Deep Economy

Although the United States continues to be among the wealthiest nations on Earth, a new hint of unease can be detected in the fact that many people are becoming aware of economics and economic theory. From the nightly news and talk radio, nonspecialists have learned something of the language of the specialist and are able to argue at the watercooler about “downsizing” and “outsourcing” and “competing in the global marketplace.” Most of the debate over globalization, informed by the ideas crystallized in Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005), assumes that globalization is inevitable and good; the points of contention have to do with who benefits from globalization. Coupled with unease over the future, however, is the fact that Americans, following a “more is better” philosophy, continue to accumulate things. Average consumers, it is frequently said, are not interested in where a product comes from; they care only about the lower prices that globalization brings.

A recent trend in nonfiction writing has been the exploration of the complexities and the consequences of the global economy, presenting detailed studies of where products come from, products that consumers often take for granted in their daily lives. Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers (2006) looks at the increasingly globalized cut flower industry, which gathers roses grown in Ecuador, tulips from Oregon, gerbera daisies from Kenya, and lilies from California into a bouquet for a dining room table in New York or London. Stewart reveals the surprising distances flowers travel and explores the economic issues that inform the balance between wages and shipping costs. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) looks at the foods Americans typically eat and the industrial farms that produce them under conditions that most consumers cannot imagine. These two books, and several others, show that there is a marketa desirefor information about where products come from.

Through that doorway of opportunity steps Bill McKibben with Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. It is not until consumers develop a curiosity about where things come from, he realizes, that they can begin to wonder where things should come from, and then begin to wonder whether they need more things at all. McKibben pulls together ideas also expressed in several of the new books about the new global economy, but rather than emphasizing exposition, as Stewart and Pollan can be said to do, McKibben emphasizes argument. What is needed is a new economy built on living and consuming locally rather than globally. McKibben assumes his readers have a basic understanding of the theories of the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), who believed that free markets would ultimately work for the good of all if they were left alone, and that security would arise from consistent growth. McKibben states that Smith’s ideas worked well for two centuries but that “we in the rich countries no longer inhabit a planet where straight-ahead economics, useful as it has been, can help us.” His thesis can be stated simply: While in the past it may have made sense to pursue a better life through the acquisition of more material goods and the consumption of more fossil fuels, that path no longer makes sense.

McKibben calls his new economy a “deep economy,” echoing the idea of “deep ecology,” coined by Arne Naess in 1973 and explored in the seminal book Deep Ecology: Living as If Nature Mattered (1985) by Bill Devall and George Sessions. An ecological philosophy is “deep” if it moves beyond and beneath superficial scientific understandings of nature and reaches to deeper spiritual and intuitive questions. Similarly, a deep economy rejects some commonly asked questions (Is this process efficient? Does it yield the highest return for investors? Will it give consumers more?) in favor of questions that speak to meaningfulness and the greater good. As McKibben writes, “We need a shift in our thinking about economicswe need it to take human satisfaction and societal durability more seriously; we need economics to mature as a discipline.”

In his first chapter, “After Growth,” the author raises three central reasons for moving the world toward a deep economy and discusses two of them at some length. The first reason is that the current global...

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