Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

Bill McKibben

Book cover

Despite the fact that it was a general-audience book about economics, I liked “Deep Economy” a lot. McKibben articulates his ideas clearly and organizes them well, and in doing so, manages to avoid into traps that commonly afflict writers that express skepticism about technological development and/or economic growth.

While obviously not academically rigorous, McKibben builds his argument from premises that I find quite robust. First, human beings derive value both from material well-being and from a sense of community. Second, these two kinds of goods are, to some extent, substitutes for one another: to get more of one, you generally have to give up some of the other. Third, throughout human history and in many places today, sacrificing some community in favor of some additional material well-being has been a worthwhile trade. Finally, and I think the only place where one could really argue with McK, in modern America, we have “overshot” the point where the marginal benefits of the two were equal, and are at a point where a reduction of economic growth in exchange for increased community would generally be beneficial.

This argument seems sensible to me for a few reasons. First, in (what I am finding to be) characteristic McKibben style, he clearly is not arguing that we should return to some imagined golden age in the past, whether that be post-WWII America or some agrarian idyll. Rather, he wants us to “make it new” and find ways of strengthening community ties that are appropriate for the place and time where we find ourselves. Secondly, I find the “overshooting” argument plausible. When a strategy has worked to increase overall well-being for hundreds if not thousands of years, it is so deeply ingrained that it barely even appears as an assumption at all–especially when it is something very simple (and evolutionarily selected) like “more is better.” Finally, McK’s argument is egalitarian in that it does not criticize people in the developing world for wanting continued economic growth.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars