Bill McKibben’s book, “Deep Economy”, begins by examining the idea that ‘More is Better’. This idea has been deeply ingrained into American culture for the past hundred years. Indeed, the practice of increasing efficiency by increasing scale was the key to the wealth of many of the pioneers of American business, such as Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie. In fact, due to the overall prosperity of American society, we enjoy a standard of life that is much higher than the majority of most of the world’s citizens.
However, in the last few decades, it has become increasingly clear that in this push for increasing growth, most of the wealth being accumulated in America was going to a select few, while more and more middle class citizens were falling by the wayside. McKibben reviews the familiar ideas that growth is no longer making most people wealthier, and is in fact creating gross inequality and insecurity; and that growth is encountering the physical limitations of our tired planet- global warming and peak oil are real possibilities that need to be addressed.
One of the main arguments in this book is that money only equals happiness up to a certain financial point, in other words, even when growth makes us wealthier, it doesn’t make us happier. Actually, the level of ‘happiness’, as measured by a major survey taker, peaked in the United States in the mid-1950s, and has been on a steady decline ever since, even while the amount of material possessions, hours worked, house square footage, and cars driven has skyrocketed.
One of the main facets of the current economy that McKibben has a real problem with is the fossil fuel industry, especially in terms of the business built up around the production and distribution of food. The modern agriculture business produces a lot of food, and it does it at low cost. The key to this has been mass consolidation. In America today, four main companies control 80% of the beef, and two main companies 75% of the grain (p. 52) Almost every aspect of the food business has fallen prey to consolidation, from production to processing to retailing (i. . Wal-Mart and big box stores like Costco). This trend is not unique to the United States, it is evident in Britain, and is working its way into the rest of the developing world. Through the relentless consolidation of agribusiness, it is now possible to get almost anything a person would want to eat, at any hour of the day, down at the convenience store at the end of the street. The problem with all this efficiency and consolidation is that there is a greater cost. No, not the daily cost of milk in the local supermarket: that (for the moment) remains low.
The cost I am referring to is the cost to community: the unemployed local dairy farmer who was bought out by the bigger dairy down the road; the loss of the myriad Main Streets whose bustling downtowns withered away as Wal-Marts opened up out by the highway; the minimum wage worker at the poultry plant who gets sick from the bacteria in chicken fat; or worse, the slave working on a Brazilian soybean farm (p. 59); and also, the cost to the environment- between 1910 and 1983, energy consumption for agriculture increased 810 percent (p. 64).
Up until this point, the abuse to the environment in the pursuit of cheaper food and more of it has been tolerated, and even ignored because the system worked so well. However, concentrating tens of thousands of pigs on one farm also concentrates their waste to one sewage system, with all the inherent problems of a system that large. Concentrating hundreds of thousands of chickens together leads directly to the spread of food-borne illnesses like salmonella. Another issue that stems from the international food business is the cost of transport.
While it may seem incredibly convenient to be able to eat grapes in February, consider the energy involved in shipping produce 3,000 miles. Processing, packaging, and shipping consume four times as much energy as its production (p. 64). Since the main problem of global warming centers around carbon emissions, shouldn’t we be trying to reduce unnecessary shipping wherever possible? The deeper issue that McKibben really underscores is that soon the world as a whole will run out of two of the main resources that powers large-scale agribusiness: oil and water.
Since the farming system as we know it relies on cheap and plentiful fossil fuels to make artificial fertilizer and to power the tractors and machines on the farms, and cheap abundant water supplies for irrigation, if we were to run out of these two critical resources, or if their supply was drastically limited, we would not be able to sustain the farm system in place today. So what, then, is the alternative? McKibben’s main argument is that there needs to be a basic shift in American economical thinking.
We need to focus on building local economies and restrengthening the agricultural infrastructure that used to be in place in every city and village before the fever of efficiency took over the United States. As an experiment while writing “Deep Economy”, McKibben and his family pledged to eat local for an entire winter. As he and his family reside in Vermont, this presented somewhat of a challenge. One his reasons for this experiment was to find out what a “truly local economy might feel like” (p. 47).
Through his research, and his experiences while conducting this novel experiment, McKibben discovered some interesting things. One of these things is that the rate of growth for local farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture farms, or CSAs, is steadily increasing in every corner of the country. Indeed, farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy (p. 3). For instance, the most urban county in Vermont had a 19% increase in the number of farms in 2005 (p. 82). In fact, there are urban farms emerging in every corner of the globe.
An obvious benefit to small-scale farming is that smaller farms produce more food per acre, while using far less oil. While it is true that small-scale farming is much more labor intensive, it seems like a natural progression when so many people are currently unemployed. Small-scale farming also offers benefits to the environment: intercropping alleviates nutrient imbalances in the soil naturally, and manure from livestock serves as natural fertilizer. Statistics from English agronomist Jules Pretty, who has studied more than two hundred sustainable agriculture projects around the world (p. 8), show that small-scale (or low-input) farming practices such as cover-cropping, using green manures, and replacing pesticides with natural adversary insects increase production 150%.
These statistics play out on farms all over the globe, from Indonesia to Honduras. McKibben is severely critical of the economic model of growth economy that has been ingrained in the American psyche for the last hundred years- the idea that we must have more, get it faster, and above all, make money. Growth economy worked well for America or much of recent history, so why is a change so necessary? McKibben argues that one main liability to our system of growth economy is our overwhelming energy consumption. In order to have all the growth that our economy allows, we need more fossil fuels per capita than is used by any other country. By one calculation, an American family will use more energy from fossil fuel in less than two days than a Tanzanian family uses in an entire year (p. 196). While it is very efficient to consolidate farming, the costs to local communities and to the environment are staggering.
A study by the Swedish Food Institute concluded that it takes 10 times the energy contained in a pound of frozen peas to grow and distribute it. International shipping is even worse- to grow a head of lettuce in California and ship it to London takes 127 times the energy contained within it. (p. 65) One of the main detriments of the big business of farming is the effect it has on global warming. The international model that we currently employ releases five to seventeen times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than regional and local food networks (p. 64).
If we were faced with a shortage of oil, or if the world oil supply were to be exhausted, the current practices of business of agriculture would be impossible. The environment has already been significantly damaged by a few countries’ overabundant energy use in the pursuit of growth; the planet simply could not tolerate it if the rest of the world were to even come close to the amount we use per capita. As it is, we may not realize the extent of the damage that has already been done to our planet. Nine out of the ten years from 1995-2005 were the hottest ever recorded (p. 0). As a result of that, the average global temperature has increased by one degree Fahrenheit. The polar ice caps are rapidly melting, forests have more decay due to longer growing seasons, heat waves have swept the globe, and storm seasons are intensifying. According to the world’s climatologists, this is only the beginning- if we as a society do not take drastic steps to reduce global warming right now, the average world temperature could raise another four or five degrees before the century ends. (p. 20) The repercussions of that possible outcome are truly terrifying.
The main solution that McKibben poses is that of localization. While he focuses mainly on localizing our food economies, he also posits that the theory of localization can and should be applied in many facets of everyday life, from radio stations to live music to groceries. The advantages of this solution are many. Strengthening local food economies would help the problem of impending oil shortages as well as help to curtail global warming, since we would use far less energy. In a world that is already overtaxed in terms of resources, localized economy is a logical choice.
If a situation like peak oil were to come to fruition, it would be much easier to walk down to the farmers’ market to do your shopping, instead of facing possible deprivation of basic necessity deliveries because supply trucks are awaiting gas that might not be available or prohibitively expensive. An added bonus to localization is the re-strengthening of the community that accompanies it. A recent study by sociologists studying shopping behavior found that people have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as at supermarkets (p. 05). According to McKibben, the result of localization will be threefold- stronger community, less energy usage, and a new way of thinking about economy. Hopefully worldwide society will make a stand and demand such changes from their local and state governments, because the implications of continuing worldwide growth economy are dire in nature, both socially and environmentally. We need to start making changes now, so that we can insure a future for ourselves and generations to come.