As I look around for sources of wisdom I’m not inclined to spend much time considering liberal thinkers. Not because I dismiss them out of hand—in fact, some of the most enlightening reading I’ve done recently (e.g. Naomi Klein’s work) comes from the far extremes of the left. But in general I’ve found current liberal thinking to be hidebound, and based on several assumptions that I think are quite wrong.
So as I was putting together a reading list on simplicity I wasn’t too excited when it became clear I should include McKibben’s book. Bill McKibben is a man of the left, occupying in my mind a NPR-ish niche that I hear way too much from already. But he is a good friend of Wendell Berry—Deep Economy is dedicated to him—and that counts for a lot. I figured that I could at least check it out from the library and glance at it.
I not only glanced at Deep Economy but read it through, and I’m glad I did. My disagreements with McKibben’s assumptions are precisely what makes his observations valuable to me; he looks at things I am looking at and organizes and interprets them differently than I would, and that broadens my perspective. More important, his book brings me back again and again to a fundamental question: how is it exactly that McKibben can look at these same things and end up in such a different place?
The theme of the book is well summarized in the very first paragraphs, with a sort of parable:
For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production. The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society, make one another richer and the idea that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More. It has built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading this book. It is no wonder and no accident that they dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.
But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better.
Put another way, there was some point in recent history where we passed the point of diminishing returns. Having more no longer makes life better (or at least sufficiently better to be worth the cost), and in puzzling ways often makes it worse. He continues:
Some of the argument I’ll make in these pages will seem familiar: growth is no longer making most people wealthier, but instead generating inequality and insecurity. And growth is bumping against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that continuing to expand the economy may be impossible; the very attempt may be dangerous. But there’s something else too, a wild card we’re just now beginning to understand: new research from many quarters has started to show that even when growth does make us wealthier, the greater wealth no longer makes us happier. [Emphasis in original]
The flawed assumption, I think, is that More and Better ever roosted on the same branch, i.e. that there ever was a point where the situation was improved by More. My own assumption is that Better is a matter of life well lived and is strictly tied to contentment, which Paul tells us can be independent of want or plenty. Following that, I think that connecting More and Better as McKibben does (and most moderns do) is exactly the big mistake that leads us to into today’s messes.
But I think there is a deeper flaw in this sort of thinking, one that underlies much more than the specific argument McKibben makes in the book, and in fact leads to the predictability of so much of the liberal reading of circumstances. I haven’t yet been able to formulate such thinking precisely, but it goes something like this: when a good thing goes wrong, it is because we’ve taken it too far, not because the thing wasn’t as good as we originally thought. The more progressive response to such a situation is to treat the undesirable symptoms; the more conservative response, which McKibben sketches out, is to back off until the undesirable symptoms once again disappear.
For McKibben, the culprit is globalization, or at least too much of it. Most of the book is taken up by examples of how too much globalization—in food, in resource distribution, in consumer goods, in news and information—has been damaging to the culture. And for each area he looks at, he offers hopeful accounts of efforts to counter that damage by exploring more local alternatives—community radio stations, co-housing, farmers’ markets. It’s a kind of argumentation that is very common in liberal writing, and drives me crazy because of its unwillingness to put its ideas to a true test. Every decade has its promising fledgling efforts—and ten years later nearly all of them have disappeared, or are still just as tentative as before. Is it too much to ask that such supporting examples be fifty years old and thriving?
I ran across something similar recently in the outraged response to Caitlin Flanagan’s withering (and misguided) attack on the idea of Alice Waters’ project to make gardening part of the public school curriculum. Lots of precious, heartwarming anecdotes were marshalled to demonstrate that there is reason to hope that such programs will address the very real problem of unhealthy eating habits. But what struck me was that Waters launched this program fifteen years ago. Shouldn’t it be possible by now to do more than hope it will change the way children eat?
The book does spend some time looking at one example of scaling back, over twenty years old now, namely post-Soviet Cuba. McKibben’s reporting is a touch credulous, but the reality he portrays does not seem to be a Potemkin village. Cuba has managed to survive for twenty years in circumstances that are nearly pre-modern, mirroring fairly closely what life might be like if the oil actually does run out and the global economy collapses. That’s long enough to disprove our initial assumption, namely that without massive external aid the government would collapse and the country forced to join the global community. A lot could probably be learned about the possibilities of and obstacles to simple living by studying everyday Cuban life.
In the end, I am deeply skeptical of liberal argumentation for a simpler life such as McKibben presents, because it is suspiciously favorable to the advocate’s circumstances. Modern life has been very good to Bill McKibben, as it has been to me and many others. So when I read that we can address the monumental problems facing us by carefully pulling back in certain specific areas, I’m not surprised that the new order doesn’t change much in the lives of those making the proposals.
I don’t point that out to imply that McKibben is being deliberately self-serving; he strikes me as a sincere, honest, and thoughtful man. I point it out because I think it is a danger facing each one of us. I’m always disturbed by Wendell Berry’s flat-out assertion that city and countryside need each other, unsupported by any sort of argument, because some amount of what Berry likes to do would be impossible without cities. And I’ve always admired Joel Salatin’s (imperfect) resistance to cultivating urban markets, embodied in this passage from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
For his part, Joel would just as soon build local economies in which bar codes are unnecessary rather than attempt to enhance them—to use technology or labeling schemes to make the industrial food chain we have more transparent. I realized with a bit of a jolt that his pastoral, or agrarian, outlook doesn’t adequately deal with the fact that so many of us now live in big cities far removed from the places where our food is grown and from opportunities for relationship marketing. When I asked how a place like New York City fit into his vision of a local food economy he startled me with his answer: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?”
If there was a dark side to Joel’s vision of the postindustrial food chain, I realized, it was the deep antipathy to cities that has so often shadowed rural populism in this country. Though when I pressed him, pointing out that New York City, den of pestilence and iniquity though it might be, was probably here to stay and would need to eat, he allowed that farmer’s markets and CSAs […] might be a good way for urbanites to connect with distant farmers. For my own part, this taut little exchange made me appreciate what a deep gulf of culture and experience separates me from Joel—and yet at the same time, what a sturdy bridge caring about food can sometimes be. [Emphasis added]
“Doesn’t adequately deal with …”? On the contrary, I think it deals with it exactly and comprehensively; it just doesn’t yield the answers that would make farmers like Salatin wealthy and locavores like Pollan comfortable.
If the conclusion you reach is convenient for you personally, than please be doubly sure that you have fairly considered the alternatives which would lead to places you don’t like so much.