Interview: How Our Economy is Killing the Earth

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Times Books

When Bill McKibben first sounded the alarm about global warming 20 years ago, he was something of a voice crying in the wilderness. Now McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy, is issuing an even more dire warning. His new book, with the science fiction-y title Eaarth, paints a picture of a depleted, overheated planet no longer suited to its inhabitants. That planet is our own, the time is now, and the book is non-fiction.

Laying the blame for climate change squarely at the feet of the growth economy, McKibben proposes a new, robust, "mature" economic model centered on localized energy, food production, and capital. McKibben, founder of the climate change action group, spoke to The Atlantic about the way our energy sources dictate our economy—and how we might yet live "lightly, carefully and gracefully" in a hotter and leaner world.

You must meet with considerable opposition from policymakers, academics, and press who are invested in economic growth.

Sure. It's very hard for any of us to take on the notion that the thing that's been central though the course of our whole lives, the political idea that whatever kind of ideology we've tended to embrace may no longer be serving us. It's especially hard to take on because it's an idea that, at some point, did serve us well. So yes, there's lots of resistance—an inability, almost, to hear or to understand the basic idea.

It's not really all that new, you know. When Limits to Growth was published in 1972 it got a really powerful hearing; millions of people bought the book and thought about the idea, and millions of them were convinced. But in the end I think the crucial moment was the election of Ronald Reagan; that was really a kind of debate about whether we were going to entertain the idea of limits. We decided not to, and we've never looked back.

Now we're reaching the point, I'm afraid, where it's no longer going to be an optional exercise. When the Arctic melts, that's a bad sign.

I can see the transition to a sustainable energy infrastructure based on solar panels on rooftops, mini-wind turbines in every yard, local food plots. It's harder for me to see the transition to a non-growth-based economy.

In a sense, they go hand in hand. The single most important part of that growth economy has been access to really cheap, plentiful fossil fuel. And if for a combination of the fact that we're running out of it and environmentally we can't afford to burn it anymore we switch off of that, then the fuels that replace them will come with more inherent limits and that they'll help reshape the world just in and of themselves. I don't think it's possible to have the kind of agro-industrial complex that we have at the moment without endless amounts of cheap energy.

If I were an economist or finance minister reading your book, I might wonder how the economic infrastructure might make this shift. We have so much invested in the old economy.

I think there are things that we're not going to need anymore. And huge Wall Street banks are fairly high on the list.

So whither Wall Street?

Hopefully over time, Wall Street will indeed wither. And that will be useful because we'll be moving capital back to much more localized sources. It's putting money to use in the same way that we're doing with energy and with food—much closer to home. And in a much less overheated way, too, where people aren't demanding 17 percent returns to make things happen. Where people are investing in their communities and doing fine by it.

Can you give me some examples of support you've received from Wall St.?

Many of the examples you use in your book are in Vermont, where you live. Is the model of self-sufficiency of Vermont farmers, businessmen, and energy producers applicable to other parts of the country that are quite different? New York City or Los Angeles, for instance?

Concentration actually makes many things easier. I describe a guy doing a compost route through rural Vermont and he can make it work and make it pay, but the distance between stops adds up the cost, you know? It's a whole different deal on the Upper West Side.

Think about New York 100, even 75 years ago. Its population was roughly the same as it is now, but it supported itself largely on the agriculture of the surrounding area. That's why we call New Jersey the Garden State. Much of that land is still there and ready to go in upstate New York, for instance. And it's beginning to happen—it's a very good piece of news that for the first time in 150 years the number of farms in America is increasing rather than decreasing. And most of that increase is coming around metro areas as people begin the process of building these markets, aggregating demand for good, local food.

Cities and rural areas each offer huge opportunities. The hardest place to make things happen is in the suburbs.

What do you see as the future of suburbs in the next 20 years? Do you think they'll simply go away?

Presented by

Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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