Deep Economy

The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

Bill McKibben indicts the current economic system for it’s single-minded pursuit of “more” without regard for whether or not it is (or can be) “better.” The contemporary companion to Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

Reading notes

The work of food

Bill McKibben on what happened when Yale invited Alice Waters to convert one of their dining halls to a seasonal and local menu:

The year the program launched, lines started forming around the building as students from other Yale colleges tried to get in. They wanted the squash gratin and the beet slaw, and they didn’t seem to mind that lettuce and tomato disappeared from the salad bar in October, which is when they disappear from the fields in Connecticut. Soon students were counterfeiting Berkeley ID cards in an attempt to get some butter-braised root vegetables of their own—and when Yale hosted a conference about the project, two hundred campus food service personnel from around the country showed up to learn. What impressed me most was the pride that the cooks took in their work. Most were from New Haven, which has one of the country’s poorest inner cities, but they were now firmly connected to the seasons of life in the countryside around them. Their work was harder, but it clearly meant more.

McKibben, Deep Economy, page 85

Along with a new vision for eating, McKibben notices an alternative definition of work—one in which the value of work is held in higher accord than the labor it demands. Schumacher similarly envisions a shift to “real work”:

As I have shown, directly productive time in our society has already been reduced to about 3½ per cent of total social time, and the whole drift of modern technological development is to reduce it further, asymptotically, to zero. Imagine if we set ourselves a goal in the opposite direction—to increase it sixfold, to about twenty per cent, so that twenty per cent of social time would be used for actually producing things, employing hands and brains and, naturally, excellent tools. An incredible thought! Even children would be allowed to make themselves useful, even old people. At one-sixth of present-day productivity, we should be producing as much as at present. There would be six times as much time for any piece of work we chose to undertake—enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real quality, even to make things beautiful. Think of the therapeutic value of real work; think of its educational value.…Everybody would be welcome to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace—and with excellent tools. Would this mean an enormous extension of working hours? No, people who work in this way do not know the difference between work and leisure. Unless they sleep or eat, or occasionally choose to do nothing at all, they are always agreeably, productively engaged.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 161

(Emphasis mine.)

Advertising for the better

Berger connects the art of the Renaissance—in particular, the imagery of possessions and wealth—to advertising in the modern age:

Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 139

Whereas the Renaissance tradition of painting was to prove one’s wealth to current and future viewers, advertising inspires daydreams of the wealth the viewer hopes to one day have. The more deferred the daydream, the more effective the advertising.

Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 131

Which brings to mind Bill McKibben’s argument about more and better:

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 inefficiency, 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.

McKibben, Deep Economy, page 3