Dr. Francis Shor
The Wise Economy of Neighborliness
Bill McKibben’s book, “Deep Economy”, begins by examining the idea that ‘More is Better’. This idea has been deeply ingrained into American culture for the past hundred years. Indeed, the practice of increasing efficiency by increasing scale was the key to the wealth of many of the pioneers of American business, such as Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie. In fact, due to the overall prosperity of American society, we enjoy a standard of life that is much higher than the majority of most of the world’s citizens. However, in the last few decades, it has become increasingly clear that in this push for increasing growth, most of the wealth being accumulated in America was going to a select few, while more and more middle class citizens were falling by the wayside.
McKibben reviews the familiar ideas that growth is no longer making most people wealthier, and is in fact creating gross inequality and insecurity; and that growth is encountering the physical limitations of our tired planet- global warming and peak oil are real possibilities that need to be addressed. One of the main arguments in this book is that money only equals happiness up to a certain financial point, in other words, even when growth makes us wealthier, it doesn’t make us happier. Actually, the level of ‘happiness’, as measured by a major survey taker, peaked in the United States in the mid-1950s, and has been on a steady decline ever since, even while the amount of material possessions, hours worked, house square footage, and cars driven has skyrocketed.
One of the main facets of the current economy that McKibben has a real problem with is the fossil fuel industry, especially in terms of the business built up around the production and distribution of food. The modern agriculture business produces a lot of food, and it does it at low cost. The key to this has been mass consolidation. In America today, four main companies control 80% of the beef, and two main companies 75% of the grain (p. 52) Almost every aspect of the food business has fallen prey to consolidation, from production to processing to retailing (i.e. Wal-Mart and big box stores like Costco). This trend is not unique to the United States, it is evident in Britain, and is working its way into the rest of the developing world. Through the relentless consolidation of agribusiness, it is now possible to get almost anything a person would want to eat, at any hour of the day, down at the convenience store at the end of the street. The problem with all this efficiency and consolidation is that there is a greater cost. No, not the daily cost of milk in the local supermarket: that (for the moment) remains low. The cost I am referring to is the cost to community: the unemployed local dairy farmer who was bought out by the bigger dairy down the road; the loss of the myriad Main Streets whose bustling downtowns withered away as Wal-Marts opened up out by the highway; the minimum wage worker at the poultry plant who gets sick from the bacteria in chicken fat; or worse, the slave working on a Brazilian soybean farm (p. 59); and also, the cost to the environment- between 1910 and 1983, energy consumption for agriculture increased 810 percent (p.64). Up until this point, the abuse to the environment in the pursuit of cheaper food and more of it has been tolerated, and even ignored because the system worked so well. However, concentrating tens of thousands of pigs on one farm also concentrates their waste to one sewage system, with all the inherent problems of a system that large. Concentrating hundreds of thousands of chickens together leads directly to the spread of food-borne illnesses like salmonella. Another issue that stems from the international food business is the cost of transport. While it may seem incredibly convenient to be able to eat grapes in February, consider the energy involved in shipping produce 3,000...