Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review & Giveaway: Deep Economy

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the order in which you read books really matters. How would I have felt about reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibben if I had read it last October, instead of now? My guess is that I would have found the book life-changing, whereas when I read it now, it merely felt somewhat affirming and a little econ-lite. On the other hand, when I first started to read Deep Economy in May, right after reading Break Through (which I did find life-changing) I wasn't even able to find McKibben's words affirming. Instead, I got 20 pages in, and gave up in disgust.

After that, I almost didn't come back to Deep Economy and that would have been too bad. Because while I don't think I learned that much, there is plenty of value to be found in McKibben's book on growing local communities. If you are a relatively new greenie, I think the book is one well-worth reading. If, however, you have spent the past nine months reading No Impact Man, Melinda, and Green Bean and her thought provoking APLS posts, you're not going to learn that much in this book. Still, it's always nice to feel validated, right?

McKibben's subtitle for the book pretty much gives the show away: The Wealth of Communities and The Durable Future. And as you would expect, the book is about how building communities and supporting local economies is good for both people and the environment. He is particularly good at making his case when he's discussing food, and his chapter, "The Year of Eating Locally," was definitely my favorite. McKibben offers a fascinating example on farming without oil: Cuba. Basically, when the Soviet Union, and thus Cuba's main source of oil, collapsed, Cuba went through its own miniature peak oil crisis. Many were convinced that the Cubans would be on the brink of starvation very shortly. After all, goes the common argument, local small farms can provide enough food for the few and crunchy, but it doesn't work on the large scale. How do you farm for an entire nation without oil? Well, it turns out, hundreds of small, local farms are able to produce more food than the naysayers believe:

Cubans produce as much food today as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They're still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal. (73)

More people are farmers in Cuba now, but farming also pays better than it used to. There are thousands of urban gardens in Cuba, and thanks to scientific and technological advances in sustainable farming, the farms are incredibly food efficient.

Deep Economy is worth reading for that chapter alone. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons specifically related to food (it's not durable, it is an absolute necessity of life) that make local food a sensible option. But is McKibben able to make the case across the board, that locally produced goods sold by local businesses is the most sensible option? Is he able to convince us of the importance of community?

The answer is ... sometimes. McKibben does a decent job of explaining why a Wal-Mart depresses communities, while mom and pop shops can revitalize communities. But when he discusses energy, his arguments become more tenuous and it feels a little like McKibben is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. For example, McKibben suggests:

So to really make localized power generation work you need a community. Ask yourself why Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy. Because it has so much sun (it doesn't), or because it has so much fellowship? Because it's equatorial (it's not), or because people feel both an obligation to one another, and an ability to trust one another? (148)

Ummm, really, Bill McKibben, REALLY? Japan leads the world in the solar energy industry because the Japanese are predisposed to fellowship and community? Are we talking about the Japan where there is an ACTUAL NAME (hikikomori) for boys who lock themselves in their rooms for at least six months with little to no contact with the outside world? Seriously, sir, go read some Murakami. How about because Japan is a freaking ISLAND highly dependent on increasingly expensive foreign oil!! For crying out loud.

I personally practice mostly local eating, but I do have some qualms about localism in general. In some ways, I would prefer to buy a widget made under fair trade practices in China rather than a widget made in the US. I worry considerably that a movement to localize economies carries a cost to the third world. To McKibben's credit, he acknowledges this in a moving passage about how a shower-curtain factory in rural China has changed most of the factory workers' lives for the better. McKibben argues that while growth in the US is neither necessary nor desirable, growth in China is often desirable. But for some reason he never really connects the dots. That without the US buying shower curtains, China has no reason to make shower curtains.

Despite its flaws, I would still recommend Deep Economy, especially to those relatively new to the environmental movement and/or those without much of a social sciences background.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Recommended for light and medium green readers.
Note: If you have an economics major or minor, McKibben's dependence on anecdotal evidence will likely annoy you.

So now you have my review. But in the immortal words of Lavar Burton, "you don't have to take my word for it." I'm giving away my copy of Deep Economy. Leave a comment if you want to be entered into the drawing. I'm using a random number generator to select the winner, so please, save your knees. No begging necessary!
ETA: I forgot to give a deadline for the drawing! Please enter by Wednesday, July 23rd at 6:00pm Pacific. Thanks!!


hgg said...

I'm interested, but the postage will be a bit steep...

Anonymous said...

I think this would be well worth reading. Thanks for the giveaway!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to read this :) *Thanks* for the giveaway!


pink dogwood said...

please count me in since I am a newbie greenie :)

Joyce said...

I wouldn't mind reading this one, so put me in the drwoing please.
Arduous, I've had the same concerns about localism. We can't grown bananas or coffee. Central America can. They need our busness. So long as it's fairly grown, I'm going to buy it. I know there are transpotation costs. I'll bet Marco Polo charged an arm and a leg for those spices he brought back, too! But aren't we glad he helped introduce the East and the West?

Unknown said...

I would love to read this book, so please put me in the drawing. Thanks!

Green Bean said...

Great review, Arduous. I feel similar to you about the book. I'm almost finished with my severely overdue library copy so no need to add me to your drawing. Though a month ago migh have been nice, ahem! ;-)

Anyway, I too resisted reading Deep Economy. I'm glad Melinda and Burbs finally urged me in to reading it because I think it a worthwhile read. Some of his ideas are fascinating, some may not work so much. I will say that I still struggle with China and other pre-industrialized countries. Certainly we want standards of living there in increase but the world really can't handle everyone at or near the Western standard of living. I think we (Westerners) need to reduce our standard of living dramatically and then maybe we can all meet there. I don't know. But I will say this. We don't all need cars and a plate full of meat twice a day. We do all need clean burning public transportation, an appreciation for food grown near us that tastes fresher and keeps local agricultural land undeveloped.

Good food for thought and, for anyone thinking about reading this book, I second Arduous' recommendation. It is a worthwhile read. Heck, Burbanmom ranks it at her number 1 book. Throw your name in the hat already.

Jennifer said...

Count me in. :)

hmd said...

I read "Deep Economy' this past spring and enjoyed it. Excellent review by the way. I think you're right on. I also enjoyed the chapter about how the cubans have revamped their food sources. Amazing!

ScienceMama said...

I'm interested!

trbeck said...

I'm interested. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Count me in for the drawing. I like reading this sort of thing as long as it is not too heavy (small children sap my resources these days). It would be a break from reading my way through the books that my parents weeded from their house by bringing them to ours.


Donna said...

Don't enter me in the drawing --you've read my review :) -- but I thought you did a really nice job in your review.

I enjoyed the part about Cuba as well, and it confirmed what I'd previously heard about the agriculture in Cuba. Just this morning, though, I came across an article that was talking about how Cuba is having a food shortage or something, so I wonder what's up. Anyway, great job.

Natalie Jane said...

Rad. A giveaway with a purpose. I am so in.

Natalie said...

Hmm. Natalie Jane sounds like a very familiar name to me! :-)

Love the review, Arduous. I totally felt that McKibben often didn't quite make his own point - like I could see the connections, but neither he (nor I as the reader) ever fully put the whole puzzle together. I mean, I got what he was saying, but I always felt like there was some unnamed element missing in his argument. And, I agree that the usage of anecdotes got a little laborious at the end. I was really hoping for a much stronger finish.

All that said, I would still rate the book as one of my favorites! The portion about Cuba was very moving for me. It gave me so much hope.

But, I'm struggling through Break Through. I really do think that the order you read these two books makes a huge difference!!

Going Crunchy said...

Excellent review, but withhold my comment from the drawing- - -I'd love to give somebody else the chance. Shan

Anonymous said...

Sounds good, count me in please.


Jena said...

Sounds like a great read - please enter me! :)

Eileen said...

Just a thought here on buying local: I went to my farmers market to get corn and tomatoes and was at sticker shock. $1 an ear and this included the green worm on each and every ear and $3/lb for tomatoes! Now I am all for buying local but I am not stupid nor rich. I am wondering if some of my local farmer are taking advantage of the stressed economy. Glad I have my own garden, I will stick to only eating from my back yard.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review, Arduous! I, too, found this book to have flaws. But overall, for me it was a very refreshing read because it stated the major worldwide problems and then offered up tangible answers to those problems - which is a rarity. I guess I am done reading about problems without solutions. So for that reason, I loved reading it and recommended it to others.

tsslug said...

count me in

Anonymous said...

Arduous, thanks for the post! I was wondering if you'd consider writing a review of Breakthrough (even though its been a while). I'm a few chapters into and and really enjoy their writing -- in general I think they are lesser known, so I'd love to see them get some attention!!

Joyce, I think about this problem all the time. Partly because I love avocados so much and partly because I know and I am told that there are some foods that we downright shouldn't be eating, depending on where we live.

A story: I was in a class about local food in college, and on the very last day our professor/farmer asked us for our last reflections. One boy in the class struggled to admit this, but he said this, "I see all the benefits to eating locally and I like the things we've been talking about in this class. But I can't help but wonder, what about the trucking industry? Would we just let it collapse if we only ate local foods, because that's alot of jobs..." And inside, while I felt strangely elitist thinking this, I was like, "Don't we want the trucking industry to collapse? I mean, seriously, as long as its replaced by something else, I don't know if many truckers would be upset if all the sudden there were better jobs near their homes and families." Clearly, I was frustrated at the boy's comment.

Sorry for the long comment, just wanted to share that!

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