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The communitarian manifesto

Deep Economy The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future Bill McKibben Times Books: 262 pp., $25

March 11, 2007|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist, editor of the anthology "In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness" and host of the radio program "Open Books" in Chicago. Seaman's author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

"DEEP ECONOMY" is a riff on "deep ecology," a philosophical and scientific perspective that views humankind as but one species in the grand web of life. Ecology, of course, refers to the intricate pattern of relations between living entities and their environment. We most often use the word "economy" to refer to "the structure of economic life," to quote Webster's. But economy derives from the Greek word oikonomia, which translates as "household manager." The archaic definition for economy, therefore, is management of a household. The second definition is "thrifty and efficient use of material resources." The latter is the exact opposite, as Bill McKibben so vividly illustrates, of today's growth-focused global economy.

The fact that we envision the economy as an almost mystical mega-force that dominates every aspect of our existence, rather than something within our control, is one motivating factor for McKibben's masterfully crafted, deeply thoughtful and mind-expanding treatise. Another is the hard truth that the "doctrine of endless economic expansion" enriches few and is proving increasingly unjust and deleterious for many.

And then there is this grim reality: "One consequence of nearly three hundred years of rapid economic growth has been stress on the natural world: we've dug it up, eroded it away, cut it down." Not only have we seriously depleted the planet's resources, our incessant burning of fossil fuels (how inventive we've been in making use of this ancient cache of energy) has instigated global warming, which is underway at a rate much more rapid than anyone imagined possible just a few years ago. Yet, "to most of us the health of the economy seems far more palpable, far more real, than the health of the planet."

A hard-working journalist of conscience, McKibben wrote in 1989 one of the first books about global warming, "The End of Nature," a book just as bracing now as then. In the interim, he has tackled some of the most intriguing and baffling aspects of our lives, confronting overpopulation in "Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families," and questioning our enthrallment to technological innovations in "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." In "Wandering Home," McKibben treks across his beloved home turf in Vermont and the Adirondacks, visiting people who have developed innovative ways to live in sync with nature's cycles and capacities. Now, in his 10th book, McKibben offers an incisive critique of the unintended consequences of our oil-fueled, growth-oriented economy, and he calls for a new ecological paradigm.

Writing with reassuring exactitude and geometric clarity (John McPhee is a mentor), offhand wit and warmth (he cares), McKibben neatly summarizes the work of forward-looking scientists and economists as he explores the ways that growth economics have led us astray. Take the assumption that more is better. Certainly this is true as people move from poverty to prosperity. But at some point the quest for wealth and consumer goods yields negative returns: We end up with "more stuff and less happiness."

McKibben isn't indulging in self-help babble when he makes this deceptively simple observation. Happiness is a significant quality-of-life indicator, and evidence shows that happiness is diminishing in inverse proportion to the economy's expansion. McKibben marshals the evidence to quantify what so many of us observe: People are overworked and harried, and we are getting less by working more. Think about the loss of health insurance and pensions. As McKibben writes, "Just as our increasing 'prosperity' has somehow managed to produce less time, it has also magically undercut our security." And we're not the only species to suffer. As we focus on corporate profit rather than personal and societal well-being, the damage we're doing to the biosphere grows ever more severe.

The economic imperative has had another curious consequence. McKibben writes, "The story of the last five hundred years is the story of continued emancipation. The people of the modern world have freed themselves from innumerable oppressions: absolute monarchy, feudalism, serfdom, slavery." However, enthralled by growth economics, the mesmerizing evolution of technology, and our cherished myth of the rugged individual, we have taken the notion of liberation so far, McKibben believes, that we've become "hyper-individualists," with a diminished sense of connection to others and to the Earth. Civic involvement weakens (look at low voter turnout), and, most disturbing, we accept economic inequality, the huge gap between "the rich and everyone else" that McKibben describes as "so gross that it's almost as much farce as tragedy."

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