Deep Economy: Q&A with Bill McKibben

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When Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989, it was the first popular press book to address global warming in a meaningful way. Since then, McKibben has not only carved out a career as an environmental journalist; he has become one of the most steadfast and trustworthy voices in the arena.

McKibben is currently at work promoting Step It Up 2007—a decentralized protest calling for Congress to introduce measures to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050—which will take place on April 14 in over 800 locations across the country.

In his latest book, Deep Economy (Henry Holt, 2007), McKibben submits that we’re past the point of changing our light bulbs and hoping for the best. Instead, it’s time to challenge the prevailing economic ideology of “More is Better,” with local yet systemic alternatives.

McKibben recently took some time from his work to discuss Deep Economy with Eco-Chick.

Eco-Chick: How does the idea of deep economy differ from the idea of local economy?

McKibben: Local economies are the main prescription, I think, for dealing with the deep problems of our current system—that it’s driving the Earth off an ecological cliff, and that it isn’t making us as happy as it seems to. We’ve thought much too shallowly about what we want out of the economy: not simply more, but a satisfying and workable world.

Eco-Chick: In Deep Economy, you say that it’s time to move beyond “More is Better,” but qualify that by saying, “researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears…” (41). Do you see environmentalism as something of a class privilege? If so, do you think that has been sufficiently recognized by the environmental movement?

McKibben: I think that not caring about the environment is a kind of class privilege. The very poorest people—in this country and around the planet—feel the effects of the damage more than the rest of us do. (Go to New Orleans to see what I mean, and after that Bangladesh.) The onus on cleaning up should fall most heavily on those of us who have made the most mess—in this case, by pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, carbon that is directly related to our consumption. And we shouldn’t point too many fingers at China for their carbon emissions, not while our per capita emissions are four times greater. Instead, we need to figure out how to re-engage with the rest of the world to help them develop on something other than our energy path.

Eco-Chick: Since the Democrats took control of the House and Senate last November, many Americans have expressed hope that Congress will finally address growing public concern about global warming. However, you note in Deep Economy that unless we also critically examine our marriage to economic growth—something the Democrats have failed to do—we cannot expect to arrive at meaningful solutions to climate change and other environmental crises. What, if anything, can we reasonably expect from the Democratic Party, both in Congress and in the upcoming Presidential election?

McKibben: I hope that the Democrats will set targets—dramatic and ambitious ones—somewhere near the scientific mandate. At stepitup07.org, we’ve been saying 80% cuts by 2050. If that happens, it will help set in motion the train of events that will, hopefully with enough speed, wean us away from a world of fossil-fueled hyper-growth and towards something more durable. Congress won’t vote against growth. They may vote for higher energy prices (under some guise like cap and trade), which will then help lead us in saner directions. But an awful lot of the work is going do have to be done on the local and state level.

Eco-Chick: As I read more about local economy and, specifically, local food production, it seems to me that the discussion might need to include a reconsideration of the traditional gender roles that Americans have challenged in recent decades. In other words, the move from processed food to fresh, locally grown food requires that there be someone cooking in the kitchen. Do you think that this is part of the dialogue or is it a non-issue by this point?

McKibben: What can I say? At our house, I do the cooking. I guess I don’t think that cooking is such a bad thing—better for your body, for the planet, and probably for your mood than subcontracting it to some fast food kitchen. The fact that we’ve largely forgotten how to cook is a problem, and if we relearn, I sure hope it won’t be attached to gender as it has been in our past.

Eco-Chick: Likewise, does the idea of deep economy suggest that we might need to reconsider the roles that children and grandparents can play in a family and a community?

McKibben: Yep. Children and grandparents are now viewed as slightly problematic since they’re not contributing to economic growth. But any sensible community anywhere in the world has knit [children] into the fabric of real life—not by “child labor,” but by allowing ways that they can help. And it’s the same with grandparents.

Eco-Chick: Your research for Deep Economy took you to India, China, and Cuba, as well as cities and towns across the U.S. To me, one of the elephants in the room is that many of the most committed, knowledgeable and active environmentalists (those who would be most open to the idea of deep economy) are also people who love to travel, partly because they appreciate seeing alternatives to their own ways of thinking and living. Is there a way to reconcile travel and deep economy? Is it enough to buy a hybrid and carbon credits? Or should we heed poet Gary Snyder’s advice and, “Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there”?

McKibben: I think that Snyder is basically right. One of the hypocrisies of my life is that I spend a great deal of time traveling to tell people to use less carbon. I hope I end up a few gallons to the good. Of course, I buy carbon offsets, but that’s fairly token. My real joy is to stay and home and my favorite vacation of recent years is described in a book called Wandering Home, about a three-week backpack trip across my home county.

Eco-Chick: Deep Economy is dedicated to Wendell Berry. What influence has he had on your work?

McKibben: I read him first at an impressionable age, and he shocked me out of believing that the conventional wisdoms of the world were, in fact, so obvious. As I told him recently when we shared a stage, he completely changed the course of my life, and for that I’m about 85 percent grateful.

Eco-Chick: It’s been 18 years since you published The End of Nature, the first popular press book to address global warming (as far as I know). What has changed—in terms of scientific knowledge, public and government action, and your own concerns about the issue—since then? Are you satisfied with how we are responding?

McKibben: The science has gotten steadily grimmer. We didn’t understand how finely poised the Earth’s physical systems were, so we’re seeing huge responses to warming (such as Arctic melt) sooner than we would have expected. The political response—especially in this country—has been slower than I would have thought. The last six years have been totally and completely wasted, and they were important years. At the moment, though, I’m feeling a little optimistic. The response to stepitup07.org has been so much larger than I could ever have guessed and I think that we’re finally nearing a tipping point.