Blabbings about family, community, sustainability and life from Frederick, MD.

The Book of Our Future April 20, 2007

Deep Economy, Bill McKibben’s new book, does the best job of laying out the social and environmental ills of our day and the path to fixing them. Put another way, it is hard to think of a more important book.

“Social and environmental ills” is a poor phrase. The word “Environment” is often thrown around in the context of political issues, like “Transportation” or “Education.” We’ve become so abstracted from our natural existence that “the Environment” seems to sit appropriately lined up side by side those other “issues.”

However we distance ourselves from it, the reality remains that we are creatures living on a planet, depending upon that planet and one another for our existence. And in that context, the environment and our society is EVERYTHING: it is our lives themselves and the existence of our species and fellow living creatures. And it is at that profound level that McKibben looks at our ills.

McKibben begins by explaining how for all of human existence, MORE has always meant BETTER. More warmth, more shelter, more nourishment, more resources always rightly meant a better life. Humans used their minds to generate MORE, and certain principles of economy, efficiency and capitalism became the best ways to organize and operate to produce MORE.

The invention of the steam engine in 1712, the first industrial use of fossil fuels, marked a profound change in humanity’s ability to produce MORE. The solar energy of eons, stored in fossil fuels, was unlocked for human use.

After three centuries of fossil fuel use, however, things have changed–at least for the industrialized world. For the first time MORE does not necessarily mean BETTER. In fact, no only do we have more than ENOUGH, but MORE is more and more yielding WORSE. Specifically MORE is:

  1. generating more social inequity
  2. destroying our planet and our existence upon it. Global warming is the attention-grabber here, but it goes beyond that. Modernity’s use of fossil fuels and other natural resources is simply unsustainable.
  3. breaking the bonds between one another, hollowing our communities and our humanity. Interdependence is a good thing, and we’ve lost it.

The problem is that the correlation of MORE to BETTER is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is it unfathomable to break the connection. So we go on, building houses that are TOO big and TOO far apart, driving our cars TOO much, working TOO much, eating TOO much food that is TOO processed, living in TOO mobile, TOO global of a economy and society. I’ve read many books on the destruction of the environment or on the dearth of community in our day, but I’ve never before read a book that ties the two together so eloquently, tracing it all to the excesses of fossil fuels and the pursuit of MORE.

McKibben of course recognizes that capitalism and democracy are the best ways to organize society. In fact, many detractors, hoping to see McKibben as some freakish communist, would be surprised to know McKibben to be a Sunday school teacher (liberalism and Christianity can co-exist; they can even thrive–consider the radical Christ was in his day). The solution that he proposes is “localism” — living in smaller communities, within regional economies, in a life that is somehow a little less competitive and a lot less fossil fuel dependent.

While some Vermont antecdotes paint a nice picture of what localism might look like, how this occurs exactly is a question he does not fully answer–he never gets much beyond the construct of a farmer’s market. It makes me think of latter 20th century Latin American economies that tried to become “localized,” to stay capitalist but be entirely self-sufficient with huge tariffs. That was a huge flop. To turn your back to global competition seems like a bad idea.

So figuring out this balancing act–reducing the scope of our economy, the scope of our lives to something more human in scale, while recognizing that competition and openness are the best drivers of beneficial cooperation in our society–is a question left unanswered. It will continue to be pondered here.

An easy answer is peak oil. The global economy can only function because of cheap, abundant energy. If the supply of fossil fuels tightens and the the prices rises dramatically, getting our TV’s from China (that contains parts shipped in from Holland, Brazil and Indonesia; built by workers fed on food from the U.S., Canada and Russia) no longer works that well. Localism would be forced upon us.

But such a calamity is not to be wished upon the world. Instead of a shock, let’s hope such a transition happens gradually over a long period of time. But while the delay would prevent economic disaster, our souls and environment will continue to rot. Somehow we all need to see the benefits of a more localized society and voluntarily move toward it.

Reading Deep Economy would be a good start. I hope you do it.


Solar at Home Depot October 24, 2006

Filed under: energy,Environment,frederick — tobymurdock @ 7:25 pm

You can now get solar panels at Home Depot. Maybe this is a good sign of things to come?

The product is a partnership with BP Solar, which is based in Frederick.


Damn Straight October 9, 2006

Filed under: books,Economy,energy,Environment — tobymurdock @ 1:21 pm

I’m reading Plan B 2.0 by Lester Brown right now. I’m not done, but I love this quote:

“One of the questions I am frequently asked when I am speaking in various countries is, Given the environmental problems that the world is facing, can we make it? That is, can we avoid economic decline and civilizational collapse? My answer is always the same: it depends on you and me, on what you and I do to reverse these trends. It means becoming politically active. Saving our civilization is not a spectator sport.” Lester Brown

Amen Lester.


If more and more of us are nursing each other, isn’t the whole country ill? September 24, 2006

Filed under: Economy,energy,globalization — tobymurdock @ 9:31 pm

Today I read the above cover story in Business Week, “What’s really proping up the economy?”. It’s major point was that since 2001 1.7M jobs have been added in health care, and that the rest of the economy has collectively added zero.

Crazy, but it makes sense. The core of our economy has been carved out . . . jobs in manufacturing, call centers, software development, even agriculture to an extent have all been replaced by lower cost methods, whether automation or offshoring. What’s left is a creative class of upper level managers, designers, producers, etc. and everyone else. And there is less and less left for everyone else: basically that which can’t be offshored or automated. Health care is tough to automate or offshore and, as the population ages, there is more and more demand for it. So it becomes one of the last job producers left.

streets of Johnstown, PA

The article then cites Johnstown, PA as a big example of this phenomena. I know Johnstown well as it is my mother’s home town and I have lots of relatives there. It is a former steel town which has been wiped out by offshoring of steel production. Most of the downtown is a ghost town (see photo). I’ve remarked myself when I’m downtown that the only part with any vibrancy is the hospitals. With the exception of a handful of small businesses, Medicare and Medicaid seem to be the only cash inflows into the region.

I am certainly a capitalist and a believer in free market economies. But this article gave me a real hesitation regarding globalization. What could be a more clear indication that our economy is sick if health care is our major job producer? That just does not seem sustainable. It seems intuitively wrong.

The envisioned position of the US worker in the global economy is to continue to climb the value chain, and continue to add value up the ladder from their lower wage offshore counterparts. Education is held as the vehicle to accomplish this, and certainly through educaiton we can help on this issue.

But is it really possible? It is really conceivable for all US workers to serve as the creative class for the whole world? US workers design the products and global workers to manufacture them? US workers to provide the banking services for global companies? US workers to design the video games and global workers to manufacture and purchase them?  This vision does not seem possible, and it leaves a bleak outlook for those Americans not in the creative class–left to lower wage service jobs, a distinct underclass. And that assumes that there is even enough of such jobs for everyone.

So it seems that American globalization will at some point hit a wall where the economy topples from the erosion of its middle class base.

What could serve as a detour for such a scenario? Oil is what greases the wheels of the global economy. We can continue to get our apples from Chile and our Barbies from China so long as the cost of flinging these products around the Earth remains incredibly low. An increase in the price of energy, which may happen dramatically and soon, could put all of our globalization concerns to rest, and awaken many others.