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Bill McKibben's Deep Economy

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On Saturday, April 14, concerned citizens gathered around the Triangle and across the country in an event called Step It Up!, organized to protest our government's slow response to the global warming problem. The head organizer, author Bill McKibben, is one of the leading figures of a pragmatic brand of environmentalism that's proposing workable solutions.

McKibben's latest book, Deep Economy, is a challenge to one of the philosophical underpinnings of economic theory, namely, that more—more goods, more growth—is better. McKibben exposes the drawbacks to the global economy by first acknowledging its successes. This is what makes him such a thoughtful, and in the end persuasive, writer: He weighs his arguments rather than shouting them. China's embrace of free markets has led to decades of astounding economic growth that has lifted many of its people out of poverty, a story McKibben sees up close when interviewing the hard-working employees of a shower-curtain factory.

The larger question for China, and for the rest of the world, is what will happen when 1.3 billion Chinese approach the standard of living we've achieved in the United States. There simply isn't world enough to supply them with the meat and the cars that we take for granted. Yet the worship of economic growth and the creation of entrenched systems of trade to promote it have made such a future seem not only desirable (at least to economists), but inevitable. It's as if we've programmed our world to self-destruct.

McKibben contends that, if economies of scale brought us to this uncomfortable place, perhaps it's time to scale down. To prove the feasibility of localized economies, McKibben spent half a year eating only food grown in the place he calls home, the valley around Lake Champlain in Vermont. The exercise put him in contact with a web of local farmers and "permanently altered the way I eat." It also tied him more strongly to his community.

"'Community,'" McKibben writes, "is a warm and fuzzy word, and overused, so that its meaning is slowly disappearing." It's also the best antidote to a destructive economy born of hyper-individualism and reckless materialism. The planet is warming and change is coming, like it or not; McKibben hopes to "mobilize the wealth of our communities to make the transition tolerable, even sweet, instead of tragic."

Bill McKibben will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Wednesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit quailridgebooks.booksense.com. For more on recent books and films on ecological issues, see this week's A&E Feature, "This island Earth."

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