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.

Warring Evangelicals Make Iron Eyes Cody Cry


I’ve blogged on green topics before (for instance, see this post), so perhaps I’m excluded from commenting on the recent environmental brouhaha as Evangelicals once again savage each other over an issue that neither side understands completely.

Several well-known Christians have signed an initiative asking for greater sensitivity to the issue of global warming. Iron Eyes Cody—The Crying IndianA wide variety of Christian leaders from Jack Hayford and Duane Litfin to Brian McLaren and Robert Yarbrough signed on the dotted line of the Evangelical Climate Coalition (ECC.)

Meanwhile, Chuck Colson, Ted Haggard, and James Dobson have said they don’t share that same feeling. And yet again, another highly vocal group of Christians has been brutally critical of the ECC, basically calling any Christian interest in environmental issues a concession to Gaia worship.

Like so many of these stupid battles—and they are stupid—the brutal misunderstanding, tortured Scriptural citations, and outright mean-spiritedness dishonors the Lord.

Here’s what I don’t get:

1. The harshest critics pull out the Great Commission factor. They act as if it’s impossible to walk and chew gum at the same time. Why is it so impossible to think that Christians can be good stewards of God’s creation AND evangelize at the same time? Why the bogus either/or argument? Whether we’re going door-to-door or just sharing Christ wherever and whenever, we still consume food, gasoline, and other resources. Can’t we think a little bit more about how we do it? Will that somehow negate Matthew 28:19-20? People arguing that we can’t do both are only doing so because they are short-sighted and simply wish to justify their own personal selfishness. And Jesus doesn’t think much of people who think of themselves first.

2. Even if you disagree with the global warming clarion call (and I’m certainly not convinced either way), what is the absolute worst that can come out of Christian leaders asking us to be more sensitive to the issue? We burn through fewer non-renewable resources? We’re more aware of our own personal wastefulness? We live more simply? Are any of those bad aspirations? Do any run counter to God’s word?

3. I don’t understand why some folks ignore the whole of Scripture when it comes to stewardship. The very first charge God gives Man in Genesis is to care for creation, yet some believers act as if that command has been rescinded. If they can point to chapter and verse that negate that charge, I’ll fully concede the point. Simply put: they can’t. Again, our entire lifestyle can be one of stewardship and simple living and those detract not one iota from our greatest purpose.

4. If it’s a matter of witness, what witness do wastrel Christians give the world when they toss trash out the windows of their ICHTHUS-labeled Chevy? Every week I see self-labeled Christians littering. Every week. Without exception. Why? What does that accomplish except to drive people away from the Lord?

5. Unfortunately, we’d rather fight than switch. If it’s all about showing the proper witness, then why not join the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society, befriend unbelievers in those organizations and lead them to Christ? We can witness anywhere, so why not right in the belly of the beast, so to speak? Salt and light—no matter where we are. And I’m not talking about joining environmental organizations just to convert people, but doing so because it’s the right thing to do.

6. Is there a truckload of weird New Age garbage wrapped up in environmentalism? Absolutely! You’d had to have sleepwalked through the last forty years to have missed that one. But as we all know, the Enemy tries to counterfeit or corrupt everything that God values. So why the shock on our faces that the Enemy’s got a grip on a lot of folks in the environmental movement? What are we afraid of?

7. Too many Christians have short (or selective) memories. I remember 1971 and the debut of the iconic Ad Council campaign simply called “The Crying Indian.” Remember Iron Eyes Cody standing on side of the road by a pile of trash with a lone tear streaming down his face? It’s considered one of the greatest commercials of all time. And what did it accomplish? By the end of that campaign’s run in 1983, litter in this country had been reduced by 88%.

I live not far from the Little Miami River, a historic waterway. A few years ago, that river was so filthy that canoeing companies that made their livelihood off the river were facing extinction. The water was so bacteria-laden from pollution run-off that anyone who fell in while canoeing faced a horrid gastrointestinal nightmare days later. Yet people who were saddened by what had happened to that beautiful river didn’t give in. Thousands worked to clean it up.

Today that river is pristine, with nearly all the driven-off wildlife having returned. Some folks cared enough to clean up that river. More cared to clean the air. Others focused on litter. People who were not satisfied with breathing smog and walking through empty pop cans did something about it. Who benefited? We all did. We live cleaner today because some people cared enough to make a difference. We can live even cleaner still.

Christians today have that same opportunity. Why should the children of the world show greater care of the Lord’s creation than we do?

Even if the whole global warming thing is a boondoggle, there’s no reason why we can’t all be less wasteful, live more simply, and show greater care of what God has given us. If the ECC accomplishes that tangentially, then we’re all better for their effort.

Now say it with me: UNLESS.