Bill McKibben says we're stuffed

We've eaten, developed and drilled to near oblivion, says the environmental writer. It's time to realize that having more stuff is not the road to paradise. Oh, really?

Published March 23, 2007 11:59AM (EDT)

Bill McKibben has been writing about global warming and the recklessness of oil-addicted economies since George W. Bush was a part owner of the Texas Rangers, Al Gore was the junior senator from Tennessee, and informed adults could still speak of climate change as hypothetical. If the stretch of history that has followed seems all too familiar, so will many of the players in McKibben's new book, "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future." You'll recognize the ticking time bombs (climate change and peak oil), the villainous corporations (Wal-Mart and ConAgra), the do-nothing politicians (pretty much all of them), the consumerist and apathetic citizenry (pretty much all of us), the cadre of witch doctors with their trickle-down pablum (the Federal Reserve and the World Trade Organization), and of course the plucky heroes (small farmers and grass-roots activists). But with "Deep Economy," McKibben does more than just stage another culture-war drama. He offers both a compelling account of what brought us to this perilous moment in history and a credible vision of a more promising future.

The supply of fossil fuels that has put an end to scarcity in much of the Western world and continues to drive the dizzying economic growth of China and India, McKibben argues, is "a one-time gift." And rather than continue to gorge, we ought to be investing our surplus in figuring out how to live on less. The good news is that while we have already made our planet sick, we are beginning to notice when we have consumed enough: when more no longer makes us happier. Here and there we have begun to scale back our economies, to try to get more of what we need from our neighbors, both because we want to do less damage and because we enjoy it.

McKibben takes up the cause championed by the economist E.F. Schumacher in his classic book "Small Is Beautiful" and by the Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry (to whom the book is dedicated) and gives it fresh urgency and a human face. He chronicles a year spent eating exclusively from the valley around Lake Champlain in Vermont, where he works as a writer in residence at Middlebury College -- mainly to prove to himself that it can be done without suffering too great a deprivation. He visits with local farmers, politicians and brewers, but also makes trips to factories and sprawling cities in China and a tiny refusenik village in Bangladesh to see how the oil-mad global economy and its alternatives are playing out in the developing world.

"Somewhere there's a sweet spot," McKibben writes, "that produces enough without tipping over into the hyper-individualism that drives our careening, unsatisfying economy. The mix of regulation and values that might make such self-restraint more common is, of course, as hard to create in China as in the United States; far simpler just to bless an every-man-for-himself economy and step aside. But creating those values, and the laws and customs that will slowly evolve from them, may be the key task of our time, here and around the world."

McKibben spoke with Salon from his home in Vermont about the blind spots of economists, the marginal utility of a teddy bear, and where not to be when the climate crisis gets into full swing.

What does a deep economy look like?

It's more a trajectory than a utopian vision. It tends to draw in its supply lines instead of extend them. It produces using more people instead of fewer. It's an economy that cares less about quantity than about quality; that takes as its goal the production of human satisfaction as much as surplus material; that is focused on the idea that it might endure and considers durability at least as important as increases in size.

How would the idea best be condensed into a bumper sticker?

My friend Todd Murphy, who started the Farmers Diner in Barre, Vt., printed up stickers that said, "Think globally. Act Neighborly." I think that that's very close to what we need. We're talking about rebuilding economies on the kind of scales that people are actually comfortable with. If we could make it happen, I think it would appeal to everyone except for the 2 or 3 percent who are getting unbelievably rich off of the system that we have now.

How is that not a centralized command economy?

It's the opposite. We are lucky, in having survived the 20th century, to have a good list of things that don't work. No. 1 on the list is a centralized command economy. Markets work very well, but as global warming illustrates, they don't solve every problem by themselves. We need to start figuring out how we put real, profound limits on them. I think some of those limits are going to be geographic.

What is your answer to those who would see this as a nostalgic and misguided attempt to turn back the clock?

There are good things from our economic past that we'd do well to try to re-create in the present, but there are also all kinds of possibilities that we're offered by the tools we have now. We can now imagine economies that are local without being suffocatingly parochial. The Web, for instance, allows us to trade recipes, so to speak, instead of trading commodities.

But who are we, as Westerners enjoying the fruits of centuries of market capitalism, to turn around and wag our fingers at people in the developing world?

We have no standing in that court. The Chinese have no more interest in listening to lectures from us on global warming than they have in listening to us sing Dixie. They are paying no attention, and at the moment we don't want them to pay any attention. We're perfect co-dependents in this energy relationship -- we are each the other's best excuse for doing nothing. But the only thing that will make any kind of global deal on climate stick is if we realize that we've spent 100 years creating a surplus by filling the atmosphere with carbon and take some of that surplus, in the form of technology, and transfer it to China, India and the rest of the world so that they don't need to follow our particular path.

It's been almost 20 years since you warned of global warming in "The End of Nature." But it was just a couple of months ago that President Bush finally brought himself to utter the words "climate change." Do you feel at all frustrated and angry?

There is some of that. Unfortunately, the science on global warming has grown steadily worse and the situation is much grimmer now than it was 20 years ago. But there have been changes in the last couple of years that have made me hopeful. We're figuring out that the endless increase in our consumption, which drives global warming more than anything else, actually isn't making us very happy. That seems to me a very powerful idea. If it were making us happy, we'd be out of luck, because no matter how much trouble it was causing we'd just keep pushing the lever.

But there's at least a potential for change because the solutions to two of our major dilemmas lie in more or less the same direction. Another reason I'm willing to be hopeful right now is the straightforward one that more people are finally beginning to take these things seriously. I helped launch in early January, hoping that we would be able to organize at least a couple hundred rallies on climate change by April 14. As of early March I think we had 835 scheduled in 49 states.

But is it too late? You've written that even if we do everything right from here on out, we're still going to see serious increases in temperature.

There's no stopping global warming. We've seen some and we're going to see some more. The only question is whether we can keep it from being catastrophic, and it may be too late for that. If we manage to make it through this, it will be by the skin of our teeth and I'm not at all sure that we will. I remember a friend of mine at the Kennedy School during the late '80s saying that global warming may turn out to be the public policy problem from hell because there are so many interests involved. And we happen to be realizing it just at the moment that the Chinese and the Indians and the rest of the world are starting to burn fossil fuel in appreciable quantities.

So why shouldn't I learn to use firearms and stockpile some canned food and head for the highest ground?

I think there's a part of everyone that thinks about that. You hear people make nervous jokes about where to buy real estate. But if you stop to think about it, you start to understand that the communities we need to build in order to slow down global warming are the same kind of communities that are going to be resilient and durable enough to help adapt to that which we can't prevent. In the not very distant future, having neighbors is going to be more important than having belongings. Membership in a community is going to become important once again both psychologically and physically in the way that it's been for most of human history.

But if the change is abrupt, are we going to be able to build those bonds fast enough?

Some places will fare better than others. The suburbs of Atlanta don't seem to me to be a great place to be living right now.

What kind of world do you envision for your daughter?

I hope that the community she lives in will be much stronger than the community I've grown up in, that she'll have closer and more friends, that she'll need her neighbors and they will need her, and that this human community will compensate to some degree for the physical instability that's going to be her lot.

You write about encouraging developments in the field of economics, especially the growing recognition that personal satisfaction tends to level off after a certain point in material gains. But why wait for economists to start to figure these things out when our traditions of literature, philosophy and religion have been teaching them for a long time?

That's a good question. We've been overwhelmed by an economic idea of the world in the last hundred years. As a society we've made every decision based on whether or not it will make the economy grow, so now it's hard for us to resurrect the good sense found in just about every world religion and most great literature that having more stuff is not the path to happiness.

So how did the mantra of economic expansion gain such momentum?

Because it works up to a point. Economists have been extremely good at showing us how to produce more. But they have confused that with an end. They've decided that because they're good at doing it, therefore that's what should be done. The basic idea goes back to Adam Smith, who was prescribing for the human condition in his time, a condition of essential scarcity. We moved away from that a long time ago in the U.S. The marginal utility of another stuffed animal for my daughter, for example, is unbelievably low, but for the girl working in a shower curtain factory in China, whom I describe in the book, who brims over in tears the second she sees it, it's very high. One of the confusions of economics has been that getting a stuffed animal is the same experience for both.

You mention your visit to China. It's seems obvious that the pace of growth happening in China and India right now simply can't go on forever. Why do seemingly intelligent people such as Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs, both of whom you mention in the book, not seem to get it?

It's fairly easy to fool yourself when it comes to environmental problems. The kind we've dealt with so far tend to yield an increase in the standard of living. If your problem is too much carbon monoxide coming out of tailpipes, you need to be able to afford catalytic converters, and the richer you get the cleaner your air is going to get. But carbon dioxide is different. There's no catalytic converter for it, and the more tailpipes you have, the more of it you release. That's the situation we find ourselves in with global warming and it's essentially the same situation we find ourselves with resource scarcity issues such as peak oil. The world harvest of fish is down year after year. The world harvest of grain has plateaued. And just try to imagine a world where people in China own automobiles at the same rate as Americans. It's literally not possible.

You use the term "sweet spot" a couple of times to describe the happy medium between freedom of markets and individuals and the demands of ecological and cultural health. How do you know when you are in the sweet spot?

It's always going to be an ongoing calibration, but we are constantly making similar ones. Since I live in a college town, the great example for me has to do with beer. You watch a freshman come in and discover that three bottles of beer make him very happy and then spend a year figuring out that 13 bottles of beer make him less happy. That's not an exercise we've figured out how to do as a society. Having a little privacy and having enough stuff made us happier, but we haven't yet cottoned to the fact that doubling the size of the house and moving 50 miles out to the next suburb in fact isn't yielding any increase in satisfaction.

You also write about the way in which the Christian religion, at least in America, has been co-opted by this vision of market capitalism. Is that something that you see changing?

I do. In the last year there has been a sudden engagement of religious communities, including evangelical ones, in environmental politics, particularly in the fight over climate change. It reminds us of the potentially subversive role that they might play, since they draw their inspiration from a gospel that, if taken seriously, would blow the minds of most Americans. Organized Christianity had largely succumbed to the hyper-individualist view of the world, which is ironic for a religion whose central tenet is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. We'd gotten away from that, but there's potential for getting back toward it.

A lot of the business models you use as examples in the book are ones that turn a profit but don't grow at the rate that Wall Street demands. Do you consider publicly traded companies and the stock market compatible with a deep economy?

I think we need to figure out, probably through changes in tax policy, how to reduce the demand for 24 percent returns on everything. In a sane regulatory scheme, you wouldn't be able to put 300,000-square-foot stores in every county in America and destroy the local businesses. Hence there would be nobody offering Wal-Mart-size returns on investments. One of the ironies of all this is that Adam Smith imagined capitalism as encapsulated in quite local communities, where it makes a lot of sense. It works pretty well when you have a local bank and local bankers who know the local people and when businessmen are careful to guard their reputation so that the bank will continue to loan them money and so on. It was a virtuous circle for quite a while until it reached gargantuan proportions.

What about what we're doing now? I contacted you through a P.R. person for Henry Holt, who is hoping to sell as many copies of your book as possible. Salon, in turn, is hoping to generate traffic based on your reputation as a writer, which would help drive ad sales and so on. Are we in the sweet spot?

One of the great problems always with trying to change anything about the world is that you are operating in the existing one. I have hypocrisies that run much deeper than that. I've spent much of my life flying and driving around the world to tell people to use less carbon. My great hope is that when St. Peter finishes his accounting I will have ended up two or three gallons to the good -- that I will have persuaded just enough people to change their habits a little bit that it will make up for what I've burned. I piously buy my offsets and all, but I'm under no illusion that there's not a great deal of hypocrisy involved.

I'm not trying to point out hypocrisies so much as figure out just how different the world would be.

I think it's hard to know until we get there. In the book, I write about the music industry, for instance, and the possibility that maybe we'd move away from a world where we have a few mega-stars known to everyone who make a gazillion dollars and instead have lots of semi-stars in any general region of the world who make a good living. One of the beautiful things about the Web is that it allows us to have our cake and eat it too in this regard.

What do you say to someone who says, "I'll tell you when I've had enough. If I want another car, that should be my right."

All I'm saying is this is a democracy. I don't have much patience for the argument that no one should tell me what to do ever. In a democracy we work on figuring out what kind of society we want to build. And if you want to make the argument that we'd be better off with all of us buying whatever car we want until the end of time, then you're going to have to deal with those of us who are pointing out some of the drawbacks.

By Ira Boudway

Ira Boudway is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and frequent contributor to Salon.

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Author Interviews Books Economics Environment Global Warming Peak Oil U.s. Economy