more the role of the ideal of growth within the grand societal narrative and see how these various environmental subsets can interact with each other to create a new meta-narrative. Because if the goal of our current economy is growth, than what would be the goal of a new, deep economy? He says in the first couple pages we need to make a shift, but towards what? The regressive goals of sustainability/durability and localism, while important values to any new paradigm, but must be consequences toward chasing after some higher ideal. They must be the means not the ends if we are to “crack the consensus that what we need is more,(3)” and move away from preachy reactivity towards true positive actualization.

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