Bill McKibben has been championing the themes of global warming, peak oil and sustainability for years. In his recently released book, Deep Economy, he focuses on relocalization and a rethinking of our conception of happiness.

For a scientific treatment of the disjuncture between happiness and wealth, see Avner Offer’s The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950.

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

McKibben: Reversal of Fortune

Bill Mckibben, Mother Jones
News: The formula for human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on us?
…according to new research emerging from many quarters, … our continued devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes most people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity. Growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound-like climate change and peak oil-that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous. And perhaps most surprisingly, growth no longer makes us happier. Given our current dogma, that’s as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity pushes apples skyward. But then, even Newtonian physics eventually shifted to acknowledge Einstein’s more complicated universe.

… Our single-minded focus on increasing wealth has succeeded in driving the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure, even as it’s failed to make us happier. How did we screw up?

The answer is pretty obvious-we kept doing something past the point that it worked. Since happiness had increased with income in the past, we assumed it would inevitably do so in the future. We make these kinds of mistakes regularly: Two beers made me feel good, so ten will make me feel five times better. But this case was particularly extreme-in part because as a species, we’ve spent so much time simply trying to survive. As the researchers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman-both psychologists-observe, “At the time of Adam Smith, a concern with economic issues was understandably primary. Meeting simple human needs for food, shelter and clothing was not assured, and satisfying these needs moved in lockstep with better economics.” Freeing people to build a more dynamic economy was radical and altruistic.

Consider Americans in 1820, two generations after Adam Smith. The average citizen earned, in current dollars, less than $1,500 a year, which is somewhere near the current average for all of Africa. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey explains in a 2004 article in the magazine Christian Century, “Your great-great-great-grandmother had one dress for church and one for the week, if she were not in rags. Her children did not attend school, and probably could not read. She and her husband worked eighty hours a week for a diet of bread and milk-they were four inches shorter than you.” Even in 1900, the average American lived in a house the size of today’s typical garage. Is it any wonder that we built up considerable velocity trying to escape the gravitational pull of that kind of poverty? An object in motion stays in motion, and our economy-with the built-up individual expectations that drive it-is a mighty object indeed.

You could call it, I think, the Laurd Ingalls Wilder effect. I grew up reading her books – Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods – and my daughter grew up listening to me read them to her, and no doubt she will read them to her children. They are the ur-American story. And what do they tell? Of a life rich in family, rich in connection to the natural world, rich in adventure-but materially deprived. That one dress, that same bland dinner. At Christmastime, a penny-a penny! And a stick of candy, and the awful deliberation about whether to stretch it out with tiny licks or devour it in an orgy of happy greed. A rag doll was the zenith of aspiration. My daughter likes dolls too, but her bedroom boasts a density of Beanie Babies that mimics the manic biodiversity of the deep rainforest. Another one? Really, so what? Its marginal utility, as an economist might say, is low. And so it is with all of us. We just haven’t figured that out because the momentum of the past is still with us-we still imagine we’re in that little house on the big prairie.
(March/April 2007)
Long essay, apparently an excerpt from McKibben’s new book, “Deep Economy.”

Related article at Mother Jones: Stumbling on Happiness (Interview with Dan Gilbert):

The author of a new book on happiness explains why members of the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world can’t find their ultimate goal.

Diet for a smaller planet: review of McKibben’s new book

Mark L. Winston, Globe & Mail
Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy asks the crucial question that will occupy the next few human generations: Can we cut back on our profligate lifestyles to save the environment, and possibly our own species?

…He begins with a short chapter reviewing the last few centuries of economic strategies that have operated under the assumption the human condition will improve by growing the pie. McKibben reminds us of growth’s darker side, diminishing our well-being as economies consume unsustainable quantities of fossil fuels, minerals, water and other resources, pollute the air and transform the atmosphere to one untenable for human survival, and create more inequality than prosperity.

Most significantly, excessive prosperity hasn’t made us happier. His paradigm of “deep economy” proposes human satisfaction and societal durability as its indicators, rather than economic measures of growth, profit, market share, trade or efficiency. Its scale is local rather than global: Buy food, generate energy, enjoy entertainment and build community close to home.

The bulk of Deep Economy focuses on vignettes and glimpses into locally lived lives that are successfully generating deep economies.

…What isn’t so clear is whether we’ll take his advice. Deep Economy presents a stark, biblical-scale battle between the forces of local living, restrained consuming and happiness, and an environment-breaking weight of goods, possessions and individual wealth. Unfortunately, too many of us will resist reducing our lifestyles to the values McKibben argues will be necessary to save the Earth.
(17 March 2007)
In the light of peak oil, McKibben’s proposals seem not utopian, but eminently practical. -BA

Review: Book warns of economic collision course

Russ Juskalian, USA Today
…We’ve heard this line of reasoning countless times. But as oil prices stay high, conflicts light up the globe and each week a new report is issued damning practices responsible for global warming, the idea of sustainable (or durable) economics is gaining currency.

What makes McKibben’s book stand out is the completeness of his arguments and his real-world approach to solutions. He is just as comfortable calling on economist John Maynard Keynes as he is visiting neighborhood farmers. (He writes about successfully relying on locally produced food one Vermont winter.)
(19 March 2007)

McKibben on his new book

Bill McKibben, homepage
In my new book, Deep Economy, I’ve set out to challenge the prevailing view of our economy. For the first time in human history, “more” is no longer synonymous with “better”—indeed, for many of us, they have become almost opposites. I want us to think in new ways about the things we buy, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the money that pays for it all. Our purchases need not be at odds with the things we truly value.

The time has come to move beyond “growth” as the paramount economic ideal and begin pursuing prosperity in a more local direction, with cities, suburbs, and regions producing more of their own food, generating more of their own energy, and even creating more of their own culture and entertainment. This concept is already blossoming around the world with striking results, from the burgeoning economies of India and China to the more mature societies of Europe and New England. For those who worry about environmental threats, there are solutions to work through the worst of those problems; for those who wonder if there isn’t something more to life than buying, I encourage you to consider your life as an individual and as a member of a larger community.

Deep Economy offers a realistic, if challenging, scenario for a hopeful future. I believe that the more we nurture the essential humanity of our economy, the more we will recapture our own.
(March 2007)

Global warming knocking at your door

Bill McKibben, Boston Globe
THE MOMENTUM in the economy has begun a small, still barely discernible shift toward the local and away from the global.

You can see it in ways large and small: President Bush, touring Latin America, talks less about new free trade agreements, suddenly not as popular either with our neighbors or with the new Democratic Congress. Meanwhile, local food is on the cover of Time magazine — and on the menu, with italicized encomiums, on every high-end menu. (Farmers’ markets, indeed, may be the fastest growing part of the food economy.)

Even money is changing — in Western Massachusetts residents have launched a local currency that you can get from regular banks, and now they’re setting up ATMs.

This trend may continue — in fact, it may be the trend that defines our time. The last century was about extending supply lines, but this one — with less cheap energy to drive it — may be about rolling them partway back in.

…The Internet (especially if it stays the chaotic, democratic mess it is at present, with Congress resisting the efforts of big communications companies to change its architecture) may be ideally suited to a future of local economies and local polities still in easy contact with all around them.

The attractions of the local are obvious — a town or a city neighborhood is intimate, efficient, human-scale. It’s possible to imagine them enduring in a world where expensive oil and climate chaos are disrupting larger systems. But the drawback, in the past, has been that they’re also parochial, cut off.
(20 March 2007)

Bill McKibben says we’re stuffed
Ira Boudway, Salon
We’ve eaten, developed and drilled to near oblivion, says the environmental writer. It’s time to realize that having more stuff is not the road to paradise. Oh, really?
… Q: What does a deep economy look like?

A: It’s more a trajectory than a utopian vision. It tends to draw in its supply lines instead of extend them. It produces using more people instead of fewer. It’s an economy that cares less about quantity than about quality; that takes as its goal the production of human satisfaction as much as surplus material; that is focused on the idea that it might endure and considers durability at least as important as increases in size.

Q: How would the idea best be condensed into a bumper sticker?

A: My friend Todd Murphy, who started the Farmers Diner in Barre, Vt., printed up stickers that said, “Think globally. Act Neighborly.” I think that that’s very close to what we need. We’re talking about rebuilding economies on the kind of scales that people are actually comfortable with. If we could make it happen, I think it would appeal to everyone except for the 2 or 3 percent who are getting unbelievably rich off of the system that we have now.

Q: How is that not a centralized command economy?

A: It’s the opposite. We are lucky, in having survived the 20th century, to have a good list of things that don’t work. No. 1 on the list is a centralized command economy. Markets work very well, but as global warming illustrates, they don’t solve every problem by themselves. We need to start figuring out how we put real, profound limits on them. I think some of those limits are going to be geographic.

Q: What is your answer to those who would see this as a nostalgic and misguided attempt to turn back the clock?

A: There are good things from our economic past that we’d do well to try to re-create in the present, but there are also all kinds of possibilities that we’re offered by the tools we have now. We can now imagine economies that are local without being suffocatingly parochial. The Web, for instance, allows us to trade recipes, so to speak, instead of trading commodities.
(23 March 2007)
Ira Boudway asks brash questions and McKibben answers patiently. Well, if every reporter were properly deferential, journalism wouldn’t be very lively, would it? -BA