The following was published in The Floyd Press newspaper on June 4, 2009 and online HERE.
Environmental activist and best selling author Bill McKibben recently spoke at The Floyd Country Store on sustainable local economy. He was hosted by Sustain Floyd, a newly formed citizen group with a mission of protecting and enhancing the natural, cultural, and economic resources of Floyd.
Scholar in Residence at Vermont's Middlebury College, McKibben lives in a Vermont town smaller than Floyd. He's a Methodist Sunday School teacher, and has written for a wide range of publications, everything from The New Yorker and The Atlantic to Christianity Today, National Geographic and Rolling Stone. His first book End of Nature has been described as being the first to bring attention to global warming. His latest, Deep Economy, questions the assumption that unlimited growth is an essential part of a healthy economy.
Rural communities once thought to be getting passed-by because they didn't have four lane highways hold the most promise for economic sustainability today, McKibben told an attentive crowd of about 140. "The curve of history is bending in a new direction. Small towns are on the right side of history," he said.
Citing the recent spike in gas prices and its inevitable return, McKibben explained the importance of asking how we can do things closer to home. "Five years ago the cost of bringing a container load of goods from China to the U.S. was $3,000. Last summer the cost of bringing a container load of goods from China to the U.S. was $18,000."
For a local economy to be sustainable, emphasis needs to be on resiliency, rather than constant growth and speed, and on what economists call "comparative advantage," McKibben explained. Comparative advantage means determining what your locality has that others are lacking, or what McKibben refers to as "playing to your strengths."
Food grown on small local farms and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms, along with homegrown music are some of Floyd's "valuable commodities" that foster its independence, Mckibben pointed out. His comments brought nods and applause from some in the crowd. After praising the county for being ahead of the curve, Mckibben added, "I predict that Floyd's biggest problem will be that it will be too desirable. It would be smart to deal with land use and planning in advance if you want to protect the things that make it so desirable."
McKibben said he wrote Deep Economy after coming across poll data showing that Americans' satisfaction with their lives peaked in 1956 and has since been on the decline, even though the material standard of our wealth has almost tripled since then.
Another study that piqued his attention was one that compared big box chain shopping with Farmers Market shopping. Sociologist's conducting the study found that shoppers at Farmers Markets had 10 times more conversation. "It's how everyone shopped for 10,000 years, since the beginning of agriculture, and how 80% of the world population still do. Local food knits communities together," McKibben said.
"China and the rest of the world are starting to use oil in large quantities. There's only so much of it in the ground." Citing a recently released report from the International Energy Administration, Mckibben reported that the world is running out of oil faster than once thought. Without cheap oil, mobility won't be as easy as it was in the past and the idea of moving everything long distances won't be as feasible, he said.
But there are also hopeful signs. "For the first time in 150 years, the number of small farms in Virginia and in others places around the country is on the rise," Mckibben noted, adding that "Farmers Markets are the fastest growing part of the food economy in this country. Wind power is the fastest growing source of electric generation around the world, and local live performances and festivals are growing very quickly."
An engaging question and answer period followed Mckibben's half-hour talk and went on for over an hour. Responding to a question on the problems of rural transportation, he suggested the use of new technologies to organize ride sharing and said we could learn a lot from young people. "They have an intuitive sense of how to build community across these new sets of technologies."
Addressing a question about climate change, the issue that McKibben spends most of his time working on, he remarked, "Policy change is important. We can't solve global warming one light bulb at time anymore. It's too big. It's happening too fast. We need huge change, but we can do some of the work ourselves."
In regard to feeding those in need during the transition from fossil fuels, and in the midst of extreme weather events predicted by scientists, he paraphrased Scripture saying "Love one's neighbor," and recommended bringing in people who don't think of themselves as environmentalists, involving local churches, and having back-up systems. "What's most important is to have strong communities where people can rely on each other," he summarized.
Founder of 350.org, a global initiative to bring awareness to climate change, Mckibben encouraged the audience to consider creative ways to get involved in the group's October 24th action project, a day of worldwide rallies, parades, and art installations designed to build a movement around the climate crisis. "It makes an impact," he said.
Towards the end of his talk Mckibben joked, "Don't you guys have to go to work at some point?" With a blend of intellect, humor, and spiritual reflection, he managed to convey an upbeat message about the global challenges ahead, predicting that the quality of life will be actually be going up. "Our problem is that we've been trying to meet non-material needs for love, respect, status, affection, and all those things humans need with material purchases, and it hasn't worked very well."
Mckibben doesn't consider himself an optimist or a pessimist. He long ago stopped thinking in those terms. "I just get up every day and try to figure out what I can do to change the odds in the right direction," he concluded. ~ Colleen Redman
Note: a video clip of McKibben at the Floyd Country Store can be found HERE.