Book Review: Deep Economy


Recommended: A solid exploration of the need for balance in how humanity lives.

For a while now, I have held a conviction that a Jeremiah 29 lifestyle is important: to live in the city, know your neighbors, be involved in local organizations, buy from local businesses, and generally seek the welfare and prosperity of those around you. God promises that if you do this, you too will prosper. And so, while visiting our local library, Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future caught my eye.

The premise of the book is simple – the while “more” may equal “better” up to a certain point, there is a threshold after which “more” ceases to be “better” and is just plain burdensome. As the parent of a toddler, I can attest to this truth: I am constantly thinning the herd of stuffed animals that enter the home by way of extended family. I’m sure she’d have over 100 by now if we weren’t actively giving them away (and if you don’t think that sounds like a lot, you haven’t seen 100 stuffed animals in one place – it’s terrifying). We’ve given some to the Women’s Shelter, where there are children who don’t have many toys of their own, and we’ve also sent some down to the Dominican Republic with a friend, where they’re used at a medical center to distract children as they’re immunized. Both are much preferable to collecting dust under the crib.

But back to the book. McKibben is an engaging writer, and takes the reader on some memorable journeys: The miracle that is fossil fuel and how its use accelerated growth in the 20th century. What it’s like to engage in the 100-mile diet (conclusion: you’d better like turnips!). Visits to far-flung villages that make their own hydro power and grow all their own food. A Chinese shower curtain factory where twenty-something Chinese youth can make enough to send their siblings to school, as long as they resist the temptation to spend all their money on Coca-Cola.

The book is choc-full of factoids, some funny (pg. 28: “Under the current system… the most ‘economically productive’ citizen is a cancer patient who totals his car on the way to meet with his divorce lawyer.”), some sobering (“joining a club or society of some kind halves the risk that you will die in the next year.” read: get to church, Christians.). The sub points McKibben makes with all this data are interconnected: the Hyper-Individuality of North Americans is really bad for us. We need to consider ramping-down our lifestyles and get more involved in building our local communities. That growing economies in smaller nations would be wise to take a different trajectory in their growth goals. That sometimes buying something for the lowest possible price costs others greatly. That for the health of the world economy, and the world in specific, we need to find the “sweet spot” between everyone having at least their fair share and still leaving room for people who are motivated to produce greater personal wealth.

Deep Economy will be of particular interest to Christians for three reasons. One, Bill is a Christian and clearly is concerned for the welfare of God’s creation. Two, the book shows a lot of statistics that point to global warming, a hotly debated fact (or non-fact if you don’t believe in it) between the Christian left and right. Third, McKibben takes off his “gentle professor from Vermont” hat on page 98 and goes on a brief tangent concerning the infection of North American Christianity by hyper-individuality. I enjoyed that, partially because it was unexpected and partially because I agree.

I only have a few negative points to note about Deep Economy. As usual in an eco-book, Wal-Mart is cast in the role of Darth Vader. I’m still not convinced that Wal-Mart is made of concentrated evil. This may be because our family falls into Wal-Mart’s target demographic, and so it’s one of the few places, aside from the Goodwill, that we buy clothing and household goods. I also get nervous when McKibben makes the statement that North Americans should be paying approx. $200 to $1000 per year (to whom, exactly?) because of their excessive energy usage. This strikes me as ivory tower thinking; a lot of people are forced to use excessive energy because they have old appliances and plumbing and can’t afford to upgrade them (up until it started sizzling and smoking, our fridge was a lovely mustard-colored Kenmore from 1975).

My last point is not so much with the book as it is with the cost of going organic/local. I was excited to learn about the growing number of Community Sustained Agriculture sites (or CSAs for short), but disappointed to learn that it would cost almost 50% more to buy our produce this way. I’d say that I hope prices go down in the future, but then I’d risk missing the point.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in economics, industry, the environment, or marginalized people. For me, the book validated, in economic terms, what we as a family have been trying to do already – living for Jesus, and by extension our local community. We can’t do it all, but we can do some things, and over time, God willing, it will change our world.

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