Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Bees and Their Business . . .

If it seems to you that Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy, strikes at the heart of personal finance concerns that’s because it does. Laying it out in depth, that’s the deep part, McKibben’s covers the world from his Vermont home to China and back as he develops his answer to the age old question of “paper or plastic”? And though he doesn’t mention that the honey bees are dying, he would no doubt notice the parallel between these small nectar farming bees and their human counterparts who as a result of the so called “Green Revolution” are also disappearing. In a beginning section of the book, he discusses After Growth and asks what next? Where do we go after we’ve reached a place where we have every thing we need and more? Is More Better? McKibben is asking this question of individuals but in a larger sense he’s directing it towards society and those whose power position would enable them to act on the information. As he points out, ecological economists are discovering that the there is real truth to the saying “Less is More”. In the next section, The Year of Eating Locally, he spends quite a while documenting the experience of living frugally while learning the personal financial benefits. By living locally, he is able to feel the effect of getting to know his community markets and the local farm industry. By setting a goal of eating locally for a year, he and his family begin to appreciate the value of home cooked meals made from their own garden. They spend time reading with each other. They even budget their car use so that they stack tasks that can be done on the same trip. In a sense, he travels back in time to when things were simpler. This, quite naturally, leads him to look at the question of how we have changed and why we changed in the next section titled All for One, or One for All. “For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch . . .” he says. “The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society make one another richer and the idea that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More. But Better does not necessarily follow." We can’t deny it, as a people, the US leads the world in over-consumption and it’s getting worse. For a variety of reasons, he points to our hyper-individualists as they try to emulate Trump through endless, it seems, seminar after seminar. But I must stress, as McKibben does also, that there are two sides to the economic coin. Nation after nation have profited immensely by turning to the green revolution mentioned above by using mono-crop agriculture and government subsidized growth to climb out of poverty. As more and more people are released from the drudgery of the land and released to develop, they can’t be faulted just because we, the richer nations, are already there. But it is just because of this truth that he talks about The Wealth of Communities in the book’s next section. What can we bring to each other and how can we trust that we are doing it for the right reasons? “We need to once again depend on those around us for something real. If we do, then the bonds that make for human satisfaction, as opposed to endless growth, will begin to emerge.” Much as the internet has created communities of bloggers. Communities where we reassure ourselves that acts of planning and sharing and saving and making do with what you have already are of continuing value to us all. He uses as an example of this the current state of radio where large corporate entities like Clear Channel, et al, have taken over. And then, ask yourself, in your life time has More big corporate owned broadcasting made your radio listening Better? As I walk down the hill to my local grocery, I am reading the final section of the book entitled “The Durable Future”. (This is how I keep up with the reading machine called Trent at thesimpledollar) McKibben starts it off by describing his visit to the Chinese city of Yiwu with its incredible warehouse store called the International Trade City. Picture five IKEAs side by side by side by side by side and you’ll still fall short. Yes, the Chinese economy, in a wonderful mirror model of the US is expanding and expanding in leaps and of course bounds. The per capita income is already up to $1700 a year and expected to double every seven years, ad infinitum, as is their manufacturing production. Extrapolate that to the number of vehicles on their roads. Think about the carbon footprint that will leave. Pogo used to say “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The question as we look into the mirror of personal finance is “Are we a reflection of our culture and its spending habits or is it the collective effect of ours?” In the store, I find the vitamin water I wanted and a bunch of carrots from an organic grower just outside of town and then as I’m approaching the counter I see the display of 10 for $10 durable grocery bags that I can buy to help carry my groceries home. I’m all happy because here in a nutshell is one of McKibben’s economic ideas. Think global, buy local. But then I get home and because I’ve been researching the idea of making a reusable cloth bag for our farmer’s market, I look at the label in the bag. It’s from a company called earthwise reusable bags and it’s durable alright, made from 100% non woven polypropylene, and manufactured in China.

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