City Paper is not for tourists
Before you even heard of Al Gore, Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, sounded the alarm on global warming. But now that he’s called attention to the coming apocalypse, his latest will probably prove less influential: An ardent and pixilated work, Deep Economy has some compelling scenes but won’t convert anyone who doesn’t already compost. McKibben’s big idea is that we would be happier, healthier, and just plain better if we rejected Wall Street’s obsession with growth and found more of our food, energy, and even entertainment near our homes. That call for more modest living hinges on an argument that local economies sustain personal relationships and pollute less. McKibben’s avatars of virtue are small farmers: He finds Vermont farmers who reject the American deities of “fast, cheap, and easy” and always have time to chat. A liberal’s liberal, McKibben dislikes all the right things: corporate agriculture, urban sprawl, processed food, McMansions, and Wal-Mart. Who could expect otherwise from a man who writes for the New York Review of Books and eats local root vegetables? But every occasional NPR listener has heard this before. Which isn’t to say that self-sufficiency—even Deep Economy’s self-sufficiency lite—isn’t a satisfying subject. Well-run farms are tight systems where little gets wasted, and McKibben reports approvingly on several that survive as businesses. So the neighbors eat fresh meat and vegetables, but the farms are also an alternative to pesticide-saturated cornfields and industrial pig abattoirs disgorging lakes of shit. Apparently small farms flourish even in Detroit. So why aren’t they more popular? Well, they’re less profitable and need to charge more. Bless him, McKibben doesn’t think businesses should give up profit—just gratuitous profit. Public companies can’t even listen to that argument, but he finds some plucky examples, usually clustered around liberal oases like Portland, Ore., and Burlington, Vt. He admits, though, that such efforts will do little against the vast agricultural-industrial complex. If localism takes root, transnationals will co-opt the idea—see Wal-Mart’s happy hike into organic produce, shipped great distances by inorganic vehicles—rather than watch consumers hold on to their money. Likewise, McKibben loves a successful community-owned department store in Wyoming, but he can’t demonstrate that it’s more than a curiosity. Deep Economy also looks at similar efforts overseas, and McKibben makes a crucial argument that local economies can enrich the Third World without exerting a dangerous toll on the planet. He’s encouraged by Havana’s community gardens and has an optimistic take on the Indian state of Kerala, but as elsewhere, his examples are poignant but unconvincing shock troops in the localism revolution. Microbrew-drinking, vegan-dissing McKibben strains to plant himself in the straight-talkin’ American mainstream, but he usually appears naive about the corporations he seeks to undermine and ignores the power of their brands. He won’t win converts because he can’t (or won’t) understand that some people find managing a Target more stimulating than raising beets. And his smugness occasionally grates. “The good taste was satisfaction,” he writes of locally grown food. “I was part of something that made sense to me—a community. I felt grounded, connected.” If there’s a better man in America, I’ll wash his feet, but talk like this will have even sympathetic wage slaves grasping for the remote.