McKibben’s America

Bill McKibben is a writer, environmentalist and advocate for the human race against
increasingly ominous (and self-imposed) odds. His way forward means getting local

Bill McKibben will be in Louisville next week to discuss his latest book, “Deep Economy.”

Bill McKibben will be in Louisville next week to discuss his latest book, “Deep Economy.”

“The modern radio industry is utterly focused on you. It’s entirely set up around the idea that you are a part of a predictable demographic whose tastes can be reliably commodified as alternative country or classic rock; the whole premise of talk radio is that you can go all day without hearing an opinion you disagree with — Rush Limbaugh’s fans, after all, call themselves dittoheads. What could be more efficient than that?” —Bill McKibben, from “Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.”

Think about your daily commute.

At a glance, driving to work is a purely utilitarian function. In a metro area like Louisville’s, with only one agent of reliable public transit and no distinguishable prospects on that horizon, that involves a car, truck, van or SUV. You are looking for the most efficient means to arrive at your destination, which means taking as little time as possible. If you’re driving, you’re (presumably) not reading the newspaper, checking your e-mail, searching the Internet or participating in conference calls. In other words, you’re not working, not producing anything.

Now consider it another way. When you’re alone in your car, you are willfully isolated from other human beings. You probably have the radio on — 77 percent of Americans listen to radio for more than three hours a day, on average. You are likely to burn a couple gallons of gasoline on the way; how much depends, obviously, on where you live in relation to your job. You may be eating, drinking coffee or tea, or smoking. Maybe all of the above.

Unless you sought out something specifically to avoid this, it’s probable whatever you’re consuming — gasoline, food, drink, radio, electricity — came from somewhere pretty far away from where you are right now. Bill McKibben, noted environmentalist and author of a new book called “Deep Economy,” says this is what’s wrong with America; it’s why we’re the largest single contributor to global warming — or as an eminent NASA scientist put it in The New York Times Sunday Magazine this week, climate meltdown.

To McKibben, the economy of More has always trumped the academy of Better in America. More to the point, while the economy of More has led us to numerous advancements — technology and medicine are key — it is no longer providing positive things for the majority of the population. It has bred inequality and insecurity, McKibben writes. This has shepherded us into the fundamental struggle of our time. Global warming and peak oil are results of the massive pollution effort of the global economy, which is the logical end to the dogma of More. The only way to survive, McKibben argues in “Deep Economy,” is to start believing in Better. That means concerted local efforts to reconnect to everything from land and food to news and neighbors.

Ponder this: The average bite of food in America travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your tongue. Wrapped in that statistic are all kinds of problems.

Bill McKibben was the first person to put the concept: of global warming in digestible terms, in 1989’s “The End of Nature.” He’ll be in Louisville next week to discuss his latest book, “Deep Economy.”

Bill McKibben was the first person to put the concept: of global warming in digestible terms, in 1989’s “The End of Nature.” He’ll be in Louisville next week to discuss his latest book, “Deep Economy.”

Your daily commute is one of the most individualistic acts you’re likely to engage in with regularity — except, of course, if you’re heading to an office full of cubicles. America is a nation bred as individualists, not in the sentimental sense but in a pragmatic, historical one. But pragmatism has shifted on that ideal, and the associations between the economy of More and personal independence are no longer as cozy as they were when gas was 69 cents a gallon and your veggies came from your neighbor’s farm. The general aim of “Deep Economy” is to move the conversation on economy into this realm.

“I think there’s several things going on,” McKibben said in a phone interview last week from his home in Vermont. “One is, the world is going to start shifting that conversation some whether we like it or not. The world of endless More is based on endless access to fossil fuels. As that begins to change, and it will change … the natural gravitational attraction will start tending more towards the local instead of the global, and more towards quality instead of quantity. That’s half the battle.”

The other half, he said, is convincing people that there is little left for the individual American in endless expansion. He cites scientific studies indicating that possessions are not making Americans happy. In fact, a dramatic rise in depression in America has come concurrently with the vast economic expansion of the last half-century. There’s little question that “stuff” has become more burdensome — you’re stressed about your flat-screen TV breaking down, the car is starting to make weird noises, it’s time for a new computer, the Internet is running too slow. This conversation, though, is still pretty much confined to academia.

It becomes real in places like Wal-Mart, where cheapness is a virtue, in fact the official priority. McKibben’s argument holds that this factor, that cheapness is always the best thing for the consumer, has encouraged American society to become hyperindividualistic.

“The data’s pretty clear that people feel a deep loss of community,” he said. “The evidence is that people have far fewer close friends than they did years ago. We’ve traded an awful lot of community for an awful lot of individualism.”

McKibben’s idea of community is not sentimental, not what you hear in campaigns for local government, not some loose amalgamation of unconnected parts that can be manipulated for political expediency. A community is interdependent — farmers’ markets for food, co-ops for certain goods, perhaps a radio station, some means of generating energy, probably solar or wind. His basic working definition of a community is a place where you’re exposed to what other people are interested in, as well as what you are.

Farmers’ markets are growing faster than any other sector of the food industry. Smaller farms produce more food per acre, while large industrial farms produce more per dollar. The difference: On industrial farms, gas-fueled machinery has replaced humans.

As farms got bigger, prices got smaller and access to foods from around the world became much easier in America. The food industry, McKibben writes, is perhaps the most obvious example of the rise and rule of efficiency. That efficiency is not altogether bad: many people have access to food they otherwise couldn’t afford. The counterbalance to that, though, is a process that has all but cut out local farms and farmers, been an affront to the environment and created an industrial food system that’s awfully far away from anything natural.

“The ‘farmers’ who survive this process are often living truly miserable lives,” McKibben writes in “Deep Economy.” “Imagine, for instance, what it’s like to rear chickens for a huge grower like Perdue. The company doesn’t own farms; instead, it contracts with farmers, telling them precisely how to build their sheds, what to feed the hens, how often to supplement with antibiotics. The farmer owns the land and the equipment, but Perdue can inspect them at any time. … In return for a $250,000 start-up investment of his savings, the average contract chicken farmer takes in an annual net income of $8,160.” No benefits either.

In part a reaction to the rule of agribusiness, community supported agriculture farms have also grown exponentially. In a CSA, you pay an up-front fee and have access to pretty much whatever the farmer’s growing in season. McKibben reports that the first CSA opened in 1985 in Massachusetts, and now there are more than 1,500. He also writes that vegetables purchased through CSAs end up costing about half of store-bought veggies. At least in that sense, one of the most-used arguments against eating locally falls flat.
By the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s count, Jefferson County has 10 farmers’ markets. That far outnumbers any other county in the state.

Step It Up 2007 is a campaign McKibben started after organizing a march across Vermont that, by virtue of its visibility (there were something like 1,000 people marching), ended up convincing the state’s federal delegation to support a plan to begin cutting carbon emissions now and set a goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050. April 14 will be the biggest environmental rally in history, but it’s not a march on the Capitol; no, it’s hundreds of local communities that will stand up together and demand change. As of Tuesday, 683 events were planned in 48 states (go to for more info on local happenings).

This is the kind of dogged optimism that pervades McKibben’s ideas. He was the first person to put the concept of global warming in digestible terms, in 1989’s “The End of Nature.” Despite the ongoing assault on the environment by the Bush administration and the global economy, he is hopeful and self-assured about the likelihood of real change.

“I don’t find despair to be a very useful posture in which to work,” he said. “We can, and we do it as hard as we can, as long as we can, and we see how it all comes out.”

Contact the writer at
[email protected]