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!!