Two weeks ago, after complaining to my daughter about how much I would dislike it, I bought Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy (New York, Henry Holt: 2007) from my local Amherst book store. Already familiar with his ideas from his various other writings (including The End of Nature; Staying Human in an Engineered Age; and various New Yorker articles), I suspected that his new book would be well written, an effective attack on much that ails us as a society, and would miss the point. It is this last that led me to threaten to throw the book against the wall in frustration. And that frustration led me to write this note. (Actually, it was my wife who wanted me to write this so that I would stop ranting to her.)
What could be wrong with a book that criticizes the Bush Administration, big oil, Cargill, Monsanto, and the Economics profession (among many many other villains)? Especially when the author has such good heroes: including farmers’ markets, urban gardens, organic farmers, Heifer International, and the Indian state of Kerala. Among economists, environmentalists like Herman Daly and Bob Costanza get most of the Kudos but a few, like Amartya Sen, make friendly cameo appearances. Individualism is bad; society is productive; and I agree that would all be better off, and the world a lot better off, if we listened to Bill McKibben.
The problem I have is that McKibben not only reads orthodox economists but believes them. For him, the economy is a social system that efficiently translates individual wishes into products; changing economic outcomes, therefore, requires two things: first we must change the technology we use; and, second, we must change individual wishes rather than reorganize the economy. For McKibben, both of these problems go back to the origins of modern economic growth in the British Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Industrialization, and the economic growth that came after, is, first of all, the product of engineering and better technology: “[I]n 1712, something new finally happened. A British inventor named Thomas Newcomen developed the first practical steam engine” (p. 5). As a result of this technology, “Every action of a modern life burns fossil fuel” (p. 15) and “[t]he link between environmental destruction and wealth is deep and long-standing. Clearly, getting rich means getting dirty” (p. 21). In a nutshell, here is McKibben’s take on the world: we have the wrong technology, we use a technology that relies too heavily on fossil fuels, and this links economic growth with environmental degradation in a way that insures that economic growth will hurt the world.
Thus far, McKibben’s critique would be familiar to readers of Amory Lovins (cited in the book) and others. This argument may be simply stated as follows: “We’re in trouble because we, accidentally, chose the wrong technology and now we need to step back and change.” But McKibben makes a broader social critique than this by adding a second element to our social malady, also dating back to the beginning of the modern era, and also an accident. Until 500 years ago, McKibben argues, individuals were embedded in communities “as a small part of the Great Chain of Being” (p. 95). “The story of the last five hundred years,” he adds, “is the story of continual emancipation” (p. 95). He recognizes that many factors dissolved this ordered world, but, a good Weberian, he highlights one: Protestantism. Like fossil fuel-powered economic growth, individualism was at first a good thing; emancipatory, it gave space for individual expression and initiative. But it has gone too far and now “we’ve been overliberated” (p. 128).
There is so much here that is familiar, and so much that rings true and even comfortable, that I expect McKibben’s book will sell well. But, I fear that he is telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need. For starters, he is wrong about the British Industrial Revolution. Rather than steam engines, the signal change there was the creation of factories, almost always operating without steam power, where employers, “capitalists,” were able to regulate the work hours of their workers. Rather than an engineering problem, the Industrial Revolution was a solution to a social problem, the problem that people, workers, did not want to work as long or as hard as their bosses wanted. Factory production allowed capitalists to increase their profits by forcing their wage workers to labor harder or else be fired (and denied access to the means of production).
Instead of seeing the economy as a system that uses technology to transmute individual wishes into economic outputs, it is a system of profit creation, producing surplus value rather than use value. This explains many of the accidents and mysteries McKibben identifies, the odd mistakes and errors in judgement, that have led to our current malaise. We subsidize the burning of fossil fuels because of the political influence of fuel and automobile companies looking to profit. Our agricultural research emphasizes large-scale, oil-intensive technologies because these favor agribusiness profits. State policy promotes extensive housing development because these projects favor corporate profits in real-estate, construction, furniture, and transportation. State policy favors private consumption of marketable commodities rather than communal use of public goods not just to raise the Gross Domestic Product but because corporations profit from private consumption. By contrast, state policy neglects, even discourages, much that enhances welfare and makes life better for people because corporations have not figured out a way to squeeze a profit from them. Home production, community building, and the development of social capital are all shunned not only because they do not enrich any section of corporate America, but because the strengthening of communities risks promoting democratic forces who would restrict corporate profit-making in the name of popular welfare.
Yes, McKibben is absolutely right that we use the wrong technologies and we value individual action over communal interests. But the problem is not in the technology, nor in any excessive desire for liberty and personal autonomy. Nor is it in our desire for economic growth where we provide the opportunity for a better life for everyone. The problem is that we grow in the wrong way because that is more profitable for the corporations who dominate our social policy.
So what is to be done? Blaming technology and individualism, McKibben urges us to change our thoughts and revise our expectations of the world with the promise that this will save the planet and even may eventually make us better off. Like the Garrisonian abolitionists of the 19th century, he would rely on “moral suasion”; after we change our behavior and rebuild our communities “then our politics will start to change as well” (p. 175). If we see capitalism and capitalist control of state policy as the root of our environmental and social maladies then we should reverse this ordering. Instead of personal change opening the door to political action, we need political action that will end the subsidization of environmental and community destruction so that we can save our planet and rebuild our communities.
Professor of Economics
University of Massachusetts at Amherst