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Deep Economy

Deep Economy. The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Bill McKibben. New York: Time Books, 2007.

Sprinkles the Bunny "views with alarm" Bill McKibben's latest book

Deep Economy is an important book both because of what he gets right and what he doesnít get right. McKibben isnít a vegetarian, but vegetarians should read it anyway -- it shows the direction in which many people are moving in response to the growing environmental crisis. It leaves me alternately wanting to praise it because of his excellent summary of the overarching problems of our time, and blast him because of the things that he totally flubs.

His first chapter, "After Growth," is brilliant. He says there are three things wrong with our consumer culture: (1) it breeds inequality, (2) weíre running out of resources, and generally, out of planet with our wasteful habits, and (3) it doesnít make us happy. Weíre oppressing the poor and wrecking the environment and itís not even making us happy. Exactly! Throughout the book, he develops the theme of the need for community and the relationship between this need and environmentalism. These are the areas in which vegetarians, I believe, have the most to learn, so this is not a book to be lightly dismissed just because he isnít a vegetarian.

McKibbenís persistent avoidance of the vegetarian issue -- something he just bathes in silence in this book -- is troubling. I donít think heís avoiding the issue because he hasnít heard of it; it appears to be a conscious decision. Iíve seen global warming organizations dodge this issue in the same way. StopGlobalWarming.org, for example, in 2007 listed 30 ways in which you can "take action" -- but not eating the products of the cattle industry, which the FAO lists as the single most important contributor to global warming, doesnít even make it onto the list.  (To their credit, though, they have since added it.)  McKibbenís rationale (and, initially, those at StopGlobalWarming.org), I would guess, is that this is a polarizing debate which it just doesnít pay to address if you can avoid it.

What set up this non-dialogue? I regret to say that the animal rights movement can also share some of the blame. The animal rights movement has really set the movement back with its aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to politics, which has discouraged people from talking about the subject in a public arena, and led them to pidgeon-hole the whole movement as "the animal rights crazies." Even if vegetarians had a more mellow image, McKibben still might not be a vegetarian -- but eating animals would be a lot less plausible than it is, and writers like McKibben would be more quickly taken to task for such oversights.

But I digress.

Growth and Food

In the second chapter, "The Year of Eating Locally," he describes his experiment with eating locally one winter. This is well thought out. Itís more than just eating locally produced food, though, itís small local farms, which are more labor-intensive but actually outproduce large farms on a per-acre basis. Small farms fail because at current prices it makes sense to substitute oil for people; energy and land are relatively cheap, people are expensive. He also discusses at length Cubaís sudden, and involuntary, encounter with "peak oil" -- after the collapse of Soviet communism, and with a U. S. trade embargo, their oil imports essentially disappeared. The whole country went onto a more vegetarian, less industrial-scale diet, with urban gardens and involuntarily organic agriculture.

But here is where I start to part company with McKibben. If you are going to eat environmentally, there are three important ways you can contribute to this: (1) eat low on the food chain, (2) eat less processed food, (3) eat local food. Eating locally is the least important of these. In fact, as the Pimentels point out in Food, Energy, and Society, while food is often transported for thousands of miles, the trip to the grocery store by the consumer typically consumes slightly more energy than the transportation of the food to the store in the first place!

It is processing and production, not transportation, that really consumes the energy in agriculture. It actually might take less overall energy to grow and ship less energy-intensive rice in from the Philipines, than the more energy-intensive irrigated rice from California -- even if you live in California. Finally, eating high on the food chain always wastes resources, typically requiring 5, 10, or 20 times the land, water and energy than a corresponding amount of plant foods. The FAO report on global warming recently reported that the single greatest cause of global warming is livestock production -- greater even than driving cars.

The Importance of Community

Chapters 3 and 4, "All for One and One for All" and "The Wealth of Communities," discusses the importance of community. Our society is saturated with hyper-individualism, and we need more emphasis on the community rather than the individual. He talks about community radio, NPR, local transportation, Curitiba and Portland, cohousing and Vermont Family Forests, local currency and town meetings. By concentrating on the local, we develop the connections we will need in a resource-short world.

This is one of McKibbenís strong points -- it is where I tend to side with McKibben over against the animal rights organizations. So listen up, animal rights types: here is the nub of the problem with the concept of "animal rights." Itís not that you canít make an intellectual case for the rights of animals. Itís that you are trying to extend a concept ("rights") from humans to animals, when the larger society is getting just a little tired of hearing about the individual and wants to hear more about communities. This is a public relations issue, but an important one.

McKibben is right, and he echoes themes found in the books by William Strauss and Neil Howe, that American society sometimes goes too far in the direction either of the community, or the individual, and then needs to be brought back. At the present time, the whole idea of "rights" has been overemphasized in society as a whole and people are tired of hearing all this whining from people who are complaining about their "rights." Yes, people do have rights, but society suffers from a surfeit of hyper-individualism, of which the preoccupation with "my rights" to a gun, to a car, to a lifestyle, and generally to trash the planet, is a primary symptom.

There is a developing consensus that weíre in a major environmental crisis, and we need community more than individualism, responsible action rather than complaints from gun owners and car owners. "Individualism" is what created the consumer culture in the first place.

But "animal rights" (as a slogan, that is) doesnít fit very well in this dynamic. It made some sort of cultural sense in the 1980's and 1990's, when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy was flying high, gas was cheap, and PCs appeared on everyoneís desks. But times have changed. If you are going to make a case for animals, I would emphasize the fact that animals are part of the global community, that there is a network of nature and that we are making the situation worse by eating at the top of the food chain. Thatís what makes the almost unfathomable suffering of animals an issue to the larger community today, not their "rights."

Back to Food

However, I simply canít agree with chapter 5 (the last chapter), "The Durable Future." He starts out by talking about Chinaís problems with land and water, correctly pointing out that there is no way that the less developed countries of the world are going to "grow" their way into prosperity. He protests also against the drive for "efficiency" in large-scale agriculture. But then he recommends a Heifer International project to spread rabbit farming as an example, and recommends rabbits as a good food, interviewing someone who wants to become "the Frank Perdue of bunnies"!

A typical "rabbit farm" cage which resembles the standard factory farm battery cage

I see his point. Relative to, say, large-scale grain-fed beef production, rabbits look relatively better. Raising rabbits for food requires grass as fodder, not crops edible for humans (although they will typically require something more than just grass). And itís done on a much smaller scale than the actual Frank Perdue operations in the U. S.

But, in the first place, he should know better than to select Heifer International as a role model. Heifer International is a thinly-disguised attempt to spread meat and dairy habits to the developing world in the name of "charity." After the Second World War, for example, they sent dairy cows to Japan as a substitute for the healthier traditional Japanese foods. Japanese rates of breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer have been going up ever since. It sounds like he has bought into some meat industry propaganda as a substitute for research, and is assuming -- without question -- the validity or at least the inevitability of meat consumption. Rabbits have to be kept in cages just like chickens, and the same general kinds of environmental and health problems that you have with "factory-farmed" chickens will also apply to factory-farmed rabbits.

Meat is part of the problem, not part of the solution. We evolved from primates who are 99% vegetarian (some primates will eat termites or the occasional small animal). Animal foods cause all kinds of well-documented health problems in humans, which go up in direct proportion as the quantity of animal foods consumed goes up. Yes, excess protein is just as much a culprit here as excess fat, and animal foods totally lack all fiber -- and fat, protein, and lack of fiber are the three key ingredients fueling heart disease and cancer. Moreover, any kind of animal agriculture requires extra overhead for producing and processing, a sort of "mini-factory-farm" setup, and is inherently cruel.

Why are Rabbits Cute?

Now you may ask why I would raise an issue of animal well-being in an article on the environment. Doesnít this raise exactly the issue of "animal rights" which I have spent some paragraphs trying to smack down? Nature does not regard rabbits as "cute"; wolves or hawks would devour a rabbit as a snack without a thought. 

Nutmeg Bunny

But humans do have the capacity to care for animals. There is an instinctive feeling of sympathy that we have for animals; all cultures have their favorite animals which they protect.  Psychologists have noticed that this especially present in children, who often identify more with animals than with the rather mysterious adult world. This sympathy is typically "unlearned" on the path to adulthood -- though all cultures preserve a vestige of it in their proscription of cruelty to animals, their adoption of pets, and in some cultures (e. g. Hinduism) outright vegetarianism.

Where does this sympathy for animals come from? How could evolution have made such an elementary mistake? The reason is that animals are not our "natural" food. We have the capacity, as the situation demands, to eat the occasional animal for food, but it is not intended as a staple and does harm to us and to our environment if we make it such. Millions of years of evolution canít be wrong.

Nutmeg and Sprinkles

Which brings me back to the issue of animal rights. In the old days (25 years ago), I would have sent Bill McKibben a picture of my bunnies and protested against the obvious cruelty of his proposal. Whatís the point of gratuitous cruelty to animals when it isnít even healthy? 

Alas, I donít think that approach is going to fly either with McKibben or the public that is likely to read his book. They have already heard of animal rights and have filed it away in the category of "crackpot ideas pushed aggressively which it isnít worth my energy to wade into." They may think about animal rights, but itís pretty low on their priority list -- right above, perhaps, coming up with snappy replies to the Jehovahís Witnesses that come knocking at your door.

This situation leaves me angry and sad. It makes me want to, well, blow up something, or do exactly what those animal rights crazies I criticized earlier are doing, to get his attention. Or it makes me angry that the animal rights movement has "poisoned the well" of public dialogue on the issue, a result which cannot easily be undone.

Somehow, we have to bring the idea of concern for animals back into the public discourse, other than through the slogan of "animal rights." To me, vegetarianism is healthier, more environmental, and kinder to animals, and that creates a strong prima facie case that we should not eat animals -- a case which grows stronger the more closely that it is examined. The environmental case for vegetarianism is the way that this issue is going to be brought, forcefully, into peopleís homes, because eventually resource shortages are going to affect the price of food.  The inefficiency of livestock agriculture is going to matter.

McKibben sees part of the problem, that food should be produced locally. But this is not even the most important part. If you want to save the planet, eating lower on the food chain is the most important thing and eating food that does not require a lot of processing and packaging is the next. Eating locally is the least important item, and even with eating locally it saves slightly more energy on average to bicycle to the store to get your food than to drive a car to the store and buy locally grown food.  And if you want to advocate new community values, why don't you try a little kindness instead of ruthless exploitation of rabbits?

Because this is not the result McKibben wants to see, he tries to force "locally grown" into his overall idea of "deep economy" by just blanking out the issues of processing, packaging, and eating low on the food chain -- the most critical food issues facing the planet today. This flaw in his book is fatal to his overall project. Food is critical and we canít make a mistake of this magnitude in this arena. Imagine 1 billion Chinese and nearly as many Indians suddenly deciding that they want a little more chicken and fish. If we run out of oil, worst case, itís back to the horse and buggy. But if we run out of food because weíre stressing out the planet on a resource-intensive diet, itís an entirely different matter.

Sprinkles investigates "Deep Economy"

Keith Akers
April 26, 2007 (slightly updated March 28, 2008)