This interview with Bill McKibben was recorded December of 2007 and appears in C-Realm Podcast Episode 68: Durable Communities. Bill McKibben also appears in Episode 69: The L Word, but that portion of the conversation, which focused on topics of transhumanism, is not included in this transcript.
KMO: Welcome back to the C-Realm podcast. I’m your host, KMO and with me here, from his home in Vermont, I have author Bill McKibben. He is the author of ‘The End of Nature’; ‘The Age of Missing Information’; many other books; most recently ‘Deep Economy - The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future’, about which the C-Realm listeners have already heard quite a bit. Bill McKibben, welcome to the C-Realm podcast.
Bill: It is my pleasure to join you.
KMO: Well it is definitely my pleasure to have you here. I have mentioned to people, particularly listeners of this podcast that the book ‘Deep Economy - The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future’ articulates exactly the message that I have been trying to articulate here sans the entheogenic or psychedelic component which occasionally comes up on the C-Realm podcast.
Bill: That is a component I don’t know anything about. I’ll just stick with economics and leave psychedelics to you.
KMO: In the very beginning of your book,’ Deep Economy’, you talk about two birds that, until recently, these are metaphorical birds, sat on the same branch, and one could conceivably take them both out with one bullet or one rock, and those two birds are "better" and "more." Producing more of what has worked for us in the past has generally made our lives better, but it seems that we may have passed a point of diminishing returns, and now "better" and "more" are sitting on two different branches, and you can aim for one or the other but not both. And I was wondering if you could say a bit more about what you call ‘the poverty of more’?
Bill: There is polling data in this country; they have asked Americans every year since the end of World War II: “Are you happy with your life or not?” and the number of Americans who say, “I am very happy with my life,” peaks in 1956, and goes downhill since. And that is odd, because in that same 50 years we have tripled our material standard of living. If the economy worked the way we intuitively think it does, those curves should not go that way. It turns out that around the world, once you get past a per capita income of about 10,000 dollars per year, any correlation between more and better scatters, ceases. The plot goes in all different directions.
And, you know, that is something we need to know. It is a basic fact about human beings; it is as important as knowing what temperature water freezes at, because we have geared so much of our life as a country to endlessly expanding the economy past the point where it isn’t producing anything in terms of satisfaction, and since it is also producing great negative consequences, environmentally in particular, it would be good to get a hold of that. It would be good to figure out some other things to be asking our economy to aim for.
You know, we have concentrated with obsessive interest on growth, and hence we have largely ignored durability, the idea that we might be building an economy in a society that could last for a long time, that can survive disruptions, and we have ignored this question of whether that growth is producing satisfaction or not. If we aimed for those two things in addition or instead of just endless expansion, I think we would have more interesting possibilities for getting out of some of the trouble we have gotten into, things like global warming, and for building the kind of society that people actually want to live in. A kind of society that is marked by more connection and more community than we have at the moment. That is what the data shows people are most missing from their lives.
KMO: I mentioned psychedelics at the top of the interview; I first went to South America sort of following in the footsteps of Terrence McKenna, and I went there to drink ayahuasca with the indigenous curanderos, but that was not really the most memorable part of my trip. The most memorable and eye-opening part of my trip was that it represented my first foray into what is called the ‘Third World’. And if I look at the amount of resources that I, as an American of meager means, control and compare that to the resources controlled by the average Peruvian, at least the economically quantifiable resources, I have much, much, much more that they do. But I do not seem to be correspondingly that much happier. And it was just a real eye-opener to see people living in what an economist would call abject poverty, and yet they have the people close to them and the community ties that allow for a certain sort of engagement and satisfaction that only comes with great difficulty to people here in what we call the ‘First World’. And I know you have traveled more extensively than I have, so I would like to get your thoughts on that sort of perspective.
Bill: Cheap fossil fuel, and the affluence that it provides, have allowed us to become the first people in the world to have no need of our neighbors. We have taken that to be a good thing and talked a lot about independence and individualism and all of that, but in fact, as the descendants of socially evolved primates who spent all day sitting around grooming each other, it turns out that it is not what we were built for, and it is not what we like. And one of the benefits of getting away from the cheap fossil fuel world we now inhabit will be the inevitable resurgence of more community. We see it happening already; farmers markets are the fastest growing part of the food economy in this country and one of the reasons that they are growing fast is because people like the experience of shopping at them. The average shopper at a farmers market has ten times as many conversations as the average shopper at the supermarket. That is a lot. That is what we were built for.
KMO: We have a really marvelous farmers market here; not in Bentonville but in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which is about a half hour south of here. And yes, if you go to that farmers market, not only are people talking to one another, but there are musicians playing on the street. There are people handing out flyers talking about the causes that they feel so passionately about. And for me, probably the biggest advantage of the farmers markets over, say, the produce aisle at Wal-Mart, is that the food is so much better. It just tastes marvelous.
Over the summer we had a neighbor who was growing some corn. They have a very large garden, and when they had produce to sell they just put out a sign, and people would stop and buy some, and I stopped and I bought some fresh corn on the cob. I took it home and boiled it, and when my son tasted it he was an instant convert. His new favorite food was corn on the cob, but the neighbor's garden quickly ran out of corn for sale. My son wanted more corn on to cob, so I went to the nearest supermarket and purchased some, brought it home and boiled it, gave it to him, and he took one bite and wouldn’t eat anymore. And I tried it as well, and I could see why. It was just awful.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, a food critic in the making. That’s it.
KMO: Or at least somebody who has an intuitive recognition of what food is, and knows the difference between food and food-like products.
Bill: The most devoted shoppers in America’s farmers markets statistically are recent immigrants to this country. And that is because they still have some memory of what actual food tastes like. They haven’t yet been weaned onto a diet of high fructose corn syrup so that they mistake Cheetos for food.
KMO: My grandmother lives in Berryville, Arkansas, which is a rural community. And as the small scale farming has sort of gone the way of the dodo in this part of the country, the main employers in Berryville are a Tyson chicken plant and the Wal-Mart supercenter. And my grandmother, who is very upset about the dramatic influx of Latin-Americans to this area, acknowledges that as the population became more and more Latino, the produce at Wal-Mart got better and better.
Bill: (Laughter) There you go. You know, I think that there are many reasons for being an open country in a lot of ways, and that is probably one of them.
KMO: Well when I first contacted you by e-mail, I think I admitted to you that I am both a recovering transhumanist and a recovering libertarian. And both of those thought systems seem to be variations on what I would consider to be the cult of hyper-individuality. And the rights and responsibilities of the individual completely eclipse the rights and responsibilities of larger groups of people whom libertarians, particularly libertarians of the Objectivist bent, deride as "collectivists." And I am wondering if you would speak a little about this notion of hyper-individuality versus what is pejoratively called "collectivism."
Bill: Yeah, I mean, you know, look. One of the uses of the 20th century was that we found out things that don’t work. For instance, huge centrally planned economies where the government tells everybody what to do all the time. Those proved to be a bad idea in a lot of ways. However, that doesn’t mean that what does work is everybody doing exactly what they want to and no one ever trying to get together as a community and figure out what makes sense. That's as ideologically extreme and as unlike where human beings have come from, as true Marxist collectivism was.
What we need are things that sound and are normal: communities, neighbors, people figuring out how to do things together. That is what government at its best is, and there are some tasks that only government can perform. We are going to need to deal with climate change, you know? One of the places where I lost a lot of respect for libertarians in the last decade was that they became in many ways scientific denialists about global warming. All you had to do was read the webpage of the Cato institute or Reason Magazine. And one of the reasons was that the chemistry and physics conflicted with their ideology. I mean the syllogism became "markets solve all problems, markets are not solving global warming, therefore global warming isn’t a problem."
That is poor logic, but it is emotionally comforting if you are the kind of person who needs some abstract ideological system, you know, Marxism, Leninism, Randian Objectivism, whatever it is, to order your life. For the rest of us, what we need is to try to figure out what scale to solve which problems at. And some of those are solved individually, and some of them are solved in your neighborhood, and some of them are solved internationally. It is not as comforting as having a ‘one size fits all’ explanation to everything. On the other hand, those don’t work.
KMO: You have talked about how we have come from primates who are very socially aware. In fact, if you look at the physiology of our faces, the musculature of our faces and the plasticity of our skin is so refined that we can, without any words, communicate to one another very detailed messages about how we feel or what reaction we have to what other people are doing. And people who are boosters of the current status-quo will use the measures of our isolation as metrics for our success, so that we have increasing house sizes with fewer people living in them, and we have fewer people living per acre and we are spending more of our time standing or sitting looking at computer screens, and we see far fewer human faces, or at least we pay attention to far fewer human faces than we did in the past, even though now we live in a sea of anonymous human faces. And I am wondering what you see as a promising approach for reintroducing the things into our life that actually bring us satisfaction as we are built and as evolution has programmed us to respond to our environments.
Bill: I think the key is rebuilding many of these local economic institutions that bring us into contact with each other. So farmers markets, more localized and decentralized energy systems, smart grids that, you know, allow each of us to be our own utilities connected to each other in a working grid. So, local music performance and festivals, which are now the fastest growing part of the music industry, not CD sales, not video rentals, are the things that bring us together. I think all those things are good possibilities.
KMO: I know that you are an athlete. You run marathons. And I know that when I am diligent about sticking to a daily yoga practice, that my peace of mind increases, which, you know, is a selling point of yoga in general, but I don’t think it is particular to yoga. I think the same would be true if I were walking or cycling daily. And it seems that so much of our energy consumption is devoted to keeping us physically inert. And it seems that the human body thrives on use and that the human mind and the human body are intimately connected, and that it is very difficult to live a happy, satisfying life when one is always sitting motionless attending either to a television or a computer screen or even talking on the telephone to a celebrated author.
Bill: I agree with you completely. And, you know, if you live in a place where you can bike where you need to go, for instance, then it is such a win-win, environmentally and for you. You notice more of what is going on. You actually see your topography. You see your neighbors. You emerge a healthier, sexier human being at the end of a year of doing it. The only people that suffer are those that need to make a lot of money selling you automobiles and gasoline.
KMO: I have had Catherine Austin Fitts on the program before. Are you familiar with her and her projects?
Bill: I don’t know her, no.
KMO: Catherine Austin Fitts worked for Housing and Urban Development under the first Bush administration, and she was also a very successful investment banker. But when she created some software tools that started to allow people to see all of the corruption in Housing and Urban Development; basically, forces under the control of corporate banks and the government destroyed her life. She was severely audited many times by the IRS, she had federal agents raid her office and take her computers and destroy the software tool, it was called ‘Neighborhood Wizard”, that showed how money actually flows through a community.
And she has a friend who said to her that, you know, there is a new future percolating, and her response was that it will continue to percolate until we make it bankable. And what she means by that is that we can have all of these wonderful revelations about how ‘more’ no longer brings us more happiness or a better quality of life, but until we make the new style of living bankable and profitable to corporations and the people who control the money supply, it will just continue to percolate, and it will never actually come to fruition.
Bill: Well I agree with her. I think that money is a big part of this thing, and one of the things that excites me is watching the spread of local currency systems around this country. We now in western Massachusetts have more than a million BerkShares in circulation, and there are similar operations springing up all around the country. I think that that is one of the biggest ways to arrive at a more localized economy and it removes some of the abstraction from our economy.
KMO: When the production of fossil fuels peaks and the supply is no longer able to meet the demand and we start to feel the economic effects of that, it is going to cause a severe disruption, and from a conventional economist's point of view it will be catastrophic. But from the point of view of somebody who is taken out of the system that we live in now and thrust, granted roughly, into a more localized, communitarian setting, the long term effects will be generally positive if one is using as their metric human satisfaction. A lot of people are very skeptical about this, and I would like to read a comment that I received about this from a listener. He starts off by saying that it sounds like I am saying that when oil prices shoot up everyone will become poor and therefore forced to live with and depend on, each other more. And then he closes by asking, "Is it a grand advancement in human consciousness when your family used to live in a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom home in the suburbs but now can only afford a studio-apartment in the ghetto, with paper thin walls and cockroaches, necessary because it is all you can afford within walking distance of your job? It might lead to enlightenment, but might as easily not." And I am wondering what response you would have to somebody who expresses that sort of skepticism?
Bill: That maybe they should think about their choices in slightly more realistic terms. We don’t need to be choosing between living in a slum and living in a starter castle someplace out in the farthest ring of suburbs.
The most interesting experiment I know about with housing now is people who create co-housing communities. They are cheaper and more affordable because, you know, there will be a bunch of houses situated nearby or attached that share a common dining room, and people take turns making food for each other in the course of the week. It is not a commune. People have their own homes, but it is a way of building community and reducing load on the environment, and these are the kinds of things that probably, as the price of oil goes through the roof, we’ll need to start figuring out.
I don’t think it is all going to be easy. I am not sure it is all going to happen. I wrote a book called “The End of Nature,” so I am no huge optimist, but I do not see much point in just pissing and moaning about it all the time either.
The logic of the fossil fuel world has been a logic of great globalization, of great disconnection, one from each other, because we no longer have a practical need for our neighbors. Hence the logic of a world past cheap fossil fuel, I think is one where we begin to draw a little closer together again. What we know about human satisfaction would lead us to believe that that will at least have as many benefits as costs, and we will get better at it as we do it. We have lost some of those skills in the last 50 years. We are not that good at cooperating with each other on things. We are all obsessed with the idea that we should pay less in taxes and be left alone and whatever. But in fact, the communities that survive best, the people that survive best in more challenging times, are going to be those who live in communities that are able to adapt and work with each other well. That is one reason I am kind of happy to be in Vermont. I think it has got a better chance for doing well than a lot of the more affluent suburban places around the country will.
KMO: I wonder what your thoughts are in terms of who has got the roughest adjustment ahead given where they live?
Bill: Las Vegas.
KMO: Is it the water?
Bill: Water, its complete dependence on outside energy sources, the fact that it has 5 times as many people living there as makes any practical sense, the fact that it depends on industry that has absolutely no public use of any kind, the fact that it depends entirely on jet transport in and out to get its gamblers to their enormous hotels. I would say Las Vegas stands as a pretty good example of 20th century America.