Deep Economy, Part 2


A look at Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

I’ll start with two words that may end all your interest in Deep Economy:

Global warming.

McKibben’s an activist for fixing the issue. As for me, I’m not convinced that global warming is, indeed, a man-made phenomena. I’m not even convinced that we’re experiencing a warming at all. Many blogosphere pundits who jeer at the whole idea of global warming got a hoot this last week when NASA corrected some temperature readings from the last decade and it showed that we were slightly cooler than previously reported.

Stay with me, though.

Deep Economy begins with energy. McKibben argues, quite forcefully, that energy makes the modern world possible. And the main sources of energy that created our world as we know it are coal, oil, and natural gas: fossil fuels. The amount of power we glean from just a gallon of gasoline shames the power found in some Old World farmer’s entire menagerie of beasts of burden. Hydrocarbon-based fuels replaced muscle power by an order of magnitude. They, in turn, led to the burst of invention that gave us new forms of transportation, the miracle of electricity, long distance communication, and thousands of other modern conveniences we take for granted.

Before fossil fuels, the idea of fantastic economic growth escaped us. But with their dynamic ability to reduce labor, those fuels made consumerism and unbridled growth possible.

But, as McKibben rightly notes, growth may come with an enormous price tag in terms of ecological fallout. We in the United States were forced to deal with our growth’s deleterious effects back in the 1970s. Those of us born before that time can remember the waters around Cleveland catching on fire. You don’t need a chemistry degree to know that fire and water don’t mix unless something is very, very wrong.

I live by one of the small tributaries of the Little Miami River. Thirty years ago, that river was one of ten most polluted waterways in the United States. McKibben would argue that growth had much to do with the downfall of that river system, and I totally agree.

Today, though, we’ve restored the Little Miami, if not to its Edenic glory, at least to a level higher than “cesspool.”

Yet while we can claim that success, our unlimited desire for more is only shifting environmental disaster elsewhere. The fall of the Iron Curtain shocked many Westerners when they discovered the toll keeping up with the West’s growth had taken on the Communist nations. One hellhole after another sprouted up out of the countryside in places like Romania and Russia. Entire cities succumbed to chemical production plants, metal smelting plants, and more. Iridescent rivers filled with mercury, cadmium, and arsenic ran through towns. Hello, China, goodbye, sun.Diseased residents, like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, stumbled around in sunless wastelands wreathed in smog.

And lest we think those days are a thing of the past, India and China stand ready to re-enact them.

We live in the richest nation on Earth, and the gospel of growth requires we export it elsewhere. Shareholders must be satisfied, cheap goods must be had, and growth must continue.

But what will be the impact of 2.5 billion people acquiring cars? With 300 million in population, the United States (according to 2004 DOT estimates) contains 243,023,485 registered vehicles. We live and die by our cars here. Worse, we export that same desire to the rest of the world. Car ownership in China increases exponentially and shows unlimited growth potential. What would happen if the 2.5 billion people in China and India buy into the “need” for a car? What does it mean for the health of our world if keeping up with the Joneses becomes keeping up with the Wus and Patels?

Consider the amount of energy needed to simply build a car. Estimates vary, but a healthy figure would be roughly 35 barrels of oil (or 1,470 gallons) per car. With an average lifespan of about 15 years, that car will consume an additional 19,500 gallons of gas.

Now ask where what will happen if India and China demand cars at the rate we Americans do.

Oil experts in the West can’t get the Saudis to fess up to the state of their oil fields. Some believe their Ghawar bed is fast declining. When even the pro-growth The Wall Street Journal writes about “peak oil” and the sucking dry of oil beds around the globe, people need to wise up.

And folks, this is before India and China demand cars.

Our lust for more growth requires energy. It also screams for raw materials. Many of the the carelessly purchased signs of the Good Life™ we buy without thinking come from plastics, and, therefore, oil. We trucked those trinkets from far away, burning energy in shipping them. As McKibben so wisely notes, what is the point of air freighting Danish-made sugar cookies to the United States while simultaneously shipping American-made sugar cookies to Denmark?

Due to complex chemical binding processes, one gallon of burned gasoline (at 6.25 pounds) puts nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. I read recently that we now have 200 more parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air today than we did in the 1950s. And the results? It’s hard to know them all, though thousands surely exist. One comes to mind right away. Beyond the disputed global warming process, no scientist disputes that poison ivy’s more potent today than in yesteryear. Scientists found out why, too: the more carbon dioxide the ivy absorbs from the air, the more potent the toxic oil in its leaves. At last count, 75 percent more toxic than when I was a kid.

What else will we be forced to learn too late? Will it be worse than super-poison ivy?

Now no matter what you think of my opening comments about global warming, even if you forget environmental issues, profligacy sits rotting at the core of growth at all costs. When it takes seven times the caloric value of a box of cereal to ship it than can be derived from eating it, aren’t we profligate with how we use energy? When our houses are twice the size they were thirty years ago, but with smaller families, aren’t we profligate? When it’s all about the individual and what we can consume, haven’t we lost our souls?

Eugene Peterson says this:

The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “deny yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.

So apart from the environmental impact of growth, something truly awful happens to us on the inside as we participate in a consumeristic culture obsessed with more.

McKibben begins Deep Economy with a story of a young Chinese girl experiencing the reality of two economic truths: More and Better. He’s not against improving people’s lives by providing the poorest of the poor with some of the blessings of modern technology. Sometimes More and Better go hand in hand. (Obviously, technology gave us improved medical care and less drudgery.) McKibben tells of the Chinese girl’s backbreaking life in the rural countryside and notes the opportunities afforded her by small blessings brought by growth.

But More and Better fail when a society reaches Better and can’t add to it. At that point, More grows insidious. More becomes the be-all and end-all of life.

In the next installment of my look at Deep Economy, we’ll examine the toll on communities and individuals wrought by More.

14 thoughts on “Deep Economy, Part 2

  1. David Riggins

    The tiny kingdom of Bhutan measures its development by GNH; Gross National Happiness. The concept is simple, though sniggered at as ‘quaint’: “Social and economic development should promote happiness as its primary value.”

    From a Christian perspective, we should be divorced from measuring our sense of worth on a purely, or even partially physical level. A 3200 sq. ft. home should not be my aim in life, any more than a new car, a better job, the latest video game, shoes like whoever the latest basketball star is, or a farm in the country. Desire for a thing often leads to worship of that thing. When its denial affects my joy, then something is wrong.

    Paul, in Philippians, tells his friends that he has learned how to be content in both plenty and need. The word ‘content’ has certainly changed over the centuries. Today it is the burbled sigh after thanksgiving dinner, relaxed in our easy-chair, falling asleep in front of the game. In Pauls day, it was a little more vigourous, as one could imagine from the greeks. Back in the day, it was a minimalist concept, and not the comfort word we have today.

    So it seems that Paul is looking at being satisfied with whatever it is that we minimally need to survive; focusing on the spiritual rather than the physical. How does one reconcile the physical with the spiritual, though, and when Christians get their act together, how do we take it on the road? How do we teach the gospel of ‘being content’?

    I’m not sure about the whole “global warming” thing. But I do know this: We are pissing on God’s garden. We were placed here to be stewards, making sure that what we do is the best for the owner and His property. But we are running around like we own the place, making the garden produce for our wants. If we will allow God to shake us out of our selfishness, we might, then, have something to say to the rest of the world.

    • David,

      Are you reading the book now? That comment about Bhutan came right from the book.

      Ultimate happiness can’t be found in things; we all know that. But, some things can make life more bearable. I found McKibben’s comment on buying the stuffed animal for the girl in the Chinese factory a very touching story. Again, Better is not a bad thing. It’s the lust for More that ruins our souls.

      One of the greatest conflicts I deal with in my own life concerns the distance between the food, shelter, and clothing God promises and the overabundance of those things I actually own. God says he will provide those three staples of life, but He doesn’t promise the quality of those three, their abundance, or style. We Americans don’t understand that. When we think God owes us shelter, we envision that 3200 sq. ft. home, rather than a nice cot down at the Salvation Army. Needless to say, any discrepancy between reality and expectation creates that shrill whine you hear out of much of the population of this country

      • David Riggins

        I haven’t read the book yet, but I understand the position he’s coming from. I think the eastern philosophies, though empty in promise, are correct in premise: Deny yourself. The question, of course, is “for what?” Buddhism, Taoism, Confucious, Hinduism, Islam, have at their core a selfish purpose: Good (heaven, nirvana, whatever) for oneself. Far too many Christians are practicing Christianity in the same way. The result is empty motions and selfish motivation.

  2. David Riggins

    Here’s an interesting quote from the king of Thailand regarding something he calls the “sufficiency economy”:”Sufficiency Economy is a philosophy that guides the livelihood and behavior of people at all levels, from the family to the community to the country, on matters concerning national development and administration. It calls for a †˜middle way’ to be observed, especially in pursuing economic development in keeping with the world of globalization. Sufficiency means moderation and reasonableness, including the need to build a reasonable immune system against shocks from the outside or from the inside. Intelligence, attentiveness, and extreme care should be used to ensure that all plans and every step of their implementation are based on knowledge. At the same time we must build up the spiritual foundation of all people in the nation, especially state officials, scholars, and business people at all levels, so they are conscious of moral integrity and honesty and they strive for the appropriate wisdom to live life with forbearance, diligence, self-awareness, intelligence, and attentiveness. In this way we can hope to maintain balance and be ready to cope with rapid physical, social, environmental, and cultural changes from the outside world.

    • The king of Thailand was the longest-serving monarch in the world, if I remember correctly. But wasn’t he deposed recently? His countrymen probably wanted more than sufficiency!

      • David Riggins

        Only the government was deposed, and many people feel it was done so by the kings privy counsel. I find it interesting the degrees of power many ‘constitutional monarchies’ have. A lifetime of commitment to the betterment of his people has given the king of Thailand a great amount of unofficial power. How he has wielded that power has been fascinating to see. His people love him. That can’t be said of other long reigning monarchs. What we do with the power we are entrusted with often determines future uses, and levels, of power.

        It’s not enough merely to say we have authority. It must be earned to be truly effective.

  3. Diane Roberts

    Frankly, I’m sorry that global warming has gotten into the national conversation since it’s creating so much controversy and getting the conversation off the really important thing–pollution. If we have global warming then stopping pollution will help that. But if we DON’T have global warming, we should STILL stop pollution as much as possible. So I hope the national debate will stop over global warming and shift to one mind about pollution.

    • Diane,

      I agree. Because I’ve been involved in geocaching, I often wind up in some off-the-beaten-path places in the woods. It breaks my heart that even remote spots are filled with garbage. That “I’ll let someone else deal with the problem” attitude we have plagues us. Each of us needs to be responsible, not just “the other guy.”

  4. I read an op-ed written by an Irish policy maker in Brussels, working for the EU. He said that the “west” consumes 85% of the resources that are currently being mined and extracted in the earth, while the “rest” consume 15%. Just looking at oversimplified statistics like this make me wonder, “How can it be possible for everyone to consume like we do? How could it be possible just to add India and China to our lifestyle?” Scary thought. Also agree that consumer culture is inherently antichrist. Because it’s values are in direct opposition to Christ’s values.

  5. Really Dire Dan: “When even the pro-growth The Wall Street Journal writes about ‘peak oil’ and the sucking dry of oil beds around the globe, people need to wise up.”

    Dear Dan, have you read yet James Howard Kunstler’s book “The Long Emergency”? He talks about how we’ve been living with a glut of cheap energy for quite a few decades, thinking that the party would never end. Well, the chickens are coming home to roost. His book is a good read, especially for scaring the Dickens out of you. One of Kunstler’s key recomendation: don’t take up residence in places like Las Vegas.

    It all looks like another piece of evidence in favor of that crazy theory I mentioned earlier.

    Mene mene tekel upharsin

    • Oengus,

      I’ve heard of Kunstler, but not that book. Not sure I need anymore scaring, though. I’m dealing with enough scary stuff right now!

      As far as the theory goes, I think Western Europe’s in for more judgment than we are. A few of us still believe in the Lord here, but Europe’s a mess (though I hear it’s getting better). Unbelief was more of a damning consequence for the Israelites than materialism, though one can make a good argument that materialism is just idolatry in non-religious clothing.

  6. I’ve heard it said that Europe is now the “dark continent” in spiritual terms. There are some great things happening there,however, with a new generation of radical uninstitutionalized Christians who are kind of on the margins (or in the underground) right now, but I believe God is preparing them and using them to bring about His purposes in Europe. You can check out Connect Europe at or check out my friend’s blog:
    if you want to hear more about what God’s up to in Europe these days.

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