The Great American Disaster

Thoughts on the future of our nation and our world


by Clark Stooksbury

It's no secret that the consumption and hyper-individualism that characterizes 21st-century American life isn't buying us happiness. And it doesn't take a former vice-president to know that it's rapidly running earth's natural resources into the ground. Meanwhile, other countries, particularly China, are adopting our ways, with potentially disastrous consequences.

In Deep Economy (Times Books, $25), author Bill McKibben begins by noting that â“for most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both.â” In the following pages, McKibben examines in detail the way that acquiring â“Moreâ” in the United States no longer makes life â“Better.â”

Since World War II, the United States has grown fantastically wealthy and, consequently, Americans consume mightily, but we haven't become happier than we were a half-century ago. In fact, the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction. The author details, via numerous studies, the grim results of our explosion of prosperity. The results indicate that, beyond a point, we are less happy with more stuff. He even notes one recent study indicating that the â“ average American child reported now higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s: our new normal is the old disturbed.â”

Yet in the United States, King Growth still rules. It is the rare political leader who challenges the centrality of growth, and more than a few Republicans grumbled last fall when the public failed to reward them in the mid-term elections for the recent expansion of the economy.

In the last few years the term â“peak oilâ” has entered common usage, fueled by such titles as The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. It refers to the theory that the world's oil supply has, or will soon, reach its peak, and the commodity will become more expensive and difficult to find before eventually running out. McKibben notes that â“the doctrinaire economist's answer, of course, is that no particular commodity matters all that much, because if we run short someone will have the incentive to develop a substituteâ but it's far from clear that it applies to fossil fuel, which in its ubiquity and its cheapness is almost certainly a special case.â”

Another looming issue noted by McKibben is global warming. He calls it the most destructive punch humans have ever thrown in the planet's direction, and notes that unlike the environmental damage done by having soot or sulfur pour from a smokestack, carbon dioxide â“isn't even really a pollutantâ” but the â“ inevitable by-product of burning coal or gas or oil.â” Any attempt to mitigate the damage done by climate change will almost certainly involve Americans consuming less fossil fuel, which is a problem since, as President George (H.W.) Bush stated several years ago: â“The American way of life is not negotiable.â”

The â“American Way of Lifeâ”â"hyper-individualism, endless consumption and the reign of market valuesâ"is the core topic of McKibben's book. While he argues that physical and environmental limits may force Americans to change, he clearly believes that change can be for the better. McKibben favors a more localized economy with everything from food to electricity produced closer to home. His ideal world would have more space for farmers' markets (where he notes that you are 10 times more likely to strike up a conversation) and less for Wal-Mart. He includes a chapter-length memoir on the pleasures, and sacrifices, of eating only locally produced food for an entire winter while living in Vermont. He also gives examples of local communities in the United States and abroad that are working toward a different way to live.

An excellent example comes from Powell, Wyo., where citizens didn't want to see their downtown decimated by a new Wal-Mart so they opened a clothing store, Powell Mercantile, which has helped downtown business and even turned a profit for the investors.

The release of Deep Economy is well-timed. Polls suggest that large numbers of people are dissatisfied with the current direction of American life. Meanwhile, McKibben's book appears to be part of a publishing trend. In the last year, Michael Pollan ( The Omnivore's Dilemma ) and Barbara Kingsolver ( Animal, Vegetable, Miracle ) have published books on eating locally while Rod Dreher ( Crunchy Cons ) and Joseph Pearce ( Small is Still Beautiful ) have also covered some of the same territory as McKibben. The career of agrarian novelist Wendell Berry, to whom Deep Economy is dedicated, is a testament to the values of Deep Economy . The critical question is: Are the values of neighborliness and community that McKibben praises capable of existing on a large scale outside of the Norman Rockwell cloak of nostalgia that currently encases them? If McKibben is right, we will get a chance to find out.


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