More and better (without the) blues

In his 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues, director Spike Lee dissects the life of fictional trumpeter Bleek Gilliam as he struggles to find, as described by reviewers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, a proper balance between work and love. “Work,” according to psychiatrist Jay Rohrlich (as cited in their review), “is oriented to the future, to goals; love demands the present.”

Bill McKibben, in his brand-new book, Deep Economy, hits on this same theme  – that more (the result of work) and better (the result of love) may not always be congruent.  The Vermont Sunday school teacher (and Middlebury scholar) spent a full year eating only locally grown food to demonstrate his belief that life is better when you keep it simple and build community with those nearby.  He longs for the days of community-based radio (as do we all) and even advocates local currency to keep the cash at home.

McKibben argues that, after 500 years of continual emancipation, people in the modern world are becoming jaded “hyper-individualists” who have gained the world but lost their souls and the “fixed identity” that comes from living in community.  Today, while many are undertaking a massive effort to bring Western-style prosperity to the poorest of nations, McKibben condemns global capitalism on grounds that “getting rich means getting dirty.”

What might happen to the planet, McKibben posits, if the massive populations of China and India continue their path toward Western levels of consumption?  Is such a path to prosperity even possible today, he interjects, in an era of peak oil and global warming?  Moreover, would people be happier with more “stuff” if it came at the cost of community that is ever being assaulted by efficiency experts?

McKibben’s surprising answer to all of these important questions is that we should return to locally based economies as a means of revitalizing communities.  He rails away at global “big box” companies like Wal-Mart for destroying community in the name of efficiency and a lower price, and even condemns Adam Smith for fostering an economy based on “the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production” without regard, he says, for the quality of life.

McKibben is absolutely right in arguing that the pursuit of wealth alone is not the key to happiness – and that, sometimes, building a bigger barn [see Luke 12:16-21] is not the right way to go.  Sadly, his biases all too often get in the way of what could have been an inspirational book, one that might have explored how we can have “more” and “better,” at least for those who live today with so much “less” – or, for that matter, how we might use our “more” in ways that help create “better” for ourselves and those around us.

For example, McKibben asserts that you cannot get richer by impoverishing the rest of the world – a principle right out of the heart of Adam Smith (though he does not realize it) – but he also implies that the United States is uniquely guilty of making the world poorer, not richer.  By contrast, McKibben lauds Europeans for their generosity, their thrift, and their devotion to family and community without mentioning that they built their wealth by colonizing and exploiting African, Asian, and even American lands and undermining the wealth of native peoples.

Perhaps McKibben is unaware that Europeans gutted traditional trade routes in Africa in favor of new pathways solely for exports (which for many years included people), or that even today intra-continental trade in Africa is prohibitively expensive and dangerous.  Maybe he celebrates as a victory for “local food” recent decisions by European vendors to stop purchasing produce and flowers from Africa on grounds that “air-freighted goods contribute to global warming.”

Surely, though, he cannot agree with those who quietly champion high African death rates from very preventable or treatable diseases (AIDS, malaria, and many more) as effective measures to hold down worldwide population growth.

Nowhere in his glorification of “community” does McKibben recognize the liberating power of the global economy to weaken the hold of barbaric practices like sati (wife suicide), foot binding, female circumcision, or even apartheid or to provide liberating opportunities for women and ethnic minorities.  Nor does McKibben admit that many of the “community-supported agriculture” farmers and customers he idolizes are themselves hyper-individualists.

McKibben does give some praise to economic well-being, but says that any society with a per-capita income above $10,000 is headed in the wrong direction.  He also notes that, thanks to the Internet (a product of globalism, mind you), people are better able to organize “fair trade” campaigns that enable farmers in poor nations to avoid working as virtual slaves to meet the requirements of multinational corporations.

McKibben cannot see that Americans and other first-world entrepreneurs who are working with developing world farmers, artisans, and others to bring their products to markets in first-world nations are laboring in the spirit of Adam Smith.  Yet these innovators are helping to create niche markets that infill underneath the mass-produced and mass-marketed goods.

McKibben has also failed to learn from C. K. Prahalad that large businesses, even banks, are helping the world’s poorest people to become “resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers.”  All over the world, the poor are benefitting from such goods as cellular telephones and refrigerators, learning new languages and new ideas, and creating a better life through participation in the global economy.

McKibben’s praise for “new farming technologies” that are making it more profitable to farm small plots glosses over the fact that the global marketplace both created these technologies and made possible their transfer to even remote places on the planet.  Indeed, what McKibben fails to see is the evolution of the market economy to incorporate brand new types of entrepreneurs and customers – those who can choose to enter voluntarily into new types of communities and community-building activities while retaining their other options.

McKibben admits that, for him, “It’s extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know.”  But how can he hope to balance liberty and prosperity with community and quality of life if he continues to believe that “more” and “better” — the global village and strong local communities — cannot coexist or even support one another?

McKibben should heed the words of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has shown that the expansion of human freedom, including the freedom to organize in communities of one’s own choice, is both the primary end and the principal means of economic development.  He should then agree with Adam Smith that free people tend to choose what is in their own self-interest – and learn that over time enlightened self-interest leads to a better life for everyone.

In the end, though, we must applaud Deep Economy for reminding us all that life in one’s freely chosen community, as so richly described in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, can be very rewarding indeed.  McKibben just needs to step outside Vermont more often.

Flanakin, based in Austin, Texas, serves as a CFACT environmental programs officer.

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CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.