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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Book review: Deep Economy

I recently finished reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibben and it was an excellent book. The overall theme is that Americans have come to be obsessed with more. More economic growth, more material goods, bigger! better! McKibben begins his analysis by noting that for most Americans, wealth and material goods are not related to happiness and that we need to refocus on a "deeper" economy.

First, the main point. McKibben notes that once a country's per capita income exceeds $10,000, there is not a commensurate increase in the happiness of the population. Once basic needs of food and shelter are met, little happiness (if any) is gained from additional wealth. Economists call this the diminishing marginal utility of income (pdf).

One of the other main issues McKibben addresses is the issue of agriculture, health and the environment. Modern food systems generally involve large monocultures (a single plant covering thousands of acres), massive processing and packaging, and long-distance shipping. Thus every visit to the supermarket can offer local vegetables or exotic fruits, in any season. And it also serves up a healthy dose of pesticides, herbicides, and a massive carbon footprint.

McKibben notes that both our health (in terms of nutrition) and our land's productivity suffer. First, health suffers because when modern agriculture comes to the developing world, it tends to displace sufficiency farming. The former involves large monocropping of corns or soybeans or other commodities for export, the latter a mix of vegetables and grains to serve local nutritional needs. Modern agriculture actually reduces the self-sufficiency of the developing world and increases malnutrition.

Modern science has helped combat this with discoveries such as golden rice (infused with vitamin A) that replaces the vitamin A lost when other vegetables are not longer planted alongside rice. It's ironic, though, that it is really just a fix to another solution of modern times, the green revolution.

Even more intriguing, organic small-scale farming is actually more productive per acre and per unit of energy. That's right, you get more food for your land and inputs farming in a more traditional style, where corn can be planted in the same field as beans, instead of lined up for mechanical harvesting. And that is the tradeoff, of course. This more natural style of farming is labor-intensive and more expensive in dollars per pound of food, but more productive per acre of land.

The other big issue McKibben addresses as part of his exploration of happiness is community. Americans have a society committed to maximizing individual time: houses with more bedrooms than people, cable TV instead of movie theaters, cars instead of mass transit. The tradeoff is that people feel more alone and depressed than their parents.

McKibben suggests that community is a balancing act. Too much feels repressive, like having your parents or neighbors constantly at your door or in your space. To little leaves people vulnerable to anxiety and other products of social isolation.

Overall, I thought his book an interesting look at how to re-envision the modern economy to better respect the environment and the sense of human community. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

muxhut said...

I'll follow your recommendation - need a new book to read. And your post resonates with me right now because as I was driving my 20 miles to work this morning, the thought that popped into my head was "automobiles are not progress". Dunno where I heard that, but the question of "what is progress" is interesting. It seems that this book might address that to some extent.