Deep Economy Essay
August 6th 2009
Deep Economy Essay.
Security, satisfaction, freedom, power, pleasure. These are a few facets of what we believe can make us feel good, whole, and happy as human beings. Generating prosperity is a common strategy that assists us in pursuing our higher aspirations. To attain wealth, we must participate in economic exchange, for economics is how we track the ebb and flow of prosperity. Our current economic model attempts to bring us our needs and desires. However, it is a fractured model that emphasizes the accumulation of physical material goods, and negates other elements of true prosperity such as resilient community, and a healthy environment.
The global economic system measures success largely on gross expenditure; the more money is spent the more successful the economy is. America calculates its yearly sales and calls it ‘Gross National Product.’ As any hospital patient, car accident victim, or wildlife ecologist restoring a local wetland ruined by a nearby development, knows that expenditures are not always a good thing. Despite this we live in a culture that perceives economic growth as an unquestioned ‘plus’ to life. Expenditure based success does not adequately provide human beings with a real sense of fulfillment, nor is it good for restoring and conserving our Natural Capital.
As this model continues to snowball our world down the hill of consumption towards ecological destruction questions arise about how we became stuck in such a predicament, and why is it so difficult to change our economic model? This is of course a highly complex question and is heavily debated. The following paragraphs will do their best to summarize key contributing moments that have influenced our present situation.
From an evolutionary perspective, our current behavioral living patterns are quite recent. Archeologists generally agree that humanity evolved in eastern Africa, and that they have been ‘human’—in the same regards as we are human—for approximately 3 million years. Like all other animals we lived a hunter-gather life style for the majority of this time. In the last ten thousand years or so a major change happened. A small pocket (or perhaps a few pockets) of humanity developed agriculture. What factors influenced this are up for debate, but it is clear that the communities that created, or adopted this method changed humanities behavioral living patterns, and created a more centralized community structure known as civilization. Civilized people tend to have power over other communities that were, and in some cases still are, living a hunter-gather life style (hunter gathers tend to have a more egalitarian societal structure, however there are exceptions). As a result, the last few thousand years have been marked by rising human population, and expanding sects of ‘civilization’ competing for power and resources. This process is perhaps a major factor leading to our expansion-oriented culture.
The next major event was the invention of the working steam engine in the late 18th century, marking the dawn of industrialism. This uncapped a major limiting factor that had checked the growth of human ‘civilization’. Before this moment our production capacity was inhibited by biological mussel power. Our ability to build civilization, and grow the economy was constrained by how many calories we could grow. This energy was utilized in the form of human, and animal labor fueled by grain crops. Fossil fuels let us dip into a kind of carbon bank account of solar energy, thus freeing us from this limiting factor.
The creation story of industrialism caries a mantra of expansion, consumption, and efficiency, industrialism has indeed provided humanity with unprecedented power, and has fulfilled its intentions successfully, but is our notion of efficiency, expansion, and consumption as desirable as we think? These goals are undeniably short sighted, and only live up to their own success in a context of this short sightedness. They are proving to lead us away from, instead of towards long-term ideals of human security and satisfaction.
A prominent example that clearly expresses this fallacy is that of large-scale industrial agriculture versus small scale localized agriculture. Industrial agriculture, boasts its capacity at producing a lot of food, and selling it at a low price. The basic strategy that allows for this is simple: Use fossil fuels that power big machines—thus eliminating allot of labor—and focus on growing large plots of mono-culture crops supported by petrochemical fertilizers. Today the global food industry is massively centralized. Cargill, inc., for example, “controls 45 percent of the globes grain trade.”(McKibben 2007) its competitor controls another 30 percent of the global market (Archer Daniels Midland). The size of an average corn farm is astounding. One industrial corn farmer is likely to have around 2,500 acres of land. His tools consist of a fleet of tractors each priced at over $100,000 and a Global positioning system to keep his crop in strait rows. The number of farmers that exist in America has fallen exponentially. In Idaho, the number of potato farmers has dropped by half in the last fifteen years (McKibben 2007). The trend of agriculture centralization is prevalent in every aspect of the industry, and it does its job well. There is more food in the world than there has ever been, and it is cheaper than it was in the past, but what about the quality of this food? Does it bring security to human society? Does it promote cohesive communities? What is the cost of the ‘externalities’ created by this model? Is this really the most effective, and efficient model for building a world that brings us a fulfilling life?
It may be a surprise to find out that a small farm—especially a biodynamic, or ecologically diverse one—can produce more food per acre than an industrial one. Crop yields can rise by 150 percent, but the labor is also dramatically higher. If there is one thing we have an abundance of is human population, and if there is one resource in decline its fossil fuels. Connecting the dots makes it easy to recognize the potential benefit of small-scale community farming. There would be more jobs, more nature connection, more food per acre of land, less (perhaps some day zero) fossil fuels, and greater economic resiliency. If one crop fails, you have greater assurance that there will be another crop to fall back on. A crop that is grown down the road in a field that you may have seen. This is contrary to the current grocery store reality. One third of all products in the average American supermarket contain corn products. This has large implications both towards food dependency, and Americas nutritional intake. With our current economic model, if we are cut off from fossil fuels or if just one large corporation were to somehow fail or collapse the result is not one that would support our notions of economic security.
Let us imagine a more resilient agricultural possibility. Each community—an identity that should be defined primarily around a local bioregion or watershed—produces enough food to nourish its population. Farms are tended not by a few distant farmers, but by people who live in your local community, and send their children to the same school as you send your children. Grocery shopping for the most part happens directly between customers and farmers at local farmers markets. Farmers markets, it should be noted, are now the fastest growing sector of the grocery industry. Citizens in a localized community are firmly grounded in contributing to the welfare of their community and the land on which it sits. The community in-turn is grounded in contributing to a larger national of global community as well as to the global environment that sustains it. If you have to grow food together you are likely to get to know each other, you may even get to know and care for each other. Regardless of whatever differences people in a community may have, they will have one common value that is essential to prosperity, a desire for an abundance of food. This powerful desire can encourage people to come to common ground. If a community is growing food locally, it is clear that for good food you need good soil. A person, who ‘knows’ a place, has a stake in maintaining that place. People farming with place in mind naturally see the benefit of farming with the intention of enhancing the health and well being of that place and its people. They are connected, and connection is something that the people of our industrial world seek desperately.
This paper advocates localizing economies and redefining what it means to be a successful economy, but does not advocate that we reject the notion of creating a global society. We live in a global economy, and this has the potential to continue to bring many gifts to humanity, but as it stands it is an aggregate of separate and centralized parts all working towards a specific agenda of growth and competition. Instead a network of resilient relationships that seek to balance and fill the needs for a common greater good must form the foundation of human ‘civilization.’ Economic success must be based on a desire to balance the flow of wealth in a way that will best serve, and satisfy humanities diverse set of needs. More does not always equal better, nor, does less. Need is dependant on context. In the present context we need more community and connection in the developed world, and less stuff. What this economy will look like is still unfolding, let us move it towards a economy based on balance instead of on unquestioned material growth.
Bill, Mckibben. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. New York: Times Books, 2007.