Deep Economy by Bill McKibben

Posted: May 19, 2008 in Futurism, Review

The end of the semester was coming, I had finished my thesis, and I didn’t really have any more grading to do for my classes. So I was pretty much done. But instead of just taking time to break and let my brain recharge, I picked up a pair of books. One of them was Deep Economy (the other was Al Gore’s Assault on Reason but I haven’t finished it yet). I ended up taking a break for two weeks after school ended for recharging, and now I’m back to the grind, so I finished Deep Economy first and foremost.

While I was reading it, it was all I could do not to talk about it. There was just a ton of interesting, and mildly depressing, information in it. Like the fact that America ranked 51st (of 142) in sustainability or that “We have the highest percentage of our population in prison” (102-3), or about how far our education has sunk, or that the food we eat has traveled more than a thousand miles before we eat it. Then there were the comparisons, like that Europeans use half as much energy as we do (222) or that Americans work 25.1 working hours per week and 46 weeks a year, while Germans work 18.6 hours and French work for 40 weeks a year (223). That means that we work 1154.6 hours a year, while they work 744, or 410.6 hours fewer (but they still produce twice as much per hour as we do). That’s depressing.

But there was some positive information too. I was fascinated to find out that we have ten times as many conversations at a farmer’s market than at a supermarket (105). And it was heartwarming to know that there are communities around the world that are working on a smaller scale, that have discovered that “if it’s food you’re worried about, not dollars, the most productive farms are often much smaller” (198), and that work together to make the community better rather than just increasing the GNP (some people have even replaced GNP with a happiness quotient. Everyone is happier than we are.)

What really got me thinking, though, was when McKibben was talking about the importance of community. He writes at some point that a monkey will press a lever over and over again just to see another monkey, even without any other reward. And he points out that the reason most people look back at college as being the happiest time of their lives is because “they lived more closely and intensely in a community than ever before or since” (109).

It puts fraternities into a new perspective for me. People are happier when they live in a community, and the greek system is a community. No doubt about that. And while I for the most part do not agree with any of their policies and think the world might be better off without them, I can also see the value. Not everyone is able to form their own group of friends. Sometimes it’s easier to just join a pre-existing group (which, according to McKibben, can double your survival chances on a year to year basis).

The reason this point struck home to me, I think, is that I am an academic. Maybe that means I’m one of those people who realized that living in a community is important, and have staked myself a place in the first one that I was ever really a part of. But that seems unlikely. I have often gravitated towards communities where status was determined by meritocracy rather than seniority, and I’m still naive enough to believe that academia is like that.

I love college, and always have. As of this year, I’ve been in higher education for almost a decade, with at least another half decade in the future (far, far more if I become a professor, which is my current goal). But after reading this book, I’m left to wonder why I love it so much. Is it the work? Is it the people? Is it just the ability to belong to a community?

I’m not really sure. Time may tell.

What’s important about the book is that while it presents some pretty scary stuff about the world, it also presents a very hopeful idea, a thought that we can actually make the world a better place and be happier at the same time. It also speaks to the general idea that the path we have been going along is the wrong way, and more and more of us are starting to realize it. This brings my mind back to the Ishmael series by Daniel Quinn. He talks about this feeling, and though he doesn’t have any solutions, he does suggest that if enough people want them, those solutions will be found. Bill McKibben’s book is a manifesto, a lesson plan for how to find those solutions, and a catalog of those that have already been implemented. I hope that we learn from what he suggests, because I certainly would rather be happy than rich. I don’t think we need to live the way we’ve been living, and would love to live more like a European.

Though maybe, the only way I’ll be able to do that is to actually move to Europe; I’m not entirely opposed to that.

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