What a Real, Living, Durable Economy Looks Like by Bill McKibben

Dear citizens of the Pioneer Valley,

Speaking recently at the Odyssey Bookshop and at Mount Holyoke College I am again reminded of the beauty and unique character of western Massachusetts. I've spent the last twenty years of my adult life writing and thinking about global warming. I can tell you about hydrogen, hybrid cars, solar panels, wind turbines, green building, carbon offsets, carbon sequestration, carbon credits, and on and on and on and on.

And here's what I think the outcome boils down to: hyperindividualism versus community. If we can build a society where a community farm, a community source of energy, a community radio station, a community bookstore make sense, then we have a fighting chance. I know this seems an unlikely solution, far less hard-headed than some technological prescription. But consider: the average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American. Not because they have some secret technology, and not because they're leading degraded lives, but because they've built a society along subtly different lines. Half is a lot. They've built public transit systems, and cities that draw people in, not spin them centrifugally out. It's no wonder, in fact, that Portland is the one American city whose carbon emissions are declining - more than anyplace else in the country, it's begun to make European choices.

Food is a good example. If we eat locally, we use a lot less energy - back East, where I live, a calorie of that California lettuce takes 36 calories of fossil energy to grow and ship. That's why it's good news that farmers' markets are the fastest growing part of our food system - in Oregon, the number of farms has doubled in the last decade, partly because Portland eats so much local food. If we could do the same thing with energy, and with timber, and with the other commodities of our lives, and if we could do it around the country, we'd be making great strides.

But can such solutions really spread fast enough? Or is the momentum of the Wal-Marts simply unstoppable? A few years ago I'd have answered gloomily, but working on my new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, has convinced me we've got at least an outside shot. And for an odd reason. Because people are finally starting to ask the most basic and most subversive question about our economic system: is it making me happy? In the past ten years, economists and sociologists and psychologists have begun to tackle this in a way they never have before. (The economists always used to say that "utility" was the answer - you could tell what made someone happy by what they bought.) Their data shows clearly that Americans are neither very happy by world standards, nor anywhere near as satisfied as they were 50 years ago, despite relentless economic growth. It's as if we've run a controlled experiment, in fact, on whether money buys happiness, and the results are now in.

But why? The answer seems to be: we feel an incredible lack of community. And if you think about it, that makes sense. More money meant we could live in bigger houses further out in the suburbs - i.e., that we could be more isolated. It meant we could embrace technologies - the endless parade of screens - that keep us occupied by ourselves. As a result, Americans have far fewer close friends than they did a generation ago. We spend far less time with friends and neighbors and relatives.

Here's the good news, though: the cure for this is the same as the cure for some of our environmental woes. Let's say you go to the farmer's market; on average, you use ten times less energy to feed yourself. But, as a team of sociologists discovered a few years ago, you also have ten times as many conversations as you would at the supermarket. An order of magnitude less energy, and an order of magnitude more community. Those are numbers that might start to add up.

The local bookstore, of course, is the paradigmatic example of what I'm talking about. It's more than a place to buy books - it's a hub, where ideas and plans and projects brew and hatch. And when it disappears, there's a hole in town. We've seen too long a decline in local farms and bookstores and radio stations - we've seen the Cargills and the Clear Channels ruling too much of our economic life, with their relentless focus on treating us all as consumers, not as citizens. Certainly not as neighbors. One of my favorite bumper stickers comes from an eatery here in Vermont, a place called the Farmers Diner that serves only locally grown food: "Think Globally, Act Neighborly." Indeed.

And if you still doubt whether all this can add up to enough, one final anecdote. In January 2007, a few of us launched a website called stepitup07.org. We wanted to trigger the first national protests against global warming - to build a people's movement to help shape a debate that's been left to experts for too long. Instead of a march on Washington, we asked people to organize in their own hometowns, to go to the places that mattered to them on April 14 and hoist a banner. We thought, optimistically, that we might find a hundred, maybe two hundred, local organizers that might take on such a task.

We thought wrong. By mid-February, we were closing in on seven hundred actions. It's clear we're now organizing the biggest environmental protest in the country since Earth Day 1970 - and that our co-conspirators are living in retirement communities, and in sorority houses at the University of Texas. They're in churches across the country, and on farms. Some are painting blue stripes in our coastal cities where the water will come if we let the sea level rise, and some are skiing in formation down the dwindling glaciers of Wyoming and Montana, and some are holding underwater demonstrations off endangered coral reefs. They're asking Congress for national action - cuts in carbon emissions of 80% by 2050. But they know that those reductions will play out close to home, changing the shape of everyday life. Changing it for the better, as we learn once more to rely on those around us. As we learn what a real, living, durable economy looks like. On April 14th, 2007 there ended up being over 1,400 Step It Up events around the country.

To build the economy and future we need we are going to have to shift more and more of our focus to what would benefit our local, living economy. To re-develop the connections to the land of where we live and the neighbors who also make their homes there, because for a hundred years we've been steadily extending the supply lines of our economy, becoming ever more globalized and this trend needs to be questioned. Thankfully there are more and more people questioning that trend, and even to form the foundations of a newer, more local economy. The main reasons are two-fold: our ever-growing globe-spanning economy is increasingly vulnerable to the ecological disruption it is causing, with global warming the prime example; and despite record affluence Americans report ever-growing feelings of disconnection and loss of community, trends that can only be reversed if we manage to rebuild local institutions that draw people together.

Remember, as stated above, the farmer's market: energy-efficient local food, and the average shopper has ten times as many conversations as a supermarket shopper. No wonder they're the fastest-growing part of our food economy. Now we need to get going on other sectors too.

A real, living, durable economy, ie... a Deep Economy, refers to the economy that each of us actually lives in -the places we shop, the items we purchase, the impact of these choices -and not the aggregate measure of GDP and productivity that gets bandied about anytime economic policy is discussed. We live, work, buy and trade things in our community and each action we take has an impact on our community. Study after study proves that money spent with locally owned merchants and companies has a much bigger impact on the community. Put simply, money spent with local merchants stays in the community while money spent at chain shops is siphoned off to a corporate office in another city, state, or country. Consumers are deluged with marketing messages from chain stores touting lower prices, but they don't hear the other side of the story. They make purchasing decisions without understanding the real costs of what they buy from chain retailers and the benefits that come to them and their community from supporting local businesses.

This is why establishing and promoting a local business alliance -like Pioneer Valley Local First-  is crucial to educating consumers and insuring the survival of the locally owned merchants and businesses that give a community its character, its soul.

Please see my site at www.350.org and pass it on to your friends and family. Also, this October 24, 2009 we are hoping people all around the Pioneer Valley, the United States and the world can come together and tell our elected officials just how important the number 350 really is.