Bill McKibben discusses his groundbreaking new book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.
McKibben focuses on the point where environmental and economic issues intersect, offering revolutionary ideas for approaching these problems. This is one of the most important books to be published on issues relating to global warming. McKibben is the author of "Hundred Dollar Holiday," "Maybe One," and "Hope, Human and Wild"- Book Passage
Environmentalist Bill McKibben is a scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.
McKibben is an American environmentalist and writer who frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history. McKibben is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent.
He is the author of The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a general audience about global warming. Recent books include Enough (2004), which critiques human genetic engineering and other rapidly advancing technologies; Wandering Home (2005), which catalogs his foot-travels across the Vermont landscape; and Age of Missing Information (2006), in which he compares his experience watching 1700 hours of videotaped TV to that of contemplating nature in the Adirondacks.
Good afternoon and welcome. I am Bill Petrocelli, one of the owners of Book Passageand as I am delighted today to welcome you here. Once in a while a book comes alongand then you feel like it changes your whole way of thinking and I am pleased to say thatthe book I am going to be hearing about today is one of those kinds of books. You read itand you sit back and think okay, its - maybe you have to change all my assumptions abouthow the economy works and all that. I am sorry what?Louder? Nobody has ever accused me of being too soft before, particularly my daughter.About a year ago, you know, on a newsletter you probably, some of you may rememberwe did a long article about trying to analyze the impact of a local business on a localeconomy. And we talked about the fact that local businesses re-circulate more moneyback into the local economy, that's true and how they nurture local producers of productsin the case of a book store how we nurture local authors. How local businesses sometimesbecome centers for community activity. And I think that's particularly true, that's theway we have kind of evolved our store. But what a joy it was to pick up a book which notonly talks about this sort of thing but expands it in terms of the whole idea into a reallysystematic approach about importance of local economy.I am delighted that you are all here today. I, of course, you are going to support your localeconomy by buying lots of lots of copies of this books and you'll want to do so to giveit to your friends and if they don't if they are not here and they are want to see the eventthey can also they can watch our website and we will be clicking to FORA.tv which ishere recording the event. I don't know if some of you noticed a couple of months ago inour newsletter we listed all of the Book Passage events that are now available to be seenat FORA.tv and if you haven't seen a lot of them go back and look at them. And thisevent will soon be added to the added to the mix that we are delighted that they arehere. Bill McKibben has written the "End of Nature" "The Age of Missing Information","Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age". He is a former staff writer for the NewYorker. Writes regularly for several magazines and is a scholar in resident at MiddleburyCollege in Vermont and with a great deal of pleasure I introduce to you Bill McKibben.Well thank you all so much. Its one of the real pleasures about writing this book andtalking about it is the opportunity to do it in just this sort of place. It's just possible thatbecause you live here and this book store has been here for a long time you might take itfor granted. And if you do you make a horrible mistake because an awful lot of bookstores in an awful lot of places, there are awful lot of places that don't have one of theseany more. Local book store is one of the central parts of any local culture and to be ableto be here and be working with them is great pleasure and a great honor. I am going totalk about the book in a minute.First I am going to talk about something else because it's what I am spending, at least asmuch, actually far more time and energy on at the moment and it's something that Iwandered into sort of haphazardly. You know, I have been working on this globalwarming stuff for a very long time, "The End of Nature" was the first book in that climatechange way back in 1989 which seems like a very long time ago. And for most of thattime I have been writing and speaking.Beginning last summer started becoming more of in I would say becoming more of anorganizer except I am really not very good at it. I am more kind of dis-organizer in manyways but last summer a few of us organized a march across the State of Vermont where Ilive for action on climate change and it was quite successful. By the time we marched 50miles and got into Burlington we had a 1000 people which in Vermont is a lot of people.But, you know, the next day when I read the stories about it in the newspaper they all saidthat this was the largest demonstration there had ever been on global warming in thiscountry and we just thought that's so crazy.And so January of this year working with six students at Middlebury, six brand newgraduates of Middlebury who had raised enough money to pay a $100 a week welaunched a website called stepitup07.org and asked people to organize rallies anddemonstrations in their communities on April the 14th of this year to demand real anddramatic action from Congress on climate change and end to the 20-year bipartisan effortto accomplish nothing. And we thought, when we started this, because we had no moneyand we still have no money and we have no organization and we still really have no wethought maybe we could organize a 100 or a 150 of these around the country, if we werelucky. I checked the website as I was leaving the hotel this morning and we are at 964 ofthese rallies and in every state in the union and pretty much in every Congressionaldistrict in the country. It's going to be by far the largest grassroots environment protestssince Earth day in 1970 and I think it stands a real chance of helping spur us along on thechange that needs to be made.When we said 10 weeks ago, 80 percent by 2050 was our cuts in carbon emissions wasour goal, people thought that was, you know, many people said that's far too radical andyou are asking for far too much. We knew it was on the outer edge of the politicallypossible. 10 weeks later on Friday John Edwards endorsed publicly the idea of an 80percent by 2050 cut and I think he won't be the last of the presidential candidates to doso. The landscape is shifting fast and you all can help the landscape shift even faster. OnApril 14th there is going to be a dozen events in this general neck of the woodsculminating in an afternoon event in San (Anselmo) yes and go to stepitup07.org fordetails and show up and bring people with you. It's, I think, worth taking one spring dayto help try to reshape the future in that way. All right, that's as good as I can do as an organizer.If that's the kind of short term solution to the fix that we are in, this book represents myattempt at what maybe the longer term answer to the predicament that we find ourselvesin. If there was one basic idea that explains that lies behind American policy and thereally policy of most places around the world in the last 50 or 60 years, it would be theeconomic idea that "more is better." That's been the sort of driving force and we can tellit's the driving force because, you know, every President no matter of what party in everylegislature economic growth as the single most important thing that they can be talkingabout it. Every policy that we pass is justified on the grounds that it will in some way aidthe increase in the size of our economies and things. It's a very powerful idea. And theonly problem with is that it no longer works very well and that's the kind of insight fromwhich this book begins.No longer works very well in two ways. One is that its helping us drive off an ecologicalcliff and to drive off it pretty quickly. Climate change is the best example of that but it'snot the only one. I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of years in Asia reporting forNational Geographic and Harpers and others and getting to see the, say the, Chineseeconomy close at hand, extremely vibrant and dynamic and fascinating to watch aneconomy that's growing at 10 percent a year. If it keeps growing like that, by the middleof the century the Chinese will be as rich as we are on average. If they consume in theways that we do well, you know, there is 800 million automobiles on earth right now, theChinese alone would have 1.1 billion automobiles. If they ate our diet, the Chinese alonewould consume two-thirds of world's grain harvest. And that's before you get to theIndians and everybody else sort of right behind them. It's not physically possible for thisendless expansion to continue, that's one problem.The other problem and in a sense it's also a great opportunity is and for me it was inmany ways the most interesting part of this book was to really dig into a lot of researchthat economists have begun to do in the last, say, 10 years around a very interesting andsubversive question which is whether not the growth that we have been experiencing inour prosperity has actually made us happier or not, increased levels of satisfaction. It's avery important question, one that we hadn't tried to answer for a very longtime, because itseemed soft and ephemeral.How could you really reliably measure anything like satisfaction or happiness, and that'swhere some of the economists including a very interesting guy name Daniel Kahneman ofPrinceton who won the Nobel three or four years ago began. They began by trying toestablish whether or not people were good, whether people were reliable source ofinformation about their own happiness or not you know. And since they were economiststhe very earliest, sort of, attempts to do this were quite dismal. You know, one of theearly studies that they say was the one where they were taking people who are undergoingcolonoscopies and every 10 seconds asking them to rate the level of discomfort that theywere experiencing, trying to figure out if they were good at reporting that and you knowthis sort of data expanded and expanded to the point where finally the real consensusemerged that, yes, actually you could take people quite at face value when you ask themquestions like this and with that in mind people were able to go and look at the researchto what data there was and began to discover some very odd things.I mean one national polling group, every year since the end of World War II, has asked theAmericans are you happy? And you can answer "very happy", "happy" and "not happy."The number of Americans who say that they are very happy peaks in 1956 andgoes slowly but steadily downhill since. About a quarter of Americans will now say thatthey are very happy. That's very odd, because in that same 50 year period the materialprosperity of Americans has about tripled okay.If things that we think we know about economic life were true, then those two curvesshould more or less move, you know, in something like the same direction. That theymove in different directions is sort of alarming to our sense of the world. Not tomentioned that it sort of makes us wonder whether or not its been an awful lot of wastedeffort and wasted environmental destruction in that 50 year period to achieve very little.The interesting question is why this is happening? And the answer seems to be again theresearch is still fairly new, but it's pretty compelling. The answer seems to be that whatwe are missing, what we are feeling a profound lack of is social connection andcommunity. And if you think about it, I mean, that fits the timeframe well. What had wedo in the 1950s, we started building suburbs and building ever bigger houses and youknow reducing the chances that we would run into each other in the course of a day whichis precisely what's happened. Americans have about half as many close friends as theydid 50 years ago. We are much less likely that we eat meals with family, with neighbors,with relatives.And its almost there is almost a direct correlation between our increased prosperity andthat decreased connection between people. We spend immense amounts of time workingto afford the things that we have and the things that we have tend to put us further andfurther apart from other people. Some of you may have seen the story in the New YorkTimes last week about the way that in the enormous houses that we've built and theaverage American house is just twice as big as it was the new ones as they were just 25years ago that in these sort of new houses that people were building the great new designfeature is dual master bedrooms for husbands and wives who don't really want to evenshare the same bedroom because one snores or you know he pulls the covers too hard,you know, something like that.I mean, there is a sense, almost in which are economists turning into a kind of farce atsome level, you know, like that. And that's, you know, that's a very powerful set of truthsthat we're just beginning to relearn. You can measure them in almost clinical ways. If youfind an American who doesn't belong to anything, doesn't belong to a club or somethingand there were tens of millions of people like this and convince them to join anything.Church choir, softball league doesn't make any difference. In the next year their mortalitydrops by half, the chance that they will die drops by half. Its not - we are not sort ofteasing out several effects here that are hard to find, it's pretty powerful.The good news as a result of all this I think and the sort of one of the thesis of this book isthat the solution to these two sets of problems or a solution to them lies in much the samedirection. And that is beginning the process of rebuilding the kind of local economiesthat: a) Use way less in the way of energy to do what needs to be done and b) By theirnature bring people back into closer connection with each other.The sort of obvious and easy first example on one that I write about some and one that wehad I did a program last night in Berkeley with my old friend Michael Pollan and whenwe talked about a lot there was about food. It's very good news that the fastest growingpart of our food economy right now in this country is local farmers markets. And they aregrowing about 10 percent a year. And its good news for environmental reasons, youknow, if you eat locally you use between about five and 15 times less energy then you doif you eat the way that most of us do which is the kind of order take out from thousandsof miles away every night of the year, you know.The average bite of food we eat traveled about 2000 miles to get to us. So you save a lotof energy maybe in order of magnitude, when you say 10 times less energy to eat thatway. But you also do something else. You create well you create a lot of community. Apair of sociologists followed shoppers couple of years ago. First they followed shoppersin the supermarket and then in the farmers market. Everybody has been to thesupermarket. You walk in, you shut off your mind, you visit the same, you know, littleislands that you visited the week before. Somehow you emerged with almost exactly thesame set of things that you had the week before. Maybe you have this stimulating paperor plastic conversation at the checker and that's it.When people went to farmers markets they had 10 times more conversations than theydid that's at 10 times. In order of magnitude less energy and in order of magnitude morecommunity. You begin to see enough leverage to begin to sort of move some of thesehuge systems that need moving. And we can sense it in many, many other areas and thenwe can obviously sense it in a room like this one where local businesses like this serve askind of gathering and organizing places for people to come in contact with each other andI am sure that over the years more than one great scheme for this part of the world hasbeen hatched here and, you know, in a restaurant over there and things, I mean those are important.We can do the same kind of analysis on all kinds of other commodities. One of the mostimportant probably is energy itself. Just as with food which, you know, we sort ofcontend to turnover to a few huge corporations Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, fewhuge growers in the central valley. The same with energy, you know, a few big hugecentralized places or where it mostly comes from and we consume it. It doesn't need towork that way. We can have the energy equivalent of a farmer's market with many peoplefeeding in and taking out.If you have as I am sure some of you do, solar panels on your roof and you are tied intothe grid and then you are sort of using energy the way that you use the Internet, you know.You contribute in, you contribute in and you take out and it's a much more benign andinteresting model in the long run than relying on a few huge centralized power stations. Itmay require a slightly different relationship in the long run to energy to not taking itcompletely for granted, not wasting it in the quantities that we do and not assuming thatevery second of every day it's always going to be there in exactly the quantities we want.But in the end it's a much more durable system than the very vulnerable and gradual onethat we've built now. I mean, a system that depends for us to power our lives on theuninterrupted supply of oil from the Middle East, on the willingness of people inSouthern Appalachia to see every mountain top in that part of the world cut off anddestroyed. You know, on and on down the list. And not to mention that depends on us nottaking seriously climate change, the greatest problem we have ever faced. So food,energy, but even much more ephemeral familiar commodities like culture, like art.I was with Michael Krasny this morning on KQED. And pointing out that you know, ifsomeone submitted the KQED business plan to business school, they would say this isridiculous. You know, what's their business plan? We give away the product, you knowwe put this thing on the air for free; anybody can have it. In a couple of times the year, wecome on the radio and you know beg you to send us a check which you don't have to sendus. How could that work? But it does work. And in fact, those radio stations and ones likethem around the country are flourishing and doing their best to fight off - you know, thesort of sonic equivalent of Exxon Mobil or Archer Daniels Midland which are things likeclear channel and infinity, the sort of rapacious, centralized radio stations that have takenup because of deregulation, much of the dial and ended that tradition of local andcommunity broadcasting.Even art or even sort of the arts. Here is an interesting statistic I came across in the courseof this thing. The 20th century in 1900, in the State of Iowa alone there were 1300 Operahouses, okay. 1300 live performance and venues. Now, no body in them was getting youknow Whitney Houston rich you know. But there were clearly a lot of the sort of tenorsmaking part of their living, doing this. And there were a lot of people gathering togetherto hear if not the greatest singer on earth, then a good singer in a context where they weretogether as a community.One way to think about this sort of alternatives and to kind of begin to try to imagine atleast a little of the way down the road where we might need to go is to think about placesthat probably most people in this world have been. In this room have been, which isWestern Europe, France, Italy, Germany and Scandinavia. There is a lot of interestingthings that they've chosen I think in those countries to do over a long period of time. Themost important of which is to think a little more about community and a little less aboutthe kind of hyper-individualist model that we've adopted. Hence they've been willing topay more in the way of taxes and they have as a result, you know, guaranteed healthcareand education and retirement. They have good public transit and those sort of things. Thatbrings with it all kinds of other outcomes.People have less money to spend. They have less stuff there, okay. Disposable income isbetween one half and two-thirds of what it is in this country. On the other hand, peoplehave a lot more time, they've taken some of their productivity and you've spent it intaxes, and they've taken some of their productivity in the form of much more leisure. Youknow, eight or nine weeks of vacation on average and many fewer hours a week are lesswork. As a result, they tend to have much stronger families. The divorce rate isconsiderably lower across Europe than it is here because people have time to eat mealswith each other, or whatever. As a result, those levels of satisfaction with life that haveplummeted in this county have stayed even or risen across most of Western Europe.As a very strong physical result of all of this, Western Europeans use half as much energyper-capita as Americans. Half is a big number. Half begins to get us some place when weare talking about global warming. It's way more important than any of the, you know, asa number than, any of the contributions we are going to get from, you know, hydrogen orethanol or whatever other magic fix techno fix people have in mind at any givenmoment, it's a real start down that, down that path. And one of the most importantquestions in the room right now is whether the China and India will evolve more in a kindof European or more in an American direction. And if it's the latter then you know, godsave us all. Because it just is, you know, mathematically, it's I mean, it even to evolvein a European direction is mathematically difficult in large ways but not in with thesame degree of impossibility that our model at the moment presents.So it's those incredibly, for me, incredibly interesting set of understandings or sort of thatthe data now presents that kind of drive this book. And with it, allow what I think is afairly hopeful version - vision. And I am not, you know by nature an unbelievably hopefulguy. I wrote a book called the "The End of Nature" you know. But I am willing to behopeful in this respect, partly because, I think, those kind of communities that we need tobuild would do a lot towards heading a lot of the global whelming and other crisis that weproduce partly because I think that given that we're not going to head off all thoseproblems, given that there is no turning back the clock and a certain amount of chaos, Ithink, these are also the kind of communities that we need to build in order to ride outwhat's coming. The kind of durable and resilient and connected communities that offersome real hope for people flourishing in a world that will not be as easy or sweet or asstable as the world that we've had the good fortune to inhabit.And I really do think that the task for us now in the next little while is to figure out howto move as quickly as we can in some of these directions and offer some different visionsfor the world around us; which is why its great, good fun to be in a community like thisone, that's obviously tight and trying to do really interesting things and has the resourcesand the margin to do some interesting things for the moment and I wish you all kinds ofgood luck, you should do them. And I really hope that your will check out to thisstepitup07.org thing, because that's the short term fix with out which really any of theselonger term solutions are almost quixotic to discuss. So there I end.Thank you very much.