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deep economy

16 march 2009

Bill McKibben's Deep Economy has been chosen as my university's "OneBook" for 2009-10: the one book that all incoming freshmen, and as many of the rest of us as possible, are supposed to read. I am a whole year ahead of myself, having finished the book last weekend, and as is my wont, I will post a few thoughts on Deep Economy in the form of a book review.

McKibben's Deep Economy is basically the inverse of Thomas Friedman's World Is Flat, that paean to the supremely functional, just-in-time, globalized economy that has given us Chilean blueberries in December, LEGO made in China, and 24/7 small-appliance customer service from Bangalore. McKibben has seen Friedman's future, and he's not buying. (Well, for that matter, neither is Friedman, any more.)

Central to all McKibben's ideas about local, green, sustainable, and community-based futures is a rejection of what we might call the functionalist assumption about capitalism: the assumption that an unfettered marketplace full of rational maximizers brings about (in fact, has brought about) the best of all possible worlds. McKibben argues instead that maximizing of wealth is irrational, beyond a threshold where people have some basic essentials of happiness. Not only irrational, but downright harmful. Maximizing, in the form of economic growth at all costs, has given us global warming, massive inequity, and simply too much damn stuff.

McKibben casts about for alternatives in some pretty familiar places, if you are a reader of contemporary nonfiction bestsellers. He tries to eat local foods for a year, which is certainly a very good thing to do if, like McKibben, you live in a part of Vermont inhabited by eco-minded microfarmers – and if, like McKibben, you have a job at Middlebury College and have written several best-sellers yourself. (The rest of us may have to go on food-shopping at Wal-Mart awhile longer.) McKibben's chapter "The Year of Eating Locally" is pleasant, but you might be better served, or possibly better sermonized, by reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.

Much of the middle of McKibben's book is taken up with calls for a new communitarianism. This is territory studied most notably by Robert Putnam's 1995 article and 2000 book "Bowling Alone," but McKibben piles on with calls for us to become more community-minded. In fact, we can do so and eat locally; one of McKibben's favorite factoids is that a trip to the farmers' market produces more conversations than a trip to the supermarket. To each his own: in my city of a third of a million (Arlington, Texas), I can't go to my supermarket without seeing everyone I know and chatting with a fair number of people I don't. In any case in Texas we talk a whole lot more in supermarkets than they do in Vermont. I've had strangers in Texas strike up conversations with me about my shopping habits that would inspire New Yorkers to call Bellevue. Plus, to get to a true farmers' market, I would have to drive 50 miles round trip to downtown Dallas – whereupon my conversations would mostly have to be conducted in my halting Spanish.

So there's a little too much generalizing from Middlebury for my tastes in Deep Economy. But McKibben, a globe-trotting journalist, is no homebody. At one point he goes to industrializing China in search of some factory workers to interview. The purpose is to learn about that threshold of happiness, below which more is better, above which the two concepts part company. His trip is earnest and his observations ring true. Still, a reader interested in the phenomenon of industrialization in China (as McKibben points out, the greatest mass migration from country to city in human history, in the service of Friedman's flat world) would be better-advised to read Leslie Chang's fascinating Factory Girls (and to be fair to McKibben, he probably has; Factory Girls appeared a year after Deep Economy did).

McKibben, a gifted writer, is a processor of the raw materials of journalism assembled by first-hand researcher/writers like Pollan or Chang. As a result, his work can sometimes seem like the end product of a game of Telephone. While extolling the community-based art of the past, McKibben announces that

[The] parallel musical universe [of low-profile local entertainers] may not replace the centralized global one, but it's clearly gaining. How far might it go? Here's a statistic that gives some small indication: in 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. "Thousands of tenors," writes Robert Frank, "earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences." (167)
Hmnn. It's not that the spirit, or perhaps even the letter, of this factoid is necessarily false, still less that McKibben intends to mislead his readers. But something about that assertion – 1,300 opera houses in Iowa in the year 1900 – ought to make your nonsense detector start to vibrate.

Indulge me a little while I do some math; the intent is not to discredit Deep Economy, but just to rein in the "1,300-opera house" claim before it becomes a runaway meme. First of all, the population of Iowa in 1900 was 2,231,853. Thirteen hundred opera houses would mean an opera house for every 1,717 Iowans, man woman and child. (Not only that, but if there were opera being performed in them, that would mean an average of three or four operas onstage every day of the Iowan year in 1900.) A decent tenor could make more than a modest living at those rates, and Iowans were, by that measure, the most operatic people in the history of the Earth.

And though Iowa in 1900 was a decentralized, overwhelmingly rural state, it still had some prominent towns. Des Moines had a population of 62,139, meaning that either the average opera-supporting Iowa town had a population of somewhat less than 1,717, or that there were 36 opera houses in Des Moines alone. (Des Moines was a stop on the Metropolitan Opera's traveling circuit in the 1950s, and the town [or rather, nearby Indianola] has had a summer opera festival since the 1970s; but 36 dueling companies in 1900, well, no.)

Well, you are probably already thinking of ways to save McKibben's claim from its self-evident absurdity. Yes, there were lots and lots of "opera houses" in Iowa about a century ago. Quoting research by Glenn George and Richard Poole, the Iowa Pathways website linked above says that "Between 1870 and 1920 in Iowa about 1,500 opera houses were built . . . seating from 100 to 1,300. Opera houses were mainly a space for community activity." (Note the word "built"; there may not have been 1,300 standing at any given time.) In other words, the odds of Tetrazzini coming through Oskaloosa in a full-dress production of Un Ballo in Maschera are decidedly small, and those of some Southeast Central Iowa Opera Guild mounting a roadshow version of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg almost equally unlikely.

However many "opera houses" there were in Iowa in 1900, opera was little-performed in them. "Opera house" was a high-toned name for main street assembly halls, where vaudeville circuits would book their acts, and where later on, cinemas would edge out live acts before TV and urbanization doomed most small-town theatres. I'm sure that more than a few tenors earned their living on the road in the Midwest in 1900, but let's not envision them as Wagnerian heldentenors, OK? It doesn't help arguments for smaller-is-better culture, and it leaves us with an impossible past as an alternative to an unbearable present.

I don't blame McKibben for a little harmless exaggeration, but it leaves me wondering what else in his research has gotten garbled in translation. I am a scholar of American popular culture (and I'm lucky enough to have a father with a PhD in American theater history just a thumbclick away, thanks to my world-is-flat cellphone contract with some giant impersonal corporation). So I can call "bit much" on this detail – but are there lots of others I don't know enough about to call?

I bring this up because McKibben, despite his absolutely unobjectionable goals and ideas, has an odd habit of swinging between dire Cassandrish prophecy and outlandish claims that the local is already reasserting, nay has already reasserted, itself. I don't know what's real and what's factoidal after a while. Small farms have disappeared . . . but lo, there are almost twice as many farmers in Oregon as there were 30 years ago (83-84). Or is McKibben's reported figure of 21,580 full-time farmers in Oregon as tenuous as those 1,300 opera houses in Iowa? Fact-check this one with care, students.

McKibben, Bill. Deep Economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York: Times Books, 2007.