Deep economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

Bill McKibben

[Times Books, 261 pages]

In Deep Economy, McKibben argues against the current neoliberal social order while creating a very approachable prescription for a sustainable society. To McKibben, sustainability rests in a resurgence of community, exemplified by locavorism and public radio movements, which he believes offer true alternatives to the malaise of endless hyper-individualist consumerism. If, in McKibben’s words, the “two birds named ‘More’ and ‘Better’” can no longer perch on the branch they have for centuries, society must slow down and put more energy into our local communities to revitalize the important, immediate bonds that make up a fulfilling, sustainable life. But is depth enough?

A mainstream understanding of economy is rooted in individual choice—we have sustainable “alternatives” rather than a system that is simply sustainable. The dominant logic is that before the Arctic becomes beachfront property, consumers will become enlightened and invest in a sustainable world. But who gets to define “sustainability” in the first place?

McKibben touches on the economic exploitation of global workers while arguing that the world’s poor cannot use the same industrial capitalism used since the 1700s by North America and Europe to achieve a higher standard of living. But he fails to bridge the Western, white, bourgeois understanding of sustainable society to the globally and locally disenfranchised experience, which is based around material lack. As the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has recently demonstrated, privileged nations have a fundamental inability to understand the experiences of poor nations. Our current global infrastructure, proudly built in the West, is a veritable blueprint for exploitation and unsustainable accumulation. Yet the West’s solutions to climate change ignore a history of Western global exploitation while admonishing poorer nations for attempting to follow in our footsteps. Locally, farmer’s markets and many other supposedly sustainable practices occur within an individualist system with a history of exploitation. Within such systems sustainable goods become luxury goods that are not economically attainable for many. So long as sustainability is defined in a public arena where malls speak louder than parks, sustainability will fail to address the experiences of marginalized people. What is a community where sustainability is for those who can afford it as a lifestyle product? It is unsustainable.

Despite the disjuncture between equity and sustainability, Deep Economy can open eyes to an alternative way of understanding society. It diagnoses our energy use, eating and purchasing habits, and the underlying way that we value things as terminal, but goes well past the gloom and doom. McKibben weaves together the disparate threads of community-driven alternatives to mainstream consumer society into a thoughtful prescription of how we might start to reorganize our lives so that they are less economically, but more socially valuable. Perhaps in time, McKibben’s work will help bring the many experiences of “sustainability” out of the marketplace and into a society-driven discourse.

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by Christopher B. Langer