Book Review: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben

Drive alone into a gated community in the suburbs, to park in a private, 2-car garage and hole up in a secret internet room. This is what our wealth has bought us, according to activist and author Bill McKibben: Ways to better seclude ourselves. In America, it's lonely being rich.

Yet McKibben isn't preaching a simple "money won't bring you happiness" message (though that's a part of it). In his new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben is most concerned about our sense of self in a "hyper-individualized world," a world in which we've been conditioned to deprioritize personal connections with other human beings in the pursuit of individual success, monetary or otherwise.

That's not to say we should all live in communes, in cramped, shared quarters. In fact, McKibben quickly points out that for some, money DOES buy happiness -- "right up to about $10,000 per capita income." If you're so poor that you're sleeping five to a tiny room, more money and the personal space that can buy may be just the thing to strive for.

However, most of us reading TreeHugger (and those who can afford a copy of Deep Economy) face very much the opposite problem. We've bought ourselves too much personal space, too much individual time, too much loneliness. In fact, we've been conditioned to often think of others as "interruptions," impeding on our private space, time, and lofty ambitions.Personal ambition is important, of course. But to McKibben, these ambitions are too often one-sided -- and unrealistic, in the age of mass media. It's one thing to keep up with the Joneses, quite another to keep up with The O.C., McKibben quips. Yet more people seem to know The O.C.'s Seth Cohen, to whom viewers are a mere a blip in the Nielsen ratings, than people do the names of their neighbors.

"The knowledge that you matter to others is a kind of security that no money can purchase," asserts McKibben, encouraging us to look outside ourselves a bit while negotiating our lives in the world. To prove his point, he takes you through multiple, wide-ranging journeys in Deep Economy: a year of McKibben's life spent eating only local food, a scientific and historical look at the possibilities of a community-based, post-petroleum agriculture, an exploration of mass media and the outlook on local radio ("You hear things that other people are interested in. Which is pretty much the definition of community."), and a somewhat obligatory summary of the pending global warming crisis -- a crisis that a more community-centered outlook can help mitigate, McKibben points out, as well ashelp absorb the aftershocks in the case of a true disaster.

Perhaps the continued allure of hyper-individualism -- despite the loneliness it entails -- lies in that our choices are too frequently portrayed as complete dichotomies. Money OR happiness. Individuality OR community. Personal gain OR public good. Choosing community often presents itself a martrydom-esque proposition, where one gives up all individual ambition in the service of the community.

What McKibben illustrates is that we don't have to choose one and forgo the other. Instead, we're given a more difficult, but more ultimately rewarding, task: cautiously crafting a new kind of individualism that allows one to be a unique part of something beyond just a lonely self.

Deep Economy is available at your local bookstore for $25. McKibben is on a book tour; check his schedule to see if he'll be speaking near you.

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