Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sad and lonely? Buy a cookie.

"[the developed world] would do well to remember that there are many kinds of paternalism, including the assumption that for poor people only material things matter. Meat and alcohol and stuffed animals and health care are useful goals, but they're not the only things. Just like us, people in the developing world need dignity, security, identity. Some of these can be achieved through economic growth, and some of them can be undermined by it. Negotiating modernity requires creativity."

- Bill McKibben "Deep Economy"

The book's pretty sobering. Reading it, I oscillate between despair at how fucked our future might be - to a hopefulness in reading about communities and organizations that are trying to create and choose different paths and go against the prevailing tide of our Walmartized world - to a painful awareness of my own hypocrisy in having an awareness of the problem and not actively doing something about it (I had a cheeseburger deluxe platter at the diner yesterday with a soda while I read this book. I suppose it could be worse ... I could have walked out to my SUV and drove 20 miles through city traffic to my McMansion.)

Essentially, fossil fuels represent the concentration of centuries worth of energy captured from the sun. And some of us have used it to liberate ourselves from sweat and toil and to create wealth and plenty.

Our lives, our food, our water, our possessions, our culture sits on coal and floats on oil. More is Better. More stuff. More growth. More freedom. More individuality.

Bill McKibben would agree that up to a point More is Better. But at some point he argues that there are diminishing returns:

1) With growth and greater scale there has been a drive towards consolidation leading to "more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress." A small percentage of the rich are getting obscenely rich and the rest are getting much poorer.

2) There is the thought that having the entire planet live as North Americans currently do is unsustainable from the vantage of the resources required and the implications of the amount of pollution and environmental damage that would ensue.

That's a staggering number of SUVs, flat screen TV's, McMansions, sodas, and cheeseburgers. (You corporate types, stop salivating!)

3) There is the argument that at some point growth no longer increases a person's happiness. McKibben uses the example that a few beers makes you feel pretty good but it doesn't necessarily follow that 5 (or 10 or 20) more will make you feel way better.

Our growth-centric utility driven hyperindividualist economic fixations might not have much to offer in the category of the best things in life that are free. In fact, the former might have a lot to do with curtailing our time and capacity to enjoy the latter. The very fact that they are free is part of the problem, y'see.


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